My continued struggles with quarterly accounting

Four times a year, I partake in a ritual that reminds me of my limited cash-flow competence–and of how a certain large personal-finance firm just doesn’t care.

Adding up my income and expenses after each quarter instead of at the end of the year is Accounting 101, but because I stumbled into a freelance existence it took a few years of struggling through tardy bookkeeping to get myself in the habit.

Several years of this practice have now streamlined this to a manageable level of drudgery, but the first step remains as irritating as ever: downloading records from Intuit’s Mint.com personal-finance app.

I know, I know; Intuit runs this free Web app so poorly that it still seems to require Adobe Flash to display investment charts. (I can’t confirm that at the moment because Mint’s investment page won’t load.) But for my limited expense-tracking needs, it functions well enough most of the time.

And then there’s the other four times a year, when I need to edit a Mint Web address to work around its bizarre inability to search transactions by date. Yes, to see only transactions for the second quarter of 2019, I need to edit this page URL:

https://mint.intuit.com/transaction.event

This address will cause Mint to show just Q2 transactions:

https://wwws.mint.com/transaction.event?startDate=04/01/2019&endDate=06/30/2019

Then I can search for those tagged as “Freelance journalism,” download the results as a .csv file, and import that into the Google spreadsheet I use to track my expenses.

There, I still need to piece apart payments, reimbursements and different categories of expenses. But in general I’m only looking at half an hour of copying and pasting to know how I made my money and where I spent it–assuming I didn’t forget to tag a transaction in Mint, which has happened more than once.

Whether the results make me happy is another thing entirely. In this case, my problem is a June that fell between too many clients’ payment timetables and also suffered from a snakebit May for story pitches… well, let’s just say the resulting paltry income might suggest that I got a lot more done around the house than I actually did.

Fortunately, I had two large checks arrive in the mail July 1, so Q3 is off to a fine start. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself now.

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A small consumer victory: exercising a Chase credit card’s trip-delay coverage

I got a giant financial firm to treat me to a nice dinner and a reasonably comfortable hotel room, and I only had to ask once.

But that is what Chase promised with the trip-delay coverage on the credit card I use for business (and also offered on the Sapphire Reserve card carried by almost every avgeek I know). I’d just never cashed in this feature before, and I’d thought they’d make the process a little more difficult.

Should you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s how it worked.

Step one: Miss a flight. In my case, a line of afternoon thunderstorms shut down the airport in San Antonio as I was heading home from covering the Geoint Symposium conference there. That ensured I’d miss my evening flight from Houston back to National Airport and would instead have to fly home the next morning (my thanks to the helpful SAT United Club agents for getting me a spot on the first flight to DCA when only first-class seats were left).

Step two: Pay for what you need. First I got dinner–I treated myself a little at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in terminal E–and then I booked myself a hotel. Knowing I could get that covered, I didn’t stress over my choices and chose the closest decent option Marriott’s app listed, a SpringHill Suites just outside the airport with free shuttle service to and from IAH. Having all these on the same card as my flight simplified things, but that’s also basic business accounting.

Step three: Get documentation. Keeping receipts for dinner and lodging was obvious, but trip-delay coverage also demands verification that you got those bonus hours away from home. At United, this involved sending an e-mail to delayletter@united.com requesting confirmation of my missed connection; two days later, an airline rep e-mailed a PDF outlining what weather did to my itinerary.

Step four: File your claim. After I got home and read One Mile At A Time blogger Ben Schlappig’s recap of exercising his own trip-delay coverage, I opened a claim at the Eclaims site that Chase employs. There, I plugged in the basic details of my travel–original flights, replacement flight, total resulting expenses–and uploaded PDFs of my dinner receipts (I scanned in both the itemized check and signed total), original flight booking receipt, hotel bill and United delay letter.

Step five: Wait for compensation. Nine business days after I submitted the claim, I got an e-mail reporting approval of it. The money should be in my bank account in three to five business days, which means I’ll have it before I need to pay off the credit-card balance.

That made me a satisfied customer… and one wishing I could jump into a time machine to tell myself to exercise this protection right after 2015’s weather-induced IAH overnight instead of waiting until after Chase’s 60-day window to claim my coverage had closed.

Okay, so I am on Patreon now

I launched a Patreon page Monday night, and as I write this, it’s attracted zero supporters. Which means it’s performing as expected—this post is my first attempt to publicize my experiment at this crowdfunding site.

I’ve been thinking of experimenting there since having more than a few people at the XOXO conference in Portland last October suggest I try it myself. Spending too much time checking out how creative types I trust use Patreon and some conversations with two of them (thanks, Glenn Fleishman and Mike Masnick) advanced those thoughts further.

But it took an expiration date to get me to proceed—11:59 a.m. Monday was my last shot at launching a page under more favorable terms than those now on offer under Patreon’s tiered membership structure.

I am cautiously optimistic about how my page could work. I think the value proposition I offer—depending on what tier you pay for, you get content not available elsewhere and, more important, increasing access to my time—is both a fair trade and a reasonable way for me to monetize the scarcest thing in my daily routine, my attention. I also like the idea of having a bit of a sandbox to play in; while I’ve committed to write some patron-only posts and set up a Slack channel, maybe I’ll try doing short podcasts there? There’s nobody to stop me.

But it’s also possible that nobody will support me, and that other people will then point and laugh. That might be chickenshit of them. But it would certainly be chickenshit of me not to try this, not when there are so many things going wrong with the business of journalism.

My own business seems fundamentally sound—at least compared to the cratering existence Jacob Silverman describes in a soul-crushing article at the New Republic. But there’s no such thing as a permanent freelance client, and I would very much like to be less beholden to the tastes, schedules and budgets of my various editors.

So if what I have on offer to patrons strikes you as a good deal, I would very much appreciate your support. And maybe if everything goes well, this new venture will at least make enough to recoup the cost of the XOXO trip that lodged this foolish idea in my head.

Ugh, Washington Gas is the worst at customer experience

We got a message on our home phone yesterday from Washington Gas, and even by voicemail standards of annoyingness it was unhelpful: “We value you as a customer. Please contact us for an important message.”

Right, I’m going to listen to a voicemail and call a company back in 2019 to get a message that it could just put in my account online. Unfortunately, that is not at all out of character for how the D.C. area’s gas utility operates. Even when its customer site hasn’t been in the grip of a relaunch meltdown that left me unable to login for weeks, it’s mainly functioned as an exhibit of how not to run a payment portal.

The single biggest failing here comes if you choose to pay your bill via credit card–as you absolutely should, since there’s no surcharge compared to a bank deposit and you can make 2 percent cash back on each payment via a Citi Double Cash card. (I will set aside for now the fact that we’ve just had to get this card replaced for the third time in four years after some joker tried to make yet another fraudulent purchase on our number.) But clicking the button to pay via credit yields a dialog from the previous century: “A popup blocker is currently enabled. Please switch this to disable for Credit Card payment to function.”

Fortunately, you can disable pop-up blocking for a specific site in Chrome and Safari. Doing so will allow the Washington Gas page to launch a full-screen page from a service called Kubra EZ-Pay. EZ, this experience is not so much: It breaks the entry of your credit-card across two screens, which seems to stop Google Pay from auto-filling the second one, then asks for a phone number and e-mail when neither should be necessary in this transaction.

It’s all a pain, yet I keep taking this payment option because I don’t want to give Washington Gas the satisfaction of knowing that I gave up a 2 percent return because of its janky user interface. The only problem is that because I can’t automate a credit-card payment, I sometimes forget about this bill… which is what I suspect that call was about, not that the Washington Gas payment portal had any message of its own following up on the call.

Tax-time thoughts, 2019 edition

It looks like we didn’t get crushed by taxes this year, even if we did owe money to the IRS. That’s nice, since we skipped the one step we were supposed to take to avoid an April 15 financial hit.

2018 Form 1040I knew going into filing season that last year’s tax changes (I prefer not to call them “reform,” as that suggests progress unsupported by the evidence) would slash our deductions. In the bargain, I’d get a 20 percent break on my self-employment income, what the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 calls the Qualified Business Income Deduction; our rates would drop somewhat; and we’d lose personal exemptions but gain a child tax credit.

Which ones would outweigh the others? It appears that the rate cuts and the self-employment break made the bigger difference, leaving us paying just over 20 percent on our taxable income compared to the 24 percent we paid on a lower taxable income last year. And that’s even though my spouse did not adjust her tax withholding as recommended.

But without the self-employment deduction–be advised that tax accounting is not exactly one of my core competencies–it looks like we would have paid a higher rate.

(No, I won’t provide raw totals. I also use verbs like “appears” because once again, I filed for an extension: I caught some dumb oversights in last year’s return that should slightly lower our bill, but I won’t finish filing until that amended return clears.)

After spending seven years dealing with a tax code that treats self-employment as something to be fined, it’s nice to get a break for it instead. But I also know that the tax code continues to favor investment income over money made from actual work, I continue to resent how it’s gamed by people with the really good accountants and tax lawyers, and I can’t ignore that the tax savings delivered by this rushed bill are paid for by running up the national debt and having the lower rates expire after 2025.

Sorry, politicians: You’re not going to be able to bribe me this way. You know what sort of new tax regime would get my interest? One that didn’t keep me wondering how much we’d owe until I’d pounded through hours of punching numbers into a tax-prep program.

Finally, an obvious upgrade from Apple

No computer I own has aged better than the iPad mini 4 I bought at the end of 2015. But that device’s days as my work tablet are now unquestionably dwindling.

That’s Apple’s fault and to Apple’s credit. The updated iPad mini the company announced last week may look almost identical (I’ll know for sure when I can inspect it in a store), but it includes a much faster processor and a better screen and camera. Reviewers I trust have essentially been saying “yes, buy this.”

The new iPad mini also doesn’t exhibit two of Apple’s least-attractive habits, in that the company resisted the temptations to remove the headphone jack and sell it with inadequate entry-level storage. So instead of paying extra for a 64-gigabyte model as I did before, that’s now the base configuration.

I wish the new tablet retired the proprietary Lightning cable for a USB-C connector that would let me recharge it with my laptop or phone chargers. But if I must choose, I’d rather be inconvenienced by having to fish out a different cable once every other day than have to remember to bring a headphone-jack dongle everywhere I take the tablet.

If only the the Mac part of Apple would learn from the mobile-device part of it and not gouge buyers who want a reasonable amount of storage! I’m typing these words on a 2009-vintage iMac that I have yet to replace because of this problem. The finally-revived Mac mini would be a logical successor to this iMac–I can’t see buying another all-in-one when its 4K screen should far outlast its computer components–but it starts with a 128 GB solid-state drive. And upgrading that joke of an SSD to a 512 GB model costs an insulting $400.

So I continue to trudge along with a desktop that will turn 10 years old this November–although the 512 GB SSD now inside it is only a year old–instead of paying that Apple Tax. With the new iPad mini, meanwhile, the only real question will be which retailer gets my money.

Here’s my Web-services budget

The annual exercise of adding up my business expenses so I can plug those totals into my taxes gave me an excuse to do an extra and overdue round of math: calculating how much I spend a year on various Web services to do my job.

The result turned out to be higher than I thought–even though I left out such non-interactive services as this domain-name registration ($25 for two years) and having it mapped to this blog ($13 a year). But in looking over these costs, I’m also not sure I could do much about them.

Google One

Yes, I pay Google for my e-mail–the work account hosted there overran its 15 gigabytes of free storage a few years ago. I now pay $19.99 a year for 100 GB. That’s a reasonable price, especially compared to the $1.99 monthly rate I was first offered, and that I took too long to drop in favor of the newer, cheaper yearly plan.

Microsoft Office 365

Getting a Windows laptop let me to opting for Microsoft’s cloud-storage service, mainly as a cheap backup and synchronization option. The $69.99 annual cost also lets me put Microsoft Office on one computer, but I’ve been using the free, open-source LibreOffice suite for so long, I have yet to install Office on my HP. Oops.

Evernote Premium

This is my second-longest-running subscription–I’ve been paying for the premium version of my note-taking app since 2015. Over that time, the cost has increased from $45 to $69.99. That’s made me think about dropping this and switching to Microsoft’s OneNote. But even though Microsoft owns LinkedIn, it’s Evernote that not only scans business cards but checks LinkedIn to fill in contact info for each person.

Flickr Pro

I’ve been paying for extra storage at this photo-sharing site since late 2011–back when the free version of Flickr offered a punitively-limited storage quota. This cost, too, has increased from $44.95 for two years to $49.99 a year. But now that Yahoo has sold the site to the photography hub SmugMug, the free tier once again requires serious compromises. And $50 a year doesn’t seem that bad, not when I’m supporting an indie-Web property instead of giving still more time to Facebook or Google.

Private Internet Access

I signed up for this virtual-private-network service two years ago at a discounted rate of $59.95 for two years, courtesy of a deal offered at Techdirt. Absent that discount, I’d pay $69.95, so I will reassess my options when this runs out in a few months. Not paying for a VPN service, however, is not an option; how else am I supposed to keep up on American news when I’m in Europe?

LastPass Premium

I decided to pay for the full-feature version of this password manager last year, and I’m already reconsidering that. Three reasons why: The free version of LastPass remains great, the premium version implements U2F two-step verification in a particularly inflexible way, and the company announced last month that the cost of Premium will increase from $24 a year to $36.

Combined and with multi-year costs annualized, all of these services added up to $258.96 last year. I suspect this total compares favorably to what we spend on news and entertainment subscriptions–but that’s not math I care to do right now.