Hidden Dependencies

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

As we slog through the pandemic in America, as I see things change, it makes me realize the hidden dependencies in the economy.

Let’s talk commutes.

Sure, we supposedly hate commutes. An hour this way, an hour that, catching trains, and so on isn’t fun. Sure we try to maximize our time while we read books or see friends after work, but it’s not enjoyable.

But as we work from home, we’re changing the economy. We also know that won’t be temporary for many of us as the benefits outweigh the costs, meaning these changes are permanent.

But what could go wrong? This is good right, where we can avoid using cars and timeshift, and so on? Sure it, is, but it’s going to have quite the impact.

I first became aware of how I didn’t see the impact of more work from home when someone joked about audiobooks. They wondered if there were less sales of them as people weren’t commuting as much. Sure it was funny . . . until you thought about it.

Then I had to wonder.

Next, I saw people in the Bay Area being worried about work from home becoming more permanent. Why, I wondered, would they worry about that? Wasn’t this better?

Then you realize how much of the economy relies on us to be going into work elsewhere than our homes. The people renting office space. The restaurants near our offices. All the services that are involved from construction to janitorial services.

How much of our economy depends on a commute?

Soon I was thinking about other things affected by commutes. Audo services and public transport. Taxis and office supply companies. So many businesses get money if not outright depend on commuters.

We’ve temporarily rearranged a surprising large chunk of the economy, which would be radical even without the Pandemic. But it happened, and it’s going to be for awhile, and for some of us it’s permanent. If we don’t want it to be more devastating than it is, we need to seriously assess business, cities, commutes, and more – as a country and as cities and as communities.

This was a humbling realization and one that I am still processing. This change, this shift, was right under my nose and I missed it. For all of us trying to figure careers and economics and the like it’s important to remember the filters we have in place.

What else are we missing?

Steven Savage

Steve’s Almost Zero-Sum Budgeting

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Some friends and I discussed money management, both in general and how to handle it during the Dumb Apocalypse. I use a version of Zero-Sum budgeting they were interested in, so I wrote it up to share it.

You know me – most things I wrote up become blog posts. I’m no expert, so use my advice at your discretion, but I hope it helps.

The basic idea of Zero-Sum budgeting is that you assign purpose to your money – all of your money. In theory, your budget is so perfected you know what you need to save, when you spend it, and every dollar goes somewhere.

Now I’m not trying to make it perfect. I include leeways for error in my method, but the basic idea is something I’ve done for over twenty-five years in one form or another. I never heard of zero-sum budgeting – it’s just what I came up with, and later found it had a name.


First, let’s get to the goal – because the only purpose of using this method is to meet a goal. Simply, my idea is to manage my money so I’m aware of how much I have and use it properly, working towards living well and retiring happily.

Here’s the basic idea of my “Zeroish Sum Budgeting”:

  • Know what your expenses are.
  • Assign money to them, essentially setting it aside for appropriate times.
  • Make sure every dollar is assigned (even if it’s “here’s my rainy day fund”).
  • Have a buffer because you may screw it up.
  • Move your money around to reflect these plans.
  • Keep checking this budget and making sure it works.

OK, so how do you do this? Here’s what I do.


First, see where you are. That consists of:

  • Assess how much money you have. This should be liquid funds, not investments. I track investments separately, and that’s not my focus.
  • Evaluate your income by year.

Taking this step is simple, but needed – learning what you’ve got to work with.

Next up.


Core expenses are those things you do to live – food, rent, etc. This is not what you should spend, but what you’re spending now.

Figure out your annual expenses on things like:

  • Rent/home payment
  • Utilities
  • Food
  • Insurance
  • Medical care (on average)
  • Transportation (Gas, etc.)
  • Medical and Dental Care

By the way, notice the last one? That’s kind of iffy, right? Do your best to project what your average medical care will cost per year. Now that may be regular, or it may be something you save up for and tap occasionally. This is where you get into a big thing for Zero-Sum (or whatever I do) – projecting expenses.

How do you find this info? Well, your past expenses, credit card bills, and so on. oMake your best guess – because you’ll improve over time. Just do your best now!

Now that you’ve got these expenses, it’s time to apply my 10/20/30 rule. If you’re a bit unsure of an expense, add 10%. If you’re more unsure, add 20%. If you think you need 30%, then you need to rethink your estimates and try again.

You’ll also see how much money you have after these expenses (which helps you plan further or spend better).


Now you’ve got your basics. Not only is that helpful, but it’s also good practice – figuring out your annual expenses for everything else. This will be a challenge.

Some expenses are weekly, like food. Some are monthly, like rent. Some are yearly like insurance. Some stretch over the years, like saving for a car or a computer. Some are unpredictable, like clothing.

Here are some ideas:

  • Home electronics (Computers, phone)
  • Clothes
  • Housewares (blender, silverware)
  • Education
  • Car/car loan
  • Car repair
  • Licenses.

As noted, some of these are unpredictable or spread over time. What I usually do for these is figure out:

  • How much I spend within a timeframe (you purchase a new refrigerator once a decade).
  • Divide that up by how many years it takes.

But as we get here, some of this is unpredictable! Other things may be so far in the future (like a car) inflation may be a worry. This is where my 10-20-30 rule comes in as well.

Notice that we didn’t cover investment or having fun? I save those for later. So anyway, next up.


At this point, you know what you need to live, what you want to live with, and hopefully, have money left over. Now you figure out how much you can invest and how much I need “for fun.” These are the last numbers, and I hold them for last as they can be variable.

Think that’s it? No! Read on!


Now you can set up a spreadsheet with all these numbers, and see how your income is distributed over the year! And you can see if it works. And then you’re going to probably want to rethink it all again.

That’s part of this whole process – assessing and reassessing. Don’t worry, you’ll do this a lot, but over time you won’t do it as much.

Save this spreadsheet. You’ll turn it into a budgeting tool!


Now you have an idea of what you’ll be spending and saving over the years, so take that money you’ve saved and assign it to those categories you came up with. How much is in food? Rent? etc. Do your best with that, and stick that in savings.

An important note – I leave a buffer fund of about half a paycheck to half a month of money in checking.

Initially I didn’t keep everything in savings and spend from there – things like rent and food I kept in my checking account because it was predictable enough. But the Pandemic, which has altered a lot of my spending patterns, has made me see the virtue of tracking more tightly.


So here’s what I do to track my funds week by week.

First, I set up a spreadsheet that lets me see what I should allocate weekly to my expenses. This way I know how my money is supposed to be saved.

Then, every week, I allocate money, moving it to savings. As you can guess, that’s a lot of categories to keep track of, so I just set up a spreadsheet to update itself with a simple cut and paste. I see what’s currently allocated to each category, what I add each week, and what it should be – then take the latter and copy it to the allocation column.

Then, guess what? I move that money once a week! That way I see where it’s going! But . . .

I also see if I have anything wrong. Did I cross my buffer? Did I have more left than thought? Was there some surprise? Each week provides me more feedback!

Plus you get feedback when you spend money!


As noted I’d take money out weekly for things like food, but in general, what I did was put things on a credit card or write a check. To cover those, I’d use my spreadsheet to figure out how much money had to come out of savings and go into paying those things. That way, I see where my money is going every month or more.

By spending money you get feedback. Did I spend too much? Less? How is my savings going in categories that aren’t going to be touched for years?

I find that except for basic expenses (like food), its hard to track things every day, so I usually do weeks and months. If you can do daily great, but don’t drive yourself nuts.


Sometimes, like in the case of investment, you have to move money too. I won’t go into investment (I’m a max-out-the-401k/403b type guy into index funds otherwise). But that is something you set up as needed. For instance, in our current crisis and stock ups and downs, I held off on investing.


Finally, you should always, always learn and check your money. If something is suspicious, go over your numbers. If you need to rethink expenses, do so – prices change.

A personal example from recent events; I noticed some gaps in my spending – my cash flow had a weird anomaly of a few hundred dollars. That’s when I realized I hadn’t worked in changes to retirement – I became eligible for a matching plan and had more money taken out of my paycheck. Then forgot to update my spreadsheet.


Look, you can probably find some books and guides and articles. But this is what I do. Just me, some calculations, and a spreadsheet.

It won’t solve all your problems. It will help you track your money, so you have a chance to deal with those problems.

Steven Savage

COVID-19, Lessons Learned, Work from Home

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

There’s going to be plenty to say, write, and learn from the horrors of COVID-19. This is about the good things we’ve supposedly learned, and the unexpected sides of these “good findings.”

See, it’s easy for us to learn from the bad things, because the bad things hammer their lessons home – we have to actively learn to avoid them (and we do). It’s also easy for us to look at the good things and learn from them because, hey, we like the good things. There’s a problem with the good things, of course – we miss their impacts.

See, the good things, have impacts. The good things still make changes. The good things, if we actualize them and apply them, still change the world, and we might not be ready for change.

There’s a lot we’re learning from the COVID-19 shutdowns and changes and so on. Often I see talks about the good things, so let’s talk about their unexpected impacts.

Let’s talk working From Home. COVID-19 has forced a lot of people to work from home, and that has led to the conclusion by many (myself included) that we can work from home more, and probably should.

The benefits are, of course, obvious, and are often repeated like some kind of mantra. We can save commute time. We can reduce pollution. We can change up our hours. We can reduce land use and rethink our work arrangements. You get the idea.

The thing is if we maximize what we learned, if we truly move to “Work from home when possible” and apply its benefits, then it’s going to make a lot of changes in our lives. Changes that will alter the world, and give us new ways to screw up.

Let’s dive into those.

CHANGE IN PUBLIC TRANSPORT: If you’re like me, you’ve wished for better public transport in your area – and mine is better than many. Work from home might be nice, but how’s that going to affect public transport, how it’s funded, and how will that affect people that can’t work from home?

CHANGE IN TRANSPORTATION METHODS: People will in theory drive less. Which could affect car sales, car maintenance, gas station sales, and the like. You’re going to see subtle economic changes and unsubtle ones people missed.

CHANGE IN RELATIONS: Work from home means seeing some people less and some people more. Relations among co-workers, friends, family, and people we interact with will alter. We’re probably not ready.

CHANGE IN REAL ESTATE PRACTICES: Less people going to work means less people using buildings for work, means changes to real estate prices, practices, and zoning. There will be vast changes in value, maintenance, and what land is used for if we do more Work From Home.

CHANGE IN EMPLOYMENT FOR FACILITIES: Your office building or wherever you work has janitors, maintenance people, receptionists, perhaps even a cafeteria. When more people work from home, what happens to those jobs? To those people? Work from home in much larger levels could put people out of work.

CHANGE IN TECHNOLOGY: If you’re working from home more, that means having the tech to do so – the computer, the internet, the cell phone, the security, etc. Will this create new jobs, alter existing ones, and eliminate others – well, yes. If you do tech support and tech setup your life will change if we work from home more.

CHANGE IN SCHEDULES: Think you’d work the exact same hours in an age of work from home? Almost certainly not. That’s going to change relations, plans, schedules, support hours, and more. Is everyone ready for new schedules even if they supposedly save time?

NEW RELATIONS: Working from home means you’re interacting with a new group of people. You’re going to different restaurants, seeing different people, making new relations. You might not be ready for that especially as other relations are changing.

CHANGE IN DWELLING: Is your current house, apartment, etc. suited for Work From Home? Would you move to a better area? How many other people are going to make changes to their dwelling, how will property values change, how will policies of apartments change? More work from Home alters everything.

Look at the above. Imagine if we worked from home more and all the sheer alterations it would make to our lives, our relations, and our economy. If we apply all the lessons on Work From Home from COVID-19, it’s going to be yet another series of dramatic changes.

But we’ll be applying these lessons in the wake of a pandemic.

Steven Savage