Full-Time Work “Fail,” Personal Finance Win!

Last Tuesday was my final day of work at the full-time job I started seven and a half months ago. I did everything I could to make a go of it, but nine-hour days and the lack of autonomy inherent in a full-time position just isn’t for me, it seems.

Fortunately, we have our financial life arranged so that the hardest part of my decision has been saying goodbye to the co-workers I’ve come to love (and even that isn’t entirely true, as I’ll continue working there on an hourly basis). The money part isn’t so scary. Here’s why:

We have a fully funded emergency fund. Although we won’t have to use it, it’s comforting to know that we could maintain our lifestyle exactly as it is for a few months with zero income. Which, of course, we won’t have to. It took us nearly all of 2012 to get that money in the bank, but the peace of mind it brings is worth every hour of hard work we did to get it. We also maintain our hidden emergency funds, which go a long way when times get tight.

I had been unable to bring myself to actually quit any of my part-time gigs, so it’s going to be relatively easy to simply increase my work there, as well as in the freelance world. Doing occasional work for other employers has kept my options open, so although I am leaving a job, I am not unemployed. And although it would be uncomfortable, we have designed our lifestyle so that we could, if need be, live entirely on half of our income (I’m phrasing it this way on purpose: this was also something I did as a single person. Having a partner is lovely, but not a requirement for living beneath one’s means!).

We bought a house a couple of months ago, which could seem scary, except that we made sure to buy something we could afford, even if times got tight. Buying a small fixer-upper means that our house payment and utility bills aren’t much more than they were when we were in an apartment.

I know that we are fortunate to still have health benefits provided through Mr. Vega’s employer. Not everyone has that. But we have paid for our own insurance before, and have maintained a budget that could be arranged to do it again, if the need arose. It would mean giving up some luxuries, but first things always come first around here.

None of this has been easy: we like a night out as much as the next folks, and we’ve never had a “real vacation.” We’re happy that all of our relatives happen to live in vacation-worthy locales, but we haven’t visited as much as we would like to, because of our commitment to living debt-free and with a prudent reserve. There is so much more we’d like to do, and see, and have. But there is nothing we want enough to stay in jobs and situations that aren’t right for us… For that reason alone, the hard work and sacrifice has all been worth it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to start cooking the beans for tonight’s dinner…

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Battening Down the Hatches, Y’all

We received a letter this week from Mr. Vega’s employer, regarding medical benefit options in light of their upcoming corporate merger. There is quite a bit of uncertainty regarding how coverage will be handled, and they’ve made it clear that there will be employment redundancies. The bottom of the letter contained this lovely tidbit:

* If you are terminated, you may have rights to continue your FSA through “COBRA” (which we’ll explain more about if that becomes necessary), but you’ll do that on an after-tax basis, which is not advantageous for most.

This is the point in our program where we prepare for the worst, while continuing to hope for the best. All expenses must be questioned, and all unnecessary spending gets put on “pause” until our financial skies are clear again. Waiting to make changes until after a job loss could be devastating for us, both financially and emotionally: we could weather a transition much more gracefully if we were already prepared for it, rather than trying to make drastic lifestyle changes while also dealing with the psychological trauma that can accompany the loss of a job.

Fortuitously, I spent some time the other day creating a menu plan for November. I took my inspiration from The Prudent Homemaker, a full-time wife and homeschooling mother of seven children, who used their food storage as the basis for keeping her family cared-for during her husband’s eight-month period of unemployment. Using her seasonal menu as a template, and making adjustments for our smaller household, dietary preferences, and busy schedules, I put together a month-long plan for eating delicious and healthy meals that are also lower-cost. An unexpected benefit of meal planning is that it gets us out of our ruts, and reminds us to eat a greater variety of food. Left to my own devices, I’d eat Trader Joe’s whole wheat cinnamon rolls and a latte every. single. morning. But there’s a whole world of breakfast food out there, and writing it all down helps me remember how much I also love fresh fruit and Greek yogurt, oatmeal pancakes, and eggs scrambled ever so slowly.

As timing would have it, Mr. Vega’s 1991 Honda CR-X has reached the point where the annual repair costs are more than the value of the car itself. After running the numbers and weighing the pros and cons, we’ve decided to purchase a newer used vehicle. Counterintuitive as it may seem, we have enough in savings, and we’d rather buy a reliable car now than continue to pay for unforeseen repairs during a potential period of unemployment. And let’s face it, job interviews are stressful enough without worrying about whether your car will start to get you there, or having your air conditioning give up the ghost when it’s 90 degrees out!

Ironically, we do most of our shopping in anticipation of lean times, as that’s when we feel the need to stock up, in case we won’t be able to later. I dislike shopping so much that I generally don’t replace my clothes until they are threadbare, but I may look to upgrade my wardrobe a bit in the light of this merger uncertainty. I currently have just one pair of shoes that I wear for work, and I’d prefer to shop the sales now, rather than scrambling to get something cheap-but-appropriate if these give out during a time of hardship. This is also as good a time as any to start planning our spring garden so that we’ll be ready to plant our balcony container garden when the time comes. Fresh, homegrown food is lovely whatever one’s circumstances, but it’s especially wonderful to be able to get food from your garden instead of the market when money’s tight.

Because the merger threatens to leave us with reduced benefits even if we do keep the job, we’ll be sure to attend to our medical needs before the end of the year. We want to have healthy bodies, strong teeth, and brand-new pairs of eyeglasses that have been covered by insurance. One of us could use a new set of orthotics, as well. These are the sorts of things we should be doing anyway, but this new sense of urgency will make sure that we do.

Mr. Vega will indeed be updating his resume and LinkedIn profile and seeing what his options are, sooner rather than later. If his company’s merger results in widespread layoffs, the market will be flooded with folks looking for work, and we want to get the jump on the rest of the talent pool.  And because our household functions as a cooperative whole, it’s job-search time for everybody around here. So, while I do enjoy my part-time and freelance work, I also have two interviews scheduled this month for full-time positions that come with the all-important Benefits Package. Landing one of those would allow my husband to widen his job search to include less traditional opportunities, without worrying that we’d be left without medical coverage.

We’ll also be making a greater effort to keep up with our still-forming social and professional networks. We view “networking” as a way to cultivate and deepen authentic relationships, rather than as strictly transactional contact, and so it’s important to us that we spend some time with folks now, and not wait until we’re in need. Whether those connections result in professional opportunities or not, a robust social life will go a long way toward easing the stress of unemployment, if it happens.

We are very lucky to have moved to a city with so much free and inexpensive fun. There’s almost never a cover charge for live music (and when there is, it is oh-so-worth-it), there are plenty of festivals and activities happening all the time everywhere around here, so it will be easy to keep our spirits up and hang out with our new friends at bargain basement prices. We’ve got a couple of social buying vouchers hanging around for inexpensive dinners and movie nights, and we’re looking forward to hosting some game nights at home, as well. It’s good to have a little fun once in a while, especially during periods of increased stress or uncertainty.

We were already planning on keeping things low-key this year, but we’re still going to need to rethink the holidays. We generally do home-made, consumable gifts for everyone in our fairly large family and closest circle of friends, but this year’s gift idea is a bit pricier than usual. Not crazy expensive, but when you’re giving to a couple dozen people, it adds up quickly! We’re going to have to reconsider our gifting, and perhaps just send cards to everyone but family. We do feel blessed to have people around us who aren’t likely to feel slighted, though… material things mean much less to our loved ones– and to us!– than the actual relationships. A card means as much to all of us as a gift… especially if the giver is on a budget!

Closer to home, our own first holiday season in Austin will be spent exploring the city’s decorations, giving some of our time to help people who are currently less fortunate than we are, enjoying homemade seasonal goodies and free holiday movies, and video chatting with our faraway loved ones.

Once the merger has come and gone, we’ll be able to breathe our sighs of relief, and return to business as usual around here. If the layoffs don’t come, we might find ourselves on the other side of this with more stable, higher-paying jobs, closer relationships within our community, in better health, and with some more money in the bank. Sacrificing just a little comfort and convenience now, when we can afford to, seems like a small price to pay in exchange for the security of knowing that we could take care of ourselves in the event of a job loss.

How have you “battened down the hatches” when faced with uncertainty in the workplace or periods of unemployment? 

Work More, Earn More? Not Necessarily

A lttle over four months ago, Mr. Vega and I packed up a moving truck and left California for Texas, in pursuit of the American Dream. Real estate is cheaper here, we had read. Texas has no state income tax, and unemployment is lower, especially in Austin, our city of choice. What we didn’t quite plan for, however, is that while still much lower than in Southern California, the cost of living in Austin has increased dramatically over the past few years, and most incomes, including those in our fields of sales and service provision, haven’t kept pace. Our natural response was to kick into high gear at work, but we are coming to understand that working more doesn’t automatically mean earning more. Here are some things we’ve had to consider in our search for the sweet spot in our schedules:

In all freelance work, as in sales, it’s important to consider that opportunity cost is inherent in commitment. For every gig I accept, or every meeting Mr. Vega schedules, there will be others that we will miss. And while it’s unwise to try to keep one’s options so long that all the chances dry up, it’s generally a good idea to leave a little space in our schedules to take advantage of previously unforeseen opportunities. As a side benefit, rush jobs or last-minute gigs often come at a premium. In Los Angeles, same-day requests for service in my line of work are billed at a higher “emergency rate,” but that isn’t standard practice in Austin. What I’ve discovered as a freelancer is that, even though it’s out of the norm here, some clients are indeed willing to pay a 20% premium to have same-day service requests covered, and so I’ve gone against the grain and set my rates accordingly. In Mr. Vega’s line, the more urgently his customers need service, the more they’re willing to pay for it. If he were to schedule all his meetings three weeks out, he would run the risk of not being able to provide service to clients who need contracts signed today, so they can be up and running next week.

Profits aside, helping people handle their professional emergencies builds goodwill. There are many reasons besides procrastination that people need service at the eleventh hour: deals fall through, providers fall ill, and bad luck can befall anyone. Whatever we charge (and it’s not always more) for last-minute work, our clients and customers will hopefully remember that we came through when they were in a tight spot, and express their gratitude through referrals and repeat business.

Another good reason to avoid the temptation to over-book is that diversifying work environments grows word-of-mouth. We could keep the bulk of our efforts focused on a few select clients, but that increases the risk of decimating our income if we were to lose just one or two. Instead, we believe that the more people we can get our faces in front of, the more our phones are likely to ring. We need to leave a little margin in our days if we want to widen our sphere of influence in order to keep our income more stable.

Once the opportunities have been claimed, it’s important to bear in mind that working less can yield a higher-quality work product. There’s a joke sign I’ve seen hanging over the cash register in auto mechanics’ shops: “Good, Fast, or Cheap. Pick two.”  In order to earn more, we have to be willing to deliver a quality work product on-time, every time. The more over-booked we get, the more likely we are to cut corners or miss deadlines. And the more we do that, the more we have to lower our rates. So, declining work every once in a while allows us to do better in the work we do accept.

So, we’ve left some options open, and we’ve given ourselves time to do good work, but we also need to leave some room in our lives for self-care. Because in reputation-based careers such as ours, image is everything. I work closely with my clients, often when they are meeting new people, and am frequently viewed as an extension of them. If I am late, disheveled, or too exhausted to perform my duties well, that will reflect on the people I am assisting. One bad experience can result not only in losing that person or entity’s business, but also to developing a reputation as a service provider to avoid. And in sales, people are more likely to buy what you’re selling if they want what you have. The “used-car salesman” stereotype exists for a reason: too many salespeople have bought into the “work more, earn more” paradigm, and they come off creepy and desperate. But if a salesperson who appears fit, rested, and organized recommends a product or service, then unconsciously, folks are more likely to think that making the purchase just might make them a little more fit, rested, and organized. And because we allow ourselves a bit of time to attend to our lives outside of work, we’re not the people asking you to wait while we make personal phone calls or respond to texts. When we’re at work, we’re… well… working! Doesn’t that sound like someone you want working for you?

The concept of working more to earn more also reaches its limits when we find ourselves spending more money to maintain a busy work schedule. In our household, healthy eating is one of the first things to suffer when we get overbooked. We get so busy that cooking gives way to restaurant takeout, and eventually gets downgraded to fast food. “Just this once” becomes nearly every night, and then starts to include lunches, too. In addition to the expense of the food itself, the lack of quality nutrition contributes to lower energy levels and weakened immunity. The more poorly we’re eating, the less resilient we become, and eventually, our go-go work schedule leaves us sick and unable to work. Not to mention the weight gain, which can lead to having to buy new clothes that actually fit (Also, am I the only person who has ever bought clothes because I hadn’t found time to do laundry?) Minor clothing repairs can escalate into major wardrobe malfunctions when left undone due to busy-ness. Hectic schedules also deprive us of time to care for our homes and our cars… neglecting maintenance and repairs can be costly in the long-run, and few things are more embarrassing than exiting a cluttered, filthy car and finding yourself face-to-face with your client.

Keeping a too-busy life also harms personal relationships, which are a requirement for mental health and long-term happiness. After all, if we’re doing all this work to be able share the rewards with our loved ones, we’d better make sure there are some loved ones still around when we finally reach our financial goals!

To that end, I think it’s worth looking at why we’re so driven to earn. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the American businessman who takes a vacation to Mexico, where he meets a young father who spends his mornings on the beach, fishing only enough to feed his family, and then spending the rest of the day with his wife and kids. The businessman tells the fisherman that he should fish all day in order to sell some of the fish and earn money, so that he can buy a boat and employ a crew to earn even more money. The Mexican fisherman asks the American what the result of all that work would be, to which the businessman replies “Well, after many years, if you work very hard, you can retire, and spend your days fishing on the beach with your wife and grandchildren.”

Certainly working and earning to better our lot in life is a noble goal… That’s exactly what we’re doing, and why we made our big cross-country move. But there comes a point at which simply doing more work starts to take us farther from what we’re trying to achieve, rather than moving us closer to our goals. As Mike Rowe says, “Work smart and hard,” and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

Networking Works, Y’all!

My work takes me into all kinds of environments, but there’s one I prefer in particular (I’m being deliberately vague, for reasons of confidentiality). Before we moved to our new city, I was told by several people that there was one person in particular I needed to speak to about working where I most wanted to work. We had met once, several years prior, and I correctly assumed that I wouldn’t be remembered. I arranged an introduction, which went well. A day later, someone more influential re-introduced us, which was good, because again, I wasn’t remembered. Sigh.

Later, I sent a follow-up email, and…. you guessed it, I still wasn’t remembered. I’m not sure what was going on with this person, and I know it didn’t have anything to do with me, but I was getting frustrated. So frustrated, in fact, that I decided to drop it and pursue other avenues of employment.

A few months later, I found myself at a professional event. The person was there, but I didn’t attempt to reintroduce myself, and in fact, it appeared to me that there was no recollection by that person of having ever met me. As it happened, though,  I met a few people who work where I want to work. I enjoyed talking to them, joined them for lunch, and handed out a few business cards. Upon learning of my credentials, one of them told me that there was a need for my services, and that I should call the person in charge the very next business day.

Before I had a chance to make that phone call, though, I received one. It seems there was an urgent need for me specifically to come work there right away! A hiring process that normally takes weeks was expedited, and I was doing my dream job less than a week later.

The person that everyone says is the gatekeeper to that job was never involved, and appears to work in another department altogether. I’m looking forward to learning why everyone around here thinks that’s the go-to person, because it’s sort of a mystery to me right now, but I’m glad I found a workaround. Or, should I say, I’m glad the workaround found me!

 

 

How I’m Approaching Freelancing in a New City

First Things First: Update That Resume!

As soon as we knew we’d be moving, I updated my resume, something I hadn’t done– not really— in years. I needed to know my exact dates of hire and separation, as well as exact rates of pay, which took several phone calls and a visit to an HR department across town. I had worked there so long ago, my employment history was on microfilm, but as the work was still relevant to my career, it was important information to track down.

Once I had my resume in order, I made sure to send it to all the potential employers in my new city, with a short note introducing myself. Also, I included it as an attachment with follow-up emails, so that they wouldn’t have to look it up, if they wanted to refer to it.

 

Attend to Social Media

Because I’d worked at the same jobs and with the same agencies for many years, I’d never bothered to join LinkedIn. Nearly the moment I did, a client of mine from years ago wrote me a glowing recommendation, for which I was very grateful. I spent some time creating a professional profile that was as complete as possible, working from my aforementioned resume and also poring over the pages of colleagues, scouting for language and ideas that might be useful for mine. I endorsed every connection that I legitimately could, and took a look at their connections for names that I knew (or wanted to know).

I recently posed for a professional headshot, as well, to add to my LinkedIn, as well as to a few other sites specific to my profession.

Mine is a tight-knit profession, based almost entirely on reputation. Personal and professional relationships are quite fluid and often overlap, and so in my case, it was appropriate to reach out to my Facebook contacts, and to add my new colleagues as friends right away. Because of that, I took a closer look at my privacy settings and personal timeline, in order to ensure that my social persona was represented as being in alignment with my professional image, so that potential colleagues and employers in my new city would be able to see whether I am someone they’d like to work and play with.

The idea here was not to change how people might see me, but rather to ensure that what they were seeing was congruent with how I actually live and work. Funny enough, the links I posted to the Community Supported Agriculture garden we have a share in sparked many a workplace conversation about healthy, local eating with colleagues who vary widely in their other interests. Being honest about my home life in social media has strengthened several good professional connections!

 

Reach Out to Tenuous Contacts

Several colleagues of mine from Southern California had moved to Austin in the few years prior to our move. Although I wasn’t particularly close to them back then, I asked a mutual friend to help me get in touch, and that proved quite helpful. One man in particular sent me a detailed email, outlining every agency and employer he could think of in the area. He was also, I suspect, instrumental in helping me get the part-time gig I like the most, and you can better believe I won’t forget that soon!

 

Manage Finances to Avoid Desperation!

Even though Mr. Vega would have liked a new car, and we both would have liked an infinite number of new gadgets and furnishings for our new apartment, we kept a tight rein on our spending until we had secured reliable income. We sought out free fun and inexpensive sustenance. We diligently turned up our thermostat each day until we got our first electric bill, and waited for those occasional free Redbox codes to show up in our email.

Moving with a fully funded Emergency Fund, and staying frugal during our transition allowed us to accept assignments based on more than money, and to gracefully weather those first few weeks before the checks started coming in. We’ve been able to avoid overworking ourselves just to make the rent, and to keep our options somewhat open while we learn the nuances of our new home town.

 

Accept That Not Everything Will Pan Out

Before we moved, I applied for a few job openings online, and, for the first time in my career, wasn’t even asked to interview for any of them (remember, our field is based on reputation, and no one knows me here, yet). Well, as it happens, my freelance assignments and part-time gig turn out to pay much more than the regular positions would have. And since Mr. Vega has a job with benefits, it’s better for us financially if I take the higher-paying work over the stable, lower-paying jobs that come with health insurance and the like.

I also had a few coffee dates with potential new friends in my field that weren’t quite a match. We tried our best, but just like romantic dating, there’s an indescribable something that must be present for a friendship to work. And like romantic dating, the magic usually happens when you least expect it.

But it’s a numbers game: the more you try, the better your chances of making a connection.

 

Listen More Than You Speak

Rather than trying to impress everyone with my vast knowledge and spectacular word usements, I chose to keep my opinions to myself for a while and listen to what others had to say. “Tell me more,” became my favorite response. In this way, I got to hear how folks navigate the professional culture here, and what works best for them. And although I do my best to avoid gossip, when three people I met in three different environments each expressed misgivings about a particular employer, I paid attention! Because the only thing better than leaving your difficult boss is never working for her in the first place!

Waiting to express strong opinions also gave people the opportunity to get to know me by my presence and work ethic, rather than by what labels I give myself elsewhere. Letting people think of me as “the one who always shows up early,” or “the one who is attentive and hardworking” is probably better right now than being remembered as “the one who votes Democrat,” or “the one who avoids GMOs.”

 

Attend Orientations, Meetings, Workshops

As much as I’d prefer to avoid any event where I get to wear my name on a sticker, I’ve gotten to as many networking events as I can since our move. The Saturday morning staff meeting at my new part-time job that my boss said I could skip because I was so new? I was there bright and early. The annual end-of-summer gathering of hourly employees at my other tiny gig? Present and accounted for, with my name tag on. Spend an entire Saturday in a skill-building workshop with other members of my profession? You’d better believe I’m going. Right now, I’m the person who will attend the opening of an envelope, if it will help build my name recognition, and familiarity with my peers and clients. Suiting up and showing up is half the battle, GI Joe!

 

Avoid The Temptation to Overbook (Accept Sub Assignments)

It’s been important to leave a little blank space in my schedule, so that I can accept the occasional last-minute gig. This allows me not only to be helpful when there is a need, but also gives me the opportunity to work in jobs I haven’t been hired on for permanently. And again, any time I’m able to meet a new client or colleague, it’s an opportunity to build reputation and create connections. As an added bonus, every time I accept work in a new part of town, I get to learn the city a little better.

And if the work doesn’t show up for the days I’ve left open? I still have plenty of post-move organizing to do, and it seems like I always am in need of a car wash, a manicure, or a trip to the grocery store.

 

Do Something Else! It’s Not All About Work!

We’re very fortunate to have moved to a place that offers abundant opportunities to get outdoors and have fun. Austinites are serious about their fun, and there is live music and good food just about everywhere you go. It’s been lovely to get out of the house a couple of times each week to disconnect and recharge. It took years to create the rich, supportive professional network I enjoyed in my hometown, and my new life won’t be built in a day. After doing all the work outlined above, it’s important to give it all some time to develop organically. Because as much as I love my work, it’s really only something I do so that I can enjoy the rest of what life has to offer!