PSA: What should I do with all this blood-soaked cash if the bank won’t take it?

Brook Ward via Flickr

We’ve all been there at one point or another: you’ve finally managed to stuff your pockets with dollar bills and plenty of coins. You’re feeling great, but there’s just one tiny problem — it’s all covered in blood!

On days like these, it’s easy to feel like you can’t catch a break. Your bank is being squeamish about taking the deposit and you definitely aren’t going to throw that money away because you obviously worked very hard to get it.

So now what?

The Fed to the rescue

Enter a familiar hero.

Of course, you’re not the first person to ask this question. In fact, the Federal Reserve has had to deal with this topic enough times that they even made a video for it:

The short answer is that you send the money to the Fed for redemption. If you don’t have the time or privacy to watch a video right now, the gist is as follows:

Currency

Separate your contaminated currency from normal, then separate it further by denomination. Strap each denomination together in packs of 100, then bundle 10 straps together.

Then, for the love of God, DOUBLE-bag it and write “CONTAMINATED” on the outer bag in big letters with a permanent market, fill out FedCash Services Contaminated Currency form

There are more details at this page on the Fed website

Coin

You can’t give contaminated coins to the Fed!

The Fed makes you decontaminate them first according to guidelines laid out by the Center for Disease Control. The steps include cleaning with soap and water, and disinfecting with diluted bleach.

Best of luck!

Debt relief can provide a better future

[Oh hi- I think it’s always a good idea to read my disclaimer-Ed.]

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Debt is just a four-letter word, yet its significance makes it as big a word as any. It became widespread throughout the world when the financial crisis struck a few years ago; Wall Street had not seen it coming so how can the ordinary person anticipate it. The repercussions were misery across the board. Many people lost their jobs, a huge number lost their homes and there seemed no obvious solution as month after month there was bad news. During that period, which thankfully has finally ended, an increasing proposition of the population saw their credit scores fall as a result of defaults that harmed their credit histories.

There is plenty of advice available for those in trouble. Government agencies are there to help, educate and advise those in trouble. It may be help to show people how to devise a budget and how just as importantly to stick with it. The last resort is bankruptcy because that remains on a credit history for ten years making it extremely difficult to obtain credit and even at times providing a hindrance when applying for a job. On the surface it may seem the easy way out to stop all the calls and letters from debt collectors. Perhaps that ten-year statistic shows that it isn’t?

Regular income

It is not rocket science to realize that it is difficult to make progress out of a serious financial situation without regular income. Anyone that has returned to full time employment after getting into financial difficulties can start to look for solutions to existing debt problems and a consolidation loan is certainly something needing close examination. Consolidation means gathering together all debts such as credit cards, current loans if they exist, and taking out a loan to pay them all off. For example credit card debt is expensive. The interest rate applied to an outstanding balance at the end of each month is penal. If the minimum required is paid each month, the balance hardly reduces; it will stay there and incur those penal charges every month.

Consolidation loan

The question is where to get the consolidation loan. Traditional financial institutions are unlikely to approve any application from someone with a poor credit score. They have had enough of potentially toxic debt prior to the crisis. There is a solution and that is the new breed of online lender that takes a far different view of what makes a good applicant and it is not an historical one.

Online lenders have set up websites explaining the offers they have prepared and the process required to make an application. The details are perfectly clear and the application process quick and simple. Their logic is that if an applicant can show a regular income and the monthly instalment repayments that would be required against a specific loan are affordable then the applicant should be successful. There may be a slightly higher interest rate applied to a loan given to someone with a poor credit history but history alone is never a reason for refusal.

The word should spread

This may not be common knowledge but hopefully the word will spread because there are still significant numbers of people in need of help. It costs nothing for anyone to do their research if they have a meaningful monthly income and can make out a case for help. Online lenders allow applicants to fill in a simple form and send it by email. As a rule the details required are basic ones of identity, income and bank. The whole process is also very quick with decisions made quickly and funds released within hours in virtually every case.

Some may think this is all too good to be true; well it isn’t! Many people had lived a very responsible financial life before the crisis struck. Online lenders will argue that there is no reason why they should not aim to do so again. They may need a little help and online lenders realize that there is profit to be made by doing so. It costs nothing for anyone to go online and investigate. There is no obligation until an agreement is signed. It could just be the way out of that nasty little four-letter word.

My friend says it’s dumb to learn job skills in my off time; who’s right?

Kiran Foster via Flickr

Those of us who lived through the aftermath of the financial crisis might think my headline sounds silly. This is sensible; thinking back to a once-in-century economic downturn would make any reasonable person do anything they can to stay employed.

But a friend and I exchanged those very words while discussing what’s usually called work-life balance. The gist of what she was saying was that there are only so many hours in a day and work doesn’t deserve any more than the time I already throw at it. And, she continued, if work wanted me to have those skills so bad, then maybe THEY should be paying for my classes.

So what now, Mario?

Work-life blending

I understand where she’s coming from and why keeping work at work is generally good advice. As she said, you can’t let work keep you from living life.

So why would I even think of doing work at home?

The learning that prompted this discussion is a class I’m taking on the R programming language. R is a statistical package that’s at once lightweight and powerful.

My interest in R stems from being curious about economics and statistics that would give me better insight on how the world of money works. I’ve never been able to stop myself from craving more of this knowledge, and so while getting stronger at a programming language might help my company (and probably make for more insightful research for this blog); I’m still doing it for me.

As for work-life balance, I don’t know how anyone can spend a third of their time doing something — work or otherwise — and not think that it makes up part of their life. For this reason, the goal I’ve been trying to work toward is work-life blending — where I find what it is about work that I love, and I seek out hobbies and skills that benefit both my work and my life.

And so with R as with other skills, I’ll keep messing around in my spare time working on projects I enjoy and perhaps I’ll accidentally learn something.

And if in doing so, I help my company, then that’ll be great. But to a greater extent, I’ll be helping myself.




Should you hire a real estate attorney when buying or selling property?

[Please read my disclaimer before continuing]

Adrien Sifre via FlickrWhen you are buying or selling a property, you want the whole process to go as quickly and as smoothly as possible. You can do it alone, however, there are no guarantees that this will be quick or smooth. You can easily miss important steps in the process or come across legal problems that you can’t deal with on your own.

When legal issues are on the line, it is always best to go with the experts who can deal with any problems that might occur and ensure that the transaction process is trouble-free.

What can real estate attorneys do for you?

Contracts:

A real estate attorney will collect, examine, complete and submit all of the required contracts. Even among lawyers, contract law is a specialty and real estate attorneys are able to navigate this minefield ensuring that all of your rights are protected.

Doing it alone would require identifying all of the different contracts that are needed, understanding them, completing your part, and then sending them on to the next person to be signed. Once they are all complete, you will need to submit them yourself to the right people and on time. For someone not experienced in real estate contracts, this can be an intimidating process.

Document searches:

There are so many different documents that need to be collected that it will literally make your head spin. As one example, you will need to do a title search to ensure that the person selling the property has the legal right to sell it (More important than you’d imagine; think co-owned properties).

Also, there are land area or council searches that need to be performed, to make sure that there are no major developments due to take place in the immediate area. You also need insurances and property inspection reports, all of which need to be gathered together and submitted to the right place before the settlement date.

Finances:

There must be procedures in place for money to exchange hands and the day for final settlement needs to be arranged by the financial institution as well. Any problems with mortgages or payments during the settlement process can easily be handled by an attorney, who has the experience and the knowledge to navigate the muddy waters of the real estate process.

A streamlined process:

Hiring an attorney who is experienced in real estate law helps to make the entire buying or selling process run smoothly. Many attorneys actually use up-to-date software, such as the REVEAL tool from Infotrack, which helps attorneys keep track of multiple sources of data and assists them to visualize complex processes easily.

Having a real estate attorney on your team can make the entire process run much more smoothly and also save you money, in the unlikely event that problems occur around the settlement period.

What no one tells you about saving money on laptops

3402221680_b0793f05c5_oThe laptop has almost become a necessity in our mobile lives. Unfortunately, they can also get pretty expensive. Here are three effective tactics I use to keep the cost down.

Two simple ways to always save money on laptops

#1. Buy used

Living in modern times means that machines that are one or two years old are still pretty good. Stores and many manufacturers themselves refurbish laptops to like-new specifications — often with warranties as good or better than the laptops had when they were sold new.

#2. Buy fewer laptops

This obvious but not-so-obvious tip depends on being able to do one thing: extend the upgrade cycle of your current computer. The extra upkeep, though it requires some extra time and effort, can have a big pay-off.

Here’s what you’ll need to do it.

Do routine maintenance of your *software*

Like any machine, a laptop benefits from routine maintenance. Friends often come to me when their computer is running slow and, they think, it will soon need to be replaced or that it has a virus that’s causing it to run slowly.

When I look into it, I’ll invariably discover dozens of programs running, many browser add-ons, and almost no free memory, thanks to a bloated browser cache or a download folder full of things he’ll never use. Each of these things slows down the performance of a computer. Luckily, each can be addressed using free software.

First, to prevent viruses and spyware, install one of the free security programs out there. I like Microsoft Security Essentials and Windows Defender because they are both free and update automatically and seamlessly alongside your other Windows Updates. And keeping up-to-date with definitions that track newly discovered malware is a huge factor in keeping your laptop running smoothly.

Next, you’ll want to want to keep an eye on your primary hard drive’s free space, because your operating system may use this space as virtual memory. Letting this get too low could hinder your experience. To keep my free space in check, I use the free CCleaner which scans your temporary Internet and system folders for stuff worth deleting then wipes them clean — provided that you confirm that’s what you want to do, of course. But even the very intelligent CCleaner can’t tell which of the literally hundreds of cat videos I saved are worth holding onto, so every now and then I get rid of those I’m not actually coming back to in order to free up even more space.

Also, since the most annoying times to be waiting for my computer to process are at cold boot and when opening my browser, I limit the number of background apps windows runs at startup and disable nearly all Chrome add-ons until I actually need them.

Disabling sounds and visual effects can also be helpful. And of course, the ultimate in software clean-up is formatting the whole of your laptop and re-installing your operating system and just the apps you know you’ll be using. And if even that leaves you wanting, you can even minimize how much operating system you’ve got by going with a lightweight Linux distro (More on that later).

Do routine maintenance of your *hardware*

It might sound anachronistic, but one of the best ways to keep an older laptop running smoothly — even with all the modern electronics stuffed into it — is to do something decidedly low-tech: dusting. When dust blocks vents and slows down fans, everything runs a little hotter and your Central Processing Unit, knowing what’s good for it, slows itself down out for the sake of self-preservation.

If that doesn’t do the job, I find that I can usually buy myself a little more time by adding more Random Access Memory (RAM) or swapping in a solid state drive, like these. RAM gets laughably inexpensive for slightly older laptops; and SSDs, while not being cheap, can very easily be transplanted to my next laptop, so I can continue to use them in the future.

Beyond that, I usually find that extras like the AC adapter go bad before the actual computer does so I take extra care with the connections on either end by stealing a spring from a ballpoint pen and encircling the terminals.

The best way to save money on laptops

The most important factor in saving money on a laptop comes well before you make the purchase.

Before you buy, be honest with yourself about how you actually use a computer and don’t buy more than you need.

I have long been on the cycle of replacing laptops every couple years and shooting for the most high-tech laptop within my budget each time. But a funny thing happened to me last year. I had given away a laptop to a sibling headed to college and had gone a year or two without replacing it, but finally decided it was time to do so.

This decision happened to coincide with my then-girlfriend taking months-long trip and leaving behind her ten-year-old laptop with the instructions that she was going to send it to the dump (she mentioned that “Windows XP is expiring”), but first wanted my help in copying over the old files. Then she left.

As expected, copying files to an external hard drive took all of half an hour. Now, it was just me and the machine for three months. It wasn’t long before I decided there was no harm in doing a little free experimentation on something headed for the trash heap anyway. I tried half a dozen free operating systems (mostly Linux) and found all of them to be too much for the aged hardware to handle. But in the end, I found a couple — Mint and Puppy– that were lightweight enough to work.

Of course, going with such a bare bones operating system meant that I couldn’t install anything terribly graphics intensive, nor could I install a full-fledged office suite. Being limited to the things I could do within a browser window seemed limiting at first, but I would quickly come to realize that this was pretty much all I needed. I was surprised to find just how much of my computer time was spent on just a few websites.

In the end, I decided that all I really needed in a laptop was portability and a long battery life — and just enough computing power to email, read the news, and write on blogs and social media.

I went with a $180 laptop with a processor better suited to a tablet and a hard drive with just 21 GB — a size most would consider laughable. And I couldn’t be happier with my choice.



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July 2015 net worth update — my monstrous $10,000, interest rate-shattering month

https://flic.kr/p/dRX12A

Jason Mrachina

Well hello and welcome to July!

June was a good month for me, a good month for America, and a tense month for Greece and Puerto Rico. But was it a good month for my finances?

The start of a new month offers a new chance to look deep into my finances to see how I’m faring in slaying my twin dragons of massive student loan debt and paltry retirement savings.

And slay I did! My June was absolutely massive as I’ll show as we cut straight to the numbers.

The numbers

Here’s what happened to my student loan debt, my retirement savings, and my net worth over the past month:


All told, June was that rare month in which every aspect of my net worth turned out good. Let me explain

What’s bad

First off, the bad news is that I paid off absolutely no debt last month. Between having to watch from the sidelines as my loans were being refinanced and using up all my money to focus on another personal finance goal (more to follow), I was only able to pay the interest on my student loans in June.

This is something that I should bounce back from next month now that the commotion with the refinancing has settled. After all, only paying off the interest on a loan is a great way to ensure I’ll never see the end of it.

What’s good

But back to every aspect being good.

That $10,700 jump in retirement savings is good. Actually, it’s not just good; it’s great! It’s by far the biggest increase I’ve had in a single month since I started measuring at the start of 2013. Besides making normal contributions, I had a chance to take advantage of a company match in my 401(k) thanks to a work anniversary and focused all my energy to pounce all over it.

The huge increase in my net worth was also good. After starting this blog with a net worth that was bigger than negative $100,000, it’s amazing to see that I’m only $9,900 from wiping out my negative net worth.

image1

And somehow, my debt was also good. Despite not paying off any of the balance, the state of my student loans improved dramatically in June because I refinanced my formerly 7 percent loans down to 3.4 percent. No, this doesn’t affect my balance in any way, but I’ll be paying hundreds of dollars less in interest every month — hundreds that can go straight to paying off more debt or adding to retirement savings!

What a month!

How did you do in June?

France passed a law requiring supermarkets to donate unsold food to charity; is this OK?

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Graham Reznick via Flickr

Recently, the French National Assembly unanimously passed a law requiring supermarkets to donate unsold food to charity.

The law is certainly an improvement upon current practice, where edible food is destroyed — sometimes with bleach, according to one lawmaker — so that it cannot be consumed. I can only hope that this will serve as an example both for France’s counterparts in the United Kingdom, where as much as 40 percent of produce doesn’t even make its way to grocery shelves, because “shoppers are so unprepared to accept odd sizes, shapes or marks that farms use perfectly edible produce as animal feed or plough it back into the ground,” and for us here in the United States where we waste or throw away nearly half our food.

But is this a good thing?

Of course it’s a good thing.

Yes, adding an extra regulation on business should never be done carelessly, but it’s hard to argue with a law that will both encourage supermarkets to waste less food and provide charities with more resources.

Here’s how I anticipate those effects playing out.

Concerns about liability will lead supermarkets to minimize waste

The surprising thing is that France would need a law at all to convince its supermarkets not to destroy food that they can’t sell at full price, but that is still edible. best guess is that it has to do with liability concerns.

When it comes to getting sued by a discount customer or recipient of charity food who’s eaten food gone bad, supermarket owners aren’t just afraid of losing those lawsuits. The expensive legal defence and bad publicity could be more than enough to sink a store.

Even with that in mind, I would still guess that the risk-averse supermarket owners would not subject food they’re giving away to the same level of quality control that they impose upon food they’re selling. My guess would be that they’ll instead try to minimize the food they give away — to humans at least — by sending a large portion to be used as animal feed or by not ordering so much extra from their suppliers.

Supermarkets forced to compete with themselves will get innovative

in the current system, you’re limited to two choices of either buying an item at full price or not getting it. For some people, the new French law will add a third option — waiting until after that item is donated to charity and seeking to get it for free.

Supermarkets concerned with that might seek to minimize the drastic difference between buying an item at full price or waiting to get an item for free by enacting dynamic pricing that dulls this advantage. This could probably be better explained with an example — an example about bananas!

Suppose that in the current system, Market A sells a pound of bananas for 50 cents whether they’re green or yellow. Market A doesn’t sell brown bananas, instead destroying them once they get a few spots. With France’s new law, some shoppers would be able to get those brown bananas for free, making them less likely to buy yellow (soon-to-be brown) bananas. Markets who see their yellow bananas constantly piling up and turning into brown bananas they’re forced to donate might instead choose to sell the yellow bananas for 25 cents a pound.

This outcome would sadly mean fewer brown bananas would be sent to charity, but it also means more bananas would be eaten when they’re yellow.

I would suspect that the bigger effect — and perhaps the intent of French legislators — will be that supermarkets will work harder to reduce waste. I will be interested to see the results.

More than that, I’m happy that charities will find themselves being given more much needed resources.

How variable rate loans work, their risks, and why I chose a variable rate to refinance my student loans with SoFi

https://flic.kr/p/8NAQAr

Ian Sane via Flickr

Last week, I proudly announced that I had refinanced my student loans from 7 percent down to 3.4* percent thanks to SoFi.

What I didn’t include last week was a note explaining that the 3.4 percent was a variable interest rate.

Let’s talk about that now.

What’s a variable interest rate?

Where most loans you’re used to have a fixed rate, a loan with a variable interest rate works exactly as the words would imply — they vary depending on the market rate.

More specifically, my rate increases and decreases relative to the one-month ICE LIBOR benchmark in U.S. dollars.

Officially, ICE LIBOR is the rate at which banks lend money to each other, as collected and reported every day by the InterContinental Exchange. LIBOR is chiefly pushed up and down by the Federal Funds Rate, as set by the Federal Reserve to work toward two goals: keeping inflation in check and fighting unemployment.

Since unemployment has been a problem since the start of the financial crisis in 2008 and ensuing Great Recession, interest rates have hovered near all-time lows. Right now, that rate is around 0.2 percent.

Since that rate is a benchmark for my student loan, it is somewhat inaccurate to say that I’ve got a loan with a 3.4 percent interest rate from SoFi. It would be better to say that I have a loan whose variable rate is equal to ICE LIBOR plus a 3.2-percent fixed rate (that 3.2 percent is sometimes referred to as the margin).

Why this could be dangerous

It should be fairly obvious why a variable rate loan could potentially be very dangerous.

Having a rate tied to ICE LIBOR might sound like a great idea when it’s only around 0.2 percent, but it would be much less fun if it shot up to three or four times that rate. My loan is capped at 9 percent, and if it ever got that high, I’d be paying more than I was before I refinanced.

Why I took the variable rate loan anyway

There were multiple options to consider when selecting my student loan when I applied to SoFi.

loan_types

I could have gone with a five-, ten-, fifteen-, or twenty-year term. Because I’ve long been on pace to be free of student loan debt by 2019 anyway — and because they offered the lowest rates — I chose a five-year loan.

The next choice was between a 4.7 percent fixed rate loan and the LIBOR plus 3.25 percent variable rate loan I went with.

To figure out which of the two would cost less, I needed to estimate what LIBOR would be over the next five years.

The best way to guess the future of LIBOR is to pay close attention to every statement that comes out of the Federal Reserve (as mentioned earlier).

Another way is to look at interest rate swaps. An interest rate swap is an agreement between two parties who agree to pay each other’s interest on a specified amount of principal. For example, one company might pay the other a fixed interest rate of 1.3 percent for three years on $1 million (Note that the principal of $1 million never actually changes hands). In return, the other company would pay whatever LIBOR becomes.

The reason that interest rate swaps are important is because when a lot of companies are doing them with each other, the prevailing market rate gives a pretty good indication of what the industry believes is going to happen with interest rates in the future.

Based on current Interest Rate Swaps, these are the interest rates I could estimate over the life of my loan:

intswaprates

 

That’s an average rate of 4.9 percent over the five years. However, because the earlier, lower rates affect a bigger balance that is then paid off, the dollar-averaged rate is more like 4.5 percent. This is less than the fixed rate of 4.7 percent that SoFi offered me.

And one more important thing: If I pay off the loans in less than five years, I’ll spend even less time in the higher-rate stage, lowering my average rate even more.

Huzzah.

So, how do you guys feel about variable rate loans?

Huge news: I was approved for a 3.4% student loan refinance with SoFi

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Source: Hartwig HKD via Flickr

Huge news on the debt payoff front today: I received an email from SoFi telling me that I’ve been approved to refinance my student loans, which are currently around 7 percent, to 3.4 percent.

This is important for multiple reasons, which I’ll go through below, but first, I’d like to do a quick review of my experience with SoFi so far.

A review of the application process with SoFi

Picture1 This review is quick — not because I’m shy about discussing personal finance, but because the process was so simple.

(1) I was able to fill out the entire form online, which included uploading PDFs of W2s and other tax documents as proof of income.

(2) When I realized that I’d made an error on the form, there were three ways to contact SoFi instantly.

(3) Upon sending an email, I received a helpful, polite response to each of my questions within minutes.

Maybe a lifetime of long waits and endless circuits of automated messaging has lowered my expectations, but SoFi — whose rates are low enough that they don’t have to compete on customer service — really surprised me.

If the prospect of saving money on your loan payment isn’t enough to convince you to apply, then the customer service should. Oh, and since we’re on the topic, here’s a link to get $100 cash back if you do: https://sofi.com/refer/4/11129.

Three reasons why this refinance is important

These might be self-explanatory, but what the heck…

(1) Refinancing helps me build wealth

Depending on how quickly I pay back this newly refinanced loan, I could save tens of thousands of dollars in interest. And who’s gonna complain about having a couple extra Salmy Chases in their back pocket?

(2) Refinancing gives me more disposable income

At their current amount, my student loans cost me over $6,000 per year in interest. By cutting that interest rate in half, SoFi is effectively giving me a $3,000 raise — no performance review necessary :)

(3) Refinancing gives me more options

Ever since I took on this high-interest rate student loan debt, it’s been the primary focus of my personal finances. Any time I thought to do anything with money, I wondered how it might affect my student loan payoff.

Now that these loans will be at a much more reasonable interest rate, there may be new options for the money I save that I hadn’t even considered. I’ll have to think long and hard about what those might be.

Anyhow, thanks for reading. I’m excited about being able to move on to another chapter of my personal finance journey with the help of SoFi.

My aggressive June 2015 goals include learning and exercising every day, and a $10,000 net worth increase

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Andy Morffew via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

For folks interested in self-improvement, June is always an important month.

It’s right there in the middle of the year making it a good checkpoint for seeing how we’re doing on our New Years resolutions. Spring showers have finally given way to sun and winter snow is a distant memory — there’s really no excuse to not get out and exercise or to run errands.

And for me specifically, June is my birth month, so it naturally motivates me to enter my next year of life as strong as I can be.

Let’s lay down some dangerously aggressive June 2015 goals.

June goal #1: Learn something new about personal finance every day

I like to think I’ve built up a pretty strong base of personal finance knowledge, but I am still pleasantly surprised at how often I learn about a new way to get more organized. Likewise, when it comes to saving money on shopping, I’m always happy to find that there are ways to buy cheaper options without compromising value and that there are new ways to extend the life of things I already own.

Moreover, to really prove that I’ve learned something, I’d like to know enough about it to write about it.

There are 17 weekdays left in the month, and I am going to write a blog post for every one of them.

June goal #2: Exercise a little every day

This seems even more aggressive than the last goal!

An increasingly noticeable part of getting older has been finding that it’s harder and harder to exercise, whether because it’s hard to find time in my busy schedule, or because I lack the motivation when I do have the time for it.

I’d like to enter my new year with a solid exercise routine, even if it’s just a bit per day.

There are 22 days left in the month, so I’d like to work out 22 times — even if it’s just 100 each push-ups and sit-ups, running two miles, or half an hour of weights. Doing something is better than the nothing I’m able to get myself to do most days.

June goal #3: $10,000 worth of debt payoff or retirement savings

This one should seem too aggressive — if not downright impossible — considering that my monthly income is nowhere near $10,000. However, between the signing bonus I’ll be able to get by refinancing my student loans with SoFi, the company match on my 401(k), and some of my 401(k) vesting, I can get close if I put in a lot of effort.

Again, this is probably too aggressive, but I figure it’s one of those goals where even if I don’t make it, I imagine that I’ll be happy with the bigger results

Let’s see how well I do.

What goals are you motivating yourself toward in June?