Today, Carol, Mom, and I went to see Bok Tower. It was built in the 1920’s by Edward Bok. The gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. It is a very nice place with pretty gardens and a really pretty belltower. The weather was absolutely perfect. After we took a guided walking tour and listened to the carillon, we headed down the hill (the highest point in Florida), and had a picnic lunch.
Today on the way to Bok Tower and Gardens, Mom, Carol, and I went on a search for Spook Hill, a mysterious road where gravity does not work correctly and cars can coast up a hill. We saw a lot of signs to Spook Hill, but as we got closer, the signs disappeared and Spook Hill seemed to vanish even though we knew we were within 0.3 miles according to the last sign.
Once we went to Bok Tower we got better directions and found out that it was right next to Spook Hill Elementary School. There is a sign on the street that explains the legend of Spook Hill and then instructs you to drive forward to a white line on the pavement at the bottom of the hill, put the car in neutral, and let the power of Spook Hill push your car back up the hill to the sign again. There was a van in front of us doing it and the effect must have been so surprising that they coasted backwards right into the curb.
Once it was our turn, Carol did a much better job of driving, but even without touching the gas and in neutral, we coasted right up the hill!
Figuring taxes is one of those things that seems like it should be pretty simple, but gets kind of complicated. I have tried coming up with a spreadsheet in the past and always get bogged down in tax brackets, long term gains rates, deductions, and personal exemptions. Since I was changing my withholding allowances this year and the official IRS calculator is so unfathomable, I thought it might be easier to try a spreadsheet again.
The biggest problem is dealing with the different tax brackets. For instance in 2008, the first $8,025 is taxed at 10%, then a 15% bracket kicks in until $32,550 when the rate goes to 25%. If you make $40,000 you pay 10% of $8,025, 15% of $32,550 minus $8,025 and 25% of $40,000 minus $32,550. So I came up with a spreadsheet with five nested IF statements to handle the six different tax brackets (rather than trying some sort of lookup function). Then I had to look up tax brackets and rates for the last few years since each year is different.
Then it was a matter of dealing with qualified dividends and long terms gains which are taxed at 15% (20% before 2003). Unless you have losses in which case it counts against your income (but only up to $3,000 which the spreadsheet doesn’t deal with; you just have to enter a maximum of $3,000). Those amounts, if positive, are subtracted from your income and taxed at a lower rate. Your reduced income is taxed from the tax tables. There are actually a couple of different capital gains rates for lower incomes, but I skipped that part.
So far so good, but I was still getting the wrong answer. That’s because the tax is based on your income in the tax tables, rather than the actual percentage of your income. For instance, if your income was $40,005, you would go into the table for the amount for $40,000 to $40,050. And that tax amount is actually based on $40,025. So I rounded down to the nearest $50 and added $25.
Using the same formulas for every year, I was able to accurately generate my taxes going back to 2001. Then I was able to project forward to 2009 and figure out about how much I would owe or get back next year. I am probably not withholding enough taxes if I want to hit my target of a $200 refund. So I think later in the year I will reduce my withholding.
A couple of weeks ago I read a review of a new take on Jesus Christ Superstar being put on by the Alliance Theater. They took the same music but gave it a black gospel treatment. The paper raved about it saying it was the greatest thing ever. I’ve always loved the music since I was a kid playing the the album we had in the blue cover on my record player. At some point as a grown-up I rented the movie version of it and was horrified at how dated it had become and really a lot of the music was just loud rock and screaming. So it could really use an update to something more modern. I sent Susan an e-mail with the review and within an hour or so she had bought tickets for Valentine’s Day.
For a while I’ve been carrying around a flash drive on my keychain. It helps if I ever need to transfer files from work or pictures from Susan’s house, or whatever. One of the things I put on there is paystubs that I download from work and then bring home. And sometimes I want some spreadsheet from home to be available when I’m at work, so I’ve been carrying around some other financial stuff too. I realized I don’t want just anyone to be able to get all of this if I ever lose the drive or my keys.
I looked around for some kind of flash drive vault software and soon found a free one called TrueCrypt. Like a lot of really good SourceForge collaborations, it has a huge feature set as people make recommendations for improvements. That has also made it kind of complicated: it has a 119 page user manual. I had to follow the first 23 pages of instructions just to store my first file (and this is the abbreviated quick start).
TrueCrypt’s approach is kind of neat. You create an encrypted file on the flash drive (I chose to make my 300 MB out of a 2 GB drive) that can be any name (so I chose katie.avi and figured people would just think it was a video of my dog that they couldn’t open with Windows Media Player for some reason). You open the TrueCrypt software (stored in unprotected space on the drive), open the archive file, enter your password, and it mounts a new drive letter where you can see all of your files and also drag and drop files just like another flash drive (for instance, my flash drive might be drive J:, but the TrueCrypt archive will show up as drive M:).
I still don’t have the hang of it yet, but the level of protection is really impressive. They recommend a 20-letter password and they generate some kind of random key to use by having you move the mouse around for 30 seconds. There are other options like different security algorithms and you can hide the archive file if you want, but I just started on this last night.
Last year I started making iced coffee at home. I was using Folger individual serving “tea bags” to make the coffee, then adding sugar, cooling it down, then adding milk and pouring it over ice. When Publix had bricks of coffee as their mystery penny item (mystery solved), I got one. That savings meant I then had to go buy a coffee maker (a tiny Mr. Coffee) plus filters. So I did that for a while and Jeb even gave me some Starbucks coffee for my birthday.
It’s not like I was drinking coffee every day, though when it got cold I did start drinking it hot. And I wasn’t drinking that much, but I would still wind up with some headaches that I attributed to the coffee (could also be related to sleep apnea).
So this last time when the Publix mystery item was a brick of coffee in either regular or decaf, I decided to try decaf. Even after reading about the various processes to decaffeinate coffee, I’m still not sure how it works, but Publix says it uses only water to decaffeinate the beans (instead of stronger solvents) before grinding them.
So far, so good. I don’t notice much difference in the taste and I don’t think I’m getting headaches. When Mom comes home I can give her an unopened penny brick of Publix coffee I’ve had in my freezer.
This week I got the last of my 1099’s and although I had done a rough draft of my taxes a couple of weeks ago, I was able to finish everything last night. I think last year I lowered my number of withholding allowances at work, plus I had tons of stock market losses, plus my salary was frozen by the state budget crisis, so I wound up getting $2500 back federal and $700 back on state. I really don’t like getting that much back, so at work last month I bumped my withholding allowances up a bunch. That is nice because it is giving me an extra $300 per month in my paycheck (the only way to get a raise). Actually I may have overdone it because that will actually give me too much money back and I will end up owing taxes, which I’m not crazy about either (ideally I’d like to get a refund of about $200 which seems like a suitable reward for doing my taxes).