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December 18, 08

Debt Free First Anniversary

One year ago, i sent off the final check to pay off the last non-mortgage debt - an ogre of a Home Equity loan, bringing to close $54,551.02 of credit cards, home improvement loans, and other blood-sucking credit leeches after 9 grueling months! A week later, we celebrated with this video that was viewed on The Dave Ramsey TV Show, as well as over 7,300 people on YouTube:



I know Eric gets terribly embarrassed, but i never get tired of seeing that wonderful celebration of financial freedom!!

So what's life like after living a debt-free year?

Well, we have to keep the "debt-free" in parenthesis, if only for the fact that we're closing in on 2 years remaining on our mortgage - when THAT puppy's paid off, we're going to have an EPIC video to celebrate!!

Other than that, it's been a bit disorienting, what with the financial world all around us seemingly collapsing while we watch in wonder from within our fiscal bubble. I don't think i've ever made more money in my musical pursuits than i have this past year, and it's still going strong with more work booked straight through the summer, with a possible China tour in the spring and 2, possibly 3 different festivals that i'll be working at, plus a week stint with the Baltimore Symphony and a video shoot for PianoDisc in California...and that's not counting all the publicity trips i still have to book in support of my new company, AirTurn! Whew!!

Being debt-free has actually allowed me to make more business purchases than ever before, ALL WITH CASH - no credit, no layaways, no deferred payment, just good ol' cash for stuff like:
  • 2 Canon GL2 semi-pro camcorders, complete with a full set of wide and telephoto lenses, cases, lights, stands, remote control...very, very sweet!

  • My wireless lavaliere microphone set, which you may have noticed from my recent videos with AirTurn - sounds so much nicer than having my old Samson C01U sitting nearby!

  • My 10 megapixel Canon PowerShot G9 camera, allowing for some gorgeous photos from our busy year of travels

  • My awesome Sager 9622 laptop, featuring dual DESKTOP graphic cards - man, this machine is the best for live video shoots and av processing! My son loves it for being able to play Elder Scrolls: Oblivion with ALL of the graphic bells and whistles set to MAXIMUM - and nary a slowdown!! BTW, the Sager is on top of 2 other brand new computer purchases as well...


  • Not only do we still have our full emergency fund in place, we've also completed an EXTRA emergency fund for loved ones who might need help in the future. Even with all my crazy business purchases and taxes paid ahead of time, it looks like i'll still come out ahead by a few thousand - given that all my years in the past were pretty much deficits, i have to say this is a fairly decent measure of progress!

    Despite my pricey acquisitions, several debt-free habits still remain, and probably will stay for the foreseeable future:

  • Still no Starbucks; while i've ditched instant coffee in my office (shudder....), i've switched to coffee 'tea bags', thanks to a suggestion from one of my Curtis co-workers. It ain't Starbucks, but it sure beats instant any day...

  • I still pack my own lunches - very rarely do i eat out for lunch!

  • Groceries are still budgeted pretty carefully. We've really cut down on impulse items.

  • Haircuts for the boys still done by me - i have to say, i think i've gotten better over this past year! Last year's school pictures were pretty hilarious compared to this year's...we call last year's pictures our "debt-free haircuts"!


  • I really need to work on my instinct to spend when i have extra cash, even though i have a separate business account that doesn't draw funds away from the family checking account. I'm definitely the "stuff" guy - my wife is much wiser and far less materialistic than i am, so i need to really learn from her example. I'm the kind of guy that dreams of buying a bigger house - she's the type of person that dreams of raising funds to help more missionaries! I really, really need to take more cues from her...

    Another good set of cues come from our boys. When asked what they want for Christmas, they shrug and smile - they're happy with what they have! They've become prodigious savers, thanks to our commission system that only pays them when they do their chores. They're going to end up with far better financial acumen than i ever had as a young person!

    It's been a phenomenal year, and the future looks incredibly bright, thanks to a debt-free outlook! If you need help getting started with your debt snowball, be sure to spend some time visiting Dave Ramsey's website and downloading some of the free daily podcasts from his radio show -

    Thanks, Dave!! It's so great to be "living like no one else" now!!

    ** oh my, i forgot to mention 2 of our biggest ticket items this past year: a new roof AND a new maintenance-free gutter system from Gutter Guys! All paid for up front with CASH - unlike our rear windows project several years, where we initially planned to pay for it over 10 years...yeesh!
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    April 26, 08

    Kiyosaki vs. Ramsey: Good and Bad Debt

    i find myself coming to a strange financial crossroads.  i and my family feel a deep sense of gratitude towards Dave Ramsey and his approach to bringing personal budgets under control and eliminating debt.  Thanks to his techniques, we were able to pay off over $55,000 in personal debts in only 9 months - in the following 4 months, we managed to come up with a 6 month emergency fund and have now started on a serious investment plan to fund our boys' college and pay off the rest of our house mortgage in (hopefully) one or two years.  Another result of having had such an intense fiscal focus over the past year has been a new appetite for financial literature.  i found myself gravitating towards Phil Town's "Rule #1" book on "safe" stock market investing, rolling my eyes with stuff by Suze Orman ("rip the dollar bill and feel the pain"..."tell yourself over and over, 'I am rich and wealthy beyond my wildest dreams'"...oh brother...), and slogging through several other books like "Stock Investing for Dummies", Jim Cramer's "Real Money" (scaaaaarry risky stuff...), Andrew Tobias' "The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need" (GREAT book in an affably readable style), and a pile of other books on Mutual Funds that i have yet to get to. 



    One book on loan from a friend was "Cashflow Quadrant: Rich Dad's Guide to Financial Freedom" by Robert Kiyosaki.  i had heard Dave Ramsey mentioning Kiyosaki's first book, "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" several times on his radio show as a "must read", so naturally my curiosity was piqued. 



    Several things struck me about both the book and its author:




    • Robert Kiyosaki comes from a 4th generation Japanese background; being a second generation Korean myself, i felt an immediate connection to several cultural aspects he describes being an Asian in an American setting


    • His depiction of his real father being the consummate professional, having graduated with advanced degrees and employed in the highest echelons as an educator, working harder and harder for an increasing salary (and increasing debt load), while ending up with less and less time for his family and virtually nothing financially at the end of his life.  This sounds too much like the life track i'm currently on...


    • His clear depiction of the 4 quadrants of cashflow:  on the left side, E for Employee and S for self-employed;  on the right side, B for Business and I for Investor.  Again, this makes a lot of sense, and i find myself identifying with both the E and particularly the S quadrants ("S" folk are perfectionists, tending to do everything themselves and having difficulty delegating their work to others)


    • The idea of "getting your money to work for you, instead of you for your money" sounds awfully gimmicky at first - but it starts to make a lot of sense when you see how a combined portfolio of real estate, business startups, stocks and bonds and even royalties for intellectual properties can actually work passively to bring income - "cashflow", being the operative word throughout Kiyosaki's books.  Financial freedom is defined as coming to the point where your passive income brings in more money than your expenses.


    • Kiyosaki's definition of an "asset" is pretty radical - the most stunning example is his assertion that a personal home is NOT an asset, but actually a liability.  Assets are supposed to be those investments that have a positive cashflow, putting money INTO your pocket, not taking them out (any homeowner will tell you that bills, property taxes, repairs all siphon out money on a regular basis).  Waiting for an investment to appreciate in value is akin to gambling, according to Kiyosaki. 



    Dave Ramsey also points to what he calls "the pinnacle point" in his book, "The Total Money Makeover".  That point gets achieved when the interest from your mutual funds exceeds your expenses.  The problem is, particularly in light of today's stock market volatility, mutual funds go up and down - there's a long term record of steady growth, but the wild swings get awfully hard to stomach when you see your OWN money lurching up and down for the ride.  For example, close inspection of my TIAA-CREF retirement account revealed that it lost $7000 for the first quarter this year.  That sucks. 



    Dave eschews ALL forms of debt and regularly proclaims his own FICO score to be "0" because he hasn't borrowed money for 20 years.  All his investments are done in cash with the "100% down" plan (ie, no payments).  Kiyosaki, on the other hand, makes a compelling case for leveraging the power of OPM (other people's money) and OPT (other people's time) to actually make debt work for you by increasing passive cashflow.  Here's a simple example from Kiyosaki's book, "Rich Dad's Prophecy":




    • Putting 20% down on a $100,000 property (=$20,000), borrowing $80,000 to mortgage the difference and pulling in $200 of rental income per month after expenses would net a ROI (Return On Investment) of 12% ($200 x 12 - $2,400) - roughly equal to Dave Ramsey's Mutual Fund average 


    • Putting only 10% down ($10,000) with the same example above, coming up with a reduced monthly income of $130, the ROI actually INCREASES the net return on the $10,000 investment to 15%



    Of course, theory always looks great on paper and has a funny way of turning out a lot worse in real life...i'm not about to take a financial sky dive and become a high rolling real estate investor overnight, but i have to confess that Kiyosaki's books are inspiring me to read up more on exploring passive forms of income from real estate, businesses, and other income-generating assets.  i like his example of comparing the risk of investing to the risk of driving a car - there's always risk every time you drive, but if you take lessons and practice, you simply become a better driver over time.  My plan in the meantime is to try to pay off the house, continue monthly investments with mutual funds, and lots and lots of reading up on investment/business "how-to's".  Who knows?  i may end up creating another blog specifically dealing with "Money for Musicians"...


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    February 09, 08

    Debt Free...on TV??

    Our "Debt Free" video on YouTube has been getting a lot of play and attracting a wonderful batch of comments! One commenter mentioned that she saw the video aired on "The Dave Ramsey Show" on the Fox Business Network sometime last week after (according to this person) Dave himself showed the video to his wife Sharon and she told him to air it, saying that it was the funniest thing she had ever seen (or something to that effect)!

    Can anyone confirm this? That would be so cool if this were actually true!



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    December 31, 07

    A Return to New Year's Resolutions


    I've poo-pooed New Year's resolutions for most of my adult life, noting that the gyms tend to be full in January and sparse in February - ie, i never had faith that i'd ever have the willpower to actually commit to superficial statements of intended change. But after seeing the powerful effects of slaying a $55,000 debt ogre in only 9 months thanks to a written budget and goals glaring at me from a (digital) page, i'm beginning to realize the true benefits of word-smith'd dreams. What seems so mundane on the surface belies the underlying secret of such exercises, mainly: organization and focus.

    Dan Miller, author of "48 Days to the Work You Love", runs a terrific life and career coaching website at www.48days.com. In his latest December newsletter, he has a link to a great outline for 2008 resolutions that models his 7-point wheel factoring all aspects of life balance:

  • Finances

  • Physical Health

  • Personal Development

  • Family Relationships

  • Spiritual Health

  • Social

  • Career


  • I spent some time filling in the outline via Google Docs and came up with the following goals for 2008 (so far):

    1. FINANCIAL Income, Investments

    Five-Year Goals
    Set up substantial kids' college funds
    Be on track to have net worth of $1 million

    One-Year Goals
    Set up $50,000 emergency fund
    Achieve all wishlist budget items

    Beginning TODAY!
    Budget weekly savings of $200 for wishlist items
    Develop better business accountability and profit/loss statements and future plans for real income growth


    2. PHYSICAL Health, Appearance, Exercise

    Five-Year Goals
    Get body fat down to 15%
    Be able to bench 200 pounds

    One-Year Goals
    Lose 5 pounds (get to 140 lbs)
    100 pushups daily
    100 situps daily
    60 pullups daily
    5 mile runs 3x per week

    Beginning TODAY!
    30 minute workouts in the morning


    3. PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT

    Five-Year Goals
    Improve Korean, especially reading
    Learn Japanese
    Learn German
    Learn French

    One-Year Goals
    Learn about mutual funds and stock market investing
    Find wholesome books for inspiration and motivation
    Read at least 2 new books per month
    Memorize Japanese characters
    Learn PureData/GEM
    Learn Blender 3D modeling

    Beginning TODAY!
    Learn 2 new Korean words per day
    Maintain list of books read on website

    4. FAMILY Relationships (incomplete...still working on this one)

    Five-Year Goals
    Get closer to family members - be praying for them regularly

    One-Year Goals
    Closer relationship with Mom and Dad
    video interview parents for their history and personal backgrounds

    Beginning TODAY!
    Teach piano lessons to Eric and Timmy more regularly
    Read to boys every day
    spend more time talking with Kyungmi

    5. SPIRITUAL (incomplete here too...)

    Five-Year Goals
    Memorize all of Psalm 119

    One-Year Goals
    Commit 10 psalms to memory
    Finish theology books (Thomas Watson, etc.)

    Beginning TODAY!
    Pray more actively and specifically for church members and missionaries
    Begin memorizing select psalms

    6. SOCIAL Increased number of friends, Community involvement, etc.

    Five-Year Goals
    hmmm....

    One-Year Goals
    Connect personally with network contacts at least once this year
    Reconnect with old school alumni
    Prepare Christmas cards and messages ahead of time
    Keep in touch with family on a regular basis

    Beginning TODAY!
    Improve responses to emails and phone calls

    7. CAREER Ambitions, Dreams, Hopes - REALLY INCOMPLETE

    Five-Year Goals

    One-Year Goals

    Beginning TODAY!


    I'll try to update this as soon as i'm able, particularly on the Career section. On the book side, here's a list of what's been read this month:

    Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
    Dance with the Dragon by David Hagberg
    Financial Peace Revisited by Dave Ramsey
    48 Days to the Work You Love by Dan Miller
    QBQ: The Question Behind the Question by John G. Miller

    A lot of personal development literature, as you can probably tell. Several books need finishing, as follows:

    The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
    On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee
    The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
    Life of Pi by Yann Martel
    The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley, Ph.D. and William D. Danko, Ph.D.


    Several more are on the burner as we speak - the list immediately above has been loaded from my Audible library onto my new 8 gig iPod Nano (Kyungmi's Christmas gift to me - thanks, Honey!)

    Quite a long list...certainly more than daunting at first glance, but hey - if i can chunk away almost $55K in 9 months, i think i can start attacking this list of resolutions, in much the same way: a little bite at a time. I'll keep y'all updated, and hope you'll keep me accountable in return!

    Best wishes for your own New Year's resolutions for 2008!

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    December 28, 07

    The Best Method for "Getting Out of Debt" a la SNL

    Careful, Folks - this video gets really complicated really fast, especially for those of us that are so used to buying everything on plastic:



    Thanks to my sister and her husband for pointing out this money-saving video tutorial on this effective method for getting out of debt. Seriously. Really.

    Boy, do i feel stupid now....

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    December 18, 07

    WE'RE DEBT FREEEEEEE!!!

    This morning, i sent off the final check to clean up the last dregs of our final debt, a long-standing Home Equity Loan. After 9 long months, our $54,551.02 mountain of debt has finally been vanquished! I still can't believe this is really happening - i think once the check clears and i see an actual zero balance on the account it'll start to really hit me. The kids have been running around the house practicing their "WE'RE DEBT FREE!!" screams, and we promise to make a family video dramatizing what it took for everyone to pull together to make this incredible accomplishment a reality!

    Many thanks to that crazy guy on the radio Dave Ramsey for his wild repertoire of witty debt-bashing slogans and for making debt-free screams a status symbol! Even though the Christmas tree will be bare this year, i can't think of a happier celebration to share with the Sung family!

    WE'RE DEBT FREEEEEEEEEEEE!!!


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    November 29, 07

    A Sure-Fire Way to becoming a Millionaire Musician

    The other day, during a chamber music rehearsal, some of the students starting talking about one of Curtis' hotshot pianists who is currently enjoying a fantastic international solo career with one of the industry's highest-octane managements. Evidently, this person has an obsession with clothes shopping, buying hats like Amelda Marcos bought shoes, and even racked up an $800 cell phone bill at one point. The kids sighed and pined that it must be nice to have such a career to be able to afford that kind of lifestyle.

    At this point, my Dave Ramsey-indoctrinated motor-mouth kicked in, pointing out that if this person didn't get a hold of their finances immediately, they would be soon spending their way into fiscal - and professional - oblivion.

    I can't think of a single music student that doesn't have the starry-eyed dream of winning a major orchestra job, or being picked up by a big management for a superstar solo career, thinking that such a move would be the answer to all their financial dreams forever-and-ever-amen. But with ever increasing numbers on the classical music "supply" end of the chain and diminishing "demands" on the other, winning major jobs and getting major management is becoming more and more akin to winning the mega-million lottery. Even the folks who are enjoying careers in the big orchestras (and i know several) will attest that most of them are up to their eyeballs in debt, and that orchestra life is akin to working in a Dilbert-esque cubicle, with conductors for "bosses" (shudder). On the other hand, few people see the un-glamorous side of touring as a soloist: running like crazy through airports to catch connecting flights (or waiting for delayed ones), dealing with late or missing baggage, holing up in miserable hotels, ordering Chinese food or Chef-Boyardee cans for affordable meals between concerts, wondering how in the world one is supposed to come away with anything after travel expenses, lodging, food, taxes, and management take their bites out of paltry artist fees.

    Rather than pin all one's hopes and dreams on winning pie-in-the-sky jobs that don't actually pay that much, i proposed to the students that they begin thinking about sound financial principles, like spending less than they earn, staying away from credit cards, and investing 15% of their income into growth financial products like mutual funds.

    According to Dave Ramsey, the average family income in America today is $40,000 per year. I'm going to borrow one of his financial examples and have a little fun breaking that down into terms an average musician can work with, one that doesn't enjoy a big orchestra job or a major solo (or chamber ensemble) career.

    $40,000/year breaks down to about $3,333 per month. If i were to offer private lessons at $40 per lesson, i would need to teach 83 lessons per month, or about 20-21 lessons per week - roughly 4-5 lessons a day, and that's leaving my weekends completely free! Even if i were to be more modest with my lesson fee - say, teaching at only $25 per lesson, i would only need to teach 33 lessons per week - the extra 13 lesson load could easily be added onto a Saturday (the most popular teaching day for musicians, btw), or spread out so that weekdays have 5 lessons each and Saturdays would only have to have 8.

    $40,000 doesn't sound like a lot, i know...but hold on. Let's say i'm really good about staying away from debt and have the discipline to invest 15% of that income into good mutual funds which average a 12% rate of return over the long haul, starting from the age of 20 fresh out of Curtis - i mean, college. 15% of $40,000 is $6,000 per year, or a monthly withdrawal of only $500 ($125 per week, if you want an even smaller breakdown). With the magic of compound interest (and using a cool online compound interest calculator from www.monkeychimp.com),
    we can see that even if this poor musician never has another student added to his teaching load - even if he never wins that fabled job, or get recognized for his amazing talent by IMG - if he can maintain his investing discipline, by the time this person is ready to retire at age 65, his investment nest egg will be worth $10,111,231.44.

    Let me repeat that number: Age 65 = $10,111,231.44.

    Ok, so you know that most musicians tend to hang around and teach way past the age of 65 - average cut off age tends to be 80. At age 80, with no significant career improvement and no increase in teaching fees, this musician will then be worth $55,595,009.88.

    Let me repeat. $55,595,009.88.

    No orchestra job, no solo career, no platinum records breaking all sales records. Just a humble teacher, teaching a handful of students each week, being wise with his money and disciplined with his savings and investments.

    For a more humble look at just making your first million, you would be 46 years old with $1,124,484.47.

    Yes, i'm really kicking myself for not having known this when i was a 20-year old fresh out of Curtis. But there's no better time to start like the present!

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    October 20, 07

    Murphy visits the Sungs (as in, Murphy's Law)

    Figures...just when we're getting ready to knock out our very last debt (besides the house), ol' Murphy strolls along for a visit and attempts to take over the spare sofabed - or at least, in this instance, the furnace!

    During a sudden chill a few days ago, we couldn't get our pilot light to stay on. Fortunately we have a friend who used to work in the commercial heating and air systems industry, so he was able to stop by to take a quick look at the problem. UN-fortunately, he shook his head when he saw just how old our furnace actually was - probably close to 25 or 30 years old - and that we desperately needed to replace it, especially given the possibility of carbon monoxide leakage with systems this old.

    Well, if that wasn't bad enough,a few days later i had to go in for some dental work to fix my back right molar which had broken in half. The first dentist had assured me no root canal was necessary, just a crown to fix the break. But when i signed in at the dental office, they immediately proceeded to bill me for a root canal. I insisted that the examining dentist told me that wasn't necessary, so they amended the bill - only to discover that once i sat down in the examining chair, the root canal specialist adamantly declared that yes, indeed, a root canal was absolutely necessary.

    Sigh. Tack on another $500 to a $350 crown.

    Thankfully, we now have Murphy-repellent in the form of a budget and a fledgling emergency fund. Thanks to some leftover from Kyungmi's big bonus, we have enough to cover both the costs of the new furnace AND my extra dental work, WITHOUT GOING INTO FURTHER DEBT!! A year ago we would've piled the emergency expenses onto our credit cards. THIS time, we're able to simply pay cash. Now is that awesome or what??

    Next article: our tale of two contractors.

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    October 12, 07

    The Debt Snowball Avalancheth

    Kyungmi picked up an amazing bonus from work today. Six months ago, i would've bolted for the nearest music store or eBay listing for Tablet PC's and snagged a few expensive toys - but now, after five months of working our Debt Snowball patiently, diligently, and intensely, my first thought was actually to use the windfall to knock out the second-to-last debt and take a huge bite out of the last remaining one, the home equity loan that threatened to become a new member of the family with its own bedroom! Now how's that for a change of heart?

    i'm re-reading the first article i wrote at the start of this financial fight for freedom, and i'm almost chuckling at the memory of the fear that swept over me when i realized just how big the financial hole was at the time:

    I just finished the very first step of Dave's plan: writing out my first monthly budget. Even though all my finances are recorded in Quicken, this was still a very painful, brain-numbing exercise. Bad news is that the debt i tried so hard to ignore actually is turning out to be a much bigger troll under the bridge than i had realized...


    ...and now, fast forward to today, when i called the loan officer to pay off the balance early on our back windows' installation (real physical windows, not the blue-screen-of-death kind - last time we will EVER finance home improvements, btw!!) - what a pleasant surprise to learn that instead of the stated remaining balance of $5,805.85, the early payoff amount was actually only $3,274.27! i guess the larger amount was the balance if i kept paying minimum amounts for the remainder of the loan's life for the next 5 years or so, with the smaller amount reflecting the immediate savings sans accrued interest. Once i heard that, i fired up my Nuvi GPS and drove straight to their office to hand them a check and be done with this once and for all. The lady at the desk smiled as she printed out the payoff receipt and said, "If there's anything that we can do to help you finance something in the future - "

    "NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!!!" i laughed, shaking my head and throwing up my hands in defense. "We're just about to start attacking our last big debt and plan to be completely debt free!! NO MORE DEBTS FOR US!!"

    The lady did a double-take. i must've sounded like a cult zealot!

    "Gee...that sounds like a good idea...", she said wistfully.

    By the time this month is up, i hope to have put a mighty blow to the troll under our fiscal bridge - close to half of that monster will be hacked away right off the bat! With no other little debts diluting our financial muscle, we'll be able to throw everything we have to whittle that beast down fairly quickly. Incidentally, one of the most amazing things about this debt snowball has been seeing how money that once was so scarce is now virtually pouring in from all directions! Learning to set up a monthly budget has helped us put a tight reign on every single dollar that comes in, instead of having money flow through our fingers like loose sand. i might be overly optimistic, but perhaps in another 5 or 6 months (?) we might actually be done with ALL of our debts (except the house)...wow, i can almost smell that day coming!

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    September 20, 07

    Life by One Thousand Cuts

    i thought this title was a clever take on how effective little adjustments in my monthly budget have been to bringing fiscal sanity to the Sung household (but i hope it's not too grisly a reminder of that old Chinese form of torture/execution, "Death by One Thousand Cuts"...) While there were some large "windfalls" that helped to take a huge chunk out of our debt snowball since May, the most significant points of progress has been in little things like packing lunches for myself and the kids, controlling grocery costs thanks to plans like the ones offered by MealTimeMakeover.com, and plugging up little dollar leaks in previously "insignificant" areas like kids' haircuts, eating out, even Starbucks and snack money. As mentioned previously, lots of monthly savings are forthcoming with the switch in car and life insurance policies, and that makes it all look like we'll be attacking the last of our four big debts within the next month or so! If we manage to keep up this pace, it's very possible that by this time next year we'll be able to post a video of the Sung family screaming "WE'RE DEBT FREEEEEEE!!"

    Wouldn't it be nice for once to start living in a way that breaks free of the old "starving artist" adage? i'm slowly learning what it means to curb my appetite for expensive toys and impulse items (no "Halo 3 XBox 360 for me, thank you very much...), and concurrently finding creative ways to be content with whatever's on hand (my 3 year old Samsung i730 Pocket PC phone still works just fine as an iPhone "don't-need-it-now" device! Oh, and the joys of discovering my local library!)

    Yep...that crazy man on the radio is making me do strange things...and the scary thing is that it all seems to be working so far!

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    May 29, 07

    Back to workout roots...

    Dave Ramsey is making me crazy!
    Getting a hold of my monthly budget has been a bit akin to taming a bucking bronco, but i've been finding that whittling things down bite by bite has been more effective than i would've thought. My cable tv service will be shut off at the end of this month for a $30 savings (keeping the high speed cable internet! no way i can sacrifice that!!) - i've vowed to terminate my subscription to Audible.com, much to the literary dismay of my iPod ($24/month) - Starbucks is pretty much a pipe dream at this point for my daily caffeine boost (wow - i think i was spending upwards of $70-$100 monthly just for cups of coffee at my neighborhood cafe!) - and now, my latest bit of budgetary surgery involves terminating my gym membership for another $60 monthly savings.

    Don't get me wrong - i actually love going to the gym, especially the one that's as nice as ours. i have no plans to let my body go to rot, after having worked so hard over a number of years to get it in shape - instead, i'm returning to my workout roots by resurrecting my home gym.

    Out of clothes drying duty, back to burning muscle!

    A brand new chinup bar for my favorite new workout

    Lately i've been finding that my workouts have been simplified somewhat - a good chinup routine seems to take care of a lot of upper-body stuff in one fell swoop. Weights have been more a nuisance at the gym, given that there's either a shortage of benches or weight-appropriate dumbells, sometimes both. The fitness machines are always mobbed and sometimes more time has been wasted waiting my turn than actually using them. (Yeah, this is my attempt to find things to whine about so that my departure from the gym will be somewhat less painful...)

    I'll really miss the treadmill runs where i can park my video iPod to watch episodes of "Heroes" or "Battlestar Galactica" to pass the time...and i'll miss the wonderful sauna and hot whirlpool! But the budget bronco is calling for all hands on deck to tame the wild dollars in any way possible, so it's hard to justify a weight lifting workout at the gym when i have all the equipment i need right at home, or a treadmill run when the neighborhood is so beautiful to jog through.

    Actually, it's nice not to have to listen to my music through tinny sports headphones from my iPod now - since the home gym is in the basement where my Windows Media PC is located, i can just dial up that wonderful internet radio site Pandora and listen to a custom music blend through decent speakers! My cheap weights aren't as quick and easy to change as the professional ones at the gym, but at least i don't have to wait in line to move between exercises now. I just hope i can get back to the routine of outdoor running after so many years of indoor treadmills...

    Here's to Mr. Ramsey and my attempt to keep in shape - on the cheap!

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    May 04, 07

    Murphy visits the debt snowball again

    Sigh...this time, Murphy's visit came in the form of a "check engine" light in my minivan, with repairs singing to the tune of $1006...YEOUCH!!!

    (that total is actually a combination of the $700 repair costs for the spark plugs and ignition coils/wires, a $130+ freon recharge for the air conditioner, and a long-overdue $24 oil change, along with all the requisite taxes...)

    Oh well, i guess all that work with the Philadelphia Orchestra for the viola and violin auditions will be funding my brand new spark plugs. Yay.

    On a more positive note, i feel like i'm actually getting better with the whole budget thing - Quicken is a terrific tool for tracking and categorizing expenses! The third of six debts should be wiped out this month, and hopefully even after the car repairs there will be enough leftover to take a big chunk out of debt #4...so despite the big speedbumps, it looks like the snowball is rolling along nicely! I'm trying that cash envelope system for certain expenses, and it definitely makes a big difference (paying with cash hurts so much more than swiping plastic!)

    Funny, no more sudden overdrafts on my checking account...amazing what having a monthly (or in my case, weekly) budget does to keep those dollars tamed from flying every which way!

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    April 19, 07

    Tech on a Budget: Freebie Roundup for Musicians

    Being committed to working down my debts a la Dave Ramsey's "Debt Snowball" plan has me more sensitive than ever to the costs of tech-related items. A huge help to defraying major software expenses is the availability of open-source programs that are completely free and quite often come very close to rivaling the quality of their commercial counterparts.

    A few weeks ago, Download.com (a part of the CNet tech family) ran a 2-part blog article offering a terrific set of open-source alternatives to some heavy-hitting graphics programs like Adobe's Photoshop, Illustrator, and Acrobat for document publishing. While the blog itself was a terrific resource, the deluge of comments was an even bigger goldmine of open-source favorites covering a plethora of functions. I took some time to mine the offerings and pare down the list to a number of programs that a musician might find most beneficial:

  • Audacity, the open-source audio editor, was mentioned several times as a favorite. I find myself coming back to this program over and over for so many of my audio recording and editing tasks - highly recommended!


  • Another commenter was raving about another audio recorder, MP3myMP3. It's supposed to be able to record audio from any source - ie, if you can hear it coming out of your sound card, chances are you can record it with MP3myMP3 and convert it to either MP3 or WAV files.


  • Lilypond is a pretty heady music notation program. I haven't actually used this program myself, but apparently Lilypond operates with an ASCII text interface. Check out this syntax example:



    Not for the faint of heart, but potentially very powerful, with publisher-quality manuscripts - and it's hard to beat free!


  • OpenSebJ is an audio sample mixing program. The commenter points out similarities to programs like Apple's Garage Band or Acid, but it also has video playback/trigger features similar to VJ programs like Arkaos or Resolume. There are even 'scratch' and pitch shift capabilities - sounds like a great tool for your next club gig!


  • Ever wanted to slow down a recording without distorting the pitch? BestPractice, an open source audio time-stretching tool, claims to be able to do that - as well as changing the pitch of a recording without affecting the speed! Sounds like a fantastic practice tool for all you Music-Minus-One fans!


  • This wasn't on the Download.com blog, but i thought i'd add this freebie for good measure: Cantabile Lite is a nice little VST host, MIDI recorder/sequencer, and audio recorder all bundled into one. VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology, which enables the use of software based musical instruments or musical effects. Before Pianoteq came out with their standalone version 2.0, i used Cantabile Lite to run the Pianoteq VST. Small, simple, and zippy performance - and best of all, free!


  • Most notably missing is a more 'full-fledged' open source MIDI sequencer/editor. I found a few half-baked projects online like Jazz++ and Alacrity, but nothing in the Windows platform that comes close to approaching the power of Rosegarden for the Linux operating system. Makes me think i need to get Linux installed in one of my Tablet PC's...

    Drop me a line if you have any other great open source software suggestions for musicians!



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    April 12, 07

    Spring Break on a Budget: Archery

    With my new commitment to Dave Ramsey's "Debt Snowball" plan, we're not going on any unplanned or unbudgeted excursions anymore. Unfortunately, that can be easier said than done when you have a house full of 3 very bored boys who are on Spring Break (too bad Curtis' Spring Break and the public school's break can't coincide...) Video games and TV only go so far - so to help break up the monotony of cabin fever, i've been spending some time teaching the boys archery.

    For folks who have known me for years, they've noticed a pattern of obsessive hobbies that usually come and go in 2-3 year cycles. At one time, it was woodworking - another time, it was an obsession with baking and learning how to come up with the perfect loaf of handmade breads - archery happens to be one of my earliest obsessions, which took hold of me when i was still a teenager living at home. A mysterious impulse swept over me completely out of the blue - the desire to shoot a bow and arrow (maybe from all the paper and dice Role Playing Games i played?). I rushed to the local library and took out all the books i could find on the subject. I scoured the yellow pages (remember, kiddies, this was back in the Dark Ages before Google!) for Archery Shops and found one about an hour's drive away, where i got equipped and started taking weekly lessons. My first bow was a light recurve bow - after i got married, i happened upon another archery shop during one of my concert tours and picked up a nice junior compound bow. At one point i was shooting every single day - there is a powerful, meditative quality that comes with archery, as you need to control your breathing and focus all your concentration upon a single point in order to shoot with consistent form and accuracy.

    Well, that obsession came...and went. Life became incredibly busy, particularly after moving into the city for a number of years. I would try shooting at my parents' farm in upstate PA, but our trips there were too infrequent to keep me in shape. When we finally purchased the house we're living in now, i brought all my archery equipment with me in hopes that i could set up a little shooting range in the backyard. Sadly, the bows and quivers just hung on hooks in the garage, slowly gathering dust...

    ...Until this week. As i was wracking my brain trying to come up with a fun, cheap activity (ie: FREE), the bows in the garage called out to me. It must be close to 8 years since i pulled a bowstring! I rounded up the boys and announced that our archery lessons were about to begin. Paul had some archery experience from his gym class, so he was comfortable with the idea. Timmy was excited without really knowing why - Eric, surprisingly, was very timid, as he was afraid of either getting hurt or inflicting damage...but once we got started, we all had a terrific time!

    Timmy taking aim with bow and arrow

    We set up an empty cardboard box filled with plastic bags as our target, strung up between two trees. The elasticity of the plastic bags help to stop the arrows from going through the cardboard. Timmy's main goal was to pull the bowstring hard enough to get the arrows to stick into the box!

    Timmy learns the correct way to pull out an arrow

    Once Eric got the hang of the proper form and safety rules for shooting, he really got into the swing of it and became the most enthusiastic archer of the group:

    Eric shows a nice archer's stance

    Paul revealed a knack for archery - he has terrific aim, and was able to hit the target pretty consistently from the full length of the yard.

    Paul has terrific aim - a real natural!

    Feels great to be shooting again - especially as a family activity with the boys!

    Dad takes his turn shooting

    For a full picture gallery of our archery shoot, click here. It's nice to see that sometimes the best 'vacations' don't cost a penny!



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    April 05, 07

    Fiscal Nibbles and a Tech Disaster

    It's uncanny how similar being on a budget is to being on a diet. It's also eye-opening to see how quickly little things add up in both fiscal and nutritional aspects. When i committed to my crash diet as mentioned in my earlier post, i became obsessed with counting calories. I never considered myself to be a glutton at mealtime, but i was completely shocked to find that most of my calories weren't coming from big steaks or buttery sauces - rather, i was piling them on with the extra packets of sugar going into my coffee, or in the bag of potato chips, or that extra bottle of soda! Little snacks, accumulated over time, made for a very fat Hugh.

    My new personal budget is revealing similar trends, where little expenses quickly become the piranhas of my overall fiscal body. One area i'm hoping to reign in some significant savings is in the daily meal and coffee expenses.

    Behold, the power of the lunch bag!

    My new debt fighting weapon:  the mighty lunch bag!

    The plastic container holds a yummy, cheap-to-make treat: Onigiri, a japanese rice cake of sorts.

    Onigiri, a tasty - and cost effective - lunch meal

    You can buy these nice packets of Onigiri seasoning - add a few sprinkles to a pot of cooked rice, combine with some chopped meats or vegetables, press into a special plastic mold to shape the cake, and add a piece of roasted seaweed laver to the bottom (this serves as a yummy 'holder' for the cake). Super cheap, and really yummy!

    As much as i love my fix of Starbucks, i'm afraid i'm going to have to go on a coffee hiatus of sorts - instead, i'll be drinking these super economical korean instant coffee packets, where dried coffee is combined with a pre-measured amount of sugar and creamer. Add hot water and each packet makes a small cup of coffee. It takes at least 10 or 15 of these to equal one tall house blend of Starbucks. Also in my new beverage list will be green, Breakfast and Earl Grey teas:

    Instant coffee, Green, Breakfast and Earl Grey Teas

    I estimate that by bringing my lunch to work instead of buying a sandwich, drink, and 2 or 3 cups of coffee, i'll be saving at least $10 a day - that adds up pretty quickly!

    On a horrific, debt-rattling note, i'm pretty upset to report a mini-crisis: Inara, my brand new, beautiful Fujitsu ST5032D Tablet PC, now has a cracked screen -

    My beautiful Inara is now a blemished Tablet PC...

    The screen protector seems to be holding the glass safely in place for now, and the pen functions are unaffected - computer is running normally, aside from sporting that horrible blemish. I was propping Inara on my makeshift bookstand while i was working on my Roland RD-700SX digital piano. Timmy came into the room and wanted to have a piano lesson, as he absolutely loves playing on the Roland.

    Timmy loves playing on the Roland RD-700SX digital piano

    After his lesson, i was getting some paperwork done and focusing my attention on Zoe, my Gateway Tablet PC. Timmy, in the meantime, wanted to continue practicing on his own, so he tried to prop up the music - and inadvertently pushed Inara back, causing her to tumble and...well, suffice to say Daddy was extremely unhappy, and Timmy was bawling apologies with tears gushing down his face. Kyungmi tried sending him off to bed while i stewed over the damage, but poor Timmy couldn't stop crying and feeling terrible about what happened. He came back to the room to apologize again and again, and received lots of hugs and forgiveness from me for an innocent accident. I made sure he spent some more time on the digital piano again right after that, lest he develop a weird phobia for playing digital pianos out of fear of breaking something else.

    Dave Ramsey had an insightful line in his book, The Total Money Makeover, where he pointed out that God sometimes tests your resolve right in the beginning of your commitment to eliminate debt. This certainly qualifies as a frustrating test - but also as a good goal to push me to get this debt thing eliminated once and for all as fast as possible, so that i can afford to get Inara fixed up and looking good as new!

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    Welcome!

    Thank you for visiting this site! I hope you'll find this to be a friendly place to learn about and discuss the fascinating technologies available for the Classical Musician. A great place to get started is with the ongoing "Getting Started" series. Remember, the worst questions are the ones you never ask, so feel free to email me!

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