Existential Blog Questions

January 3rd, 2021 by Potato

As we approach another Potatomas [or just pass, if it takes me two weeks to post this], Blessed by the Potato has another anniversary, turning 22 this time.

Perhaps it’s time for a little refresh. Perhaps it’s long past time for a major refresh — sidebars and fixed-width columns are so 2006. And have you heard about SSL certificates? But we can’t just grab a new WordPress template, upload it, and hope it works.

No, we must start with some existential questions to better understand the purpose of the blog and why I do what I do so that we can better decide how to move forward together.

Why does BbtP exist? Why do I still blog after 22 years? I don’t really know, I’ve just always kind of done this. Ok those are too hard, let’s try something else.

Why do I have some ads, but don’t accept paid posts/native advertising? Do I even want to make money?

So hosting a blog costs money, usually (I suppose there are platforms that let you do it for free). But I do it with WordPress and an account at a web server company and a domain name and all that, and it costs money. I had a grand vision of not having to pay for my hobby of blogging and maybe even making some side income back when I started this. Hosting costs let’s say $150-200 CAD/yr for some round numbers. Google Ads has a $100 minimum threshold to hit before getting paid out, and IIRC it took me over 5 years to hit that the first time. I now make an average of $160/yr in advertising (not including affiliate income). Not a whole lot of side income, and indeed over the whole lifecyle of the blog I’m still in the red.

In addition to display ads, I have those referrals in the sidebar. The thing is, all but one of those don’t just round to zero — they are zero. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a single payment from Passiv or the robo-advisors. Questrade is the most beneficial to users signing up (free money!) and also the only one actually earning its keep — I make roughly $200-250/yr from that program being featured there (though I don’t track the source and its also printed on the bookmarks I give out at talks). Which kind of raises a question: why have them there at all? I am very picky about which referral programs I put up, and think that they do benefit users as well as myself, but still I keep them explicitly over there in the zone where users immediately understand that it is advertising and not content. Even then, people occasionally question whether that affects my impartiality. Is $250/yr worth that? Eh, I’ll leave Questrade and Passiv for now, but now that I’m thinking about it I’ve taken down all the robo-advisor affiliate links.

Clearly, I’m not in this for the money. Should I be? I mean, that was the whole problem with grad school too, right?

If I was, one thing that we have to circle back to is why BbtP exists. More to the point, why that branding exists. It’s from an inside joke from when I was a teenager. I’m sure that the silly name and address (and possibly my silly writing style) is holding me back. That stuff shouldn’t matter — only the content should — but I’m pretty sure that it does anyway.

I really wanted to take some time in 2020 to sit down and re-think the whole site — whether (and how) to rebrand it, whether to split it into a more professional personal finance type site and a separate personal rant/update site. Whether to just mirror the PF content to the VoS site. Whether to delete a bunch of old posts and only keep a few of the tools and explainers. And of course to get a new theme. But the year was a massive dumpster fire. I’ll put up a separate post on that, but despite being locked at home in front of the computer with no day job for much of the year, I accomplished basically nothing.

Anyway, I’ve done nothing to the site (not even getting that SSL certificate going or changing the URL structure to include post titles in the permalinks), and now that I’m back working I may have missed my window to do anything major with it. So for now, it remains trapped in 2006. But the comments are open (even if it takes me two days on average to clear out what the spam filter catches), so by all means tell me how you think it should be revamped/rebranded/abandoned. Should I ditch the ads and get a Patreon pitch? (I am not liking that the previously unobtrusive banner ads have started including pop-ups) Or is that trend passe, and the thing to do now is to turn the site into a subscription newsletter on substack? Or are blogs themselves relics of another age, and I should shut it down entirely and just put 35-part rants on Twitter when I have something to say?

State of the Potato

September 12th, 2020 by Potato

I’m not sure if I have any readers any more, with months elapsing between posts.

So before throwing up a few posts, perhaps a personal catch-up on where I’ve been.

As you may remember, my dad’s cancer came back last summer. He passed away at the end of May, and my siblings and I are the executors of the estate (though I’ve been taking the lead).

So it’s basically just the worst year ever. Estate administration sucks — there’s a fair bit of bureaucracy to wade through, and it’s simultaneously incredibly emotionally draining. There always seem to be new surprising challenges and things to deal with, so I can’t even say how close I am to being done with everything. Oh, and there’s covid, and there’s been no school for Blueberry since March.

There were also a lot of whip-saws this year. Dad’s health was really bad around Christmas, and we started to talk about death and get sad and stuff. But then we found out he had a weird, super-severe magnesium deficiency. Whatever was happening in his gut wouldn’t let him absorb enough to fix it even with max supplementation, but we were able to arrange for in-home IV infusions after the first few visits to the hospitals. Once those Mg levels came back up, he was up and feeling great. He visited the cottage again — all on his own! He was going to give me a new car, and pay for Blueberry and I to take a little Disney vacation, ’cause he didn’t need us to hang around the city and take care of him. Then covid hit and the market crashed and he wasn’t feeling good (and there wasn’t travel any way) and all that is off the table. His health and mood spiraled down again, and it was just generally terrible.

We had a year to prepare and get ready and I saw it somewhere else and it’s stuck with me — you can be prepared, but you can never be ready.

I’ve also had a whip-saw on my own health and diet progress. I was back to my target weight in the winter, and doing great at curling. Our team won our division in the centennial bonspiel! Our Mixed Doubles team made it to the A division, and we technically beat the provincial champions! (and by that deliberate “technically” you know that they defaulted but nonetheless we’re literally in the same league as the provincial champions even if we’re at the bottom of that league) I was making plans to keep up the positive momentum through the summer (“plans” in this case consisting of scrawling “sign up for tennis” on my whiteboard, but that counts!). Then covid hit and everything shut down. Spring was super-delayed, and it wasn’t nice weather to go for a walk (not that I had anywhere to go), and of course dad’s progress and death. So emotional eating was back on the table. And I gained the full “quarantine 15”. I’ve been out every day in August for a walk or bike ride (or done an indoor workout) but I’m still just flattening the curve as I’ve had more trouble getting a handle on the input side of the equation.

I had so many plans for this year. I didn’t think taking care of dad would take every moment of the day — most days I left him in time to pick Blueberry up from school (when there was school), and even on days when I stayed later he was often out of energy and in bed before 7. I thought I’d get so much done while I was off work: I had 3 book ideas kicking around, and all my websites are in need of some facelifts and functionality updates. Instead I’m over here barely coping with daily existence. I couldn’t even get my brain in gear to write a blog post or hell, even play a challenging video game. I’ve had a number of FTL runs and played some MOO2 and StarCraft: Brood War, but nothing new (even though I have some unplayed games in my Steam library just waiting for a quarantine). I have 64 un-answered emails in my inbox (if you’re waiting on a response, it’s probably because I couldn’t get into the head space to write one, and then fell into the guilt spiral of responding to a week/month/3-month-old email).

But now I think I’m doing a bit better, I am getting a post up, and I feel like I’m on the upswing from the depths of grief and depression at least.

Taking Leave

November 2nd, 2019 by Potato

This is a surprisingly hard post to write (I’m also clearly out of practice on the blogging front), so let’s resort to the Q&A format:

Hey Potato, what’s up?

In The Big C 2: Revenge of the C I let you know that my dad’s cancer is back. Now I’m going to take some time off work (planning for 1 year) to spend time with him while I can, and also to take care of Blueberry and give her other grandparents a bit of a break. Today was my last day at work!

This is mostly a personal finance blog — how did you swing a year off work?

I have money saved, so I’m not worried about feeding myself or paying the rent during the year itself. It will mean pushing off retirement by a few years for one year being out of the workforce (lost compounding, spending more than saving, etc., will mean roughly pushing things back by ~3-4 years for taking a year now) but I actually haven’t done a huge, detailed projection. Indeed, I made the decision without really doing much of anything in the way of formal planning — it just felt right (after several weeks of hemming and hawing and sleeping on it), and I knew I could swing it, which I suppose is the point of all the previous planning and saving and investing. In the end, I wrote up a little one-page summary of the plan and implications, and that was that. My emergency fund will cover a year off, especially if I can pick up a few freelance gigs along the way.

So are you available for projects? Can I hire you?

Possibly! I know it’s not going to take 24-7 to take care of my family, so I will be looking to do some work, but only part-time (not being able to swing full-time with a commute is the reason I had to step back from the day job in the first place). However, I don’t know how cool the ol’ HR department will be cutting a cheque to an independent contractor who’s on leave, which means no grant-writing or other consulting for co-workers. Personal finance projects/writing/doing DIY investment workshops/lunch’n’learns, editing (it’s been a while since I’ve had a novel to edit, NaNoWriMo authors…), or science writing for others should be fine. Hit me up here if you’re interested.

What else will you do with your time?

Some have suggested using that time to learn something new or get a certification — pick up my CFP (which has a practical requirement, so it would require some commitment to switching jobs or picking up a more robust side gig), or get a MD or RN ’cause I spend so much of my time taking care of sick people anyway. I am getting dangerously close to having spent more time in the real world than grad school, so maybe it’s time to go back to learning and test-writing just to make sure I’ll never have a normal work-study balance in my lifetime.

I might also use my non-caregiving time to write another PF book — I’ve had an idea poking around for over a year now, but I’m getting more negative on the idea as I go along, and may have to just let it die. But hey, it is NaNoWriMo, so maybe some fiction…

However, other than a few random thoughts I absolutely have no plan. I figured all that could wait until I was actually off work to figure it out.

Isn’t it scary just leaving the workforce for a while with no plan of what you’ll do and no income stream coming in?

Well it is now. But that’s also why I managed to actually make a decision with no real analysis/spreadsheets/pro-con lists/waffling blog posts — I was just too burned out to go through my usual over-thinking routine. So at the moment I’m too tired to be scared.

20 Years of BbtP

December 29th, 2018 by Potato

It’s hard to believe, but Blessed by the Potato is now 20 years old!

In internet terms, the site is old. Older than Google (at least without the “beta” on the homepage), YouTube, and even the word “blog” (it was a “homepage” back then).

I’ve had a blog longer than I had my own cell phone. Longer than I’ve had a girlfriend. Longer than I’ve had high-speed, always-on internet. And the crazy thing is that it’s still going (though at a much slower pace than in the early years when I posted multiple times per week).

I had lots of ideas for how to celebrate this anniversary: a new WordPress theme (maybe mobile-friendly! Maybe with SSL!), a complete rebranding (maybe take it seriously!), or a long-term strategy beyond “I’ll post stuff on whatever I like whenever I like.” But, I’ve been busy and haven’t done any of that. Perhaps the truest form of tribute is perhaps to stay consistent with that 20-year history and throw something together at the last minute and post the first draft in the middle of the night.

A Brief History of BbtP

Winter, 1996: a high school student brings a raw potato in as an exam aid because he is silly and sleep deprived (and did we mention silly?). He aces the test anyway and must therefore have been “blessed by the Potato”. Hmm…

1997-ish: plans are lazily talked about for a new humour website that will, like, be just the funniest [spoiler warning: it was not]. Like if Douglas Adams and Dave Barry worked to make something that talked about everyday experiences, overlaid with an assumed understanding of a shared fake religion. People would be falling over themselves to read more and/or date the author [they were not].

December, 1998: the site is quickly created in Notepad and put up on the free hosting included with my internet package [remember when that was a standard feature?].

Summer, 1999: Our Last, Best Hope is shut down [despite the Babylon 5 quote, it was neither of those things] and all focus is put on BbtP.

Summer, 2000: The encyclopedia project begins. Abandoned a year or two later as Wikipedia shows that crowd-sourcing material and being actually serious and informative is a much better way to build an internet encyclopedia.

November, 2001: After years of the address bar being filled with ISP domains (mainly Rogers), tildes, slashes, and sub-directories, the holypotato.com domain name is secured.

Summer, 2005: “Internet home page” and “web log” and “online diary” have all given way to a mighty neologism: blog. WordPress is a thing, so you don’t have to hand-code html in notepad and FTP documents up. Also, Rogers is shutting down the user homepage hosting. BbtP migrates to WordPress, hosted on an old computer under my desk. The old content is — wisely — not migrated.

2007: Focus shifts noticeably toward personal finance. Theme flips from white-text-on-black to more conventional black-text-on-light-background. No further changes to the theme will come for over a decade [though maybe soon?].

2008: Global financial crisis hits and site transitions almost fully from personal homepage to personal finance blog. BbtP is migrated from under-the-desk server to an actual commercial host. holypotato.net domain is secured.

2011: First investing book is launched, and my secret identity is revealed after years of pseudonymity!

2014: Value of Simple is launched. Including book revenue, BbtP finally makes more than its hosting costs [excluding book/course revenue, the site on its own has never monetized into the black]. There’s now a picture of me online, and the last vestiges of pseudonymity falls away.

2018: Site turns 20, to little fanfare. Deliberations are held surrounding the massive branding failure that is BbtP and opportunities to update the site, but they all sound suspiciously like work.

Or more concisely: when I first got the idea for this site, I was a sleep-deprived high school student. When a less-awesome and significantly less-popular version than I had in my mind’s eye first launched, I was a sleep-deprived undergrad. When I switched over to WordPress and a more codified blog format (and “blog” became a word), I was a sleep-deprived master’s student. Now look at me: a sleep-deprived dad/science editor/finance author!

Posts of the Past

There are a total of 1,301 published posts (plus this one), and that’s just since moving to WordPress. There isn’t much from before that point that’s worth mentioning, but even the WP era has too much in the archive to comb through (full list here). If you’re just stumbling here recently, some posts to check out might include:

Personal Finance Reading Guide.
TFSA vs RRSP Decision Guide.
Capital Gains Tracking Sheet.
CPP Calculator.
Rent vs. Buy: the Investment Spreadsheet and the associated The Rent vs Buy Decision.
A five-part series on how to handle your taxes as a freelancer in Canada.
Asset Location gets REALLY Complex.
The Opportunity Cost of Higher Education — showing that economically speaking a PhD will never pay off for many people.
The Advisor vs Adviser Silliness.

It is a personal blog, of course, and some personal milestones over the years included:

Wayfare getting sick (kicking off permanent change in the household).

I had a baby girl! And it was crazy!

I graduated with my PhD.

They broke Kraft Dinner, and I switched to the PC version (yes, a major life event).

Before my PhD, I graduated with my MSc. In the notes for both I talk about losing weight. That would not happen for another 12 years. Plus boring stuff like vacations, conference reports, my car getting stolen, and marveling at my office-mates’ hijinks.

I had thought of doing a “then and now” feature, like John Scalzi did for Whatever’s 20th anniversary. But really, the then and now is then I was a kid and now I’m a grown-up. In short, a lot has changed in 20 years, to no one’s surprise. One big change is in my writing: ellipses are out, but em-dashes are forever. Moreover, I spend more time on drafts, and kill more posts, which is a big part of why the posting frequency dropped over the years (and why the post counter is 2152 but there are only 1301 published).

Though perhaps to provide an example how things have changed, “Scuba” and “Heavy Gear” were top-level headers on the first iteration of the site. I haven’t been diving in ~17 years, and while I’m still a bit of a geek for games, getting the webpage done was pretty much the death knell for that particular hobby. My style has shifted, too: back then my goal was to avoid editing as much as possible — I’d copy-edit as I went, and then hit post, often without even reading the whole thing. I still do HTML mark-up live as I compose (what’s WYSIWYG?), but don’t tend to compose in notepad or WordPress — I spend more time in Word and read what I wrote at least once. And hey, my job is as an editor now.

There’s also social media now, so a lot of the “here’s what I did on my vacation” type of material gets put up on Facebook or Google+ (ha ha, no one believed that even for a second).

Secrets of Longevity

Lots of blogs start up then flame out after a few years. I think part of it is that they have goals in mind, goals that are hard to hit. BbtP does have a few ads, but it’s clearly not about the money here (I’ve never done a sponsored post, and indeed, ad revenue on average doesn’t cover the hosting costs). I posted multiple times per week early on, but most of those posts were ephemeral, and not worth linking to in a retrospective like this. In short, I write mostly for the sake of writing, and the blog is how I do that. There are lots of good reasons to write a blog, but hoping to get famous (or worse, to get rick quick) has been a sure sign that a blog’s going to flame out.

Of course, doing it badly and not caring is not a great tip for blog longevity, so also remember that someone had to be one of the early adopters and continue to be the survivor, so take it all with a grain of salt.

Thank You for Reading!

And finally, a thank you to all of those who have read along over the years! The site gets about 2000 visitors per month, a figure that has been remarkably consistent ever since I slapped on Google analytics. It’s a tiny fraction of what some sites get (which is why they do crazy things like make money at it), but my readership is the stickiest! (Uhh… phrasing) Hopefully you’ll all still be here in another 20 years!

Welcome New Readers

November 19th, 2016 by Potato

I’m down at the Canadian Personal Finance Conference this weekend, which means there will likely be a few first-time readers stopping by, so let me say “Welcome!” and give you a few places to start here, as there’s a lot of stuff in the archives here and it is not all gold.

I’m the author of The Value of Simple: A Practical Guide to Taking the Complexity Out of Investing, a book that walks you through how to become a do-it-yourself investor using a simple, easy-to-follow index investing strategy. It’s focused on just solving that problem, specifically for Canadians, so it can focus down and get into a lot of detail, including step-by-step instructions with screenshots. I’m very proud of the book, and I’m happy (and secretly validated by the fact) that it has a lot of positive feedback and reviews — lots of people have been looking for a guide like this (even if they didn’t know it yet).

After writing the book, I was still getting questions from readers looking for even more detail, so I created syllabus here — note that I had originally intended to complete the course roughly now (late November), but due to a family emergency am a few weeks behind full completion.

Investing Resources:

I’ve made a number of spreadsheet tools and infographics over the years, these are some of the best and most popular:

Personal Finance Reading Guide
TFSA vs RRSP Decision Guide
A Capital Gains Tracking Sheet for Non-Registered Accounts
Guide to Canadian Taxes for Freelancers
The Rebalancing Spreadsheet
Rent vs. Buy: the Investment Spreadsheet — note that in hindsight I want to re-write some of the text around this tool to make it easier to jump in cold, but the spreadsheet itself is still a powerful tool.

Coming soon Now up: a CPP calculator for the new CPP rules.

And a big thing that I’m very happy to be a part of is a tool spearheaded by Sandi Martin to compare the costs of robo-advisors in Canada.

I also created a free directory of fee-only planners after MoneySense decided to ditch their popular directory.

About Me and the Blog:

I trained as a scientist (PhD in Medical Biophysics), and have a day job as a science writer/editor in Toronto. For personal finance, I’ve written a lot, I give talks at the Toronto Public Library from time to time (including this Monday at the Eatonville Branch), and I just recently joined the Because Money team as the on-air producer for season 3.

The blog covers a lot of ground. It is very old — the silly title dates back to an in-joke in high school. Sometimes I’m all serious and professional, spending a lot of time to craft a guide, infographic, or tool; sometimes I just whip out a rant or get totally silly. I hope you enjoy it.