Back by popular demand (well… 1 reader asked for it, at least), it’s that time of year when I give readers a glimpse into some personal highlights (and lowlights) for the prior year and set some focus areas for the year ahead. Let’s jump in.
To summarize and recap, my focus areas at the start of the last year, word-for-word, were:
- Physical Health: I’d like to push biking miles above 1,500. Additionally, I want to focus more on flexibility. And, above all else, keep doing my part to avoid COVID infection.
- Mental Health: not working while mostly quarantining at home is not a good combo for sustainably good mental health. I know I’m not alone in the struggle of feeling isolation, but my hope is that I can focus on the physical health aspects enough to drive better mental health until we’ve reached a heavy herd immunity through vaccinations. Until then, I want to catch up with as many friends and family members as I can through video chats.
- DIY: once again, I will make re-building our walk out deck a focus for 2021. Gotta hold myself accountable, right?
- Travel: I’m not sure what COVID will allow here, but it would be great to at least plan our next big trip.
Long-time readers will note from my “FIRE definition & status update” article, six month update, and 1-year post-FIRE review, that a declined forced job relocation followed by a company-wide COVID hiring freeze led to me no longer working for an employer. This was my first full year away from work. So, how did it go?
What Went Well Last Year:
Physical Health: for a goal for this year, I said:
I’d like to push biking miles above 1,500. Additionally, I want to focus more on flexibility. And, above all else, keep doing my part to avoid COVID infection.
Overall, this focus was a big win for me. I ended up biking 1,882 miles (all of them outdoors on roads or trails) in 2021, averaging about 4 rides a week during late spring, summer, and fall, and then capping it off with 40 miles on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve in sub-40 degree temperatures, because why not? When it became clear that I would hit my 1,500 mile goal around October, I set a new stretch goal of 2,000 miles. I may have gotten there if it weren’t for an early sub-freezing cold spell for 4 weeks post-Thanksgiving in Michigan. I also probably would have gotten there if I had properly tracked all of my miles on the Strava app. Oh well – it gives me something to shoot for in 2022.
Aside from biking, I was also able to maintain a body weight/high intensity cardio workout regimen of ~3-4X/week. I did gain about 8 pounds for the year, but let’s chalk that up as “muscle gain”, shall we? ;-)
On the COVID front, my wife (a nurse who occasionally works with COVID patients) and I both managed to avoid infection, as far as we know <knock on wood>. We’ve both been boosted with vaccinations and still mask up in public spaces at all times, and will continue to do so until our country gets its shit together (not holding my breath).
And then there was my goal of increasing flexibility. I still can’t touch my toes if that tells you anything. Still chalking up this category as a win.
Bike Maintenance Skills:
In 2021, I learned a ton about bike maintenance and performance and upgrading parts here and there to improve performance and/or comfort levels, which I think is a great lifelong skill to have and it will save me a lot of hassle, waiting time, and money in the future.
This is a personal finance blog, after all, so I’ll share a few highlights here, despite not having any big specific dedicated goals at the start of last year. In the past, my biggest goal was usually to repeat maxing out all tax-advantaged accounts and save as much as possible (while sprinkling in whatever fun experiences time permitted us), and it usually looked something like this:
- Make the maximum 401K contribution ($19,500 in 2021) and pair it with an employer 401K match of 50% ($9,750). Meanwhile, Mrs. 20SF will aim to max out her 403B (the non-profit version of a 401K), at $19,500, and received matching funds.
- Mrs. 20SF would also max out her 457B account, which provides another $19,500 of tax-sheltered retirement savings for us.
- Using a high deductible health plan (HDHP), take advantage of a $2,000 employer contribution to our HSA at the start of the year.
- Make the maximum HSA contribution ($7,200 in 2021) over the course of the year.
- Contribute the maximum 20% of pre-tax side income (earnings generated from this website and elsewhere) to my SEP IRA (a retirement account for self-employed income earners) for the prior year, after filing my tax return.
- We carried no credit card balances by paying in full every month and built up our rewards balances.
Given that I was only self-employed for the entire year, for the first time, things looked much different:
- I no longer am able to contribute to an employer-sponsored 401K, so I created a solo 401K with Vanguard and contributed as much as I could as an “employee”.
- Mrs. 20SF maxed out her 403B contribution of $19,500 and received matching funds from her employer. She didn’t quite max out the 457B, but gave it a strong effort.
- We switched from my previous employer’s HDHP plan to more of a traditional PPO plan with Mrs. 20SF’s employer, in the absence of an HDHP + HSA plan being offered. All eligible health care expenses were charged against my HSA, which should last us many years after previously maxing out contributions.
- We still carried no credit card balances by paying in full every month and built up our rewards balances. Noteworthy, given that we had over $8K in pet health care expenses this year (more on that below), making it our most costly spend year to date.
- Also noteworthy: Mrs. 20SF finished paying off her student loans, we finished and did not renew our 15-year term life insurance policy, and I discovered I Bonds, which have a current rate of 7.12% (here is how to buy them).
All-in-all, it was a good year, despite the obvious massive hit to my income from no longer working for an employer. Our personal savings rate dropped quite a bit, but was still significant, and our net worth grew. We easily weathered unexpectedly high expenses. And our tax obligation will be significantly lower.
What Did Not Go Well Last Year:
Mental Health: coming into last year, I said the following:
Not working while mostly quarantining at home is not a good combo for sustainably good mental health. I know I’m not alone in the struggle of feeling isolation, but my hope is that I can focus on the physical health aspects enough to drive better mental health until we’ve reached a heavy herd immunity through vaccinations. Until then, I want to catch up with as many friends and family members as I can through video chats.
“Herd immunity”? How cute.
I did keep up with the physical component to improve mental health and resumed regularly scheduled in-person get-togethers with family, but everything else I highlighted here did not come to fruition. I did not do a good job in keeping up with friends (in person or virtually), or overcoming COVID isolation. But, mental health was a struggle mostly for reasons that I did not anticipate…
As I highlighted last year, we lost an awesome companion in our cat, “Bean”, at the end of November in 2020 due to intestinal lymphoma. She was the first pet my wife and I added to our family as adults, and while her deterioration happened quickly, it was still heart-wrenching for us. Unfortunately, the loss did not stop there.
Our world’s greatest dog, Murdock, who you may recall from his diabetes story previously, oddly started showing a fat lip around the same time as Bean’s death that our vet originally thought may be some kind of allergic reaction. In early January, after a biopsy, we learned that it wasn’t just an allergy – it was epitheliotropic cutaneous lymphoma – one of the most aggressive forms of lymphoma. The cancer didn’t stop with his rapidly growing lip, it spread to other areas of his body not long after, in the form of weeping lesions and hair loss. He was given a 1-2 month prognosis, but the tough guy made it over 9 months from when we first visually noticed it.
All but the last few days, he seemed happy, so we did everything we could for him (with the vet bills to prove it). The mental anguish of the entire experience was traumatizing, quite frankly. I can’t imagine handling his care and the mental aspects of it if I had been working full-time. Aside from maybe Mrs. 20SF on her better days (love you, hun), Murdock was my best friend in this world, not leaving my side for 13 years (including in the office when I worked in one). I’m convinced that it was his dedication to staying by my side that kept him going until we relieved him of that duty. I have so many stories to share about the guy, maybe one day I will. He was truly a one-of-a-kind legend.
Murdock’s passing left us with one pet, a wonderful cat named “B.A.”, who we frequently joked would outlive us due to her unrivaled athleticism and energy levels. Despite being 18+ years old (we don’t know for sure because she always looked and acted the same as the day we adopted her 16+ years ago), we were banking on her being around for a while longer. Fate can be cruel – about a month after Murdock’s passing, B.A.’s appetite shrunk to nothing and she began rapidly losing weight. After a number of tests, we discovered that she had a lung tumor. Soon, it spread to her toe and to one of her eyes, and it was time to free her of her pain. We were, once again, crushed by the loss.
These 2 end of life experiences spanned all but 1 month in 2021, and it took a toll on our mental health. We went from 3 perfect companions who we adored and who adored us to zero in 1 just year’s time.
I won’t go into details for privacy reasons, but our immediate family also saw a stroke, a hernia surgery, worsening Parkinson’s, and failed round of chemo in 2021. To say that health and the fragility of life was the biggest story of 2021 for us is an understatement – everything else seemed trivial in comparison.
Sorry for the downer – but I gotta keep it 100, or what’s the point in this exercise?
What Was Just “OK” Last Year:
On a lighter note, a new “meh” section addition for this year. You like?
I had said:
Once again, I will make re-building our walk out deck a focus for 2021. Gotta hold myself accountable, right?
Didn’t happen, but for good reason. With Murdock needing special care much of the year and our remaining time together inevitably coming to an end, dedicating a week or two to wood, screws, and fasteners was the last thing on my mind, even if the supply chain would have cooperated. For 2022, I’m not sure what the supply chain will allow, but I at least want to do some major repairs, if we don’t replace the whole damn thing.
I did have 1 big DIY highlight for 2021. Our 10-year old car suddenly stopped starting up on a weekend in late summer. After much research, I was able to narrow it down to a trunk fuse box issue, oddly enough. After getting it started, I risked a ride over to a salvage yard, left the car running in the parking lot, braved a few tattooed shirtless guys in jean shorts, and cut a replacement fuse box out of a salvaged car for $15. I was able to get the “new” fuse box wired in and the car has started fine ever since! I probably saved over $1K in diagnosis and repairs in the process.
I’m not sure what COVID will allow here, but it would be great to at least plan our next big trip.
We had planned a trip to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim in September, but B.A.’s illness hit at that time and we cancelled our plans in order to care for her. We did take a weekend trip to see a band that we like, after they launched a new album. A free hotel credit card perk got us a free night to boot.
Better forgiving myself and others was a goal for 2021, but in light of the previous point, it didn’t go well on a forgiving-myself level. There was a lot of second-guessing prior and current care decisions for the pets as we were going through it and we were hard on ourselves and each other at times. As for forgiving others, COVID has made me realize that deep down, mostly everyone is a jumbled mess. Some are just better at hiding it than others. And in light of the fragility of life issues highlighted above, it certainly makes it easier to overlook character flaws and petty grievances. We’re all on limited, borrowed time on this spec of dust in the universe.
Focus Areas for 2022:
Here is where I aim to focus in 2022:
- Physical Health: I want to get to 2K miles on my bikes, body and time permitting.
- Mental Health: losing our 3 pet companions, our parents showing signs of age, and COVID’s constant reminder of the fragility of life puts an emphasis for me on connecting with others. I’ve already made a list of people that I would like to reconnect with soon. I’ll start by reaching out to 20+ old friends in the next few months.
- DIY: fix or rehab that deck. A bathroom renovation is next on the list, but secondary and more of a “nice to have” than the dumpster fire that is our deck.
- Savings/Finances: more of the same. A repeat of the prior year (without big unexpected expenses) would be considered a win.
- Buy a New Mattress: OK, this might seem like a weird thing to specifically call out, but I’m going to. I’ve never owned a mattress that I have been happy with for more than a few months in the entirety of my adulthood. I frequently wake up with tight shoulders, hips, and a neck from side sleeping (I usually fall asleep as a back sleeper and switch to my side at night). Shopping for a mattress that might actually work results in analysis paralysis for me with all of the choices and marketing BS out there. If you have any good recommendations, please share in the comments and tell me why, because I’m struggling with this one. I don’t like mattresses you really sink in to (e.g. Posturpedic) or 100% foam mattresses, so I’ll save you some time there.
- Travel: plan at least 1 big trip and go on 1-2 smaller trips. Follow through on all, COVID permitting.
- Cognitive Load Reduction: I’ve written about reducing cognitive load and wanted to make that a focus for the year, so that I have more time and mental space for the things that truly matter. I’m going to start by unsubscribing to every email list I can, getting close to inbox zero, and cutting out any media that doesn’t make me happy. I’ve already unfriended a lot of shallow connections on social media.
It’s your turn to brag and/or hold yourself accountable for the past year and set some goals for 2022 in the comments.
- What were your biggest financial and personal wins and losses in 2021?
- What are your biggest focus areas for 2022 (financial or otherwise)?
- What are you most excited about in the year ahead?
Or, just trash 2021 as much as you want.