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.  

Advertisements

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.

7 Mistakes I Didn’t Make in My New City

1. Flying Solo

I’m quite comfortable in my own company: my idea of a restorative weekend involves not having to use my vocal cords for a full 48 hours! Long baths, good books, and going on my own to matinee movies suit me just fine. Back home, I have friends who get that, and who will happily spend an afternoon reading alongside me at a cafe or bookstore, or watching films next to me without commenting on every little thing. But building comfortable, intimate friendships requires meeting people and actually talking to them! So, I’m stepping out of my “comfort zone” by joining things like a local bocce league, which gets me out of the house and interacting with live– and very friendly– humans, on a regular basis.

2. Negatively Comparing Everything to Your Old City

If all I focused on was what I missed, I would be one unhappy transplant. I would also be missing out on all that my new city has to offer. Sure, Austin doesn’t have the Arclight Cinemas, but Los Angeles doesn’t have Alamo Drafthouse, where you can get full meals, snacks, and drinks from the bar delivered to your seat during the movie (well, not yet… but there’s one on the way!). And while I love me a good breakfast burrito, Austin has an entire sub-culture devoted to breakfast tacos, which come with the added benefit of not inducing a food coma before noon. Finally, though I have seen a couple of timid drivers sit through several rush-hour traffic light cycles because of some weird Fear of Left Turns that seems to happen here, not one person honked at them. Isn’t that nice? I’m happy to change my own ingrained L.A. driving habits if it means not hearing car horns blasting literally hundreds of times throughout my day.

(Although, it must be said, I truly believe I will never have another Good Hair Day as long as I live in the State of Texas. Southern California weather wins all contests, every time. Just saying.)

3. Only Going to Places that Remind You of Home

My heart lifted just a little in my first days here when I saw a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and an In-N-Out Burger here in Austin. Heck, there’s even a Frenchy’s Beauty Parlor here (okay, that one is a good thing)! But if I only chose to go to the same places I’ve always been, I’d be missing out on the awesome veggie burgers and fries at P. Terry’s, or the on-tap cold-brew coffee at Radio Coffee and Beer. Part of Keeping Austin Weird is supporting businesses that were created by and for the people that live here, and they’ve got a lot of interesting and wonderful things to offer… things we’ve never tried anywhere else!

4. Forgetting Your Old Friends

It’s been a little challenging being in different time zones, but if I didn’t have regular phone calls and video chats with some of my old friends, life would be a lot harder… especially during these first few months while I’m meeting and getting to know new people. In this new place where no one knows me well yet, it’s easy to feel a bit adrift, so I’ve set calendar reminders to call or text loved ones at regular intervals. They’ve been really lovely about reaching out to me, as well, and it’s making all the difference.

5. Thinking Only of Oneself

Mr. Vega and I spent a pleasantly exhausting Saturday morning a few weeks ago clearing brush at Community First! for Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a social outreach ministry that empowers communities into a lifestyle of service with the homeless. It was great to get out and work hard with other people, for other people, and doing something to help alleviate homelessness puts all our temporary moving discomfort into perspective.

We also attended an event at our local political party headquarters, to register to vote and get to know some of the candidates a little better. In Texas, unlike in California, voter registration must be done in the presence of someone who has been deputized to register them… We’re considering getting deputized, so we can help people get registered before the October deadline. It’s another good way to give back to our new community, and encourage others to do the same.

6. Shopping Only at the Grocery Store

We signed up for a weekly CSA box from Johnson’s Backyard Garden. Because we are not from the South, we’ve had the opportunity to get to know some new-to-us produce, like okra, sweet potato greens, and some kind of melon I’d never seen before… thank goodness for the Internet, and its endless supply of recipes! Every week is a new surprise, and we like knowing that it’s all organic and locally grown. If we only shopped at the grocery store, we’d most likely gravitate toward the things we know, and overlook some delicious opportunities!

7. Driving Aggressively

Our first week here, Mr. Vega noticed that, unlike in Los Angeles where drivers pull their cars out into the intesections in anticipation of their left turns, most folks in Austin tend to wait behind the limit lines for a break in traffic (see #2 for the problems that can cause!). Also,  perhaps because of the congestion in this rapidly-expanding city, people have a tendency to cut each other off a lot– or maybe it’s because so few of us know where we’re going! Taking our time, and allowing other drivers the right-of-way when we can has allowed us to become accustomed to the local style of driving, and hopefully, keep the roads just a little bit safer for everyone, here in our new city!

What are some of the mistakes you have made (or avoided) when relocating to a new city?