How We Became Average Americans (And What We’re Doing to Stop It!)

Last year, Mr. Vega and I were living in a 486-square-foot apartment in a not-so-perfect neighborhood tucked into the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles. We had a thriving container garden on our balcony, and we supplemented the soil with compost created by a colony of red wriggler worms that also lived in a container on our balcony and fed on our fruit and vegetable scraps and coffee grounds. Our meals were all organic and made-from-scratch, often in a slow-cooker, and supplemented with green vegetable juice fresh-made daily. We kept a batch of kombucha brewing on a kitchen counter, a small bottle of organic vanilla beans and bourbon (otherwise known as “vanilla extract”) in a cupboard, and a bigger bottle of cherries, sugar and bourbon (otherwise known as “cherry bounce…” if you haven’t tried it, you might want to!) under the kitchen sink. Our refrigerator was a smaller apartment-sized unit, and we liked it that way, because it was harder to overlook what we had put in there and let it go to waste. We did our laundry twice a month, two loads at a time in our building’s communal laundry room, and hung about half of that to dry on a rack out on the balcony.

We were weird.

We seemed like perfect candidates to move to Austin, Texas… the city’s motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” after all! Housing prices in Los Angeles were proving pretty unforgiving, and we had our hearts set on homeownership, so we packed up a U-Haul and headed eastward, towing one car and shipping another. We had come out a month earlier and secured jobs and an apartment, but because we didn’t know the area, we chose an apartment in a more expensive part of town than our old place in L.A. This one came with a much smaller balcony, and we moved in mid-summer, too late to start a garden. It also has an in-unit washer and dryer, which came in handy, as we weren’t used to the longer drying times required for hanging laundry in the humid air of central Texas. We also weren’t prepared for how we might have to adjust our home-fermenting efforts: my first batch of kombucha grew a healthy layer of mold, and I haven’t found the motivation to try again. Although our apartment in Austin has 50% more square footage than our last place, the storage options are not well-designed, and so the kitchen is much less functional. And we still haven’t learned how to cook on an electric stovetop without burning things!

After a lifetime spent working freelance and part-time jobs, I took full-time work about six months ago, in addition to keeping a couple of my part-time gigs, so that we could save for the house we came here to buy. While I’m glad I did, I now find myself without the time or energy to shop, prep and cook like I used to. Week after week, we found ourselves letting our fresh food languish in the standard size fridge while we stopped for takeout or reached for convenience foods, and without a compost bin, 100% of our food waste has been headed to the landfill. We decided to fill our freezer with some Trader Joe’s frozen options, just to get us through the transition… not ideal, but healthier and less expensive than takeout, or most of the big-name convenience foods. After Mr. Vega sustained a sports injury that makes it difficult for him to walk without pain, even the trek to our closest Trader Joes was proving difficult to fit into my busy schedule, and I found myself shopping at the chain grocery store nearest my workplace, buying and consuming the very products that we’ve avoided so diligently for the past few years. There’s a bit of a vicious cycle going on here: our busier schedules and poorer nutrition means that we have less energy to shop for and cook the healthy foods that would give us, well, more energy! But at the end of a typical 9-hour workday, all we really want is to eat something that we don’t have to cook, lie on the couch and watch TV. And we’ve gained weight. Like most of America, we are now overworked, overweight, malnourished, and trying to function in a state of near-constant fatigue.

Our expenses have gone up, too. Living in a “safer” neighborhood in Austin costs us more in rent than our dodgy-but-familiar part of Los Angeles. The landlord-tenant laws are different here, so our rent is about to go up $200-$400 (the amount would depend on the length of the lease we sign). And our incomes decreased considerably when we left the West coast. We’re fortunate to still be earning enough to give us some margin, even with our current spendy lifestyle, but we’re keenly aware that adding children to our family, needing to care for aging parents, or experiencing a health crisis of our own would change the balance considerably. From where we sit, it’s very easy to understand how some “low monthly payments” for anything that makes life easier would start to look pretty good to a lot of people right about now.

Now we’re average.

What’s keeping us going is the knowledge that our situation is temporary: We’re currently in escrow on our first home. It’s a two-bedroom house, not much bigger than our current one-bedroom apartment, and we’ve got a healthy down payment so our monthly payments will be about the same as our rent. It’s got a couple of fruit trees in the front, a big backyard for gardening, a good-sized kitchen pantry, and a covered deck where we can hang our laundry but still have it protected from summer showers and the grackles that are ubiquitous here. There’s also a gas stove, more counter space and the opportunity to buy whatever size refrigerator we like. If all goes well, in a few months we’ll be collecting rainwater, composting, eating home-grown vegetables again, and playing host to bees, bats and butterflies. We’ll feel more comfortable inviting friends over for dinner and game nights, because there is ample street parking and zero chance of upstairs neighbors complaining about the noise we make when the conversation gets boisterous at our dining table. It will take some effort to keep our tired bodies moving after we come home from a full day’s work, but I think we’ll be able to do it, because we know from experience the good financial and physical health that any amount of urban homesteading can bring. And loathe as I am to do it, because I’ve come to love the people I work with, once we’re settled and have made a few improvements to the house I’ll be able to leave my part-time job and keep my workweek down to a more manageable five days a week instead of six.

We are not wealthy people, but we have had the luxury of working less-than-full-time, or at least of keeping flexible hours, for most of our working lives. Our year of living like “average” Americans has brought me a lot of compassion for people with fewer options. I now have answers to some of the questions in my head that start with “Why don’t they just…?” This experience has taught me that “they” probably don’t exercise the options I’m thinking of because “they” are exhausted and feeling unwell, and there isn’t always someone else to pick up the slack. I’ve learned that an unexpectedly busy week means that fresh fruits, vegetables, and even meats are likely to go unprepared and uneaten, so it’s easier to just not buy them in the first place. I’ve discovered that something as simple as a poor apartment design can have a big effect on a family’s ability to maintain healthy habits. I can see how a weeklong disruption in a steady income could throw off a working parent’s finances in ways that, if you throw in a few late fees and re-connection charges, could take years to recover from.

Living in this country, in this economic climate, is a real struggle for the average American these days. Working flexible schedules, growing and cooking your own food, staying out of debt, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance can go a long way toward making life easier, but those choices aren’t available for everyone. And they certainly aren’t options that I’ll ever take for granted again.

Have you been able to stay out of the “average” American cycle of work-spend-work? What choices have you made to accomplish that?

When Plans go Awry

Last month, we were supposed to fly back to California to attend the wedding of one of our dearest friends. We felt very fortunate that many of our close friends were also on the guest list, so that we would be able to see many loved ones all at once. Our newest niece was born a few months ago, and we were looking forward to meeting her, as well. The flights had been booked and hotel rooms reserved months in advance.

And then I got sick.

Not just a little sick, either… I was running a temperature, my sinus cavities and ears were filled with fluid, I had a cough, and my throat felt like it was on fire. The doctor at the Urgent Care clinic sent me home with some powerful antibiotics and orders to stay in bed. There was no way I was getting on an airplane. What happened next is going to read like an advertisement for the companies we used, but we got such terrific service across the board that they earned the good word-of-mouth!

Fortunately, we had booked our flight using our Southwest Airlines Rapid Reward points, and there was no penalty for canceling the trip. All the points went back into our account. Our hotels had been booked through Hotels.com, and canceling by 6pm local time the day before meant that we wouldn’t have to pay a dime for the rooms we had reserved. Except that I didn’t throw in the towel until about 9pm local time. Mr Vega called customer service and explained the situation… And they let us cancel for free even though we were late! We had reserved our weeklong car rental through Hotwire.com, who also allowed us to cancel without penalty. Finally, we had each gotten some new clothes to wear to the wedding… which we returned, unworn, to the department stores where we bought them.

All in all, our canceled trip cost us… nothing.

I wish I could say that it was all due to my fantastic travel savvy, but the truth is, in a few cases, we were just lucky. To keep costs down, I frequently bid on and pre-pay for non-refundable rental cars at the name-your-own price sites, or reserve hotel rooms that come with very low rates and no-cancellation policies. To us, those are acceptable risks that we take in order to get the savings. This time, the travel gods (or the cancellation gods) were with us.

But in addition to taking extra vitamins in the hopes of making sure that we never have to miss another trip, you can bet I’m going to read the fine print from now on when we book our travel, just to make sure we could get out of it if we needed to.

How to Start Living Below Your Means

I’m sick today. If I didn’t speak for a living, I could probably still go to work, but I’ve got laryngitis, so I am out of commission. Trouble is, as an hourly employee and freelancer, “no work” means “no pay.” The good news is, Mr. Vega and I have the great good fortune of a fully funded (3-6 months of living expenses) emergency fund, and have gotten the hang of living below our means, so we probably won’t need to dip into savings to cover a few days of lost work.

But it wasn’t always like this. Most of my work has come without paid sick time or vacation days, and before I learned to live modestly, even one sick day could create a financial crisis. Never mind “paycheck-to-paycheck,” I lived “credit card bill-to-credit card bill” for a decade, and viewed due dates as mere suggestions, racking up late fees and ruining my credit, while still getting $100 spa treatments on a regular basis. If I heard the suggestion during those years to live within or below my means, it didn’t register, because I wouldn’t have even known where to start.

It’s been eight years since I found myself living in a small, sad apartment, staring at thousands of dollars in credit card and tax debt, alongside statements for hefty paychecks, wondering how I could have earned such a high hourly rate for so long and have nothing to show for it. Less than nothing, actually, because I had a negative net worth!

Something happened in that lonely apartment, and before I knew it, I was canceling credit cards, filing amended tax returns in search of deductions that had been overlooked in my sloppy record-keeping, and trying out slow-cooker recipes to lower my food costs. I ignored my health and my relationships in order to work as much as I possibly could to get the debt paid. My intense focus got me debt-free within a year, but two years after that, I found myself with a $6,000 credit card bill, and a $20,000 car loan. I had learned how to pay off debt, but not how to avoid it in the first place. I hadn’t learned to budget, and I not learned to live below my means.

My first attempts at budgeting failed miserably, because I based them on templates that had little to do with my actual spending habits. As a single woman living in Los Angeles, I spent more than the national average on rent and transportation, but nothing on child care. Grocery expenses were low, restaurant spending was high, and visits to the hair salon were (and still are) non-negotiable. I came to understand that each of us is unique, and our earning, spending and savings will reflect that. What’s more, even one’s own budget will not remain a perfect fit year in and year out, or from one month to the next. Life changes quickly, and we have to change with it. I learned that if you’re ever going to get a handle on this money thing, you have to write down everything you spend. This is a requirement for success, but I struggled with it terribly until I discovered Mint (with whom I am not affiliated, and from whom I have received no compensation), which made it easy for me to see where the money was coming from and where it was going, so that I could begin to make changes based on what was actually happening.

With the whole ugly truth laid out in front of me, the first thing I did was to stop the most obvious money leaks. These are the areas where economizing is relatively painless: I started buying six-packs of soda at the grocery store and taking drinks to work instead of dropping $1.50 a day into the vending machine. I’d drive around the block looking for street parking instead of mindlessly pulling into the pay lot. My lifestyle didn’t change much, and I was still spending too much money, but I was beginning to wake up to the possibility of doing things differently. Things got much more refined later, but at this early stage, every time I didn’t super-size my order was a win for me.

After I got the hang of easier things, I began to get creative with the less-obvious opportunities for savings. I scoured my auto insurance policy for coverage I didn’t need, checked that my cell phone plan wasn’t more than I needed, and scheduled coffee dates with friends instead of dinners out. It became a game for me, and no savings was too small: the double-loader washing laundromat machine that cost a quarter less than two separate loads, the ten-cent savings at the coffee shop for bringing your own cup (later, of course, I switched to brewing my own coffee), the grocery store that offered a nickel credit for bringing your own bag…. I began to enjoy finding some sort of savings everywhere I went. After all, pennies add up to dollars, eventually.

Another major step in my financial awakening was beginning to declutter. I thought selling some of my no-longer-used things might be a good way to create more space in my home and in my budget. It was quite a shock to learn that I couldn’t expect to receive even half of what I had paid for most things, even if they had never been used! The exercise of decluttering and downsizing my possessions made me keenly aware of the purchases I made going forward. I have since cultivated a practice of buying less, buying for life when I can, and doing my level best to avoid retail prices everywhere else.

When I had just about reached the limits of minimizing my expenses within the life I was living, it became time for me to make a big move. For me, this first meant cutting cable and killing my TV, and later, moving in with a roommate to reduce my rent by $400 a month. And while it seems counterintuitive to not have begun with these things, baby-stepping my way up the ladder of frugality allowed me to garner small wins and develop an experiential conviction that larger sacrifices would be worth the effort. And they definitely were.

With my expenses cut as deeply as I could manage, my next task was to learn to earn more, which was by far the riskiest thing I did, as it involved working less, and taking a few chances with my schedule of part-time jobs and freelance work. But because I had finally paid off all my debt (again!), and brought my expenses more in line with my earnings, I could afford the gamble. The graphs and trends on Mint helped me realize that the job I deemed most stable, but that also caused me the most stress, accounted for only 10% of my annual income. With some trepidation, I left that job and increased my availability with the employer who was less stable, but paid much more. As last-minute freelance assignments come with a 20% premium, I held off on booking lower-paying work in advance, in the hopes that the higher-paying, same-day assignments would be plentiful enough to meet my needs. And I spoke up: when a new manager came on board at the freelance agency, I told him honestly that although the agency was one of my favorite employers, I frequently declined work there in favor of higher-paying jobs. Within the month, I was offered a rate commensurate with what I earned elsewhere. By choosing my assignments carefully, and giving highest priority to the highest-paying jobs, I was able to increase my income and reduce my workload.

Rinse and Repeat. By the time I had found so many ways to reduce my daily expenses, had brought down a few of the big ones, and learned to make more money in less time, life had changed enough that going back to the beginning seemed like a good idea. I had met and married my husband, and we began budgeting together early on in our dating relationship. “My goals” had been modified and expanded to become “Our goals,” which included saving for a house, and while the household income had doubled, regular expenses had not (two may not live quite as cheaply as one, but happily, the cost of running a household doesn’t double when its occupancy does). Eating a nearly meat- and alcohol-free diet didn’t work so well for my husband, so grocery expenses were higher, but cooking and eating at home was more fun with a companion, and so the restaurant budget shrank. And since we moved from California to Texas, we’re spending less on gasoline, but more on mosquito repellant!

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned on the path to living below our means is that you’ve got to have fun doing it. Brown-bagging my lunch means I get to eat healthier, more interesting meals every day, and still have enough money to get my hair done every other month, without having a minor panic attack when it comes time to pay. Losing my loyalty to name-brand products made by companies who aren’t concerned with my well-being means that I can fill our fridge without draining our bank accounts. Finding free fun on weekends lets us enjoy life while saving for a house. And taking a few calculated risks in order to earn more money allows me to stay home and write when I’m sick without fear that the lights will get turned off next month because of it.

Is living within or below your means important to you? What changes have you made, or would you consider making, to do it?

When Life Gives you Lemon-Face.

What stereotypes do you have when you think of Californians? What images come immediately to mind?

Perhaps you think of people that say “Dude” a lot, folks that eat organic food and put avocado on everything, or drivers that see stop signs mostly as suggestions. Do you imagine Californians to wear jackets only as fashion statements, vote Democrat, and talk to children as though they were already fully formed human beings?

Ok, then you’ve got a pretty accurate picture of us, as well as most of our friends and family. And if these descriptions don’t apply to you, then a lot of it might sound humorous, if not downright distasteful.

Now think about Texas.

Different, right?

We spent a lot of time sorting out where in these United States of America would be the best place for us to live. We took into account weather, culture, economy, demographics, geography, crime statistics, opportunities for career and education, and of course, the availability of organic food. We researched property values. We talked about how it might feel to move so far away from family and friends, and what cultural shifts we might end up making. A lot of time and effort went into this decision, and we believe it to be a good one (Still, though, we do have a backup plan, in case we’re wrong).

But occasionally the response we get from people with whom we share our choice is a face that looks like we popped a lemon wedge into their mouths when they weren’t looking: “You know that’s in Texas, don’t you?!” they sputter, “That is a Red State!”

Or they remind us that it’s so very very hot, or that it’s over a thousand miles away from our current home, or that the pollen count in Austin is off the charts. My favorite was the one who turned her nose up and the corners of her mouth downward; “My ex lives in Austin,” she sneered. The whole state of Texas, it seems, is therefore contaminated. Dude must have really done a number on her (Hilariously enough, one of our exes just moved there, too. Won’t it be jolly to bump into each other and say “Hello” over the organic avocados?).

As for the rest of their objections, well… We know all that stuff. We actually have a few friends that are Republicans, and most of them are all right (which is why we’re, you know… friends). And we have cars with air conditioning, and access to maps, and doctors who confirm that while we are allergic to grass, and sensitive to dust, and that one of us could die if shellfish is on the menu, neither of us is allergic to pollen. Also, it must be said, we’re excited to move from the highest-taxed State in the Union to one that has No. State. Income Tax (“But they have high property taxes!” Yes, yes, we know that, too).

We get that our people don’t want us to leave. We’re going to miss them, too. We’re also going to miss living near(ish) to the beach, and perfect weather, and having our favorite theme park an hour’s drive away. But we were hoping for a little more excitement and a little less… Sour Face. And certainly, as each person registers his or her response, they have no way of knowing that it’s our dozenth time sitting through some version of “Texas sucks, and you’re going to hate living there.” Which might be true, but on the day we move to Austin, we’ll be just two of over a hundred humans that day who move there. Unemployment is among the lowest in the nation, and rental occupancy among the highest. If we’re making a horrible mistake, at least it’s a popular one.

Maybe– hopefully– the people who love us will come to accept and support this move. Maybe they’ll even find their way clear to getting on an airplane sometime and seeing what this place we’ve chosen is all about, when you get past the stereotypes and into the reality of it. The way they did when they moved to Hollywood, and discovered that not everyone here has perfect teeth or drives a convertible (Although most of us do, so that’s probably a bad example. You get the point though, right?). And, in all fairness, people do seem to enjoy SXSW. As a matter of fact, they’ve all pledged to absolutely, positively visit us for a week next March.

In the meantime, we’ve got plenty of raw, organic agave to go with those lemons…

(Los) Vegas are Leaving

A little over two years ago, after a ten-month courtship, we stood in front of about twenty-nine people in Twentynine Palms, CA, at 2:29pm on February 29, and got married.

In our wedding vows, we promised to come together and create a new home, one that would be a place of peace and joy. I don’t know how many couples include homemaking in their vows, but I think we had each found ourselves in so many tough spots in our lives before we found each other that it was important to us to have a soft place to land in this marriage, and not just figuratively. We’re gentle, sensitive people, and we need sanctuary from a world that’s getting harsher and more indifferent by the day, it seems. We also long for a space big enough to not only keep us safe, but also to welcome in loved ones…and strangers who may become beloved, as many of our friends already have.

We found a tiny little apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood for much less than the going rate, and we got down to work: there were debts to pay, bodies to mend, losses to grieve. Most importantly, there were dreams to be dreamt.

Over hot stoves, on long car rides, in the relative safety of our bed at night, we began to create the vision for the life we wanted. We spoke of a small house with a big garden, and (hopefully) a child or two. In our minds’ eyes, we sketched out the kitchen, decorated the family room, and chose the type of insulation we wanted. And all the while, we counted our pennies and saved as much as we could.

The pennies added up, but not quickly, and the harder we worked, the farther away our dream house began to feel. We watched real estate prices rising in our city, and calculated how many more years it would take for us to afford a home… The younger of us turns forty this year, and we began to awaken to the reality that, if we don’t want our starter home to be a retirement home, we needed to consider leaving Los Angeles.

Our search for a New City began with the one we visit the most, in the Great Pacific Northwest. We have siblings there, and a niece (and now a new nephew!). Could we forgo our dream of a long growing season to be closer to loved ones? Almost certainly. Would the one of us that’s prone to depression find a way to thrive in a city that sees two hundred and fifty rainy or cloudy days annually? Probably. Could the spouse that identifies as “Hispanic” acclimate to going days at a time without speaking Spanish to passersby on the street, or folks at the grocery store? Um… maybe?

As we considered that city, and the next, and the one after that, we came to recognize, and be able to define, what elements our New City would require in order for us to manifest our full potential as individuals, and as the family we were becoming. We began looking for a place that would offer ample opportunity for growth in each of our careers. A place at least as sunny (if not as arid) as our beloved City of Angels. A city where each one of us, brown and white, could see ourselves reflected in the faces of our neighbors, and hear the music of our native languages in their voices. We wanted big-city happenings, and a small-town feel. A place where our aspirations could rise as our roots deepened. As our list of wishes grew longer, our list of cities grew shorter. Until finally, one city remained: Austin, Texas. And we’re not only asking what our city can do for us: The city has issued a plea for years, on bumper stickers and tee shirts, to “Keep Austin weird!” We figure we could help with that. We’re givers, that way.

We set a timeline for early 2016, and re-dedicated ourselves to saving up for the move, but as luck would have it, we lost a job rather unexpectedly, and for confounding reasons. It seemed unfair, but it also seemed like as good a time as any to go. After all, if we were going to conduct a job search, why not do it in our New City? Moving Day just advanced by a couple of years, and is now set for June 2014. Which is like, almost now.

We don’t feel ready, but perhaps that’s the point of a Big Adventure, isn’t it? At some point, you just have to start, and trust that, if you’re on the right path, what you need will be provided.

At least, that’s the plan…