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.

How We Deal With Traffic

Yesterday, I started Part-Time Job #2, at a college here in Austin. In Los Angeles, the start of a new term generally means you can plan on adding half an hour to your commute for a couple of weeks, while students figure out their new routines and driving patterns. Adding that half-hour to the 15 minute cushion I like to give myself means that yesterday I arrived… 45 minutes early! I reckon that’s what happens when a person moves from a city with the nation’s worst traffic to a city with the nation’s fourth worst traffic. Austinites are complaining– and rightfully so– about the increasingly congested traffic that is accompanying their rapid population growth, but honestly from our perspective, it’s pretty mild. Also, we’ve developed quite a few traffic-avoidance behaviors, because in Los Angeles, “Traffic was terrible!” just doesn’t cut it as an excuse to be late. Here’s what works for us:

The single best way to avoid the problems caused by traffic is to simply leave very early. I make it my goal to arrive 15 minutes early to business meetings and unfamiliar work assignments, and about 10 minutes early for social engagements and jobs I do regularly. To that, I also add 10-30 minutes to whatever results my mapping applications tell me, depending on the time of day, or popularity of the event. While I’m often very early to places, I never have a problem filling the extra minutes: those pockets of time are perfect for using my mobile phone to connect with loved ones, make appointments, or return emails. Sometimes, too, it’s nice to just sit and read a book, or enjoy the surroundings for a few minutes. In any case, I’m happy to trade those “wasted” minutes for the ability to arrive without the stress of running late!

If you’ve got the option to schedule your days so that you are avoiding rush hours, all the better. I’m fortunate to be able to do that, and I’m often heading in the opposite direction of the worst of the traffic. Not everyone has that luxury, though, and in those cases, it’s sometimes good to plan activities close to your destination in the early mornings or late afternoons. My husband generally arrives half an hour early to his office, and then takes his time enjoying his coffee and preparing for his day. Running a quick errand after work, or meeting a friend or coworker for a tasty beverage before hitting the highway will probably also save quite a bit of time spent in slow-and-go traffic, and even if you get home a bit later, it’s a lot more pleasant.

Live close to where you work, or work from home. Of course, if you can minimize or avoid the daily commute altogether, even better! When we were planning to move to Austin, we mapped out all of our potential employers, and chose an apartment that was sort of in the middle of those options. It worked out well: my main employer is about four miles from home, and although Mr. Vega has a longer commute– about eighteen miles– he travels against the bulk of traffic, and he’s able to work from home two or three days a week. Again, that’s not always possible for everyone, but when it is, it’s pretty great.

Although public transportation is not a practical daily solution for either of us, we occasionally use it to avoid the traffic congestion that comes with special events, such as concerts and sporting events. Angelenos in the know, for example, ride the Metro to concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, or take advantage of the park and ride shuttles they offer. Here in Austin, festival-type events have enormous bicycle parking areas, as the locals have figured out that riding their bikes and/or taking the bus can save them both parking fees and time spent sitting in gridlock.

The above suggestions  have become such a way of life for us that, having moved to a city with less traffic, we frequently find ourselves with up to an hour to kill before the event! I’m sure we’ll adjust our habits in time, but meanwhile, we’re doing our best to not contribute to Austin’s growing traffic problem, and while we wait, we’re getting a lot of good reading done!

How do you deal with (or avoid) traffic?

 

Texans are Nice, Y’all!

A few weeks ago, Husband went to get gardening supplies at a big home improvement store, and when he came out, an apologetic man was waiting by our car. The man’s car door had gotten away from him in the wind, and banged heck out of ours. So he did what his Daddy probably marched him to the neighbors’ house decades ago to learn after he broke their window with an errant baseball: he waited, apologized, and set out to make it right. By the time my husband came out, the man had contacted his own insurance company and told them to expect our call.

Mind you, I once got my car keyed in Los Angeles because my friend asked the guy parked next to us if he was really planning to just leave all the trash he had dumped in the parking lot. I’ve been screamed at by two different men at two different gas stations for not pulling up to the front pump (which had been occupied when I arrived). I was actually threatened with a gun in a church parking lot for touching someone’s parked car.

And while I’m sure there are (proportionally speaking) just as many mean, irrational, and mentally ill people in Austin as there are in Los Angeles, there also seems to be a culture of helpfulness and consideration here that a person could get used to. In every store we’ve been to, the employees have guided our experience with helpful information… And so have other customers, for that matter! We’ve been encouraged to try the house salsa, politely informed that growing soil suits our balcony gardening needs better than potting soil, and given a bite of the end piece of brisket to taste at Franklin’s Barbecue. At a burrito shop, when we were trying to choose between the refried beans and the pinto, the tattooed young woman with the blond pigtails who was serving us gently offered that we could in fact have some of each.

Such behaviors might seem like the minimum standard of service in a retail situation, but we’re accustomed to trying to navigate transactions with cashiers who are deeply involved in conversations with their co-workers, or flagging down restaurant servers who plan to drop our check as soon as they finish texting.

And it’s not limited to people who have something to gain from being nice to us: I started a new job last month, and everyone who works there made sure to introduce themselves and see how I was getting along. They answered my questions, recommended shortcuts, and high-fived me when I mastered something difficult. That’s a far cry from the nine years I spent working side-by-side with an ever-changing group of people, some of whose names I never learned. A year after I left, I’d occasionally bump into a colleague who would remark “Hey, I haven’t seen you at work lately, are you on nights now?” We just weren’t that invested in each other, I guess.

The nice man in the parking lot who sat and waited when he could have left a note, or just driven away may never know how much his kindness meant to us, but I hope it comes back to him a hundredfold. Because he, and everyone else that’s been nice to us over the last couple of months, did a lot to make us feel welcome in a place that we aren’t sure we belong yet. And just for today, that’s worth all the palm trees in California.

Tornado Warning

We had our first Tornado warning a few days ago, less than two weeks after moving to Texas.

Husband’s mobile phone started screaming like an air-raid siren in the middle of Orange is the New Black. After we got off the floor, we realized it was not a lockdown but an emergency alert, which was a good thing, as Netflix isn’t part of the Emergency Broadcast System.

We changed from pajamas to street clothes right away, filled the bathtub (because that’s what they do in the movies), and gathered the cats into their crate. We then realized that all of our emergency supplies– otherwise known as “camping gear”– were in the little closet out on our balcony, which is not the place you want to go in gale-force winds with lightning strikes happening literally every second. Husband braved it anyway, and before we knew it, we had our whole little family gathered in our bathroom, which is the only windowless room in our second-floor apartment. 

The threat passed quickly, and turned into one spectacular light show of a thunderstorm, during which, the soles of my sixteen-year-old hiking boots literally disintegrated. That had nothing to do with the storm, though… we were just sitting on the couch. 

It’s a good thing we have a big cupboard in the bathroom because from now on, that’s where our camping gear emergency supplies will have to live, along with the cat cage and a new pair of hiking boots.

Frugal Fatigue

Being tired probably cost us a couple thousand dollars on this move. For the two weeks leading up to Moving Day, and a week afterward, we were the Takeout Kings. Too tired and overwhelmed to shop, chop and cook, we just rolled our cars up to some clown-house speaker box or called over to the local Asian food takeaway… We don’t eat out much, and our old neighborhood was bordering on being a food desert, so our choices felt limited and inferior.

And after a while, so did we.

The more junk we ate, the more sluggish we felt, but we were doing this move ourselves, and so we had to keep going no matter what. I, for one, have never felt so sleepy in my life: it was like driving a U-Haul through the enchanted poppy field on the way to Oz.

All that fatigue led to many rousing choruses of “Just throw it out! We’ll get a new one when we get there!” But what we didn’t consider was that, when we got here, exhaustion changed our tune to “That one seems good enough. If it’s not right, we’ll return it,” and you can guess the third stanza of that tune… For a couple of people that literally count every nickel (and who won’t be seeing any real income for several weeks yet), we went a little crazy.

We’re dealing with the last bit of unpacking and one heck of a spending hangover, here. But we’re back on the frugal, healthy bandwagon, and looking forward to finding our Austin groove.