Interesting observations of a returning traveler

When you travel and return home, there is a clarity that comes with that. If only for a short period of time, you see things for what they are. I'm going to share my clarity from about 5 months of travel, with periodic returns back to the USA, before those memories are obliterated by day to day events.

I live in Arizona. It is the desert and living here in the summer is horrible. It isn’t that you cannot live here, but you are literally a “shut in” for about 4 months of the year. I grew up in Australia as did my wife and we are used to the great outdoors. I grew up as a kid riding my bicycle around the suburbs and was lucky enough that our house backed up to national parks where myself and my neighbors spent much of our non-school time exploring, having adventures, discovering things, etc. in nature. I am happy when I am near nature. Maybe that is why I love to travel and see the world - experiencing what it has to offer in its raw sense.

But the desert.... Well the winters here are gorgeous. There isn’t a better place to be. You could extend that from October through May. Scottsdale is paradise while so many other parts of the world are dealing with ice storms, snow, blizzards, etc. we are living in gorgeous weather. And since so many people come to visit Arizona in winter, this place is very festive. Lots of shows and expos are on and there is always so much to do.

The natural schedule for our family is to leave here in summer. This is rather common for those in Arizona that are not bogged down by a job. We get to spend our summers in Europe, Mexico, Australia, etc. and it is a really blessed existence. Then we return back to the USA. Normally we’ll do this periodically during the summer - out for June, back for a bit of July, out again until end of August, back again for a bit, out again for September then back. You get the general idea. Meanwhile the USA keeps moving along as it does.

You get a perspective of places when you do this - like a snapshot in time where you can compare A-B. Where you came from and where you landed. Most people that I know who travel for shorter periods (ie. vacation travel) will do that for 10 days or 2 weeks, etc. They link their vacation travel with the time they can get off work. That’s great for the employer but really stifling for the employee. The issue is that living in the USA is very expensive. Sure, some things are less expensive than other countries, but there are many costs you just can’t avoid and it forces Americans back home and back to work. Healthcare, for example, is the most expensive costs per capita in the world and either your employer pays it or you do. If you are retired or a veteran you can dodge the bullet there, but that means you don’t get the freedom from that expense until you are 65 years old or older, or you’ve put your life on the line for your country. Otherwise you pay.

So why is all of this relevant? Well that snapshot in time view you get on returning after being away for a month or so is interesting. I did that three (3) times this season. First time, we spent 3 weeks in Mexico - one week in Mexico City with some friends, another week in San Miguel de Allende with friends, and then the last week researching/preparing for my surgery in Guadalajara. The second trip was to Australia to see my wife’s family for 3 weeks, and the third trip was back go Guadalajara to have the surgery and post-operative recovery.

Each time the return to the USA came with a nasty sting. Normally these things are unusual, but having done this for many years, it seems to be a pattern. The observation of it may be something that we see, but we don’t see. Like the forest for the trees. We deal in incremental observations when you are in the USA - you fix things on a daily basis. But when you are away for a period of time, those observations are far more broad and shocking.

Trip one return

We landed back in Phoenix Sky Harbor airport after spending 3 weeks in Mexico. My total cost of those 3 weeks was less than USD $2,000.00. That’s equivalent rougly to 2 month’s of healthcare premiums in the USA. Or 3 months of food costs, etc. So in the perspective, not bad at all.

Within four (4) days of returning, I had spent $15,000 in unexpected expenses. Yep, $15K. Here’s why...

We own a number of rental properties in North Phoenix that are multi-unit fourplex buildings. They are all on the same street, and in our case on the same side of the same street. At the rear of each building, there is an alleyway that allows tenants access to the rear covered carports for parking. That alley way was never disclosed to us as our property - it is normally city property that we back up to.

We discover, to our surprise, that there is a city statute that makes use responsible for the alley way and over the years the asphalt had degraded (mainly due to the intense Phoenix summer weather). The City decide to cite us to repair it, and after working with my attorneys we discover that actually we own the alley too - it is part of our property, but since we don’t own all of the buildings on that street, we try to work with both the City and the other property owners to all join forces and share the costs of this, but nope - they won’t participate. So out comes the checkbook and we write a $15K check to an asphalt company to seal the road - something you would normally expect the City to do. But they won’t and I just have to suck this up and see it as a local “tax” on owning property in the Phoenix area.

Trip two return

So we get past this, new sealed alley way (at least for the back of our buildings) and we prepare for the next leg of our trip to Australia. Meanwhile I’m working 15 hour days to prepare for my tax return filing with my accountant due to the complexity needed here. You see it is prudent when you own real estate to have LLCs that properties are held in. This is just good asset protection strategy, but this also means that each year you have to do a lot with tax returns. I file about five (5) separate tax returns for Limited Partnerships, Corporations, LLCs and personal returns and all of this requires lots of individual Quickbooks company data files, I have to hire a book keeper to reconcile and balance everything and then send it to my accountant who turns it into this massive tax return. This is a big deal, but it is what it is - if you own assets, be prepared to account for everything.

Anyway off to Australia we go. I get to do a bit of computer programming work down there, so I’m keeping on top of things while we are away. Had a great time seeing relatives, friends, etc. and then flew home. We have a property that we put on the market for sale before we left that was a “non-performing” rental (ie. the rents coming in barely covered the outgoings yet there was some equity in there, so better to sell it and put those funds to better use). We get an offer on it, and it goes into escrow. I get back and the escrow company calls me to tell me that they found a lien on the property. There should not be any liens, so we look at what this is....

A bank that we originally had a mortgage on the property, but was paid off in 2007, neglected to release the lien on the property when it was paid off. In fact after spending a large amount of time with private investigators, etc. we discover they did release the lien but to the wrong building. How could something so simple be screwed up? Well who knows because the bank went out of business with the 2008 financial collapse, and there isn’t anyone there to fix it anymore. Holy cow.... So $4,000 in lawyers fees later, and constant work with the escrow company, we are looking down the barrel at having to go to court and get a judge to “quiet the title” on this obvious mistake even though the attorneys have found that there is substantial evidence of what went wrong as they found reference to the original mortgage account number on the wrong building lien release. But I’m not Dr. Who and I can’t warp time & space to go back and fix this, so we are thinking this is a lost cause. Thankfully within 48 hours of the escrow period expiration, the title company get title insurance after all this evidence is presented and they were able to allow the sale to complete, removing the need to jump through any further hoops on this mess. But I’m out $4,000 in lawyers fees.

Trip three return

Finally the last trip back to Mexico for my major shoulder surgery (ready all about that here).

This one required total focus on health. I can’t be dealing with administravia or governments or lawyers, etc. I have to focus on recovery, etc. which thankfully went very well. Amazing in fact. After about 3 weeks I get the all clear to return home to Phoenix.

We land back at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, and get back to the house. First night home was hard - I have to sleep in a sling and it is hard to find a comfortable place to fall asleep. I manage to get a few hours of sleep, but post surgery healing is taking its toll so I get up at about 2AM. I go to the bathroom, and as I’m entering it, I can hear the sound of water going through the pipes. I’m thinking that our sprinklers are on outside, so no big deal. I return to try and get some more sleep. After another two hours, I’m up again. Back to the bathroom, and there’s that sound again of water in the pipes.

We have a shutoff valve in our garage, so I head in there to turn it off in case I have an irrigation leak. I open the garage door and find the garage is a lake. Water everywhere. I shut off the valve and discover that the hot water heater in there burst and flooded the garage. But as I return back into the house, the water heater was in a closet that was adjacent to our living room, and the water has seaped into the living room and destroyed the hard wood flooring there. Further discoveries show it got into a guest bedroom, the laundry, etc. and at 4:30AM I’m on the phone to the 24/7 claim line with the insurance company to register a claim for this. We get that done, it is covered (thankfully) and they are sending out a remedial team to mitigate the damage. They arrive 2 hours later and get everything under control but now we are dealing with them ripping up flooring, base boards, pumping out water, etc.

Really? Isn’t this enough? Well I find out a few days later after the insurance adjuster comes out, that they will pay for new flooring in the living room but as the wood was also in two other areas in the house, they can’t guarantee that the wood will match, and consequently they won’t pay to replace the other wood to match it, so I’m basically forced to refloor my entire house. Sure, I can take what is left from the mitigation costs from the insurance company against that cost, but after visiting some flooring places, I’m given a $35,000 quote for new flooring and I find out the insurance compnay will only contribute about $7,000 towards this. The thing is that I can probably get this price down by using wholesale supply houses and taking advantage of our business in properties, and using our contractor team, but I’m still going to be funding about $15,000 out of pocket on my own.

First world problems?

The common theme here is that owning things is expensive. You rely on humans to be there when you need them. Most of the time they are great, but really when you own things it is on you. You are responsible to the government, to the insurance and banking industry and to the engineering of your own posessions. I should never have left my hot water heater to age so that this happened. Now we have a tankless hot water heater to mitigate this ever happening again, but with that comes the challenges that they don’t work the same as a regular hot water heater, and I’m dealing with adjusting to the behaviors of that technology.

You can quickly feel like you are a slave to your possessions. I get the minamilist lifestyle here. I get that owning little provides more peace. But I also get that you can’t avoid all the costs of life in the USA. Taxes are high - sure, there are many places where they are higher, but they sure cost a lot when you are paying all these hidden costs like tariffs, city ordinance charges, property taxes, insurance premiums (the $1,000 a month that we pay for health insurance is something those in countries that have their healthcare provided by their governments are not subject to, so I calculate that as a tax as well), and I’ve not even started with payroll taxes, capital gains taxes, income taxes (Federal and state), social security & Medicare taxes, sales taxes, etc. Add all of that up, and you are working for the government. A good friend of mine who is a physician told me that he works for the government from January through July each year, and only after August 1st does he get to keep what he earns.

I haven’t factored in the costs of obsolesence by design in the products that we purchase - our cars, our appliances, our phones, our TVs, our computers. We’ve created a society that doesn’t want to pay for quality so we buy these things over and over again, far more often than we should which just further pumps life through global supply chains, each time including some duty or tax charges for importation.

Can you escape all of this? I’m really not sure. I know that when you A-B life away vs. life home, it is very easy to see this. When you are dealing with it everyday, you are the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water, where little by little the pot is heating up and eventually killing the frog. If you don’t see these things as warning signs, you will be forever cursed to live with them and their costs.

Meanwhile the meta level statistics are horrible. We spend more on healthcare in the USA than anywhere else on the world and yet we have a declining life expectency. Today I saw that the USA has dropped to #18 in the top countries to retire to. Reasons? All of the items above that I’ve mentioned. You don’t see these things on a daily basis - you have to get away and come back, sometimes multiple times, to see them.

It isn’t that one country is “better” than another. It is that you are treated as a target of extortion in countries where everyone is leveraged for such high costs. I wouldn’t have to pay for resealing alley ways if our city had adequate funding in place. I wouldn’t have had the issues with bank liens if there wasn’t so much stress and high levels of activity where quality control over banking was done properly and human error was checked at each step, and I can only blame myself for not being on top of my water heater and replacing it well before the end of its natural life. But that’s because I’m dealing with all these other things. The tax returns alone are at least a 100 hour per year investment of time on my part.

Land of the free?

There are times you just want to do the Shark Tank thing and say “I’m out!”. It is easy to get frustrated. Those that are constrained don’t even have that choice. They are not moving targets so they are easily picked off and extorted. They get distracted so they don’t see what is going on by the endless political sports events on TV media - thinking that what is going on in Washington has any impact to their lives. The reality is that what is going on in their local city council is more relevant and what is happening in their own backyard is where they can actually do something to help protect them.

But no - they are more interested in the new Chicken Sandwich at Popeyes than they are at an out of control health insurance premium they (or their employer) have to pay. They don’t realize that the fast food is killing them, but because they can’t distance that from the high cost of health insurance, it is easier to put your fingers in your ears and pretend that all is good.

When you return from places that are not dealing with this, you A-B compare the happiness factor of the people as well. I never saw more smiles on the faces of Mexicans in Mexico, and yet I get back to the USA and it’s car horns blaring, fights over parking spaces, everyone resenting each other, struggles and stress, etc. When you deal with this everyday, you can distance yourself from it mentally but it is there. It is profound and that stress affects quality and longevity of life.

At what point do we realize that owning and controlling everything comes with enormous costs. This is true on an individual basis, but also at a national level. By inserting ourselves into every foreign war, conflict, economy, etc. we spread ourselves so thin that all of us, in one way or another, have to be “drafted” economically into the fight. I am proud of how I manage my own cashflow and financial independence, but I’m appauled at how my leaders don’t understand how to balance a checkbook. That their ineptitude at basic financial economics not only sends a message to everyone else that it is ok if you can’t afford it - just put it on the credit card. No, it isn’t and yet the costs of this stupidity I have to pay. I pay it with roads, taxes, obsolesence and healthcare costs. No business would ever be allowed to operate like this. And yet even in that space, we have created a market economy that is based not on profit levels and revenue, but marketshare and debt. The DJIA moves more based on the cost of Federal Reserve Interest rates than it doesn’t on quarterly earnings by the Fortune 500. Forcing retirees to have to put their life savings in riskier and riskier asset classes to get some sort of return. Debt is encouraged - savings is penalized.

Yet you spend time in other countries and you see banks paying 5-6% interest on savings accounts. And that everyone pays cash for everything. You will have a very hard time buying a house in Mexico, for example, without cash. But that promotes long term home ownership that often passes the house from family member to family member. People don’t use real estate as a speculative asset there - they buy a place to live in it. Probably for the rest of their lives. Now having done that, they don’t deal with a mortgage or mortgage interest rates and bank refinancing, etc.

Interesting question posed on Twitter by @NomadicHustler made me think about this.

The truth is that few of us get to A-B compare live in and out of our native country. In looking at the USA vs. other countries, I have been able to reveal cracks in the perception of utopia that many of my American friends have. But that doesn’t mean that the USA isn’t a great place. I still choose to call it my home, but sometimes you may be able to do more good from within the system than from outside of it. I also don’t believe that government is the leverage point to fix these things. We all have personal responsibility here. We all have to work together to find better ways to deal with costs individually and to be more creative and share our discoveries - however small they may be.

We have to return to our human roots and realize that we are all in this together and as a collective we can change things - not through isolation but through community. But it starts local. That’s where we can make a difference.

Then maybe we won’t see an exodus of those leaving to find their version of Utopia. But as Andrew Henderson says, “Go where you are treated best”. That doesn’t necessarily mean abandon where you are - maybe you are in the right place to be treated best, but we have to help change how we treat each other.

Although I have some smaller trips coming up, I’ll be in the domestic USA for the next 7 months or so. With that I hope to not forget the A-B comparison one gets from travel. You do get a sense of clarity, if only for a fleeting period time.  It also further intensifies my mission to unshackle more and more Americans and explain that freedom is worth the struggles, but just be careful that you don't become a target and you have the tenacity to withstand the extortion you may find yourself subject to.

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