On Insurance

The apartment complex that we lived in for our first year in Austin experienced a fire the other day, and lost a whole building. 24 units. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but about sixty people lost everything they owned, and thirty of them are still displaced, just in time for the holidays. Not everyone lost their homes in the fire: the rest of them had everything they owned destroyed by smoke, sprinklers, and firefighting efforts. We only moved out of there five months ago, so we know that complex requires tenants to carry $100K rental insurance policies, but that wasn’t a hard sell for us: we are big believers in maintaining insurance.

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Our renter’s insurance policy, when we had one, cost us $363 annually, or a little more than $30 per month. We have come to view insurance as an inextricable cost of whatever we’re insuring: If we can’t afford to insure a car, for example, then we believe we can’t afford the car at all. Around here, health insurance comes before restaurant meals and entertainment, life insurance takes priority over gifts or travel for family visits, and homeowners insurance gets paid before we buy things for the house. Because before we get anything new, we want to make sure that an accident or illness wouldn’t cause us to lose what we’ve already worked so hard to achieve.

It’s not easy to watch our hard-earned money vanish into the ether every time we make an insurance payment. We’d much rather get a newer car, or at least get the ones we have detailed, than pay for insurance we hope we’ll never use. The amount of the annual checks we send for our term life insurance policies could pay for a weeklong tropical vacation every single year (The longer you wait to buy it, the more it costs. And you’ll never be any younger than you are today). And we would each be sporting pretty stylish wardrobes if we chose not to spring for our own “affordable”health care coverage each month.

But here’s the thing: If we were to drive without car insurance, say, we would be subjecting ourselves to hefty fines (in the neighborhood of a year’s worth of full coverage) just for failing to produce evidence of insurance at any routine traffic stop. An accident that totalled one of our cars would leave us without the transportation that is an integral part of our ability to earn money and be self-supporting. And in the event that we found ourselves damaging someone else’s vehicle or causing them bodily injury, we could be sued for damages, and lose everything we have. Similar or worse scenarios play out when one considers forgoing health insurance, renters or homeowners insurance, and life insurance. One moment of distraction, once suspicious lump, or in the case of the apartment fire, one cigarette on someone else’s balcony that isn’t fully extinguished, and any one of us, without insurance, is looking at total financial ruin. So, we’re willing to shell out some money to protect ourselves from those potential outcomes, even when it means giving up on some of the other things we want.

Insurance isn’t sexy or fun. But if something bad happens and you’re uninsured, it could be years, even decades before you (or your survivors) are in a position to do anything sexy or fun at all. So before you leave your uninsured home to put your uninsured body into your uninsured car and drive to the mall to spend the $830 that the average American will spend on Christmas this year, consider spending some of that cash on covering your assets. Because however little you think you have, it is guaranteed to cost a lot more than you imagine if you were to lose it all.

 

 

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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?

Battening Down the Hatches, Y’all

We received a letter this week from Mr. Vega’s employer, regarding medical benefit options in light of their upcoming corporate merger. There is quite a bit of uncertainty regarding how coverage will be handled, and they’ve made it clear that there will be employment redundancies. The bottom of the letter contained this lovely tidbit:

* If you are terminated, you may have rights to continue your FSA through “COBRA” (which we’ll explain more about if that becomes necessary), but you’ll do that on an after-tax basis, which is not advantageous for most.

This is the point in our program where we prepare for the worst, while continuing to hope for the best. All expenses must be questioned, and all unnecessary spending gets put on “pause” until our financial skies are clear again. Waiting to make changes until after a job loss could be devastating for us, both financially and emotionally: we could weather a transition much more gracefully if we were already prepared for it, rather than trying to make drastic lifestyle changes while also dealing with the psychological trauma that can accompany the loss of a job.

Fortuitously, I spent some time the other day creating a menu plan for November. I took my inspiration from The Prudent Homemaker, a full-time wife and homeschooling mother of seven children, who used their food storage as the basis for keeping her family cared-for during her husband’s eight-month period of unemployment. Using her seasonal menu as a template, and making adjustments for our smaller household, dietary preferences, and busy schedules, I put together a month-long plan for eating delicious and healthy meals that are also lower-cost. An unexpected benefit of meal planning is that it gets us out of our ruts, and reminds us to eat a greater variety of food. Left to my own devices, I’d eat Trader Joe’s whole wheat cinnamon rolls and a latte every. single. morning. But there’s a whole world of breakfast food out there, and writing it all down helps me remember how much I also love fresh fruit and Greek yogurt, oatmeal pancakes, and eggs scrambled ever so slowly.

As timing would have it, Mr. Vega’s 1991 Honda CR-X has reached the point where the annual repair costs are more than the value of the car itself. After running the numbers and weighing the pros and cons, we’ve decided to purchase a newer used vehicle. Counterintuitive as it may seem, we have enough in savings, and we’d rather buy a reliable car now than continue to pay for unforeseen repairs during a potential period of unemployment. And let’s face it, job interviews are stressful enough without worrying about whether your car will start to get you there, or having your air conditioning give up the ghost when it’s 90 degrees out!

Ironically, we do most of our shopping in anticipation of lean times, as that’s when we feel the need to stock up, in case we won’t be able to later. I dislike shopping so much that I generally don’t replace my clothes until they are threadbare, but I may look to upgrade my wardrobe a bit in the light of this merger uncertainty. I currently have just one pair of shoes that I wear for work, and I’d prefer to shop the sales now, rather than scrambling to get something cheap-but-appropriate if these give out during a time of hardship. This is also as good a time as any to start planning our spring garden so that we’ll be ready to plant our balcony container garden when the time comes. Fresh, homegrown food is lovely whatever one’s circumstances, but it’s especially wonderful to be able to get food from your garden instead of the market when money’s tight.

Because the merger threatens to leave us with reduced benefits even if we do keep the job, we’ll be sure to attend to our medical needs before the end of the year. We want to have healthy bodies, strong teeth, and brand-new pairs of eyeglasses that have been covered by insurance. One of us could use a new set of orthotics, as well. These are the sorts of things we should be doing anyway, but this new sense of urgency will make sure that we do.

Mr. Vega will indeed be updating his resume and LinkedIn profile and seeing what his options are, sooner rather than later. If his company’s merger results in widespread layoffs, the market will be flooded with folks looking for work, and we want to get the jump on the rest of the talent pool.  And because our household functions as a cooperative whole, it’s job-search time for everybody around here. So, while I do enjoy my part-time and freelance work, I also have two interviews scheduled this month for full-time positions that come with the all-important Benefits Package. Landing one of those would allow my husband to widen his job search to include less traditional opportunities, without worrying that we’d be left without medical coverage.

We’ll also be making a greater effort to keep up with our still-forming social and professional networks. We view “networking” as a way to cultivate and deepen authentic relationships, rather than as strictly transactional contact, and so it’s important to us that we spend some time with folks now, and not wait until we’re in need. Whether those connections result in professional opportunities or not, a robust social life will go a long way toward easing the stress of unemployment, if it happens.

We are very lucky to have moved to a city with so much free and inexpensive fun. There’s almost never a cover charge for live music (and when there is, it is oh-so-worth-it), there are plenty of festivals and activities happening all the time everywhere around here, so it will be easy to keep our spirits up and hang out with our new friends at bargain basement prices. We’ve got a couple of social buying vouchers hanging around for inexpensive dinners and movie nights, and we’re looking forward to hosting some game nights at home, as well. It’s good to have a little fun once in a while, especially during periods of increased stress or uncertainty.

We were already planning on keeping things low-key this year, but we’re still going to need to rethink the holidays. We generally do home-made, consumable gifts for everyone in our fairly large family and closest circle of friends, but this year’s gift idea is a bit pricier than usual. Not crazy expensive, but when you’re giving to a couple dozen people, it adds up quickly! We’re going to have to reconsider our gifting, and perhaps just send cards to everyone but family. We do feel blessed to have people around us who aren’t likely to feel slighted, though… material things mean much less to our loved ones– and to us!– than the actual relationships. A card means as much to all of us as a gift… especially if the giver is on a budget!

Closer to home, our own first holiday season in Austin will be spent exploring the city’s decorations, giving some of our time to help people who are currently less fortunate than we are, enjoying homemade seasonal goodies and free holiday movies, and video chatting with our faraway loved ones.

Once the merger has come and gone, we’ll be able to breathe our sighs of relief, and return to business as usual around here. If the layoffs don’t come, we might find ourselves on the other side of this with more stable, higher-paying jobs, closer relationships within our community, in better health, and with some more money in the bank. Sacrificing just a little comfort and convenience now, when we can afford to, seems like a small price to pay in exchange for the security of knowing that we could take care of ourselves in the event of a job loss.

How have you “battened down the hatches” when faced with uncertainty in the workplace or periods of unemployment? 

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.