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Back to the Office?

Mike Zaccardi

I STEPPED TO THE podium for the first time in more than three years. My presentation skills were perhaps a bit rusty, but I jumped at the opportunity earlier this month to speak at my former employer’s annual symposium. It felt great to see so many familiar and friendly faces, including old teammates, workplace acquaintances and former clients. It was also no big secret that I was curious about an open position at the company.

I took time to chat with a variety of folks and came away with a continued favorable view of my old employer, an energy trading firm. Will I return to the office? That remains unknown. For now, I’m continuing with my own financial writing, and also helping with blogging projects for financial advisors and larger investment companies.

The more time goes on, though, the more I miss being around smart and fun people at work. Sure, I could keep my head down and eyes glued to dual monitors in my home office, but those few days at the symposium reaffirmed that work is about more than just making money. Collaborating with others, and even non-work banter, go a long way toward making the Monday-to-Friday work routine fulfilling.

Not to throw shade on my current writing clients—whom I adore—but periodic work, with the occasional Zoom or phone call thrown in, just isn’t the same. As much as I despise the notion of having to buy a car and commute, it might be the eventual outcome of my strange career journey.

And have you seen the prices of used cars lately? After a dip during the back half of 2022, the Manheim Used Vehicle Value Index rebounded from January through mid-March. I’ve perused Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist for inexpensive small cars, like the 2008 Toyota Yaris I purchased seven years ago for $4,200. Today, it appears a similar set of wheels would set me back around $8,000.

Readers familiar with my financial situation would rightly scoff at price being a hurdle. Maybe the bigger issue is the psychological impact of buying a car. It means I’m stepping away from freelance writing—working on my own terms—and returning to the nine-to-five grind.

It’s revealing that I imagine my life more fulfilling if I had a fulltime job. After all, the FIRE—financial independence, retire early—movement promotes financial independence as the freedom to call your own shots. But after years of tracking my net worth, eyeing the day I’d achieve “FI,” it hit me that amassing a big pile of money doesn’t guarantee happiness.

Meanwhile, the twice-a-day, 25-mile, 50-minute commute might offer an upside: mentally checking in and checking out. Working from home, and always monitoring markets, investments, Twitter and email, offers little in the way of boundaries. Looking back to the days when I’d drive to and from the office, I would listen to a podcast or veg with some country music on the radio, relaxing before the workday and mentally exiting after it’s done.

The upshot: I’ve been eyeing a no-frills car like a Ford Fiesta, Kia Rio, Nissan Versa or Toyota Yaris. I find there’s still a “Japanese premium” for Toyotas and Hondas, so maybe I’ll bid for a Fiesta. Another option is to go the lazy—and more costly—route of buying on Carvana. I estimate that would cost a few grand more than buying privately. While I’ve had no issues with the four vehicles I’ve purchased privately, I feel I’m due for a lemon. That would be frustrating since my time is more valuable today than it was when I was in my 20s.

Inertia and status quo bias are very real for me right now. Writing is going well financially, and pulling the trigger to return to the workplace, buy a car and resume commuting are big mental leaps. I’m confident that, once I’m in the groove again at the office, I’d be happy that I went through it all. On the other hand, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t yet been offered the position or even asked to come in for an interview.

The speaking engagement several weeks ago, along with the fun meals with old colleagues, reminded me that it matters a ton who you work with. What about buying a basic and boring used car? That’s more of a symbolic step than a money matter. But it would feel like a win if those vehicle prices retreated a bit. The Clark Howard in me always wants to score a good deal.

Mike Zaccardi is a freelance writer for financial advisors and investment firms. He’s a CFA® charterholder and Chartered Market Technician®, and has passed the coursework for the Certified Financial Planner program. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeZaccardi, connect with him via LinkedIn, email him at MikeCZaccardi@gmail.com and check out his earlier articles.

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