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.

7 Mistakes I Didn’t Make in My New City

1. Flying Solo

I’m quite comfortable in my own company: my idea of a restorative weekend involves not having to use my vocal cords for a full 48 hours! Long baths, good books, and going on my own to matinee movies suit me just fine. Back home, I have friends who get that, and who will happily spend an afternoon reading alongside me at a cafe or bookstore, or watching films next to me without commenting on every little thing. But building comfortable, intimate friendships requires meeting people and actually talking to them! So, I’m stepping out of my “comfort zone” by joining things like a local bocce league, which gets me out of the house and interacting with live– and very friendly– humans, on a regular basis.

2. Negatively Comparing Everything to Your Old City

If all I focused on was what I missed, I would be one unhappy transplant. I would also be missing out on all that my new city has to offer. Sure, Austin doesn’t have the Arclight Cinemas, but Los Angeles doesn’t have Alamo Drafthouse, where you can get full meals, snacks, and drinks from the bar delivered to your seat during the movie (well, not yet… but there’s one on the way!). And while I love me a good breakfast burrito, Austin has an entire sub-culture devoted to breakfast tacos, which come with the added benefit of not inducing a food coma before noon. Finally, though I have seen a couple of timid drivers sit through several rush-hour traffic light cycles because of some weird Fear of Left Turns that seems to happen here, not one person honked at them. Isn’t that nice? I’m happy to change my own ingrained L.A. driving habits if it means not hearing car horns blasting literally hundreds of times throughout my day.

(Although, it must be said, I truly believe I will never have another Good Hair Day as long as I live in the State of Texas. Southern California weather wins all contests, every time. Just saying.)

3. Only Going to Places that Remind You of Home

My heart lifted just a little in my first days here when I saw a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and an In-N-Out Burger here in Austin. Heck, there’s even a Frenchy’s Beauty Parlor here (okay, that one is a good thing)! But if I only chose to go to the same places I’ve always been, I’d be missing out on the awesome veggie burgers and fries at P. Terry’s, or the on-tap cold-brew coffee at Radio Coffee and Beer. Part of Keeping Austin Weird is supporting businesses that were created by and for the people that live here, and they’ve got a lot of interesting and wonderful things to offer… things we’ve never tried anywhere else!

4. Forgetting Your Old Friends

It’s been a little challenging being in different time zones, but if I didn’t have regular phone calls and video chats with some of my old friends, life would be a lot harder… especially during these first few months while I’m meeting and getting to know new people. In this new place where no one knows me well yet, it’s easy to feel a bit adrift, so I’ve set calendar reminders to call or text loved ones at regular intervals. They’ve been really lovely about reaching out to me, as well, and it’s making all the difference.

5. Thinking Only of Oneself

Mr. Vega and I spent a pleasantly exhausting Saturday morning a few weeks ago clearing brush at Community First! for Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a social outreach ministry that empowers communities into a lifestyle of service with the homeless. It was great to get out and work hard with other people, for other people, and doing something to help alleviate homelessness puts all our temporary moving discomfort into perspective.

We also attended an event at our local political party headquarters, to register to vote and get to know some of the candidates a little better. In Texas, unlike in California, voter registration must be done in the presence of someone who has been deputized to register them… We’re considering getting deputized, so we can help people get registered before the October deadline. It’s another good way to give back to our new community, and encourage others to do the same.

6. Shopping Only at the Grocery Store

We signed up for a weekly CSA box from Johnson’s Backyard Garden. Because we are not from the South, we’ve had the opportunity to get to know some new-to-us produce, like okra, sweet potato greens, and some kind of melon I’d never seen before… thank goodness for the Internet, and its endless supply of recipes! Every week is a new surprise, and we like knowing that it’s all organic and locally grown. If we only shopped at the grocery store, we’d most likely gravitate toward the things we know, and overlook some delicious opportunities!

7. Driving Aggressively

Our first week here, Mr. Vega noticed that, unlike in Los Angeles where drivers pull their cars out into the intesections in anticipation of their left turns, most folks in Austin tend to wait behind the limit lines for a break in traffic (see #2 for the problems that can cause!). Also,  perhaps because of the congestion in this rapidly-expanding city, people have a tendency to cut each other off a lot– or maybe it’s because so few of us know where we’re going! Taking our time, and allowing other drivers the right-of-way when we can has allowed us to become accustomed to the local style of driving, and hopefully, keep the roads just a little bit safer for everyone, here in our new city!

What are some of the mistakes you have made (or avoided) when relocating to a new city?

Texans are Nice, Y’all!

A few weeks ago, Husband went to get gardening supplies at a big home improvement store, and when he came out, an apologetic man was waiting by our car. The man’s car door had gotten away from him in the wind, and banged heck out of ours. So he did what his Daddy probably marched him to the neighbors’ house decades ago to learn after he broke their window with an errant baseball: he waited, apologized, and set out to make it right. By the time my husband came out, the man had contacted his own insurance company and told them to expect our call.

Mind you, I once got my car keyed in Los Angeles because my friend asked the guy parked next to us if he was really planning to just leave all the trash he had dumped in the parking lot. I’ve been screamed at by two different men at two different gas stations for not pulling up to the front pump (which had been occupied when I arrived). I was actually threatened with a gun in a church parking lot for touching someone’s parked car.

And while I’m sure there are (proportionally speaking) just as many mean, irrational, and mentally ill people in Austin as there are in Los Angeles, there also seems to be a culture of helpfulness and consideration here that a person could get used to. In every store we’ve been to, the employees have guided our experience with helpful information… And so have other customers, for that matter! We’ve been encouraged to try the house salsa, politely informed that growing soil suits our balcony gardening needs better than potting soil, and given a bite of the end piece of brisket to taste at Franklin’s Barbecue. At a burrito shop, when we were trying to choose between the refried beans and the pinto, the tattooed young woman with the blond pigtails who was serving us gently offered that we could in fact have some of each.

Such behaviors might seem like the minimum standard of service in a retail situation, but we’re accustomed to trying to navigate transactions with cashiers who are deeply involved in conversations with their co-workers, or flagging down restaurant servers who plan to drop our check as soon as they finish texting.

And it’s not limited to people who have something to gain from being nice to us: I started a new job last month, and everyone who works there made sure to introduce themselves and see how I was getting along. They answered my questions, recommended shortcuts, and high-fived me when I mastered something difficult. That’s a far cry from the nine years I spent working side-by-side with an ever-changing group of people, some of whose names I never learned. A year after I left, I’d occasionally bump into a colleague who would remark “Hey, I haven’t seen you at work lately, are you on nights now?” We just weren’t that invested in each other, I guess.

The nice man in the parking lot who sat and waited when he could have left a note, or just driven away may never know how much his kindness meant to us, but I hope it comes back to him a hundredfold. Because he, and everyone else that’s been nice to us over the last couple of months, did a lot to make us feel welcome in a place that we aren’t sure we belong yet. And just for today, that’s worth all the palm trees in California.

Keep Friendship Weird!

Unlike my Better Half, I’m an introvert by nature. I take a long time to reveal personal details about myself, and many of my closest friends and family, unless they have asked directly, are unaware of my spiritual beliefs or my political views. Making friends is a slow, organic process for me. But I’m determined to be brave, because having lots of strong, healthy relationships is essential if we’re going to thrive in our new home.
Some of my closest friendships have unexpected, and even downright weird origins: My best friendship in high school started with a fist fight (well, it started with me running my mouth and her pounding me to a pulp)! As an adult, my close relationships have had more peaceful, but still unusual beginnings: There’s the one who taught a workshop for prospective service providers, and I can’t remember if we met because he was my teacher first, or my client. Another was an acquaintance who confided in me when she was going through an intense breakup, because it was easier for her to talk to someone she didn’t hang out with often. Later, I went through an intense breakup, and called upon her to walk me through the thing she had already survived. And a third who, even though we weren’t very close at the time, quietly showed up at my mother’s rainy Monday morning funeral, in between her work assignments. We’re closer now, I daresay.
So when I got a message last week from someone I used to work with in Southern California, who transferred to the the Pacific Northwest some years ago, telling me that one of her people was moving from there to Austin, I told her to give the lady my number. I don’t work for that company anymore, but our field is made up of a close-knit group of people, regardless of who employs us… we had a nice chat over coffee one morning, and have since traded hair salon information, and gardening tips.
Husband and I are also considering volunteering for a statewide political campaign, and joining a local sports league or two… because you never know where your next best friendship is coming from, and we’re trying to keep our answers to “So, how do you know So-and-So?” question interesting.
Have you ever moved to a new place and gotten to make new friends? What worked (and didn’t!) for you?