The Contingency Fund

One of the things we’ve learned from watching home improvement shows on television is that in any project, things will go wrong. Things will break. A simple appliance installation will balloon into the need to open a wall and re-wire part of the house. Your intention to do everything yourself will transform into needing a professional on-site ASAP.

When we found the house we wanted, we were annoyed by the clause in our apartment’s lease that required a 60-day notice to vacate. As it turns out, we will be moving into our new home on Day 59 of that period, because we’ve encountered a few unexpected problems.

Mr. Vega decided he wanted to scrape off the ugly acoustic ceiling before we moved in. Our internet search for “how to scrape a popcorn ceiling” yielded the suggestion to test for asbestos before doing that kind of work on houses built before 1980. We found a local lab that could rush the results for $75. We found out we were indeed the proud owners of a toxic ceiling that would cost $2500 to have professionally and safely removed. Ouch.

Fortunately, we had prepared in advance to expect the unexpected: in addition to our down payment and closing costs, we made sure we had about 5% of the purchase price set aside to make the place feel more like home. We also maintain an Emergency Fund, but as the asbestos only poses a health risk during removal, we agreed that Ugly Ceilings are not an actual emergency. Still, we’d feel better having the job done before we move our furniture, our pets, and our own lungs into the place, so we went ahead and had the work done.

Then when the gas company came out to connect the gas and inspect the appliances, they discovered that the stove that came with the house was leaking gas, which meant they weren’t allowed to connect it. The appliance repair men said it would be an expensive fix, and as it wasn’t a good stove to begin with, we had it hauled away, along with the old, moldy fridge that was in the house. We were lucky enough to find an inexpensive, well-reviewed fridge with a freezer on the bottom and in the smaller “apartment size” that we prefer, but we decided to splurge on a professional-quality gas range, to the tune of about $1800 (which is a great deal for the kind of stove we’re getting, but it’s not pocket change!).

We’ve got some other issues, like non-existent insulation in our central Texas attic, a colony of ants that have chosen that attic as the place to build their home, and a central air condenser unit inexplicably– and quite dangerously– perched on the roof that is not designed to hold that kind of weight. While some of these issues could become emergencies, they aren’t yet, and we’re grateful for our Contingency Fund. It will be completely drained before we even move in, so we’ll have to postpone our plans of replacing the old drafty windows with double-paned ones or installing a rainwater collection system, but we’ll still have our Emergency Fund, and we won’t have gone into debt to fix the problems.

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We Did it…

… We bought a house! Our first house. And we’re pretty excited.

Four years of hard work, paying off debt, saving money and one cross-country move later, and we have a house! Right now, I’m going to say that it has all been worth it. We made a 20% down payment and bought the house for exactly market value, which is kind of a bargain in the real estate frenzy that is Austin. So we’ve already got a good amount of equity, and our net worth hasn’t changed. Which is strange and wonderful, considering we just handed over almost all of our savings except for our Emergency Fund.

It’s small. As in 800 square feet, 2-bedroom/1-bath, single-car garage small. Buying a smaller, older house allowed us to stay within our budget, which was several thousand dollars less than the current median home price in Austin, but still stay close to downtown and some of our favorite South Austin neighborhoods. Having a smaller house also means, of course, that it will be less expensive to cool and heat as well as being easier to clean. We want to replace both the roof and the flooring at some point, and those things will also be cheaper because of the house’s smaller footprint.

The lot is a relatively large 1/4 acre, which gives us plenty of room for gardening and entertaining. And there is plenty of room for the house to grow, if we ever decide that a third bedroom or a second bathroom is a necessity. We’re planning to build a compost bin ASAP, planting a mini-orchard of fruit trees, and even considering getting a few chickens.

Built in 1968 and used as a rental property for the past decade, it’s going to need a fair amount of work. We see that as a benefit, though because it was another thing that kept the asking price low, and also because we can do most of the improvements ourselves, to get things exactly how we want them. Some of the first things on our list are high-efficiency appliances, double-paned windows, and a rainwater collection system.

There are train tracks just behind our back fence, but it’s in a “quiet zone,” which means the trains are not allowed to blow their horns except in emergencies. Houses that abut train tracks are generally considered less desirable, which helped with the affordability factor, and honestly, I find the sight and sound of freight trains nostalgic!

The neighborhood is funky and eclectic… No cookie-cutter houses, and most importantly to us, no HOA. Homes in our new neighborhood have interesting creative decor and landscaping: some of them even have their vegetable gardens in the front. We were also pleased to spot a few harbingers of creativity and a laid-back vibe in the area: free-range children!

This is the thing we’ve worked so hard to do, and we’ve been able to do it on our own terms, so we’re very happy. We’re looking forward to what lies ahead, as we continue our journey toward self-sufficiency and financial independence.

More Than Money (Hidden Emergency Fund Ideas)

Last week, we got word from my sister-in-law that my husband’s mother had taken ill, and needed to be hospitalized. She’s home now, and on the mend, thank goodness, but we were naturally on high alert, preparing for the possibility of traveling the thousand miles that separate us from her. We’ve got a decent number of airline miles that we’ve accumulated for use in the event of an emergency requiring last-minute travel in the continental United States (we’d have to use our Emergency Fund to get to our loved ones in Hawaii, if the need arose), and that got us thinking about what other non-cash resources could get us through an emergency or hard times.

Years ago, I read an article by personal finance writer Liz Weston called “The Emergency Fund You can Eat.” In it, she wrote of maintaining a fully stocked pantry and kitchen as a first-line defense in the event of a financial crisis. Picking up an extra item or two with each visit to the grocery store may be easier for some people than trying to pile up a month’s or more worth of cash, but might ultimately yield the same results: if the money stops coming in for a time, a person or family wouldn’t go hungry while they sorted out their next steps. Bonus points for keeping a garden, no matter how small. This particular strategy has come in handy for us countless times: when we’ve been too sick (or too busy!) to get to the grocery store, during the gap between starting a new job and receiving our first pay, and since we moved to Austin, during the occasional Severe Weather Alert, when it’s safest to stay off the roads.

Savings can take on many forms, and one of the ways we’re ready for emergencies is that we’ve saved up some of our paid sick days and vacation time at work. Well, Mr. Vega has, anyway… Being new at my full-time job, I have yet to accumulate much paid time off, but it’s my intention to get and keep a couple of weeks’ worth banked to use if an emergency should arise. Not everyone has this option at work, but some places will let you swap shifts or cover for each other. Helping co-workers out when you are able can also act as a sort of Rainy Day Fund: even if it won’t replace your lost income, having people willing to cover for you can save your job when you have to miss work.

To that end, maintaining good health is another crucial component of a cashless Emergency Fund. Cooking up some of that healthy pantry and garden food, staying hydrated, sleeping well, and getting regular exercise can not only prevent missed work days and lower medical expenses, but it can also provide the ability to physically respond to crisis. It’s easier to handle the loss of a car for a person who is in good enough shape to ride a bike to work, or walk to and from a bus stop. Someone who finds themselves unable to afford their rent is also likely unable to hire movers; having spent some time slinging weights around will make a DIY move much less painful. And healthy bodies stand a better chance of thriving should the need arise to care for an ailing loved one, or to take a second job to make ends meet.

Sometimes it is nice to be able to rely on plastic when times get tough, and that’s when we reach into our wallets for our library cards. I went a year without internet service when I was paying off debt, with the help of free library wi-fi. When I was finished with my work, I’d head over to the easy chairs and spend a little time enjoying current issues of magazines that would have cost me $5 each to buy. I’d leave with an armful of borrowed books, CDs and DVDs that provided a sense of abundance in addition to the information and entertainment I got from them. Most big-city libraries also provide classes in financial and computer literacy, job search help, storytimes for children (it’s not child care, but just letting someone else read to the kids for half an hour can be a real sanity-saver for stressed-out parents), movie screenings (sometimes with popcorn!), and here in Austin, the public libraries even host monthly Adult Craft Nights!  And all of it is free.

Finding money to deposit into an Emergency Fund is difficult, and even when we have the money, it’s not always pleasant. But investing in supportive relationships is a fun way to create a strong safety net for ourselves. Healthy friendships and familial relationships lessen the risk of depression and reduce the length of unemployment. If we remember to stay in touch with and enjoy the people we love when things are going well, then in hard times, those same friends and family will be there so to help each other move, provide care and companionship during illness or after an injury, or even prevent homelessness. While none of us like to imagine it, we wouldn’t hesitate to do the same for them, and it’s important to remember that accepting and receiving help when we need it also provides the giver with a sense of meaning and importance in their own lives. And being part of a robust social network makes us more resilient, so our difficulties are likely to pass more quickly than if we were trying to handle them all alone.

Getting some money in the bank to rely on in an emergency is ideal, but there are also plenty of other ways to prepare for crisis ahead of time. What are some of the ways you’ve found to be ready for whatever life throws at you? 

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?