Skinny-Fat Finances

We’ve all met those people who are model-thin without effort. They eat whatever they want, they rarely exercise, they drink and smoke, they seem to live on a diet consisting mostly of fancy whippy coffee beverages, and still everything they wear looks good on them. Some of them even struggle to keep weight on when life gets stressful. But a deeper look into their medical charts might reveal hidden health problems such as heart disease, liver dysfunction, or diabetes. While many people work hard to maintain their healthy weight and fitness levels,  there is a portion of the population who look healthier than they are: the “skinny-fat.

Financial health is no different than physical health, in that what can be seen from the outside doesn’t always represent what’s happening behind closed doors. And in exactly the same way that Western society places a higher value on being thin than it does on being healthy, we are all also encouraged to look rich, rather than to be financially stable.

 

Both Mr. Vega and I were raised in skinny-fat financial households. Our Baby Boomer parents were the first generation of Americans with access to the easy credit we have all become so accustomed to. “Low monthly payments” must have felt like a godsend to our young parents, who wanted so much for their children to have the best of everything. They would have had no way of predicting that their resulting financial stress would affect us much more deeply than going without some luxuries might have.

We don’t remember what we got for Christmas or our birthdays every year, but we remember clearly the bills that came in pink envelopes. We remember the way our parents tried to ignore the telephone’s incessant dinnertime ringing, and the occasional times we had to bathe in cold water or to get ready for school in the dark because the utilities had been shut off for lack of payment. I, for one, will never forget coming home from school one day  in my teens to an IRS lien notice stuck to my front door, and spending the afternoon at a friend’s house, because I felt certain I would go to jail if I went into my house (everything got sorted out, and we got to keep our house, but that was a terrifying day for me).

As we approach the gift-giving holidays, we are bombarded with TV commercials showing children’s faces lighting up as they open their”perfect” presents on Christmas morning. Images abound of delighted spouses peeking into tiny jewelry boxes, or leaping around brand-new beribboned vehicles in the driveways of their lovely suburban homes. Who wouldn’t want to inspire that sort of joy in the people we love?

What those commercials don’t show is those same parents fighting over money in January (and February, and March…) when the bills arrive. We aren’t seeing those same children being told to “Tell them I’m not here” when the debt collection agencies start calling. The visions of happy families road-tripping to visit Grandma never reveal the expired insurance policies hidden in the glove box.

Here’s the thing: if you can afford a house with a yard for your kids, and a nice Compact Utility Vehicle to drive them around in, good for you. If designer clothes, annual vacations, and weekly mani-pedis are within your means, then party on. Nice things are… well, nice! We want to have them, and we want you to have them.

BUT (there’s always a “but):

If you are buying holiday gifts on a credit card that you will not be able to pay in full when the bill comes, you might be suffering from skinny-fat finances.

If you are considering a large purchase and your main concern is the amount of the monthly payment, rather than the total cost of the item, you might be suffering from skinny-fat finances.

If you bought and strung a million twinkly lights outside your house last weekend, but couldn’t make your rent or mortgage payment Tuesday, you might be suffering from skinny-fat finances.

We are here to tell you from personal experience that a little less stuff, a little less sparkle, a little less bling isn’t going to hurt anyone, but that getting it when you really can’t afford it could actually cause lasting harm. Living in a smaller home, driving an old-but-paid-for car, opening fewer gifts on holidays… none of that is so bad if you get to eat your holiday meal with loved ones who aren’t fighting, if your heart doesn’t pound every time the phone rings, if you aren’t afraid of the mailbox.

Anyone who has been there can tell you that being healthy is so much better than simply being skinny. And financial stability– freedom from debt, carrying enough insurance, and having enough money on hand to weather emergencies– feels so much better than looking wealthy, but worrying constantly about when it’s all going to fall apart.

If your finances are skinny-fat, just like with your body, you can’t heal them overnight. But you can begin to shift how you navigate life. You can refuse to put even one more non-essential purchase on a credit card. You can begin to record your expenses and get a clearer idea of where your money is going. You can begin to cultivate contentment and seek happiness in experiences instead of things.

And if you keep at it, before you know it, you will find that you have everything you need, and maybe more of the things you want. Before you know it, you’ll be looking back and thinking about how much better you feel than when you were over-extended and stressed about money all the time. Who knows? You may even be able to afford that shiny new thing you’ve always wanted… with cash!

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Seriously: Live Beneath Your Means!

Stretching a dollar!

Stretching a dollar!

This past Summer, I realized that the full-time job I had taken on was not a good fit for me. I called my husband and explained my feelings, and he responded “Then quit! We’ll be fine, we always have.” The next morning, I tendered my resignation.

A couple of months later, A Random Thing happened at one of my several jobs, and work hours were cut in a way that affected some people (myself included) more than others. It’s been humbling to hear people speak about the problems that the drop in income is causing. Because while the change has tightened our finances, it did not constitute a financial emergency in our home, the way it has with some of the others.

Shortly after that, Mr. Vega reached his personal stress limit at his place of employment– in fact, with his entire field of employment– and we were able to make a plan for his career change that allowed him to leave his job within a couple of weeks. He is registered and ready to return to school in January, for a two-year program to train for an entirely different career.

Most recently, a family friend lost a close relative, and Mr. Vega was able to get on a plane with a week’s notice to attend the funeral in another state. Spending time with his friend of more than twenty years, and with his friend’s extended family of origin, gave him insights he would have never gotten otherwise. Not only was he able to support a dear friend during a sad time, but their connection was enriched simply because he could be present.

Although it’s actually a lot more fun that most people might imagine, living beneath our means isn’t always easy. Mr. Vega wore the same three pair of dress pants for work until they literally wore out. I finally replaced the last pair of work appropriate flat shoes I owned… about six months later than I should have. We have eaten beans and rice and potatoes and leftovers cooked more ways than I previously thought possible. We drive subcompact cars when we would prefer SUV’s and classic trucks. We bought a house with one fewer bedroom, one fewer bathroom, and one less garage space than we would have liked, because it was important to us to keep our payments well below what we could afford. Those are all choices we have made so that we could pay off our debt, save an emergency fund, and buy our own home.

Spending less when you have the ability to spend more feels, in some ways, more challenging than being flat broke. Because the money is there, after all, and there are days when it feels like everyone we know has more than we do. They drive newer, nicer cars,  eat out in fancy restaurants, wear more fashionable clothes, live in bigger houses, and take actual vacations to exotic locations where they aren’t even visiting relatives! Most people assume from our spending habits that we’re broke, and those who know better wonder why don’t just “treat yo’self” the way they do. On top of that, we see tens of thousands of advertisements a day, all of them telling us that life will be better, we will be more attractive, and that we will feel more successful if we just buy their service or product.

That all starts to look pretty darn tempting, until we realize the true cost. In 2013, CNN Money reported that 76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and earlier this year, Deutche Bank published findings that 47% of American households have nothing saved for an emergency. Which means that for the vast majority of people living in my country, a job loss, an illness, or even a cut in hours could throw them into bankruptcy, or worse: The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that more than half a million Americans are currently homeless, and nearly 8 million of us (including members of our own family) are living doubled up with family or friends, representing a 67% increase in doubled-up living since 2007.  Another 6.4 million of us are spending more than half of our monthly income just on housing. That’s not living, that’s survival.

We still go out, spend money, and have fun… we just make sure that when we do, we’re spending less than we could potentially afford. Last night, we picked up some good friends in our little paid-for car, went downtown for a few $4 Happy Hour cocktails, and then took a walk to view a free, outdoor art exhibit. We spent hours talking about everything that was on our minds, encouraging each other in taking steps to achieve our goals, and having a really, really good time. At the end of the night, we went back to their modest apartment, talked some more, and rolled around on the floor with their affectionate, happy (and rescued!) dogs for about an hour. You can’t buy that type of contentment.

This morning, we made a breakfast hash of leftover coffee-rubbed pork and– you guessed it– potatoes, that was as delicious as any $12-a-plate restaurant meal, and we’re looking forward to taking in a movie tonight at Alamo Drafthouse with some new friends. Although the food at the theater is very good, we’ll probably have dinner at home first and then just get some drinks and snacks at the movie, and our good time won’t be lessened because of it.

Because when Life Happens, and it always does, we don’t want to have to stay in jobs that make us miserable, or go into debt to make our bills, or miss out on showing up for the major life events of the people we love… or lose our home. Choosing to live beneath our means allows us to retain control of a lot of other decisions in our lives. Decisions that would be made for us if we lived paycheck-to-paycheck and an emergency arose.

Can you find one thing you can spend less on than you have been, no matter how small? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.  

Can Two Live as Cheaply as One? We’re About to Find Out.

For several months, Mr. Vega has been in slow burnout mode at work. Telecom sales is a constant, high-pressure environment that has been fitting less and less with the person he is becoming. About a month ago, we spent five days camping off-grid, enjoying good food, the company of friends, and time spent in nature. His first day back at work, I got a text from him: I’m sitting here at my desk thinking that I’m wasting my time and my life here… This weekend really did me good.

We spent a week and a half talking about what he wants to do, how we want to live, and how to make that happen. We ran the numbers, and we ran them again. And a few more times, just to be sure.

Ten days later, he resigned.

The plan is for him to start school full-time in January, spending a couple of years training for a career in which he doesn’t have to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything. Or sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed, you know, as a career. *

For the next couple of months, he will be a full-time homemaker, quite literally: there are garden beds to be built, a porch to screen in, rain gutters to install, and a host of other home-improvement projects to tackle in our Little Hippie House. There is a lot that we’ve been wanting to do, but we haven’t had much time for it.

Building Raised Beds

We’ve spent the past few years ensuring that we could handle a shift like this: We are debt-free except for the house, and we made sure to buy a house that we could afford on one income, if it ever came to that. After we paid off all our consumer debt (and before we started saving for a down payment), we built an Emergency Fund that would allow us to continue our lifestyle unchanged for four months with zero income, or for much longer if we reduce our expenses and maintain some kind of income. Since purchasing the house, we have resumed our Emergency Fund contributions, with a long-term goal of saving a full year’s worth of expenses.

We believe that with the right cuts, we can live modestly on my freelance income, without tapping into our Emergency Fund, and maybe even continuing to grow it, little by little. Mr. Vega has committed to getting at least a part-time job if we find ourselves unable to manage, although we would both prefer that he didn’t have to.

There will be sacrifices, mostly involving entertainment and travel, but we’re excited to have the opportunity to walk our talk to live meaningfully, and happily. We’ll continue to work toward making our home as self-sustaining as possible, and welcome all the friends and family who have the means to visit us in Austin. And we’re grateful to be cultivating friendships here with folks who share our values, and who are just as happy as we are to spend a weekend camping or an afternoon playing board games, instead of doing spendier things.

At the end of his training, Mr. Vega will be eminently employable, with a starting income that will at the minimum match what he was earning at his high-stress job, and with the potential to double in a few years’ time. To our farway friends and family, you can expect a visit from us beginning in 2017, but in the meantime, y’all are welcome to come on down any time you like!

*with gratitude to Cameron Crowe, Say Anything (1989)

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…

Nothing Changed When we Paid off our Debt

Mr. Vega and I became debt-free a couple of years ago. It happened quietly, and without fanfare. He’d been working hard to negotiate some old, unpaid credit card bills that had gone to collection, and ended up settling about $10,000 worth of debt for around $4,000, one bill, one phone call, at a time. The only thing left was my car payment, which for some reason, I had been stalling on paying off even as we amassed a healthy savings account. Then one day, on a break from work, I called the loan company and did the payoff over the phone. Just like that, we were free from debt.

And nothing changed.

Not having monthly payments outside of rent and utilities is nice, but we have continued to save so aggressively that our lifestyle hasn’t changed: we cook at home, search out free and inexpensive entertainment, consider even the smallest purchases carefully, and do our best to negotiate the best rate for everything we spend money on. This year, I volunteered to be a support person for our bocce league in exchange for free registration ($45), and a $25 weekly credit, which I share with Mr. Vega, at the team’s sponsoring pub. We exchanged both our juicer and our vacuum cleaner several times because we kept finding lower prices. And on our last Date Night, we hustled over to a local bar right after work because the first sixteen customers that ordered cheese plates (normally $16) got them for free. We chase bargains because it’s fun for us: we like getting a good deal nearly as much as we enjoy whatever it is we’re buying or consuming. Living frugally helps us live a little more lightly on our ailing planet, as well: growing and cooking as much food as we can for ourselves eliminates a lot of packaging, as does buying in bulk. Every article of clothing that we buy used or trade with friends is one less thing that has to be shipped from overseas and then driven by truck to our local store. Our habits and practices are right in line with those of our friends who earn less than we do, or who are busy paying off debt themselves. We also socialize with people whom we suspect make and have much more money than we do, but our friendships revolve around time spent together enjoying activities that don’t cost much, so the subject of money rarely comes up.

This week, I made a long-overdue phone call to roll a 401(k) from a previous employer into a personal IRA. I spent quite a bit of time speaking to a customer service agent at the investment firm, who was gathering our personal financial information in order to ensure I was getting into a product that met our needs (and presumably the company’s need for profit, as well). Part of our conversation went like this:

CUSTOMER SERVICE GUY: Okay now, so, if we were to take all your debts, your car loans, personal loans, credit cards, home equity lines of credit, and student loans… how much money would it take to pay all of that off today, hypothetically speaking?

ME: Three hundred and forty dollars. We use an airline miles credit card that we pay off each month.
(pause.)
CUSTOMER SERVICE GUY: WOW. Well, um… Congratulations!

I really enjoyed the feeling of hearing someone who is privy to the innermost financial workings of thousands of families so taken aback. We are not wealthy, earn a modest income, and in fact, are woefully “behind” in our retirement savings, but simply being debt-free is so unusual, it seems, that it rendered this guy momentarily speechless.

So, nothing about how we live our daily lives changed when we paid off our debt. We didn’t buy fancy new wardrobes, take a vacation, or start upgrading our electronics. But there is an indescribable lightness about us now that we go to work every day because we want to be of service and earn money to save for our house instead of showing up just because we couldn’t make the rent if we didn’t. Car troubles for us these days are inconveniences and not crises. And we moved halfway across the country to pursue our dreams knowing that if an emergency should arise for any of our family members, we could afford to be at their side within a day’s time.

Nothing really changed when we paid off our debt… but somehow, everything is different.

 

 

Paying Cash for Cars isn’t as Hard as it Seems

My grandfather gave me my first car, which had been his, when his deteriorating vision made it unsafe for him to drive any longer. It was a seven-year-old Oldsmobile that had begun its life as a rental car. It lasted four more years in the negligent possession of my teenage self, before literally going out in a blaze of glory (due to a previously undetected fuel line leak) on a California highway.

I bought my first– and only— brand-new car when I was 22, because I didn’t have the credit to finance a used car (there’s some great logic). The cheapest thing on the lot was a 3-cylinder Geo Metro convertible, which I drove for six years, until it was totalled in an accident that left me unharmed, but also left me with an insurance check that wasn’t nearly enough to replace the car. I worked out a deal with a friend’s brother who was joining the military, and no longer had use for a car. He gave me a great deal on his 10-year-old Honda, and let me pay him in two installments.

When that car was about to die, at the end of my twenties, my terrible credit and I managed to get a decent deal on a five-year-old Miata, but I had to list TEN references to qualify for a loan. I finally began to learn the value of regular car maintenance and started keeping to a budget that allowed my poor credit to recover. When that loan was paid off, I drove debt-free for three more years, but I didn’t set anything aside for the day when I would need another car.

My final auto loan was as well-researched as the car purchase, and I was so proud to walk into the dealership with a check from the finance company, gotten at a great interest rate. I paid the car off early, and went all Scarlett O’Hara: “With God as my witness, I’ll never make car payments again!”

Mr. Vega and I began dating as he was just coming out of a prolonged period of unemployment, and he was driving a 1987 Wag-o-Van that he had gotten through a friend-of-a-friend for $400, and that wasn’t very safe (or even street legal). I only rode in it once, and it was so frightening, I still have flashbacks! He was hired as an outside sales representative, and found himself in the heartbreaking position of having to use his first month’s pay to buy a reliable car for work instead of traveling to attend the wedding of his only brother at a resort in Mexico. He paid all the money he had in the world–$3500– for a well-maintained twenty-year-old Honda CR-X with 200,000 miles on it, and spent the rest of the summer helping me come up with creative recipes from my Project Angel Food box (remember those?), and the fresh produce I got from my friend’s backyard garden. His co-workers ribbed him for driving such an old car, but the jokes quieted down when one of their luxury cars was repossessed from the office parking lot one day, in full view of everyone.

We commuted to our jobs in our paid-for cars as we saved up to pay cash for our own modest wedding. We parked them out in front of the cheap 486-square foot apartment we rented in an edgy neighborhood, while we paid off the last of our debt and began to aggressively fund our Emergency Fund. We looked for Groupons for oil changes, and Mr. Vega did most minor repairs and maintenance himself. We drove those cars to the library to borrow DVDs for our weekend entertainment, and occasionally for a splurge at the $3 movie theater.

By the time my car began to develop problems that a series of mechanics could not resolve, our new frugal lifestyle had left us with enough cash in our Emergency Fund to replace it, or even upgrade (in Los Angeles, car trouble definitely qualifies as an “emergency”). We test-drove a bigger, nicer truck. We tried out a newer model year of the same SUV I’d been driving. Ultimately, we chose a late-model subcompact that used about $40 less in gas each month than my SUV had. Even with the mystery mechanical difficulties, we were offered enough in trade to offset about half the cost of our new-to-us car. We wrote a check for the rest, and our ultra-thrifty habits helped us replenish the Emergency Fund over the next several months, and even begin saving to buy a house someday.

After three more years of  a daily 40-mile round-trip commute, the CR-X was beginning to need more frequent, and more costly repairs, but still had enough life in it to bring it to Texas from California when we moved here earlier this year. We also wanted to make our next car purchase in Texas, where we knew we’d save about $1000 on registration and taxes alone, all else being equal. In addition to saving for a house, we started a little Car Fund and began making small weekly deposits.

Finally, the day came when Mr. Vega had had enough of playing the “Will My Car Start Today?” game, so we sat down to look at our budget and consider our options. We found that over the previous twelve months, we had spent a bit more in repairs than the vehicle was actually worth. He advertised his little Honda (with full disclosures) on Craigslist, for the same $3500 he paid for it, and the offers started pouring in. No one expects a car that old to be trouble-free, and that model is still widely sought-after. The young man who bought it was thrilled to get a “classic” car so cheaply, and will happily spend his weekends working on it in the driveway. The money we got from the sale of that car and what we’ve set aside in our Car Fund paid for about 1/2 of the newer car, and the rest came from our House Fund (we both agreed that this time, our car purchase did not qualify as an “emergency,” and have decided that we are willing to delay a home purchase for a few months in order to purchase the car).

My husband had been wanting a pickup truck for quite some time, and now that we live in Texas, it seemed an obvious choice. He test-drove half a dozen of them, but found the ones in our price range to be about ten years old, and with more than 100,000 miles on them. As reliability was the most important factor to us, we set our sights on something smaller. Since we were replacing a two-seater, we reasoned, we might as well consider another. We narrowed our search to Smart Cars and Miatas, and eventually, the Miata won. We came across a 1997 model with only 27,000 miles on it, but that one was snapped up before we could even drive it (someone got a great deal!). Finally, we found a 2009 MX-5 that was in mint condition. Mr. Vega staged a battle on the showroom floor when they nearly sold it out from under us after he had negotiated a price and announced his intention to buy it, but he emerged victorious, wrote a check, and left his own car in the dealership parking lot to come get me from work in our new roadster. As all happily married men know, “Mama Gets the Good Car,” so I’ll be cruising with the top down while my husband takes the subcompact to work.

Meet our new-to-us car, which I have named "Benedict Cumberbatch"

Meet our new-to-us car, which I have named “Benedict Cumberbatch”

Later that night, he examined the paperwork he found in the glove box: The original owner financed the car when it was brand-new, paid on it for five years, had it serviced like clockwork at the dealership, and the moment the loan was paid off, he got 1/3 of what he paid for it (not counting interest) to use as a down payment on another new car.

What WE got was a five-year-old, meticulously cared-for car with lots of upgrades, for below blue book value. Unless our needs change, and if nothing terrible happens to the car, we’re likely to keep it for a decade or more.

It will take us a few months of hard work and careful spending to get our House Fund back to where it was before this purchase, but we’re fortunate that living far below our means has become a way of life for us. We eat a lot of home-cooked meals, seek out free entertainment, and we only buy clothes and shoes when what’s in our closet begins to wear out. Those things are mostly fun for us, though, and even when they aren’t we do them happily, because when bigger things (like cars and computers) need repair or replacing, we’re able to handle it without going into debt. And most importantly of all, we’re flying back to Los Angeles in a couple of months to meet our brother and sister-in-law’s first daughter… We’re hoping our new way of living means we never have to choose between showing up for family and being self-supporting again!

Have you ever paid cash for a car? Would you even want to? Why or why not?