The New American Experience

It’s taken me awhile to collect my thoughts since November 8. I have an acquaintance who reaches out to me now and then, for support and occasional big-sisterly guidance. She’s a lovely, caring and intelligent young black woman living in a metropolis far away from her family. The past few years have been difficult for her, as our country has seen escalating brutality (or is it simply increased coverage of the violence?)  against people of color, as well as a persistent systemic indifference to the loss of black lives. Even as she works hard to achieve her dreams and live a life of meaning, she is bombarded with imagery and messages that contradict what she knows to be true about the essential value and goodness of herself and her loved ones. Fear and oppression create a constant undercurrent to her daily activities.

She contacted me after the election. “Is this really happening?” she asked, “What do I do?

She asked me to write about it. I’ve taken that charge seriously, even as I marvel at the irony: How can I, a white woman in my 40’s, advise a young black woman about navigating the American experience post-election in 2016? I’ve heard many white people’s advice to black people about staying safe in police encounters: “Be respectful. Be polite. You won’t get hurt if you just follow instructions.” The trouble with that advice is that it doesn’t work for people of color. Philando Castile couldn’t have been more respectful and docile when asked for his identification, and he still ended up dead, murdered in front of a child. There isn’t a more submissive posture than kneeling with your head bowed, and still, Colin Kaepernick is getting death threats for exercising his 1st Amendment right to express his opinion. There is no amount of submission that guarantees a person of color safety in the presence of a white person’s fear. And our current political and social climate has intensified that reality by orders of magnitude.

As a woman, I’m frightened enough for myself. My husband is big and strong,  but he also has black hair and brown eyes, and skin the color of a perfect latte, and for the first time since I’ve known him, I’m genuinely afraid for his safety. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be black, or to be (or look, whatever that means) Muslim, or gay, or to be an immigrant to this country, documented or not. Because when riled-up white dudes go looking to smash someone, they don’t stop and ask for papers.

But afraid and overwhelmed of people never triumph. The people who navigate adversity successfully, even during the most terrifying of times, are those who are able to steady their nerves, clear their heads, and take action. And so that’s what I’ve spent the past couple of weeks considering. There are some clear and astute writings out there offering instruction on how to resist the oppression that threatens to accompany the incoming regime, so I won’t try and and re-invent those ideas, but here’s what I want to share with my young friend, and with anyone who cares to know my thoughts:

  1. Stay Safe and Healthy. It’s more important than ever for people who feel vulnerable or targeted to ensure our physical safety first. It’s unfair and oppressive, but we can’t change the world if we’re dead, so be extra careful about where you go, how you go, and with whom. Get off your phone and stay alert to your surroundings. Gas stations, parking lots and bus stops seem to be popular places for troublemakers to target individuals, so be extra mindful being alone in those places. And we all need to take action to maintain our physical and psychological health, including good nutrition, regular exercise and social engagement, staying hydrated and sleeping. If you’re currently insured, especially through the Affordable Care Act, get your check-ups and glasses and dental exams and whatever else you may have been putting off before December 31, because the healthcare landscape is facing some potentially drastic changes. Those probably won’t happen in 2017, but why take chances? Make the appointments now.
  2. Stop being Incredulous. Really. Right now, make a decision to never let the words “I can’t believe it” leave your lips again. It’s happening. It’s real. Accept this reality and position yourself accordingly.
  3. Boost Your Signal-to-Noise Ratio. Gather facts, not opinions. Mind your news sources, and check the source and the date of any article you see on social media before you read or share it. Edit your feed, and start to hide, unfollow, or block sources of misinformation or fear-mongering. We already know it’s bad. We need to know exactly what is happening, and what we can do about it. Also, stop arguing with people on social media. If anyone’s mind is to be changed at this point, that will happen through experience and example, not because someone in a comment thread told them to think differently. And subscribe to print media. The free press is already dying, and we need to support it.
  4. Determine Your Priorities. The Dakota pipeline, the rise of the white supremacy movement known as the alt-right, the 700+ (and growing) hate crimes that have been committed since the election, for-profit prisons, women’s health care, voter suppression, attacks on immigrants, climate change, for-profit prisons and the militarization of police…. the list goes on. Trying to address everything all at once could lead to doing nothing at all. Pick an issue, or your top 2 or three, and focus. Trust that other people will do the same for the issues that speak to them the most.
  5. Ask Before Helping. If you really care about something that you aren’t directly part of, inquire before jumping in to help, because they might need something other than what you assume. Or they might need it later, because everyone is trying to help right now, and they’re overrun.
  6. Take an Action (or Two) Daily. Once you have determined your priorities, and inquired as to what might be most helpful. Do one or two things every day to effect change or offer support. Call one legislator. Make a donation. Sign up for training to escort women to medical clinics. Offer to accompany your friend or neighbor  who feels vulnerable to the grocery store, or to pick up a few things for them while you are out. Do what you can, in small doses, as a daily practice.
  7. If You Feel Called to Protest, Learn How to Do it Safely. Don’t just show up with your pithy poster board and flip-flops. Read up on what you need to do to prepare for the physical and possibly legal discomfort you’re signing up for.
  8. Cultivate Joy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Holocaust survivors I’ve had the privilege of meeting in person, it’s that happiness is a discipline that must be practiced daily, regardless of circumstance. Your misery will not alleviate the suffering of others, but your joy can serve as a beacon to attract others into your circle. You are alive, and younger than you will ever be again. Don’t waste it.

Lastly, my husband and I had a long talk this past weekend about the dangers of conflating “conservatives” with whatever we’re going to end up calling the phenomenon of hatred that is overtaking popular discourse at the moment. We agreed that it’s more important than ever to listen carefully and gather all the facts before taking action of any kind. Responding to headlines, stereotypes, or appearances is what got us into this mess. It certainly won’t be what gets us out of it.

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Review: Your Playbook for Tough Times, by Donna Freedman

I first came across Donna Freedman’s writing nine years ago, when I stumbled on an article called “Surviving and Thriving on $12,00 a Year.” I was experiencing a personal Upheaval that year, and this brave woman’s proclamation to the world of how she planned to address her own unstable circumstances looked to me like a letter from a supportive friend: “Things may be bad now,” she seemed to say, “but we can make them better if we hang together.” I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights found me re-reading her article, just to know that I wasn’t alone. I’ve read pretty much everything she’s written since then, and played the at-home game of the financial tips and tricks she’s tried in her own life, and do you know what? Things DID get better. Little by little, I managed to pay off all my debt (twice! I’m a slow learner), begin to save, and eventually get to a place of peace regarding my finances. During that time, I met and married my husband and moved halfway across the country where we bought our first house together and figured out a way for him to quit his job and return to school full-time. I even got to meet Donna in person and share a couple of meals and good conversations with her when she came to our new home town of Austin, Texas… Something my scared and overwhelmed Past Self could never have imagined in 2007!

So when her book Your Playbook for Tough Times came out, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it! Fortunately, I didn’t have to: I was lucky enough to receive a copy to review. 

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One of the things that I have always loved about Donna’s outlook is her firm belief  that frugal living– even when things are at their tightest– doesn’t have to be miserable and that in fact, it can be quite lovely. Her book promises to show you what she’s learned about living on less whether you’re presently in dire straits, anticipating financial difficulties soon to come, or simply trying to squeeze the most out of your current lifestyle.

And she delivers on her promises in spades, with literally hundreds of solution-oriented tips, offering ways to find more budgetary breathing room that hit from all angles, such as how to earn more, how to spend less, and perhaps the most radical idea of all: how to live happily with less altogether.

The Great Recession of 2008 marked the beginning of an exciting time for the personal finance genre. Whereas historically, books on finance have been written by economists and titans of business, Post-Recession financial bloggers and authors are people from all walks of life,  sharing the daily unfoldment of their personal setbacks, life experiments, and successes. Donna Freedman is a shining example of this New Breed of personal finance writer: Just about everything she suggests in her book is something she has personally tried and found worthy of suggesting. Because learning the principles of real estate investing or restructuring corporations may be interesting, but sometimes, you just need someone to tell you how to keep your electricity on or make sure that your kids get dinner.

The book is an easy read, almost like an e-mail from a trusted friend. It’s peppered with personal anecdotes and loaded with concrete resources,  from money-saving websites to resources for healthcare and housing, to suggested scripts for negotiating better prices on purchases. If you need to streamline your financial situation today, this book can help you do it, because Donna has done a tremendous amount of thorough research for you so that all you have to do is get online or pick up the phone to start making your life better.

Overall, I think it’s a terrific resource for anyone looking to wrangle their financial situation into something more manageable. It’s the sort of book you’d want to keep around, so you can implement some of the suggestions and then come back for more once those have been mastered. And it would make a wonderful and sensitive gift for anyone facing some kind of financial upheaval.

The book is available as a paperback or an e-book, and over at Amazon, if you buy the paperback, you can get the Kindle version for $1.99, which makes it nice for sharing.

If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think… please come back and share in the comments!

 

Frugal Tuesday: Use Dried Beans!

Beans are cheap. Dried beans are cheaper. Like 70% cheaper than canned. And with none of the pesky BPA that lines many cans. Cooked beans can  also be frozen, to make them nearly as convenient as canned beans. If you’ve been putting off using dried beans because you always forget to soak them overnight, you’ll be glad to learn that that requirement has been debunked: you can start with dried beans right from the pantry and have a delicious finished product in 1-3 hours on the stove, depending on the variety. Which happens to be just about the amount of time needed to do a load or three of laundry, so it’s win-win. Or you can use your slow-cooker and come home from a long day’s work to a delicious dinner that’s crazy inexpensive

The Internet abounds with recipes for cooking dried beans, but this past weekend, I used this Tejano Pinto Bean recipe from The Food Charlatan. Actually, I adapted the recipe to use some of the stock I made from our Thanksgiving smoked turkey carcass, which made the beans smoky and awesome, and amazing on nachos!

Do you have a favorite dried bean recipe? Please share in the comments!

 

On Self-Reliance

Daisy Luther over at The Organic Prepper recently posted a piece called Self Reliance Strategies for Small Spaces, Temporary Locations, and Rentals, which got me thinking about how the Little Hippie House is doing on that front, and how we might improve. I know the word “prepper”sometimes conjures some extreme ideas, but there are more similarities among hippies, preppers, homesteaders, and even gentrifying hipsters than one might think. Our politics vary widely, but most of us share a vision of being as self-sufficient as our circumstances allow. We’re tired of relying on a broken, profit-based supply system to meet our basic needs, and would rather do it ourselves wherever we can.

Working toward self-reliance serves a variety of purposes, from tiding a household over till payday, to making sure the food you eat is free of toxins, to surviving the zombie apocalypse that even the CDC has (jokingly) acknowledged could happen. And self-sufficiency is scalable: In our 486 sq. ft. apartment, we had a balcony garden for herbs, tomatoes and peppers, about two weeks of water stored, and plenty of beans and grains stored in pretty containers. We knew how to turn off the gas to our apartment building in the event of an earthquake, and we had some ideas about how to evacuate from our city in the event of a large-scale natural disaster or civil unrest (not unheard-of in Los Angeles).

We’re still settling in and working on our self-reliance at our new home in Austin. We’ve planted a backyard orchard with nine varieties of fruit, and our little winter garden was fairly successful. Spring will find us expanding the garden to include warm-weather crops, and doing some edible landscaping out front, and adding rain gutters and barrels for water harvesting. Like California, Texas experiences frequent and severe droughts, so it’s important to us to have a cost-effective way to keep our little urban farm alive when the next one hits. Having been through several job changes over the past few years, we have learned that keeping a well-stocked pantry is nearly as important as our emergency fund, and it also comes in handy when we’re just too tired (or sick) to make it to the grocery store!

You don’t have to be a “crazy prepper” OR a “crazy hippie” to appreciate the security and satisfaction that self-reliance brings. One of the beautiful things about about it is that it’s not limited to preparing for one particular outcome: Maintaining a vegetable garden is just as wonderful when we are living in financial abundance as when times are tight. Being able to water it with collected rainwater benefits the planet and our wallets. Living close enough to bike or walk to work means that we can take advantage of our mild southern climate and stay employed regardless of gas prices or whether our cars are running. And the list goes on.

Which aspects of self-reliance appeal the most to you? What have you been working on lately to increase yours?

 

 

 

 

Frugal Tuesday: Start Your Seeds!

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It’s that time again, in most of the northern hemisphere… If you haven’t already, grab a shallow container, some lightweight growing material, and some seeds and let’s get growing! Of course, you can always pick up some seedlings at the nursery in a few weeks and start your gardens that way, but several packets of seeds usually cost less than a couple of baby plants. By starting with seed, you can get a lot more for your gardening dollar… and did you know that you can buy seeds and plants with food stamp benefits? That’s right: Food stamps grow gardens!

We are not the most masterful gardeners here at the Little Hippie House, but we do know that the more you do it, the better you get. And so we’ve started seeds for two kinds of tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, and eggplant. Everything else, we can sow directly into the garden after the season’s last freeze.

What’s in your gardens this season? Are you growing anything from seed? 

 

Frugal Tuesday: Freeze it!

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Years ago, Nigella Lawson blew my mind when she suggested freezing the rest of any wine still left in the bottle, to use for cooking later. Poured into a freezer bag and tossed in the freezer, it makes a sort of slush that is easily measured for use in recipes. I tried it, and I haven’t looked back! You can freeze all sorts of things: bread, milk, grated cheese, casseroles, Chinese take-out… even fresh herbs in olive oil or broth, poured into ice cube trays. Do you like iced coffee? Coffee ice cubes are a game-changer!

Frugalista extraordinaire Donna Freedman has mastered the art of freezing food scraps in a “boiling bag “to be reincarnated as broth later. If you like soup even a little bit, this practice will ruin you for canned soup forever. Luckily, soup freezes well, too.

If you’re not freezing your leftovers, or your little bits of ingredients that are left after using what you need for a recipe, not only are you wasting food and money, but you are depriving yourself of the enormous convenience of having just-enough tomato paste, pesto, or other fantastic things to take your weeknight cooking from adequate to awesome.

What’s in your freezer?

 

 

Our January 2016 Budget

I created my first budget about ten years ago from a template I found in Dave Ramsey‘s book The Total Money Makeover, and after years of practice, it’s become habit for me to make a new budget every month.  I get asked on a regular basis to help people set up their budgets. I’ve been able to sit with a few friends, but time and distance prohibit me from helping individually every person who asks. Every household is different, so every budget needs to be different, too. Also, it’s important for me to say here that I am not a financial planner or adviser, and that everyone needs to be accountable for making informed choices about their own money. That said, since it can sometimes be helpful to get an idea of what other people are spending on and saving for, we have decided to share our budget. I’m showing where our money goes as a percentage of our take-home pay, both to maintain some privacy and also because it’s more practical: Regardless of the dollar amounts, it’s a good idea to try and save some money each month, meet your basic needs, have a little fun if you can afford to, and return something, however small, to the communities and organizations you care about.

Here’s how it breaks down this month for us:

  • Giving 3%. This category is on the small side this month. Not being religious, we don’t tithe, and we only have one gift-giving occasion in January. The balance of this category will go into donation boxes of non-profit institutions we visit this month. We also make an effort to contribute to charitable organizations and relief efforts throughout the year, and volunteer some time to causes we support. 
  • Emergency Fund 10%. Our Emergency Fund is currently big enough for us to survive for about four months with no other income. While that felt comfortable for us when we had one spouse with a full-time job, and one with several part-time and freelance income streams, now that we are down (for the time being) to one partner with one full-time job and a very little bit of part-time work, we are working toward having a year’s worth of expenses set aside for emergencies. By my calculations, at the rate we are able to save, it would take us about six years to reach that number! Because we anticipate returning to our 2+ income status in a couple of years (thereby returning to a smaller Emergency Fund), we’ll probably never hit our temporary goal, but we’re aiming to set aside 10% of everything we bring home in the meantime. 
  • Tax & Insurance Fund 10%. We maintain a separate account where we amortize our annual term life and auto insurance premiums, and set aside money to pay taxes on any 1099 income. 
  • Mortgage 25%. Our only debt is this 30-year fixed-rate loan, and we made a 20% down payment to avoid PMI. If we don’t pay anything extra, the payment (including principle and interest as well as escrow for property tax and insurance) is a quarter of our current take-home pay. We REALLY wanted a 15-year mortgage, but if we had done that, our currently reduced income would be more of a crisis than an inconvenience, so I guess we made the choice that was better for us. Still, we’re planning to get it paid off just as soon as we can.
  • Utilities 3%. This includes electric, water, natural gas, sewer and trash pickup. We are constantly looking for ways to reduce our usage, and hope to continue to see this number go down.
  • Mobile phones 3%. Our mobile phones are recent-release smart phones with high-usage packages. Admittedly an indulgence, we switched providers last year to save about $250/year over what we used to pay, and this expense would be the second cut we made in a financial crisis (the first is coming up below).
  • Home Improvement 2%. The Home Improvement Fund is one of the last budget categories we pay into right now. We are making continuous minor improvements at the Little Hippie House, and hoping to save enough to replace the aging roof, remodel the bathroom & kitchen, tear down a load-bearing wall, and install new floors. That all could take quite a while, but we’ll keep chipping away at it, as our finances allow.
  • Cable/Internet 2%. Cable would be the first thing to go in the event of a financial crisis, and I suppose our internet would have to slow down a lot if things got tight (or maybe not: Google Fiber is slowly making its way into our neighborhood). But it’s another indulgence we’re comfortable with for now.
  • Transportation 1%. Our transportation expenses will be ridiculously low this month, in part to one of us being a stay-at-home spouse, and the other one working just a few miles from home. Having paid-for cars that won’t need servicing, inspections, or registration in January helps a lot, too! (Remember, though, that our car insurance falls into another category… this number would double if we included it here)
  • Food 11%. Food is the big budgetary challenge for us this month, but we’re determined to make it work. When our income is bigger, we normally spend about double what we’ve allotted for January! This month, we’re planning to minimize meals out, work our way through the frozen holiday leftovers, and take advantage of our upcoming small winter garden harvest. In addition to feeding ourselves this month, it’s my hope to use 5-10% of our weekly food budget to build our home food store… I really love going to our little chest freezer for a gallon of milk or to our garage for a jar of peanut butter instead of having to run to the market when things run out!
  • Pet Care 1%. This category this month consists entirely of canned food for our two cats. We have more than enough kitty litter and dry food to get through the month, and their annual veterinary visits aren’t until March. 
  • Clothing 2%. We aren’t planning any clothing purchases this month, but we’re setting a little aside so we can do a Big Shop in the Spring. 
  • Entertainment 3%. Entertainment is the one area where we consistently  underspend! Every month, it’s a challenge to get ourselves out to the movies, a play, or to hear some live music. We’re still working on that, for the sake of balance.
  • Personal Care 9%. Our Personal Care budget should really be called “MY Personal Care budget,” as Mr.Vega gets an inexpensive haircut every other month or so, and is in the process of growing an Epic Beard, so we no longer buy him razors or shaving cream. Because I’m in the process of Changing Looks, hairwise, this month, this category is more than double what it usually is.
  • Education 6%. Even community college costs something, at least for now: there are a lot of political promises being made on the campaign trail to change that. That will be lovely if it happens, but in the meantime about 6% of January’s pay will go for tuition. 
  • Vacation 7%. Last summer, we went to a five-day music & arts festival that we just loved. It’s time to buy tickets for the next one, and because it’s an out-of-town camping trip, we count the tickets as a travel expense, rather than “entertainment” (and this part is a little weird, but because the event is limited-capacity, tickets are sold lottery-style, with each person allowed to request a maximum of two tickets. We each put in for two, and if we get all four, we’ll sell the extra pair at face value and recoup half of our expense. But we’re sending payment for four tickets in January, so that is what we have to budget for).
  • Professional Development 2%. My new job will reimburse me for this training after I complete it this Spring, but registration is first-come-first serve, which is why I’ll be paying for it this month.

So there you have it: our January budget, with every dollar accounted for. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but we’re not unhappy with it. Feel free to share in the comments how different it is from (or similar to) yours… I’m always curious to learn how other people are doing it.