How to Exercise with Friends who are Recovering their Fitness

After several years of inactivity and weight gain, I am Ready to Exercise!

People who struggle with their weight, or who experience psychological or emotional imbalances that interfere with consistent self-care and fitness have probably been here many times: After a period of inactivity, we find ourselves ready and even excited to return to a fitness regimen. We generally also find ourselves with a body that is much less fit and possibly much, much larger than it was the last time we were in an exercise groove. Calling that “discouraging” is an understatement at best.

If you are friends with someone like me, and if you are reasonably fit and your schedule aligns with ours, you may at some point receive a request to exercise with us. We want accountability, companionship, and encouragement to do this thing we’ve probably done or attempted many times before: Getting in Shape. In the past, we may have run marathons, biked across Europe, or hiked to Machu Picchu. We may have played sports for many years, or been dancers when we were younger. But whatever our previous achievements, we now find ourselves at the beginning, and needing support. And if we’re feeling very brave, we may even ask for it.

I recently reached out to a friend who, although I enjoy her company immensely, became my workout partner mostly by virtue of having a schedule similar to mine and belonging to the same gym I do. After a few workouts together, I have realized that she’s the absolute model of everything I have ever needed in a workout partner when I am doing the difficult work of Getting in Shape. I feel so very lucky to have her in my life and especially to have her at the gym with me!

I want to share what she does that I find so helpful, so that any of you reading who find yourselves in her position might be able to better navigate it, or so that anyone currently standing in my XL active wear might get some ideas about how to recognize and ask for what they need to be successful.

To begin with, She’s Flexible About Time. My friend schedules enough time at the gym to allow me to do a longer, slower workout, or to finish a workout that began later than expected. She understands the massive psychological resistance I have to work through just to get there, and so if I’m running late, she simply hops onto a cardio machine and greets me cheerfully when I arrive. Unlike working with a personal trainer, a late start with my friend doesn’t have to mean a shorter workout. She understands that what may be a 45-60 minute experience for an already-fit person could take me up to 90 minutes, and she never rushes me.

Something else she does that is incredibly healing and esteem-building for me is that She Lets Me Lead our Workouts. I’ve exercised with many people, some of whom were professional trainers, who mistakenly equate my being fat or out of shape with an ignorance of how to exercise. But my workout partner understands that I have experienced both Being Fit and Getting Back in Shape many times, and she respects my knowledge of fitness and exercise. She may do higher-intensity activities in between our sets, or get on the stair-climbing machine next to my treadmill during cardio, but she’s also genuinely happy to let me do the workout I already know my body needs, and is even excited about learning from me! Unless you’ve done it, I don’t think you can imagine how intensely validating it is to be the fat one at the gym helping your fit friend with her form and breathing! She even texted me the day after our first workout to say that she was sore in new places, and thanked me for getting her out of her fitness rut! I honestly feel that she’s benefitting from this arrangement as much as I am, rather than holding herself back to let me catch up, and it’s wonderful for me to feel valued for what I have to offer.

In our conversations at the gym, I’ve also observed that She Doesn’t Tell Me How to Think About Myself. She winces a little every now and then when I use the word “fat,” but she doesn’t do that whole “You’re not fat!” thing that women often do to each other. Telling someone what they just said about their experience isn’t true is not a compliment, it’s projection at best and gas lighting at worst. With a BMI of 30.4, I’m straddling the line between “Overweight” and “Obese,” and pretending otherwise is neither helpful nor flattering. When I mention my weight, or the difficulty it’s causing me, she listens and sometimes asks questions, but she doesn’t try to assuage her own discomfort by telling me that my experience or my feelings about it are wrong. What she did say today when I was talking about my flabby arms was, “Well, your tattoos are way too beautiful to cover up, so I’m glad you’re willing to show them off!” Now that’s a compliment!

Finally, and this may seem like a small thing but it can make the difference between success and failure for someone in my position, She Schedules our Next Workout Before She Leaves. She and I have dynamic work/life schedules, and so we can’t simply decide to exercise every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday before or after work like many people can. Before we say “goodbye” for the day, we get out our calendars and choose the next time to meet, typically within 2-3 days. If we need to change it later, we can, but having the next workout agreed to and scheduled eliminates the potential barrier for me of having to contact her and go through several rounds of phone- or text-tag to make plans to exercise again. At this stage of my fitness, where everything still feels unduly challenging, it would be all too easy to give in to the temptation of letting it slide for a few days, and then a week or a month, and eventually giving up altogether. The simple act of taking a moment to put it in our calendars removes that temptation and keeps me on track.

Everything my friend does to make me feel excited about going to exercise with her, I think she does intuitively, without even realizing how deeply she’s helping me heal from the issues that prevented me from maintaining my good health and fitness in the first place. She happens to be genuinely patient and accepting on a level that few of us (myself included) ever master without a great deal of inner work and practice. But everything she is doing is also relatively simple to put into practice with just a little self-awareness and effort. For your friend who is fighting their way back to being healthy after an extended period away from exercise, your ability to show up just a little differently for them could be the very thing that gets them through this critical “beginning-again” period and back into a life of comfort and ease in their bodies and in the world.

And that would probably make you both feel fantastic about yourselves.

Seriously: Live Beneath Your Means!

Stretching a dollar!

Stretching a dollar!

This past Summer, I realized that the full-time job I had taken on was not a good fit for me. I called my husband and explained my feelings, and he responded “Then quit! We’ll be fine, we always have.” The next morning, I tendered my resignation.

A couple of months later, A Random Thing happened at one of my several jobs, and work hours were cut in a way that affected some people (myself included) more than others. It’s been humbling to hear people speak about the problems that the drop in income is causing. Because while the change has tightened our finances, it did not constitute a financial emergency in our home, the way it has with some of the others.

Shortly after that, Mr. Vega reached his personal stress limit at his place of employment– in fact, with his entire field of employment– and we were able to make a plan for his career change that allowed him to leave his job within a couple of weeks. He is registered and ready to return to school in January, for a two-year program to train for an entirely different career.

Most recently, a family friend lost a close relative, and Mr. Vega was able to get on a plane with a week’s notice to attend the funeral in another state. Spending time with his friend of more than twenty years, and with his friend’s extended family of origin, gave him insights he would have never gotten otherwise. Not only was he able to support a dear friend during a sad time, but their connection was enriched simply because he could be present.

Although it’s actually a lot more fun that most people might imagine, living beneath our means isn’t always easy. Mr. Vega wore the same three pair of dress pants for work until they literally wore out. I finally replaced the last pair of work appropriate flat shoes I owned… about six months later than I should have. We have eaten beans and rice and potatoes and leftovers cooked more ways than I previously thought possible. We drive subcompact cars when we would prefer SUV’s and classic trucks. We bought a house with one fewer bedroom, one fewer bathroom, and one less garage space than we would have liked, because it was important to us to keep our payments well below what we could afford. Those are all choices we have made so that we could pay off our debt, save an emergency fund, and buy our own home.

Spending less when you have the ability to spend more feels, in some ways, more challenging than being flat broke. Because the money is there, after all, and there are days when it feels like everyone we know has more than we do. They drive newer, nicer cars,  eat out in fancy restaurants, wear more fashionable clothes, live in bigger houses, and take actual vacations to exotic locations where they aren’t even visiting relatives! Most people assume from our spending habits that we’re broke, and those who know better wonder why don’t just “treat yo’self” the way they do. On top of that, we see tens of thousands of advertisements a day, all of them telling us that life will be better, we will be more attractive, and that we will feel more successful if we just buy their service or product.

That all starts to look pretty darn tempting, until we realize the true cost. In 2013, CNN Money reported that 76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and earlier this year, Deutche Bank published findings that 47% of American households have nothing saved for an emergency. Which means that for the vast majority of people living in my country, a job loss, an illness, or even a cut in hours could throw them into bankruptcy, or worse: The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that more than half a million Americans are currently homeless, and nearly 8 million of us (including members of our own family) are living doubled up with family or friends, representing a 67% increase in doubled-up living since 2007.  Another 6.4 million of us are spending more than half of our monthly income just on housing. That’s not living, that’s survival.

We still go out, spend money, and have fun… we just make sure that when we do, we’re spending less than we could potentially afford. Last night, we picked up some good friends in our little paid-for car, went downtown for a few $4 Happy Hour cocktails, and then took a walk to view a free, outdoor art exhibit. We spent hours talking about everything that was on our minds, encouraging each other in taking steps to achieve our goals, and having a really, really good time. At the end of the night, we went back to their modest apartment, talked some more, and rolled around on the floor with their affectionate, happy (and rescued!) dogs for about an hour. You can’t buy that type of contentment.

This morning, we made a breakfast hash of leftover coffee-rubbed pork and– you guessed it– potatoes, that was as delicious as any $12-a-plate restaurant meal, and we’re looking forward to taking in a movie tonight at Alamo Drafthouse with some new friends. Although the food at the theater is very good, we’ll probably have dinner at home first and then just get some drinks and snacks at the movie, and our good time won’t be lessened because of it.

Because when Life Happens, and it always does, we don’t want to have to stay in jobs that make us miserable, or go into debt to make our bills, or miss out on showing up for the major life events of the people we love… or lose our home. Choosing to live beneath our means allows us to retain control of a lot of other decisions in our lives. Decisions that would be made for us if we lived paycheck-to-paycheck and an emergency arose.

Can you find one thing you can spend less on than you have been, no matter how small? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.  

Can Two Live as Cheaply as One? We’re About to Find Out.

For several months, Mr. Vega has been in slow burnout mode at work. Telecom sales is a constant, high-pressure environment that has been fitting less and less with the person he is becoming. About a month ago, we spent five days camping off-grid, enjoying good food, the company of friends, and time spent in nature. His first day back at work, I got a text from him: I’m sitting here at my desk thinking that I’m wasting my time and my life here… This weekend really did me good.

We spent a week and a half talking about what he wants to do, how we want to live, and how to make that happen. We ran the numbers, and we ran them again. And a few more times, just to be sure.

Ten days later, he resigned.

The plan is for him to start school full-time in January, spending a couple of years training for a career in which he doesn’t have to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything. Or sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed, you know, as a career. *

For the next couple of months, he will be a full-time homemaker, quite literally: there are garden beds to be built, a porch to screen in, rain gutters to install, and a host of other home-improvement projects to tackle in our Little Hippie House. There is a lot that we’ve been wanting to do, but we haven’t had much time for it.

Building Raised Beds

We’ve spent the past few years ensuring that we could handle a shift like this: We are debt-free except for the house, and we made sure to buy a house that we could afford on one income, if it ever came to that. After we paid off all our consumer debt (and before we started saving for a down payment), we built an Emergency Fund that would allow us to continue our lifestyle unchanged for four months with zero income, or for much longer if we reduce our expenses and maintain some kind of income. Since purchasing the house, we have resumed our Emergency Fund contributions, with a long-term goal of saving a full year’s worth of expenses.

We believe that with the right cuts, we can live modestly on my freelance income, without tapping into our Emergency Fund, and maybe even continuing to grow it, little by little. Mr. Vega has committed to getting at least a part-time job if we find ourselves unable to manage, although we would both prefer that he didn’t have to.

There will be sacrifices, mostly involving entertainment and travel, but we’re excited to have the opportunity to walk our talk to live meaningfully, and happily. We’ll continue to work toward making our home as self-sustaining as possible, and welcome all the friends and family who have the means to visit us in Austin. And we’re grateful to be cultivating friendships here with folks who share our values, and who are just as happy as we are to spend a weekend camping or an afternoon playing board games, instead of doing spendier things.

At the end of his training, Mr. Vega will be eminently employable, with a starting income that will at the minimum match what he was earning at his high-stress job, and with the potential to double in a few years’ time. To our farway friends and family, you can expect a visit from us beginning in 2017, but in the meantime, y’all are welcome to come on down any time you like!

*with gratitude to Cameron Crowe, Say Anything (1989)

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? 

Nothing Changed When we Paid off our Debt

Mr. Vega and I became debt-free a couple of years ago. It happened quietly, and without fanfare. He’d been working hard to negotiate some old, unpaid credit card bills that had gone to collection, and ended up settling about $10,000 worth of debt for around $4,000, one bill, one phone call, at a time. The only thing left was my car payment, which for some reason, I had been stalling on paying off even as we amassed a healthy savings account. Then one day, on a break from work, I called the loan company and did the payoff over the phone. Just like that, we were free from debt.

And nothing changed.

Not having monthly payments outside of rent and utilities is nice, but we have continued to save so aggressively that our lifestyle hasn’t changed: we cook at home, search out free and inexpensive entertainment, consider even the smallest purchases carefully, and do our best to negotiate the best rate for everything we spend money on. This year, I volunteered to be a support person for our bocce league in exchange for free registration ($45), and a $25 weekly credit, which I share with Mr. Vega, at the team’s sponsoring pub. We exchanged both our juicer and our vacuum cleaner several times because we kept finding lower prices. And on our last Date Night, we hustled over to a local bar right after work because the first sixteen customers that ordered cheese plates (normally $16) got them for free. We chase bargains because it’s fun for us: we like getting a good deal nearly as much as we enjoy whatever it is we’re buying or consuming. Living frugally helps us live a little more lightly on our ailing planet, as well: growing and cooking as much food as we can for ourselves eliminates a lot of packaging, as does buying in bulk. Every article of clothing that we buy used or trade with friends is one less thing that has to be shipped from overseas and then driven by truck to our local store. Our habits and practices are right in line with those of our friends who earn less than we do, or who are busy paying off debt themselves. We also socialize with people whom we suspect make and have much more money than we do, but our friendships revolve around time spent together enjoying activities that don’t cost much, so the subject of money rarely comes up.

This week, I made a long-overdue phone call to roll a 401(k) from a previous employer into a personal IRA. I spent quite a bit of time speaking to a customer service agent at the investment firm, who was gathering our personal financial information in order to ensure I was getting into a product that met our needs (and presumably the company’s need for profit, as well). Part of our conversation went like this:

CUSTOMER SERVICE GUY: Okay now, so, if we were to take all your debts, your car loans, personal loans, credit cards, home equity lines of credit, and student loans… how much money would it take to pay all of that off today, hypothetically speaking?

ME: Three hundred and forty dollars. We use an airline miles credit card that we pay off each month.
(pause.)
CUSTOMER SERVICE GUY: WOW. Well, um… Congratulations!

I really enjoyed the feeling of hearing someone who is privy to the innermost financial workings of thousands of families so taken aback. We are not wealthy, earn a modest income, and in fact, are woefully “behind” in our retirement savings, but simply being debt-free is so unusual, it seems, that it rendered this guy momentarily speechless.

So, nothing about how we live our daily lives changed when we paid off our debt. We didn’t buy fancy new wardrobes, take a vacation, or start upgrading our electronics. But there is an indescribable lightness about us now that we go to work every day because we want to be of service and earn money to save for our house instead of showing up just because we couldn’t make the rent if we didn’t. Car troubles for us these days are inconveniences and not crises. And we moved halfway across the country to pursue our dreams knowing that if an emergency should arise for any of our family members, we could afford to be at their side within a day’s time.

Nothing really changed when we paid off our debt… but somehow, everything is different.

 

 

All About That Bocce

When Mr. Vega and I moved to Austin last Summer, building a strong social network was (and still is!) a very high priority for us. We’ve read that close friendships prevent depression, extend lifespans, and lessen the likelihood of long periods of unemployment. Oh, also, it’s fun to have friends! Fortunately, Austin has plenty of opportunities to socialize… outdoor films, free music, art walks, fun runs… you name it. One of the activities we happened across was Austin’s inaugural season of Major League Bocce— which sounds more advanced than it is, as beginners are welcome, too! We’d never played bocce before, and we didn’t have a team to join with, so we signed up to be placed with other random folks, and convened in a little park on a hot summer night to see what we’d gotten ourselves into. We were placed with two other couples and one single guy… all of whom had a fair amount of experience playing bocce, but fortunately for us, the learning curve is pretty shallow (mastering the game, however, is another story!). And while the learning curve isn’t steep, the park where we played is We spent the next six weeks chasing our balls as they rolled down the hill into other players’ courts, hollering “Sorry!” and learning how to roll the ball left to make it go to the right. Afterward, we repaired to the local pub for some adult refreshment and conversation. It was a great good time, and we ended up becoming close friends with one of the couples from our team.

We’re constantly looking for ways to be of service in our new community, so when I learned that Special Olympics Texas has a Bocce Competition, we were eager to help out. We had a great time escorting the athletes to their games, keeping score, and cheering them on. Because they had spent eight weeks training for the competition, they actually had more experience than we did, and we picked up a few tips! More than that, we got to see how truly accessible the sport is for people of all age ranges and with a wide range of physical abilities.

We returned to our second season with a renewed enthusiasm for the game, and when we were asked to help out again, we didn’t hesitate. This time it was a special event at a new apartment complex: They have a bocce court on the property, but none of the residents knew how to play, so we spent a pleasant couple of hours on a chilly Fall night showing them the ropes (at least as well as we know them). The neighbors got to know each other better, and we got to drink some free-to-us beer and play our new favorite game!

Season three will find us back on the bocce court, where we’ll team up with some new faces, and deepen our friendships with the folks we already know. I’m also volunteering with the league this season, so I’m looking forward to getting to know people from a different perspective.

Moving to a new city and creating friendships isn’t easy, but organized social events and sports teams provide an opportunity to get to know a group of people who share your interests, and the repeated exposure gives friendships a little time and space in which to grow. And sometimes it’s nice to mix things up a little, even if you’ve lived in the same place for years… you can never have too many friends in your life! Who knows? Trying something new just might open up a part of life you never knew you were missing!

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?

Work More, Earn More? Not Necessarily

A lttle over four months ago, Mr. Vega and I packed up a moving truck and left California for Texas, in pursuit of the American Dream. Real estate is cheaper here, we had read. Texas has no state income tax, and unemployment is lower, especially in Austin, our city of choice. What we didn’t quite plan for, however, is that while still much lower than in Southern California, the cost of living in Austin has increased dramatically over the past few years, and most incomes, including those in our fields of sales and service provision, haven’t kept pace. Our natural response was to kick into high gear at work, but we are coming to understand that working more doesn’t automatically mean earning more. Here are some things we’ve had to consider in our search for the sweet spot in our schedules:

In all freelance work, as in sales, it’s important to consider that opportunity cost is inherent in commitment. For every gig I accept, or every meeting Mr. Vega schedules, there will be others that we will miss. And while it’s unwise to try to keep one’s options so long that all the chances dry up, it’s generally a good idea to leave a little space in our schedules to take advantage of previously unforeseen opportunities. As a side benefit, rush jobs or last-minute gigs often come at a premium. In Los Angeles, same-day requests for service in my line of work are billed at a higher “emergency rate,” but that isn’t standard practice in Austin. What I’ve discovered as a freelancer is that, even though it’s out of the norm here, some clients are indeed willing to pay a 20% premium to have same-day service requests covered, and so I’ve gone against the grain and set my rates accordingly. In Mr. Vega’s line, the more urgently his customers need service, the more they’re willing to pay for it. If he were to schedule all his meetings three weeks out, he would run the risk of not being able to provide service to clients who need contracts signed today, so they can be up and running next week.

Profits aside, helping people handle their professional emergencies builds goodwill. There are many reasons besides procrastination that people need service at the eleventh hour: deals fall through, providers fall ill, and bad luck can befall anyone. Whatever we charge (and it’s not always more) for last-minute work, our clients and customers will hopefully remember that we came through when they were in a tight spot, and express their gratitude through referrals and repeat business.

Another good reason to avoid the temptation to over-book is that diversifying work environments grows word-of-mouth. We could keep the bulk of our efforts focused on a few select clients, but that increases the risk of decimating our income if we were to lose just one or two. Instead, we believe that the more people we can get our faces in front of, the more our phones are likely to ring. We need to leave a little margin in our days if we want to widen our sphere of influence in order to keep our income more stable.

Once the opportunities have been claimed, it’s important to bear in mind that working less can yield a higher-quality work product. There’s a joke sign I’ve seen hanging over the cash register in auto mechanics’ shops: “Good, Fast, or Cheap. Pick two.”  In order to earn more, we have to be willing to deliver a quality work product on-time, every time. The more over-booked we get, the more likely we are to cut corners or miss deadlines. And the more we do that, the more we have to lower our rates. So, declining work every once in a while allows us to do better in the work we do accept.

So, we’ve left some options open, and we’ve given ourselves time to do good work, but we also need to leave some room in our lives for self-care. Because in reputation-based careers such as ours, image is everything. I work closely with my clients, often when they are meeting new people, and am frequently viewed as an extension of them. If I am late, disheveled, or too exhausted to perform my duties well, that will reflect on the people I am assisting. One bad experience can result not only in losing that person or entity’s business, but also to developing a reputation as a service provider to avoid. And in sales, people are more likely to buy what you’re selling if they want what you have. The “used-car salesman” stereotype exists for a reason: too many salespeople have bought into the “work more, earn more” paradigm, and they come off creepy and desperate. But if a salesperson who appears fit, rested, and organized recommends a product or service, then unconsciously, folks are more likely to think that making the purchase just might make them a little more fit, rested, and organized. And because we allow ourselves a bit of time to attend to our lives outside of work, we’re not the people asking you to wait while we make personal phone calls or respond to texts. When we’re at work, we’re… well… working! Doesn’t that sound like someone you want working for you?

The concept of working more to earn more also reaches its limits when we find ourselves spending more money to maintain a busy work schedule. In our household, healthy eating is one of the first things to suffer when we get overbooked. We get so busy that cooking gives way to restaurant takeout, and eventually gets downgraded to fast food. “Just this once” becomes nearly every night, and then starts to include lunches, too. In addition to the expense of the food itself, the lack of quality nutrition contributes to lower energy levels and weakened immunity. The more poorly we’re eating, the less resilient we become, and eventually, our go-go work schedule leaves us sick and unable to work. Not to mention the weight gain, which can lead to having to buy new clothes that actually fit (Also, am I the only person who has ever bought clothes because I hadn’t found time to do laundry?) Minor clothing repairs can escalate into major wardrobe malfunctions when left undone due to busy-ness. Hectic schedules also deprive us of time to care for our homes and our cars… neglecting maintenance and repairs can be costly in the long-run, and few things are more embarrassing than exiting a cluttered, filthy car and finding yourself face-to-face with your client.

Keeping a too-busy life also harms personal relationships, which are a requirement for mental health and long-term happiness. After all, if we’re doing all this work to be able share the rewards with our loved ones, we’d better make sure there are some loved ones still around when we finally reach our financial goals!

To that end, I think it’s worth looking at why we’re so driven to earn. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the American businessman who takes a vacation to Mexico, where he meets a young father who spends his mornings on the beach, fishing only enough to feed his family, and then spending the rest of the day with his wife and kids. The businessman tells the fisherman that he should fish all day in order to sell some of the fish and earn money, so that he can buy a boat and employ a crew to earn even more money. The Mexican fisherman asks the American what the result of all that work would be, to which the businessman replies “Well, after many years, if you work very hard, you can retire, and spend your days fishing on the beach with your wife and grandchildren.”

Certainly working and earning to better our lot in life is a noble goal… That’s exactly what we’re doing, and why we made our big cross-country move. But there comes a point at which simply doing more work starts to take us farther from what we’re trying to achieve, rather than moving us closer to our goals. As Mike Rowe says, “Work smart and hard,” and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

Home (Away from Home)

Austin is finally starting to really feel like home. I’ve worked at my Dream Job twice now, so I’m finding myself in a familiar environment, and our social circle continues to grow. Our second-ever Bocce season began last Thursday, and it was a blast! We’re playing in a new, closer location with a reconfigured team, and one of our old teammates has become the Volunteer-in-Charge. I think relationships are strengthened when people get to experience each other in different ways, and because we’re new here, this is our first time doing that with our new friends.There’s something exciting about seeing them in slightly different roles (and new team colors!). The game was a lot of fun, we happened to win, and we all enjoyed spending some time together afterward at our new host bar.

The next morning, Mr. Vega and I volunteered to run a bocce court for our local Special Olympics Bocce Competition. We got to learn a little more about the game, and see what it looks like when the players aren’t drinking beer! As it happens, one of my interpreting colleagues was there, on duty… We’re starting to feel like real Austinites, running into people we know everywhere we go. Now I know why Texas ladies are always so put-together: you’re bound to be seen by someone you know anytime you leave your house! I, on the other hand, ran out of makeup two weeks ago, and haven’t bothered to buy any more. Whoops.

Saturday found us at  the Austin City Limits Music Festival, an event many locals avoid like the plague (“The traffic! The lines! The tourists!!). We got a ride from a neighbor– How nice is that?!– and had a wonderful day. The weather was perfect, and the lines for beer and bathrooms were short. We got to see some of our favorite bands, and get exposed to a few new ones. There were food carts galore, as well, so we tasted food from some local places we hadn’t gotten around to trying. All in all, it was a fabulous day. And of course, we ran into someone we knew!

The Evolution of Fun

When we lived in Los Angeles, we didn’t have a lot of fun: The death of my mother two months before our wedding drove me into a two-year depression, and we were working very hard to become debt-free, amass an emergency fund, and then save toward a down payment on a home. The long, hard work complemented my mood, and my mood drove me to work longer and harder.

And “fun” in Los Angeles, let’s be honest, isn’t always that fun. When you ask an Angeleno how they are, the response is generally “Busy!” and they aren’t kidding. Coordinating a meal out with a few friends can take several days, and dozens of phone calls and text messages. In addition to individual schedules, factors come into play such as dietary restrictions, traffic patterns, availability of parking, and whose ex-lover may still frequent the chosen venue (I’ve known couples that, upon dissolving their relationship, sat down and mapped out which 12-step meetings one person would avoid and the other would attend, and vice versa. Breakups in L.A. are serious business). Half the time, at least one person in the group will be reviewing the meal or event for their blog, and generally, everyone can be expected to post photos and commentary to social media. Which means, you’re going to want to be camera-ready at all times, because like it or not, you will be tagged.

Our first weeks in Austin we found ourselves terribly early and over-dressed for just about anything we attended. I found it hard to believe that so many free, and genuinely interesting, events weren’t overrun with people. But, perhaps because there are so many options, nothing has felt over-crowded. Parking isn’t usually a problem, and there are enough seats for everyone (if you didn’t bring your own: our beach chairs occupy a permanent spot in our hatchback these days, and we hope to one day upgrade to actual camp chairs). There’s just a sort of un-organized harmony about the way people gather, here. Strangers greet each other like friends and are always happy to scoot over, make room, or help you carry in more tables and chairs, if that’s what’s needed. People will share the beer they brought, the shade they found, and directions to the food truck around the corner where they got those delicious-looking tacos. And when you talk, they look at you, not at their mobile phones.

In the few months we’ve been in Austin, fun has taken its rightful place in the center of our marriage. In the past few weeks, we’ve found ourselves attending a company-sponsored Longhorns tailgate party (which included free barbecue, queso, and Lone Star beer), the evening Free Swim at Barton Springs Pool, a pre-season mixer for our Bocce League, complete with free beer provided by our sponsor (and Mr. Vega’s favorite), Dogfish Head. We’ve seen free outdoor movies, enjoyed free music performances, and taken advantage of free museum days.

Even with all this free fun, some things are still worth paying for: We attended a Robin Williams memorial screening of Dead Poets Society at Alamo Drafthouse, are taking a month-long series of Two-Step dance classes, and have splurged on tickets to a couple of upcoming concerts. We’ve also been saving our pennies for a Fancy Date Night at a local farm-to-table restaurant that’s gotten nothing but rave reviews.

We’ve found that clean, comfortable clothes and flip-flops work just about anywhere, and arriving more than fifteen minutes early to just about anything is only necessary if you plan to have a drink nearby before the event starts. Life is just easier here, and people are more forgiving.

The more we do, the more deeply I am able to shed my grief and relax into the joy of our married life, the comfort of our deepening community connections, and the growing sense that all is right in our world. I have the sneaking suspicion that after marinating in all these good feelings for a while, even Los Angeles is going to feel a lot more fun to me. But for now, I’m grateful to have found myself in a place where it’s all so much easier. And I’m enjoying every minute of it.