2002 Ford F150 – Maintenance & Nostalgia

“Big Red”

My earliest memory of working on a vehicle was sometime in mid-1980s, my father had a Chevy K5 Blazer, red & white, and it needed new front shocks. I remember squatting on the garage floor, watching him jack up the vehicle, and get down to business. It was amazing to see all the nuts and bolts that held a vehicle together.

As I got older, the bug to work on cars was not as strong. Grade school, I was tagged as having a knack for mathematics and computers. I still like to take things apart, though. Old toasters, hairdryers, broken remote control toys, and the one item that every kid had access to, a 1940s or 1950’s era nitrous oxide anesthesia machine in my late grandfather’s dental office. The nitrous was long gone when my grand mother let me take the contraption apart.

In the early 2000s, we had a 1997 Dodge Ram 1500 pickup. It had been my father’s vehicle. We did a bit of maintenance on this vehicle – brakes and coolant. Shortly after this truck, we had a 1994 Mazda B4000, similarly, we did a bit of maintenance on this vehicle, like a new alternator and serpentine belt, an A/C reconditioning, as well as adding a trailer hitch mount.

In my youth, in the 1980s, there was a large amount of carryover from the brown malaise time of the mid to late 1970s. Look at any episode of 1970’s Kojak, and you will see exactly what I mean. Also as a kid in the 1980s, you did not think that seeing a Dodge Omni or Chevrolet Chevette was something interesting. In 2019, it’s a bit different. Along my way from young through being college aged, I had been a periodic car enthusiast. The occasional 1960s Corvette, or when, on a nice summer day, you would see a Chrysler E body from the early 1970s. Was it a Dodge Challenger or a Plymouth Barracuda? My father would have known, if he had been with me in the vehicle.

Today, I find myself being a bit more of an enthusiast. Seeing a Dodge Omni, or Chrysler K body car, in good shape, will result in me slowing down and maybe turn around to get a closer look. That sixth generation Monte Carlo SS next to me at a gas station will make me linger a bit after the pump clicks off. The owner of the car isn’t at the pump, and you haven’t seen him, but you know that he’s a guy, with larger gray hair, a mustache, and maybe cowboy boots. The longer gray haired, mustached man returns from paying cash for his gasoline, and you nod at him, the nod is letting him know, implicitly, that you know his car has an LS4 engine in it. It’s a fast, throaty sounding car, but he doesn’t tear ass out of the gas station, he just loudly rumbles away.

There is this appreciation for cars and trucks that I do not remember having when I was a teen or even in my early twenties. Maybe there’s a tinge of nostalgia now that I am nearly 40. The 1995 Dodge Stratus that my and sister I drove in high school could sport collector’s license plates here in Minnesota, if said vehicle was still in existence, that is. After my sister traded it on a 2001 Toyota Camry in 2002, I’m sure that dark green Stratus beats its way around on Minnesota’s Iron Range for a while, from single mom to single mom, landing with its final owner, a guy, who dated one of the single moms, who probably daily drove it to his night shift at one of the taconite mines. With 170,000 miles on the engine, it blew a head gasket. The car was parked on rural land, where it hasn’t run in 15 years, and now has a tree growing through it. But, I’m only guessing as to the fate of that vehicle.

Like those Chrysler JA platform sedans, the tenth generation F-series pickups, are kind of unremarkable. The tenth generation of F-series pickups was a modernist take on the ninth generation. Styling-wise, the tenth generation wanted nothing to do with its previous, squarish bodied previous generations. Like the many theories of epistemology which argue that external and absolute reality could impress itself, as it were, on an individual, as, for example, John Locke‘s empiricism, which saw the mind beginning as a tabula rasa, or a blank slate. Likewise, Ford really wanted a clean slate. New body styles, new features and options, even a new lineup of engines, and a new target buyer. Unlike previous generations, the tenth generation F-series, and specifically the F-150, was designed and built for personal use. Prior generations emphasized work. The tenth generation was meant for people like my father. That 1997 Dodge Ram, I mentioned earlier, that was my father’s vehicle before it came into my possession. He daily drove that vehicle 24 miles, one way, simply to park it at an office building, where it would sit all day because he had a white collar job. The Rams, and F-150s, and Silverados of the late 1990s can be thought of as the slippery slope of features that produced in today’s market, vehicles that amount to luxury pickups. Pickups that cost $60,000 or more. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with wanting a pickup, there is nothing wrong with wanting to own a pickup just to drive it, just to get you to work, work that is not at a construction site. My father liked having a seemingly big truck. Thirty-four inch tires that rubbed in the wheel wells. Aesthetically, it was a throw back to the 1970s — brown malaise.

In 1990, Ford developed a 4.6L V8 that shared certain parts amongst a family of related engines, collectively known as modular engines. Starting with the tenth generation of F-150s, in 1997, Ford made a 5.4L two valve, single over head cam (SOHC) engine available in the modular family.

Intake Manifold & More Removed from two valve Triton engine

Our particular F-150 has this engine. It was noted in WardsAuto, that Peter Dowding, Ford’s V8 Modular Engine Manager, took the modular V8 engine’s design from good in 1997, to superb for 2002. Starting with the eleventh generation, Ford introduced a three valve modular engine that used a strange two-piece spark plug. That turned into a huge mess. Even today, when someone who thinks they are in the know with light trucks, asks, Does that F-150 you got have one of those piece of shit Triton engines in it? They’re thinking the three valve version of the Triton, not the two valve.

People have opinions on a lot of things, including trucks. With opinions, ubiquitous access to information in this modern age we find ourselves in, this is the golden age for introverted shade tree mechanics, such as myself.

Late last fall, I noticed our F-150 was idling a little rough, and the idle RPMs seemed to be a bit low. By late-January (it’s late April as I write this), we noticed what looked like coolant dripping from the exhaust. This, by the way, is the wrong location to normally find engine coolant.

EGR valve

Earlier in January, while my friend Andy was in Minnesota, we had come to the conclusion that the rough, low RPM idle was likely an exhaust gas recirculation valve that was not functioning correctly. (For long time readers, this is the Andy that has appeared here, here, here, here, and probably in a few other posts from over the years). Was the coolant coming from the EGR valve? Turns out, not on the F-150s, it is possible on the diesel variants of the F-250 and above but not the F-150.

You might be asking what is an exhaust gas recirculation valve, what does it do, and why would this cause an engine to have a rough idle. EGR valves first made an appearance in the early 1970s as an attempt to reduce nitrous oxide emissions. This is done by recirculating (hence the name) exhaust back into the air intake. With an EGR valve that is malfunctioning and potentially stuck wide open, the incorrect mixture of exhaust gases, air and fuel is making its way into the combustion chamber. This still was not answering the question about why there was coolant at the backend of the truck.

Some might be thinking, it’s gotta be a head gasket. Checking the coolant overflow reservoir showed just coolant, and not a chocolate milkshake of coolant and oil that would have been a dead giveaway for a head gasket problem.

I turned to internet forums, it is the golden age for information of all kinds, after all. Internet forums that are specifically for owners and keepers of F-150s. As it turned out, there were a number of individuals with tenth generation F-150s, with mileage in the low six digits, that had a similar issue of finding coolant in the exhaust.

Damaged coolant crossover gasket

The culprit was a gasket between the upper intake manifold and the aluminum cylinder heads. In addition to providing air to all eight cylinders, the intake manifold contains a coolant crossover, allowing coolant to be circulated between to the two halves of the engine’s “V” shape.

The failed gasket (pictured above) was allowing a small amount of coolant to seep into the combustion chamber, and then, on that very cold day in late January, condense, again at the tailpipe, and drip.

Somewhere along the way to sleuthing out the issue, I got it stuck in my head that I was going to fix this myself. This is mostly a nod to my late father-in-law, the previous owner of the F-150. It was also a nod to his love of gasoline combustion engines. Nearly two years ago, he and I rebuilt and tuned the single cylinder engine on an 1985 Yamaha 225 ATV. I feel like keeping the F-150 maintained, keeps a tacit part of my father-in-law with us. He loved internal combustion. Particularly those small, one and two cylinder engines found on lawn mowers and yard tractors.

The F-150’s 5.4L, single overhead cam, two valve V8 is not a small engine. Initially, I thought of this engine as being just a jacked up version of a V-twin found on both our lawn tractors, or even a times-eight of the engine on a chainsaw. There’s more to it than just being a times-four or times-eight of those engines. For starters, the V8 is fuel injected, the V-twins and chainsaw engines are carbureted, the V8 has vacuum lines, the small engines do not, the V8 is water/coolant cooled, the small engines are air cooled. On a chainsaw, you generally do not have a battery, instead you have a magneto that is used to generate spark. On the V8 Triton, there are ignition coils that transform the relatively low voltage of the battery into thousands of volts needed to ignite the air and fuel mixture in the combustion chamber.

Underside of old intake manifold

Before tackling the project, I read the F-150 forums on what it would take to replace the intake manifold. One person said that he was: 1) not a certified mechanic; 2) it took him about six hours to do the work; 3) that six hours included a break for lunch. Other individuals said to take your time and set aside an entire weekend.

I figured it would take me a solid weekend to get this project completed. In total, the project took maybe 8 hours of solid work, but there were multiple-days of doing nothing on the vehicle because of waiting for parts or tools to arrive. There was also a snow storm in between starting and finishing the project.

Throttle body, removed

Following removal of the throttle body, and EGR valve, and what seemed like a million feet of vacuum hoses, I had to drain the coolant from the engine block. Why? Remember the previously mentioned coolant crossover? Yes, that; there is coolant in this and if you just removed the hoses from the crossover and then took the intake manifold off…you would end up with a load of coolant all over the place, including into cylinders.

Dirty, old spark plug

Before you can remove the intake manifold, you need to pull all the fuel injectors out of the intake manifold, as well as pulling out all eight ignition coils. It was around this point that the scope of the project expanded. I decided to replace all the rusting injectors, as well as all the ignition coils. At the last minute, I also decided to replace all the spark plugs. The alternator had to come off to get the old manifold out – thanks to Ford putting a massive set of baffles on the underside, you cannot just tip and slide that bad boy without the alternator getting into the way.

Fuel Injectors

With the surface of the heads cleaned and prepped, I started to reassemble the engine. New spark plugs – tightened; I know that the 3 valve Triton’s with their asinine two piece spark plugs are something to behold, how you remove and replace spark plugs on the two valve Triton is different from what I’m used to on small engines. On a V-Twin motor on a lawn mower, or a chainsaw, the plug or plugs are sort of just out there – it is easy to pop the wire off, and use a spark plug socket to your business. Even from what I recall of replacing spark plugs on our Mazda B4000, the plugs were out in the open. Not with this Triton V8, the plugs are effectively buried in the engine.

With the new plugs in, the intake manifold could go on. With the intake manifold on, the ignition coils could go in. With the ignition coils in, the new fuel injects could be installed and the fuel rails reconnected. I just worked backwards from how I had taken things apart. Alternator, throttle body, EGR valve, reconnect the millions of vacuum hoses, reattach with new clamps the coolant hoses, reinstall the drain plug in the engine block, reconnect the battery, and fill the coolant system with new fluid.

The moment of truth for whether I had put it back together correctly came roughly 10 days after I had started – remember, snow storm, ordering parts & tools, and having the general scope of the project expand.

It worked. First stop, gave it a little gas, and that was it. No misfires, or problems. Could I have had someone else do all this work in less time, without having to buy tools, yes, definitely. The crux of the project was never to save money – I may have, if you exclude time-cost – the point of the project was a tacit nod at my late father-in-law, as well as being able to say I did something with this vehicle.

2005 GMC Savana 1500 Mirror Change

It was a short but extreme feeling winter here in St. Paul. We really did not get snow until sometime in December or was it January, and this was followed by week or so of extreme (for the Twin Cities) cold. Then, throughout February, we received snow; a lot of snow. The vernal equinox was nearly a month ago, and we had been having progressively warmer days, longer amounts daylight, as well. The Mississippi River in Lower Town St. Paul, went over its banks last week and since started to go down.

Often times in Minnesota and the rest of the Upper Midwest, we get these last hurrah snowstorms. Earlier this week, we received one such snowstorm.

Up until the snowstorm earlier this week, I had been working on our 2002 F150. It’s parked at the top of our driveway, in front of the garage. At the moment, it is immovable. The intake manifold has a coolant crossover, and there was a gasket that sits between the aluminum intake surface and the plastic/polymer manifold. The gasket was not sealing correctly, and a very small amount of coolant was making its way into the combustion chamber and subsequently out the exhaust. The intake manifold, vacuum hoses, alternator, injectors, ignition coils and a host of other parts are detached at the moment. I will possibly write about this adventure at a later date. The main point is that the pickup is nearly in the way for getting the GMC Savana Hound Hauler parked on the parking pad in front of our fence.

Needing to move the Savana, and in an attempt to not hit the F150, I backed up and turned away from the pickup. On the passenger side of the van, is a row of trees and brush. Not bothering to clear off the recent snow from the van, I figured, I’ve got this. I got too close to the trees and tore the passenger side rearview mirror off.

The last time we looked into replacement mirrors for this ride, we were shocked to see mirrors with power adjustment were averaging a couple hundred dollars. Not this time, when I looked on Amazon, I was surprised to find one for about $45.

Zip ties to secure the broken mirror in the mean time. Plastic shroud removed, exposing retention nuts.

The mirror unit is relatively straight forward to replace. I used a 10mm socket with an extension to remove the three retention bolts located behind a plastic shroud. There is a fairly short, but very helpful video on Youtube that explains what needs to be removed from the door to get at the wiring harness. The Houndmobile is a conversion van, as such, there is a bit more junk in the way to get four or so pieces of plastic removed, but the process was basically the same.

Likely incomplete list of tools/materials:

  • 10 mm socket
  • Socket extension (2″ to 4″ should do)
  • Socket wrench
  • Phillips-head screwdriver (#2 for the majority of the screws)
  • Small Phillips-head screwdriver (#0 for the conversation van wood piece; likely unneeded if your van is stock)
  • Flat-head screwdriver for pushing plastic clips in to release
  • Steel or aluminum wire (think electric fence thickness wire)
  • Needle nose pliers to for pulling steel wire
  • Bandaids (I poked a finger with the steel wire)

Basically, remove plastic bits around the door handle until wiring harnesses are exposed. The white connector in the photo is the fellow you will need to disconnect. The mirror and associated wiring should just pull away from the vehicle.

To get the new wiring from the mirror to the connection point, I used a very stiff piece of steel wire, fishing this up to the top left where the mirror mounts. With a bit of jiggling, I was able to get the new mirror’s wiring pulled through and connected.

This was a fairly easy, maybe 45 minute project. I probably spent more time hunting for a tiny Phillips-head screwdriver for a piece of wood panelling that needed to be removed.

A Brief Summary of South Florida

Those individuals within my immediate circle of friends and family know of and are aware of a career move I made in mid-February. After finishing a masters degree in computer science at the end of 2017, I caught my breath, stepped back and took a moment to reflect on where I was at professionally. Over the course of 2018, I ruminated on whether now was the time to continue the academic push together further graduate studies in computer science, or if I should make a change with my career’s direction.

Ruling out doctoral studies, I started to look for open positions in the Twin Cities’ area, as well as entertaining discussions with technical recruiters.

After many interviewers, phone calls, and all the machinations involved, I received an offer for employment from the analytics wing of a large, publicly traded, renewable energy focused, electricity company. I accepted the offer.

And so, five weeks into my latest career move, I found myself in South Florida, visiting the corporate headquarters, and meetings coworkers who I had only seen and interacted with via video conferencing.

Jupiter Beach Resort & Hotel

As I told a few coworkers, I had never been to Florida. If you are a long term lurker of my musings on this blog, you will be aware of my global meanderings, but I had never been to Florida. The farthest south in the continental United States was South Carolina, and even then, I have only been to Lancaster, which is near the border with North Carolina.

When I arrived in West Palm Beach, Florida, the sun had not gone down, yet, and the weather was pleasant – in the mid-60s, light breeze, and more humidity than back home.

My preconceived notion was Florida entirely built from media accounts of events that I had taken notice of over the years, as well as a narrow thread of inputs from former coworkers who had, at one in their lives, live in South Florida. Publix grocery stores, garish cars & culture, Cuban sandwiches, stand your ground laws, and truck nuts were all things that I have associated with a Florida writ large.

Two hours north of Miami, along the coast, I found low key communities, snowbirds winding down their winter stays — looking forward to returning homes in states north, and open air restaurants. One of the most interesting things I found was architecture. It had a similar incorporation of outdoor and indoor spaces that made me think of the similar use of indoor and outdoors that is found in the Presidential Palace in Ho Chi Minh City. I encountered a few covered walkways here and there. There is no snow, but there is plenty of rain. Likewise, the majority of the street light poles and power poles were concrete, reminding me of Japan. Similar to Japan, Florida has to deal with massive storms with high winds.

Jupiter Beach

I’m certain that my three days in South Florida does not represent a meaningful sample of the place and people, but it was a pleasant place, with friendly people. There were Publix grocery stores, and I did shop at one. There were fancy cars, but the truck nuts must have been hidden.

Custom Front Receiver Mount for a 2002 F150 4×4

I have had the idea of a hitch receiver or even a winch mount for the front of our 2002 Ford F150 4×4, for quite a while. This idea became pretty strong. I would find myself, when I had a spare moment, sketching out on paper different possible layouts. Waffling back and forth on whether to incorporate a winch from the start, and incorporate a hitch receiver, or just go with a hitch receiver. Do I use the recovery hook mount points on the underside of the frame rails directly under and behind the bumper; or do I do something more drastic, and attempt to mount in the frame rails through the bumper — actually physically cutting through the bumper.

I opted for a non-invasive, no bumper modifications path. I removed the existing recovery hooks from the truck. As a side note, if you need to remove the recovery hooks on your 2002 F150, complete remove the bolts nearest the bumper, but simply loosen the rear bolts just enough to free the hooks. There is a captive nut rail inside the frame that would be a total time suck to get lined up again if those rear bolts were to be fully removed.

I realize that I could have just bought a front receiver mount, but what is the fun of that. If I exclude new tools and cutting wheels/discs that I had to purchase, this was a relatively inexpensive project.

Materials and Costs

The 2″x2″x1/4″ steel tubing was a Craigslist find. I bought 48 feet of the material for $150. Throw in maybe $15 for gas, it was a two hour, round trip, adventure to get the steel tubing. This project used 29″ of tubing. At roughly, $0.28 per inch, the center rail cost $8.30. The 3″x3″x1/2″ angle steel was free. I had originally found this in an outbuilding when we bought our property. It was roughly 48″ long when I found it. Over the last few years, I’ve sliced off a piece here and there for projects. There was a smidgen over 32″ left.

The weld on receiver hitch was about $16, the weld on recovery shackle mounts were purchased from a person on eBay for $25 (here is a very similar set from Amazon).

Total materials cost was around $50.

I used a 6013 welding electrode — because that is what I had on hand. The Jepson abrasive chop saw was something that I did not have, but was able to get it from a person on Craigslist for $35. Bimetal hole saws, a titanium coated metal drill bit, new abrasive cutting wheels, a 15 mm deep socket and 6″ extension all could have added to the overall cost of this project. However, I tend to think of these sorts of purchases as being amortized into the future. I will definitely get more use out of all these things on future projects.

Here’s a video that captures much of the work.

AutoCAD DXF for this project

There are still a few things that need to be done, but they can wait until spring: knock off the bits of weld splatter, grind and smooth the welds, and powder coat the entire assembly. Recovery shackles will also need to be added, too.

Musings on Starting and Managing an Investment Club

Introduction

In 2006, a member of my wife’s family started a family investment club, and this planted a seed of an idea in my brain.  It was shortly after this, that I decided to give an investment club, comprised of friends and associates, a try.

The investment club that I spearheaded, which began to be organized in the summer of 2006, and was officially kicked off, through a registration of the assumed named for the group with the State of Minnesota, in January of 2007.  The group was formed as a general partnership governed by the laws of Minnesota. Our checking account was with Minnesota-based bank (and continues to be with this company to this day).  There was also a business savings account and was opened as a place to put cash while the group figured out meeting cadence, general investment philosophy, and to build up enough money to make our first purchase of stock something of [subjective] significant value.  The brokerage we went with was a small firm in New York.  At the time, they had the lowest commissions at $6.95 per trade.

The investment club still exists and is quite active.

On to the musings and some nitty gritty things.

Group Governance

A lawyer-friend, who recently joined our group, was pleased to see that our operating agreement — the document that spells in dry terms how the group is to be operated – had a provision for both exiting the group voluntarily and exiting the group upon death.  There are other provisions that I feel were more instrumental in keeping the group together for over a decade, and these are the provisions that relate to disallowing loans from the group to members, provisions governing that if a member wants money from the group, that person must leave the group – there is no borrowing of money from the partnership allowed.  There is also a provision that governs the amount of time the group has for the return of an exiting member’s money that they are entitled to receive.  More on this, shortly.  As it has turned out, we treated and continue to treat our operating agreement a bit like a living document. We periodically update it through amendments to reflect how group is actually functioning. Much of this living document mentality is a reaction to how I saw other investment groups being managed.  This rigidity included votes on motions had to be in person, cash was collected at these in person meetings, and so on. 

The in person meeting requirement was in our original operating agreement, but when members started to move away from the home turf of northeastern Minnesota, it became apparent that we needed to update our documents that stated how the group was to function.  This was accomplished by amending our operating agreement to allow any and all business to be completed through email.  This was instrumental in allowing an adoption of no longer having members physically located near one another.

When a member wants to call it quits and exit being apart of the group, there is a requirement to provide in writing – email is allowed, of course – at least 30 days prior to when the member wishes to officially leave the group. In addition, the group has up to one year plus a day to return the exited member’s money.  This exceptionally long time that is allowed for the return of moneys was originally thought of as a way to keep the group financially stable. With five original members, each with 20% ownership of the group, it was seen as being potentially catastrophic for the group to need to sell a significant investment simply to quickly payout for a departing member.

This provision was cited by a person in the group as preventing them from exiting the group when this person was in need of money to repay a court fine.  It was also cited as a reason that this same member does not think or worry much about their ownership in the group — it is just out of arm’s length for them to touch it and feel that they could spend it on something.

In all, we have amended our operating agreement at least six times.  Aside from striking down the in-person meeting and voting requirements and opting for a more modern way of conducting business, after several years of operation, the original members had built up a tidy amount of money in the group.  Friends of members were interested in joining the group, but did not feel they could invest an equal amount to the original members. A compromise was thought up where members with a certain amount of money in the group would have a full vote on business matters, while others with an amount of money lower than this amount, would receive one half vote.  This amount is calculated first by finding the following ratio: one divided by two times the number of votes in the group.  Then multiply this ratio by the total value of the group’s portfolio.  Above this amount, people get a single vote on group matters, and below this value, people get a half vote.

This has normalized voting power.  For example, at some point in the group’s existence, we removed, through an amendment, the requirement for equal ownership amongst the members.   For example, if two people in group were to conspire with each other, and amass a significant ownership stake, the thinking was that they would have undue influence.  Instead, even if a person was to own 95% of the group, they would still only have one vote on group matters. Instead, someone with just over 5% ownership in the group would also have a single vote, while those falling under this percent, would have a half vote.  Without this normalizing, and bucketing of vote strength, it would be easy for one person to essentially take control of the group.

The group has two “official” leader positions, a Director, and Assistant Director.  The Director and Assistant Director are both elected positions.  There is no term length defined, however, if someone in the group feels that someone else should be in one of these roles, they can call for an election by way a motion, and recommend a person for the position.

Within the operating agreement, we have different levels of agreement.  We have a simple majority in the affirmative for an action – this is simply over 50% are in agreement.  We have a supramajority vote that is defined as over 66% are in agreement.  We also have a vote classification that requires an agreement of 100%.  General actions like buying 10th anniversary custom coffee mugs required a majority vote.  The action to buy or sell an investment position requires a supramajority vote in the affirmative.

Since the group has all of its business conducted through electronic means, it was important to capture “an official record” of communications and actions.  Since the beginning, the group has had a mailing list. When we adopted the amendments striking down requirements to physically meet, we also added provisions for keeping, maintaining, and making available to members all communications from the mailing list.

Monetary Contributions

We have no set contribution amount for members.  At one time, we did, but we eventually reached what we felt was a sufficient dollar amount in the group, and we removed that requirement.  In theory, someone could join the group, contribute nothing and still have a half vote on business matters. This has not been the case, however. We have two members, each with a half vote, that made one time contributions, and have contributed no other money.

How do monies make their way into the group’s accounts?  The majority of contributions are through direct deposit. 

One of the key takeaways from my wife’s family’s investment club and the one that I started was automate as much as possible with regard to contributions.  Handling of actual money and having to make regular trips to the bank, when that is not something that you might normally do, is time consuming.  With members now spread all over the eastern half of Minnesota (and one beyond), physical collection would be too burdensome.

Bookkeeping

We use spreadsheets.  Our general accounting calendar is on a six month period. January 1 and July 1, mark the starts and ends of terms.  At the start of a new term, the portfolio’s value and any cash held in the saving and checking accounts is added up, the regular contributions from the members are verified, and a percent and dollar ownership value is calculated for each person.  This gets carried over to the next term, and is used as a way to gauge that next term’s gain or loss.

At the end of each calendar year, I generally write A Year in Review newsletter. It contains my general thoughts on the previous year’s investments for the group, as well as any administrative things that I see coming in the next year — such as people who have expressed interested in joining the group.  January, by the way, is when we admit new members. It means no new tax related things until the following year, and it gives the new person time to settle into the group’s ways of communication. The newsletter is definitely not up to the Warren Buffett level of musings, but it’s an attempt, at a macro level, to communicate where I see the group heading.  Each member’s newsletter, in the introduction section of the letter, has a personalized summary of how much their ownership in the group is worth, and how much of the group they own.

The one issue with bookkeeping in this six month rolling time frame, is that most of the information you are able to give members is out of date.  If a member is used to being able to log into their Fidelity Investment account, and get a daily snapshot of their mutual fund holdings, the method that we use is sadly lacking.  The timeframe of six months could be brought down to a finer grained span of time, but the disparate accounts (checking separate from the brokerage firm) makes it so there is limited cross visibility.  There are programmatic means, like Plaid, but this service does not provide the who a deposit was made on behalf of, you just know that a $25 deposit came from the University of Minnesota and was made into the account.  When you have four people in the group who all work at the University, this is not a helpful bit of information.

Likewise with being cumbersome, the brokerage does not have programmatic access to accounts. 

The group has a domain name and some hosting space/services that are used for the communications archive, in searchable form, available to members, as well as enough information to give members an end of day snapshot of where the group’s portfolio sits.

Takeaways

At least for a time, consider treating the money as throwaway money.  It is not say that you only make moonshot investment choices or put all of the money into a Canadian penny stock, think of the money as being unavailable to use for other things, as well as initially not thinking of this as a retirement account, was important in the early days.  It has also been important to make withdrawing completely from the group a very long process. It helped shape people’s mind in thinking the money was too troublesome to easily get at when there was an impulse to quickly get money.

Make contributing as frictionless as possible.  Direct deposit or any other no to very low cost way to moving money into the group has really helped with people just setting it, and forgetting it.

Make communication and decision making as frictionless as possible.  You still want checks and balances (e.g. 66% approval on making a money decision), but you want communication to be easy, and facilitate discussions.  It could be a mailing list, it could be a Google Group, it could be a Facebook group, or other thing that allows clear communication. Requiring each member to say in an email, “Yes” or “No” on a given action can help to eliminate uncertainty when coming to making actions.

Be open to investment ideas from all, discuss, learn, and develop a general group philosophy.  Maybe that means, you trend toward growth stocks, or maybe more toward value stocks.