The New American Experience

It’s taken me awhile to collect my thoughts since November 8. I have an acquaintance who reaches out to me now and then, for support and occasional big-sisterly guidance. She’s a lovely, caring and intelligent young black woman living in a metropolis far away from her family. The past few years have been difficult for her, as our country has seen escalating brutality (or is it simply increased coverage of the violence?)  against people of color, as well as a persistent systemic indifference to the loss of black lives. Even as she works hard to achieve her dreams and live a life of meaning, she is bombarded with imagery and messages that contradict what she knows to be true about the essential value and goodness of herself and her loved ones. Fear and oppression create a constant undercurrent to her daily activities.

She contacted me after the election. “Is this really happening?” she asked, “What do I do?

She asked me to write about it. I’ve taken that charge seriously, even as I marvel at the irony: How can I, a white woman in my 40’s, advise a young black woman about navigating the American experience post-election in 2016? I’ve heard many white people’s advice to black people about staying safe in police encounters: “Be respectful. Be polite. You won’t get hurt if you just follow instructions.” The trouble with that advice is that it doesn’t work for people of color. Philando Castile couldn’t have been more respectful and docile when asked for his identification, and he still ended up dead, murdered in front of a child. There isn’t a more submissive posture than kneeling with your head bowed, and still, Colin Kaepernick is getting death threats for exercising his 1st Amendment right to express his opinion. There is no amount of submission that guarantees a person of color safety in the presence of a white person’s fear. And our current political and social climate has intensified that reality by orders of magnitude.

As a woman, I’m frightened enough for myself. My husband is big and strong,  but he also has black hair and brown eyes, and skin the color of a perfect latte, and for the first time since I’ve known him, I’m genuinely afraid for his safety. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be black, or to be (or look, whatever that means) Muslim, or gay, or to be an immigrant to this country, documented or not. Because when riled-up white dudes go looking to smash someone, they don’t stop and ask for papers.

But afraid and overwhelmed of people never triumph. The people who navigate adversity successfully, even during the most terrifying of times, are those who are able to steady their nerves, clear their heads, and take action. And so that’s what I’ve spent the past couple of weeks considering. There are some clear and astute writings out there offering instruction on how to resist the oppression that threatens to accompany the incoming regime, so I won’t try and and re-invent those ideas, but here’s what I want to share with my young friend, and with anyone who cares to know my thoughts:

  1. Stay Safe and Healthy. It’s more important than ever for people who feel vulnerable or targeted to ensure our physical safety first. It’s unfair and oppressive, but we can’t change the world if we’re dead, so be extra careful about where you go, how you go, and with whom. Get off your phone and stay alert to your surroundings. Gas stations, parking lots and bus stops seem to be popular places for troublemakers to target individuals, so be extra mindful being alone in those places. And we all need to take action to maintain our physical and psychological health, including good nutrition, regular exercise and social engagement, staying hydrated and sleeping. If you’re currently insured, especially through the Affordable Care Act, get your check-ups and glasses and dental exams and whatever else you may have been putting off before December 31, because the healthcare landscape is facing some potentially drastic changes. Those probably won’t happen in 2017, but why take chances? Make the appointments now.
  2. Stop being Incredulous. Really. Right now, make a decision to never let the words “I can’t believe it” leave your lips again. It’s happening. It’s real. Accept this reality and position yourself accordingly.
  3. Boost Your Signal-to-Noise Ratio. Gather facts, not opinions. Mind your news sources, and check the source and the date of any article you see on social media before you read or share it. Edit your feed, and start to hide, unfollow, or block sources of misinformation or fear-mongering. We already know it’s bad. We need to know exactly what is happening, and what we can do about it. Also, stop arguing with people on social media. If anyone’s mind is to be changed at this point, that will happen through experience and example, not because someone in a comment thread told them to think differently. And subscribe to print media. The free press is already dying, and we need to support it.
  4. Determine Your Priorities. The Dakota pipeline, the rise of the white supremacy movement known as the alt-right, the 700+ (and growing) hate crimes that have been committed since the election, for-profit prisons, women’s health care, voter suppression, attacks on immigrants, climate change, for-profit prisons and the militarization of police…. the list goes on. Trying to address everything all at once could lead to doing nothing at all. Pick an issue, or your top 2 or three, and focus. Trust that other people will do the same for the issues that speak to them the most.
  5. Ask Before Helping. If you really care about something that you aren’t directly part of, inquire before jumping in to help, because they might need something other than what you assume. Or they might need it later, because everyone is trying to help right now, and they’re overrun.
  6. Take an Action (or Two) Daily. Once you have determined your priorities, and inquired as to what might be most helpful. Do one or two things every day to effect change or offer support. Call one legislator. Make a donation. Sign up for training to escort women to medical clinics. Offer to accompany your friend or neighbor  who feels vulnerable to the grocery store, or to pick up a few things for them while you are out. Do what you can, in small doses, as a daily practice.
  7. If You Feel Called to Protest, Learn How to Do it Safely. Don’t just show up with your pithy poster board and flip-flops. Read up on what you need to do to prepare for the physical and possibly legal discomfort you’re signing up for.
  8. Cultivate Joy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Holocaust survivors I’ve had the privilege of meeting in person, it’s that happiness is a discipline that must be practiced daily, regardless of circumstance. Your misery will not alleviate the suffering of others, but your joy can serve as a beacon to attract others into your circle. You are alive, and younger than you will ever be again. Don’t waste it.

Lastly, my husband and I had a long talk this past weekend about the dangers of conflating “conservatives” with whatever we’re going to end up calling the phenomenon of hatred that is overtaking popular discourse at the moment. We agreed that it’s more important than ever to listen carefully and gather all the facts before taking action of any kind. Responding to headlines, stereotypes, or appearances is what got us into this mess. It certainly won’t be what gets us out of it.

Can Two Live as Cheaply as One? The Final Update (or, “When Our Only Job Imploded”)

Welp, we finally called it: After six months in a row of spending more than we brought in, Mr. Vega got a part-time at our favorite grocery store. That few hundred dollars a month goes a long way, and his employee discount has also helped to lower our grocery expenses. Most importantly, he loves his job, his co-workers and customers, and even after spending 8 hours on his feet, he comes home happy and energized. What a far cry from his previous career in high-pressure sales, which caused him constant stress and anxiety! 

I think that what we were really trying to do should have been called “Can Two Live as Cheaply as One Under-Earner?” because the significant pay-cut that I took in order to work a “full-time with benefits” job sure didn’t help the situation any! What we’re doing now could be categorized as “Two can Live as Cheaply as One and a Half,” which seems appropriate to our Post-Recession 21st Century economic climate. 

Over the past several months, there were some radical changes in my previous employer’s company culture. I tried my best to adapt, becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the changes mounted. But with Mr. Vega in school full time (and doing very well, I might add!), the pressure of being the sole earner in our household had me feeling somewhat trapped. And I was reluctant to leave the group of truly remarkable people I worked with each day… It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve made some friendships there that will be lifelong. 

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First Day of School!

Eventually, though, I came to accept that working where I felt that I was being treated unfairly was taking too great a toll on my health and relationships. On the day I tendered my resignation, so did my direct supervisor and about 1/4 of my colleagues! I’m not wishing the company any ill will, but it was validating to see so many people make the same decision I did. That was a rough week at our little hippie house, made rougher still by the reality that I had just walked away from our only steady income and our health insurance. 

We went to www.healthcare.gov and selected a gold-level plan that would be accepted by most of our preferred providers, and that would give us an amount of coverage we felt comfortable with. It isn’t cheap, but it is something we believe to be more important than many other expenditures that we consider optional.

Throughout my career, whenever I have taken the leap of faith to leave an unhealthy job that I thought I “needed,” luck has been on my side, employment-wise, and this time was no exception: Two of my part-time jobs suddenly had a greater need for my services, and I was all too happy to oblige. One of them also instituted an across-the-board pay raise, the first in eight years. Those two jobs gave me enough work for the Fall that I didn’t have to look anywhere else. Because the work is at colleges, and employment during school breaks can be scarce in my field, we revived our practice of re-distributing that income by putting 1/3 of each school check into a “Summer Fund.”  While that makes for a little less spending money now, it also means that we won’t be scrambling to pay the bills later. 

While your mileage may vary, our takeaway lessons from our year of living on a single (reduced) income are these:

  • The Emergency Fund is Everything: although we were able to manage on one income during “normal months,” the unexpected expenses would have sent us deeply into debt if we hadn’t had any savings. Fortunately, all that saving we had done in the past kept us afloat when things got difficult, and we are now able to add to and rebuild the fund.
  • “Normal” Months are Pretty Rare: One month it was a tax bill that we hadn’t forecasted accurately, another was an large medical co-pay, and then there were car repairs and home repairs to be made. As one of my favorite old radio commercials used to say “Expect the Unexpected.”
  • Equitable Division of Labor Keeps us Healthier and Happier: While Mr. Vega was very willing to take on all of the housework duties, and I was very willing to shoulder all of the responsibility for earning money, dividing things up that way made us miserable! He is an extrovert who thrives on human contact, so that much time at home wasn’t good for him. Conversely, I am more introverted and truly enjoy homemaking, and being gone for so long each day left me too little time to enjoy the home we worked so hard to buy. Our current arrangement allows him more time around people, and gives me more time at home, making us each much happier with how our days are spent.
  • Be Willing to Seek Help: My husband has a diagnosed learning disability that qualifies him for assistance with his post-secondary education through our state’s department of Vocational Rehabilitation. When we made the decision for him to return to school and pursue a different career,  we knew we could afford tuition, but we didn’t anticipate just how much his textbooks and welding equipment would cost. His willingness to explore the support available to him is allowing us to remain debt-free while he completes his degree. And because Texas is in desperate need of welders, they are happy to support his training in the field, making it a truly win-win situation.
  • Work Where you Spend, if you Can: Taking on a grocery store job saves us not only a small percentage on our grocery bill, but also an hour or two each week by eliminating that errand from our schedule. Two birds, one stone!
  • Underearning is as Stressful as Overspending: We are strong proponents of living as far below your means as possible. We avoid car payments by driving used, sub-compact cars, keep our computers and smartphones for as long as there is software available to support them, our house is half a century older and 1/3 the size of the average American home, and we have never taken a trip that wasn’t to visit family. We know that many people don’t have the option to seek higher-paying work, and are already working more hours than they should have to in order to make ends meet, and we are grateful to have the opportunities we do. And there are a few things like craft beer, high-quality shoes and occasional nights out that, while they are absolutely possible to live without, make us happier when we have them. So we’re willing to work a little more in order to keep those luxuries.

There are so many factors that go into deciding how a household operates best, and we are lucky to be able to experiment with different ways of doing things. It’s been a challenging year, but also an invaluable experience in learning more about ourselves and about what constitutes balance in our particular situation.

What lifestyle changes have you tried making? How did they work for you? 

Review: Your Playbook for Tough Times, by Donna Freedman

I first came across Donna Freedman’s writing nine years ago, when I stumbled on an article called “Surviving and Thriving on $12,00 a Year.” I was experiencing a personal Upheaval that year, and this brave woman’s proclamation to the world of how she planned to address her own unstable circumstances looked to me like a letter from a supportive friend: “Things may be bad now,” she seemed to say, “but we can make them better if we hang together.” I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights found me re-reading her article, just to know that I wasn’t alone. I’ve read pretty much everything she’s written since then, and played the at-home game of the financial tips and tricks she’s tried in her own life, and do you know what? Things DID get better. Little by little, I managed to pay off all my debt (twice! I’m a slow learner), begin to save, and eventually get to a place of peace regarding my finances. During that time, I met and married my husband and moved halfway across the country where we bought our first house together and figured out a way for him to quit his job and return to school full-time. I even got to meet Donna in person and share a couple of meals and good conversations with her when she came to our new home town of Austin, Texas… Something my scared and overwhelmed Past Self could never have imagined in 2007!

So when her book Your Playbook for Tough Times came out, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it! Fortunately, I didn’t have to: I was lucky enough to receive a copy to review. 

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One of the things that I have always loved about Donna’s outlook is her firm belief  that frugal living– even when things are at their tightest– doesn’t have to be miserable and that in fact, it can be quite lovely. Her book promises to show you what she’s learned about living on less whether you’re presently in dire straits, anticipating financial difficulties soon to come, or simply trying to squeeze the most out of your current lifestyle.

And she delivers on her promises in spades, with literally hundreds of solution-oriented tips, offering ways to find more budgetary breathing room that hit from all angles, such as how to earn more, how to spend less, and perhaps the most radical idea of all: how to live happily with less altogether.

The Great Recession of 2008 marked the beginning of an exciting time for the personal finance genre. Whereas historically, books on finance have been written by economists and titans of business, Post-Recession financial bloggers and authors are people from all walks of life,  sharing the daily unfoldment of their personal setbacks, life experiments, and successes. Donna Freedman is a shining example of this New Breed of personal finance writer: Just about everything she suggests in her book is something she has personally tried and found worthy of suggesting. Because learning the principles of real estate investing or restructuring corporations may be interesting, but sometimes, you just need someone to tell you how to keep your electricity on or make sure that your kids get dinner.

The book is an easy read, almost like an e-mail from a trusted friend. It’s peppered with personal anecdotes and loaded with concrete resources,  from money-saving websites to resources for healthcare and housing, to suggested scripts for negotiating better prices on purchases. If you need to streamline your financial situation today, this book can help you do it, because Donna has done a tremendous amount of thorough research for you so that all you have to do is get online or pick up the phone to start making your life better.

Overall, I think it’s a terrific resource for anyone looking to wrangle their financial situation into something more manageable. It’s the sort of book you’d want to keep around, so you can implement some of the suggestions and then come back for more once those have been mastered. And it would make a wonderful and sensitive gift for anyone facing some kind of financial upheaval.

The book is available as a paperback or an e-book, and over at Amazon, if you buy the paperback, you can get the Kindle version for $1.99, which makes it nice for sharing.

If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think… please come back and share in the comments!

 

Frugal Tuesday: Happy Hour Date Night

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Date Night isn’t just for married couples: BFF’s, creative partners, parents and children… just about any relationship can benefit from regularly scheduled fun time. I’ve got some friends that work non-traditional schedules that have had a standing coffee date on Fridays at noon for years. Around here, we try and shake off the work-week (and school-week) and reconnect with each other on Friday nights, before plunging into a weekend that may be filled with larger group activities, household chores, and homework.

When we can, we like to make it out early enough to catch a good Happy Hour somewhere… and in Austin, TX that’s not hard to do! Plenty of restaurants around here serve pared-down (but no less delicious) Happy Hour menus, and with careful selection, we can generally make a meal out of the offerings. Happy Hours also give us an opportunity to try new higher-end restaurants without the full commitment of dropping a day’s pay on a meal we might not enjoy!

You don’t have to drink alcohol to enjoy the food specials offered at local bars and restaurants, either. And other places like coffee shops and movie theatres have picked up on the concept with two-for-one afternoon coffees or twilight pricing at late afternoon movie times.

Whatever you’re into, consider going out before the sun goes down to spend time with someone you enjoy… when you can have all the fun for much less money!

Frugal Tuesday: Use the Scraps!

Not long ago, Mr. Vega spent some time screening in our back porch, and it came out beautifully. We used a heavy-duty pet-resistant screening on the bottom, because our cats sometimes get a little excited during their bird- and squirrel-watching time. The upper part of the porch was done with a less-expensive clear-view screening, and there was quite a bit of that left over when the project was completed.

When we bought the school bus that we’re converting into a recreational vehicle, we realized the same thing we already knew about the porch outside our house: the great outdoors is more pleasant without mosquitos in our immediate area!

Fortunately, my husband is pretty creative, and he figured out a way to create some removable window screens that we can mount inside of the open bus windows. Even more fortunately, our leftover screening was just the right amount for what we needed. A trip (okay, three) to the store my Cuban father in law calls “Home People” for framing material, and an afternoon of measuring, sawing, assembling, and splining yielded up  beautiful custom-made screens that will let us enjoy cooling cross-breezes in the bus without any pesky unwanted visitors.

With kitchen, bathroom and flooring projects in store for our little hippie house, we’re looking forward to using more leftover materials for the bus remodel as well.

When have you been able to use supplies left from one project to complete another?

Friday Focus: Creating Space

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Anniversary lilies.

Happy Friday! I hope it’s been a good week for you…. ours has been a flurry of work and cramming for summer midterms (which happen about once a week in summer school!). I don’t really know where the time has gone, and apparently my dislike of our busy-ness is reflected in my reading choices, because everything I’ve been drawn to is about slowing down and making room for what matters most:

Afford Anything posted a lovely piece last month about curating your life. I love the idea of carefully selecting what enters (and what stays) in our lives, as a way to avoid overwhelm.

An article at Be More With Less from last year addresses the how, of life curation, with  some creative and gentle suggestions for making cuts.

Wrapping up the theme, Mr. Money Moustache offers some less gentle but no less effective ways to make space for the badassity in your life.

Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to slow down a little bit this weekend, and put some of these ideas into practice!

Frugal Tuesday: Go Camping!

The weekend following Independence Day, we drove down to The gulf coast to help Burners Without Borders Corpus Christi do their annual beach cleanup and campout. In addition to about 150 Burning Man community members, who create a weekend “village”on the beach, complete with food, art, and entertainment, another 150 or so local residents pitched in with the Saturday cleanup to help remove about 4000 pounds of trash from the beach, most of it debris left by 4th of  July revelers.

It was our first outing in our bus, and there were a few other buses, RVs, and trailers present, but most people camped in tents. Overall it was a wonderful weekend, spent visiting with friends and making new ones, and other than the fuel to get there and the optional donation to help defray the event’s overhead costs, it hardly cost us anything.

It doesn’t have to be an organized event, but spending a couple nights under the stars makes for an inexpensive getaway. And sleeping in a screen-free environment  surrounded by fresh air is a sure way to smash some stress.

What are some of your favorite camping trips and tips?