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.  

Frugal Tuesday: Homemade Greens Powder

Kale Drying

We have smoothies for breakfast a few times a week, and the organic greens powders we like to mix in cost in the range of $15-20 a jar. Last week, staring sadly at yet another bunch of wilting kale in our fridge, I had an idea: Dehydrate it and make it into greens powder!

That bunch of kale spent a few hours on three racks in my food dehydrator, after which I pulsed it into a fine powder in the food processor. It really couldn’t have been any easier.

A closer reading of the ingredients on the expensive stuff revealed a long list of foods I could dehydrate and grind to avoid food waste and save on pricy supplements: beets, spinach, carrots, broccoli, ginger, tomatoes, lemon peel, pineapple, parsley, mint… basically any fruit, vegetable, or rhizome that we enjoy eating (but didn’t get around to) can be dried and added to our little jar of smoothie powder. I can’t believe I’m actually looking forward to next week’s fridge clean out day!

Frugal Tuesday: Fun With Leftovers

A couple of weeks ago, after a fantastic camping weekend, all we wanted were some margaritas and Tex-Mex food. So we went to Matt’s Famous El Rancho, and got exactly what we were seeking. Except, I got just a little bit too much of it!

Their brisket tacos were too filling to finish, but too delicious to leave the last one on my plate. So we took it home.

The next day, at lunchtime, we kind of both wanted that taco. But there was only one.

So, we grabbed a couple of spuds from our Giant Bag of Costco Potatoes, baked them up, and invented the most delicious meal ever: The Brisket Taco baked Potato. Our handy kitchen shears turned the taco into delicious brisket bites, we added some leftover chili and sour cream and it. was. awesome.

Brisket Taco Potato

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done with leftovers?

Frugal Tuesday: Homemade Kombucha

Several years ago, my hippier-than-thou (well, hippier than I, in any case… I aspire to his hippie greatness) brother introduced me to the wonderful, sweet-sour elixir known as kombucha. It’s good stuff, said to be filled with all sorts of probiotics and other life-giving properties. For me it was love at first sip, and before long, I was spending $4 a bottle on some of the delicious brews put out by GT Dave’s, Buddha’s Brew, and others. Some health food stores and farmers markets even let you bring your own growler, and buy kombucha waste-free, just like beer. But it still ain’t cheap.

You know what IS cheap? Tea bags and sugar. Which is all you really need to brew your own kombucha. Well that, and a “mother,” the colony of yeast and good bacteria that hang out in some sweet tea and magically transform it into a healthy beverage. Fortunately, the “mother” is easy enough to make, using a bottle of raw, unflavored kombucha. Do it right, and it could be the last bottle you ever buy.

I follow this recipe from The Kitchn, and it turns out beautifully for me every time. In hot and humid central Texas, my kombucha likes to ferment quietly on a shelf in my clothes closet, where it is safe from mold spores and fruit flies.

IMG_3259(You can actually see the “mother” hanging out on the bottom right of the jar… just doing her thing…)

I’ve been experimenting with fruits and juices, and second ferments, and have come up with some pretty good flavors. And best of all, it no longer costs four bucks a glass!

What do you make at home that you used to buy?

My First-Ever Tax Refund

For the entirety of my career, I have worked part-time and freelance jobs. For all intents and purposes, I have been the sole proprietor of a one-woman business, and my tax status has reflected this: every year, I receive up to a dozen 1099 forms and maybe a W-2 or three. Every year, I comb through all of the previous year’s expenses, making sure I haven’t overlooked any possible business meals, office supplies, or mileage. Every year, I sweat it out in the accountant’s office, waiting to be told exactly how much I owe.

I got into the habit of filing my taxes as soon as possible each year, so I could find out exactly how hard I was going to have to work in the two months or so I had left before the Tax Day bill came due.

Over time, I got clearer about how this tax thing works, and started putting aside a set percentage (corresponding to my tax bracket) every time I received a check. Eventually, even though I owed taxes each Spring, it felt as though I was getting a refund, because after paying my balance due, whatever was left in my Tax Fund was mine to keep.

But 2014 was the year we moved more than fifty miles away from our employers, and found gainful employment in our new home town, all of which means we got to deduct our moving expenses from last year’s taxable income. And we moved to a state with no income tax, which was a lot like getting a raise (both our salaries are actually lower than they were in California, but we’re still not complaining). Combine all that with the first year in decades that my business expenses outweighed my freelance income, and it all adds up to a not-insubstantial tax refund.

Our tax preparer e-filed for us today, so we won’t see the money for a few weeks, but I’ve already spent it several times over in my mind: I’d like a Spa Day, a trip to visit family, some new hiking boots, and a few of the ridiculously expensive bras I like. Maybe some new shoes and baking pans, too, because I really know how to party. And Mr Vega has suggested a solar generator and some new iStuff, too.

In the end, our little windfall is going straight into the House Fund, but you probably knew that already. It gets us close enough to our goal of a 20% down payment toward a house we could afford on a 15-year mortgage with payments totalling no more than 1/4 of our total take-home pay. We’ll probably start looking for financing next week.

Still, I’ve enjoyed spending a little time thinking of ways to spend the money, if we were going to…

Did you receive a tax refund this year? What will you spend yours on?

Welcome, Get Rich Slowly Readers!

Years ago, during a pretty bleak time in my life, I happened across an article by Donna Freedman called “Surviving (and Thriving) on $12,000 a Year,” in which she outlined some of the ways in which she intended to not only get through the lean times she was facing, but to do it with grace, dignity, and even joy.

I wanted what she had.

I returned to that piece many times over the next few years, and continued to read everything she published that I could find. I followed along as she charted new-to-her territory as a midlife college student, as she healed her finances and expanded her career… I tried many of the money-saving tactics she wrote about and even began to do a little writing of my own about how things were going. I wrote about what it was like for me to begin that process– and begin againhere.

Nearly a decade after Donna’s words first illuminated a screen in my dark little studio apartment, I find myself sharing a life and a name with a man named “Vega,” who joined me on a journey to becoming debt-free, amassing a fully-funded Emergency Fund, and now, saving to buy our first home. Because we’re becoming financially literate a little “later” in life, we acknowledged that homeownership would be more likely for us if we left our native Los Angeles and struck out for parts unknown. Unknown to us, anyway: Austin, Texas is one of the fastest growing cities in America, and that trend shows no sign of slowing any time soon! You can read more about how we came to our decision here.

We’re learning our way around our new home town, working as hard as we can to make sure our “starter home” isn’t a retirement home, and trying to have as much fun as we can in the process without delaying our dreams.

Mr. Vega and I finally got to meet Donna in person last summer when she visited Austin on a short trip. We had only been here a couple of weeks ourselves, but I was happy to spend a little time talking with her over breakfast tacos in the Central Texas summer heat, and when she asked if I was writing anything, I mentioned this little blog that was only a couple of months old and was still finding its voice. It still is. But she took a look, and it was this post that inspired her recent article over at Get Rich Slowly.

If I could stumble across someone else’s blog and be inspired to make deep and lasting change in my life, then anyone can do it. And if some of the work Mr. Vega and I are doing inspires even one person to start doing it for themselves, then something wonderful is happening. Because if we can free ourselves from the burden of debt that has become the norm in our society, who knows what else we can do to alleviate the poverty and financial stress that keeps some of our best and brightest women and men from achieving their full potential?

That may sound pretty lofty, but every paradigm shift the world has ever known has started with just one person thinking quietly to themself: “What if I could really do this?” The idea of personal financial responsibility and freedom didn’t start with me, or with Donna Freedman, or with any of the other wonderful bloggers who have been brave enough to share their experiences with the public. But the most important thing is that the ideas don’t end with us, either.

Thank you for visiting, and I hope you’ll stick around and share some of your own thoughts in the comments. One person, one decision at a time, can change the world. But none of us has to do any of it alone. And the best part of all? We can have a hell of a good time doing it!

The Evolution of Fun

When we lived in Los Angeles, we didn’t have a lot of fun: The death of my mother two months before our wedding drove me into a two-year depression, and we were working very hard to become debt-free, amass an emergency fund, and then save toward a down payment on a home. The long, hard work complemented my mood, and my mood drove me to work longer and harder.

And “fun” in Los Angeles, let’s be honest, isn’t always that fun. When you ask an Angeleno how they are, the response is generally “Busy!” and they aren’t kidding. Coordinating a meal out with a few friends can take several days, and dozens of phone calls and text messages. In addition to individual schedules, factors come into play such as dietary restrictions, traffic patterns, availability of parking, and whose ex-lover may still frequent the chosen venue (I’ve known couples that, upon dissolving their relationship, sat down and mapped out which 12-step meetings one person would avoid and the other would attend, and vice versa. Breakups in L.A. are serious business). Half the time, at least one person in the group will be reviewing the meal or event for their blog, and generally, everyone can be expected to post photos and commentary to social media. Which means, you’re going to want to be camera-ready at all times, because like it or not, you will be tagged.

Our first weeks in Austin we found ourselves terribly early and over-dressed for just about anything we attended. I found it hard to believe that so many free, and genuinely interesting, events weren’t overrun with people. But, perhaps because there are so many options, nothing has felt over-crowded. Parking isn’t usually a problem, and there are enough seats for everyone (if you didn’t bring your own: our beach chairs occupy a permanent spot in our hatchback these days, and we hope to one day upgrade to actual camp chairs). There’s just a sort of un-organized harmony about the way people gather, here. Strangers greet each other like friends and are always happy to scoot over, make room, or help you carry in more tables and chairs, if that’s what’s needed. People will share the beer they brought, the shade they found, and directions to the food truck around the corner where they got those delicious-looking tacos. And when you talk, they look at you, not at their mobile phones.

In the few months we’ve been in Austin, fun has taken its rightful place in the center of our marriage. In the past few weeks, we’ve found ourselves attending a company-sponsored Longhorns tailgate party (which included free barbecue, queso, and Lone Star beer), the evening Free Swim at Barton Springs Pool, a pre-season mixer for our Bocce League, complete with free beer provided by our sponsor (and Mr. Vega’s favorite), Dogfish Head. We’ve seen free outdoor movies, enjoyed free music performances, and taken advantage of free museum days.

Even with all this free fun, some things are still worth paying for: We attended a Robin Williams memorial screening of Dead Poets Society at Alamo Drafthouse, are taking a month-long series of Two-Step dance classes, and have splurged on tickets to a couple of upcoming concerts. We’ve also been saving our pennies for a Fancy Date Night at a local farm-to-table restaurant that’s gotten nothing but rave reviews.

We’ve found that clean, comfortable clothes and flip-flops work just about anywhere, and arriving more than fifteen minutes early to just about anything is only necessary if you plan to have a drink nearby before the event starts. Life is just easier here, and people are more forgiving.

The more we do, the more deeply I am able to shed my grief and relax into the joy of our married life, the comfort of our deepening community connections, and the growing sense that all is right in our world. I have the sneaking suspicion that after marinating in all these good feelings for a while, even Los Angeles is going to feel a lot more fun to me. But for now, I’m grateful to have found myself in a place where it’s all so much easier. And I’m enjoying every minute of it.