How We Became Average Americans (And What We’re Doing to Stop It!)

Last year, Mr. Vega and I were living in a 486-square-foot apartment in a not-so-perfect neighborhood tucked into the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles. We had a thriving container garden on our balcony, and we supplemented the soil with compost created by a colony of red wriggler worms that also lived in a container on our balcony and fed on our fruit and vegetable scraps and coffee grounds. Our meals were all organic and made-from-scratch, often in a slow-cooker, and supplemented with green vegetable juice fresh-made daily. We kept a batch of kombucha brewing on a kitchen counter, a small bottle of organic vanilla beans and bourbon (otherwise known as “vanilla extract”) in a cupboard, and a bigger bottle of cherries, sugar and bourbon (otherwise known as “cherry bounce…” if you haven’t tried it, you might want to!) under the kitchen sink. Our refrigerator was a smaller apartment-sized unit, and we liked it that way, because it was harder to overlook what we had put in there and let it go to waste. We did our laundry twice a month, two loads at a time in our building’s communal laundry room, and hung about half of that to dry on a rack out on the balcony.

We were weird.

We seemed like perfect candidates to move to Austin, Texas… the city’s motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” after all! Housing prices in Los Angeles were proving pretty unforgiving, and we had our hearts set on homeownership, so we packed up a U-Haul and headed eastward, towing one car and shipping another. We had come out a month earlier and secured jobs and an apartment, but because we didn’t know the area, we chose an apartment in a more expensive part of town than our old place in L.A. This one came with a much smaller balcony, and we moved in mid-summer, too late to start a garden. It also has an in-unit washer and dryer, which came in handy, as we weren’t used to the longer drying times required for hanging laundry in the humid air of central Texas. We also weren’t prepared for how we might have to adjust our home-fermenting efforts: my first batch of kombucha grew a healthy layer of mold, and I haven’t found the motivation to try again. Although our apartment in Austin has 50% more square footage than our last place, the storage options are not well-designed, and so the kitchen is much less functional. And we still haven’t learned how to cook on an electric stovetop without burning things!

After a lifetime spent working freelance and part-time jobs, I took full-time work about six months ago, in addition to keeping a couple of my part-time gigs, so that we could save for the house we came here to buy. While I’m glad I did, I now find myself without the time or energy to shop, prep and cook like I used to. Week after week, we found ourselves letting our fresh food languish in the standard size fridge while we stopped for takeout or reached for convenience foods, and without a compost bin, 100% of our food waste has been headed to the landfill. We decided to fill our freezer with some Trader Joe’s frozen options, just to get us through the transition… not ideal, but healthier and less expensive than takeout, or most of the big-name convenience foods. After Mr. Vega sustained a sports injury that makes it difficult for him to walk without pain, even the trek to our closest Trader Joes was proving difficult to fit into my busy schedule, and I found myself shopping at the chain grocery store nearest my workplace, buying and consuming the very products that we’ve avoided so diligently for the past few years. There’s a bit of a vicious cycle going on here: our busier schedules and poorer nutrition means that we have less energy to shop for and cook the healthy foods that would give us, well, more energy! But at the end of a typical 9-hour workday, all we really want is to eat something that we don’t have to cook, lie on the couch and watch TV. And we’ve gained weight. Like most of America, we are now overworked, overweight, malnourished, and trying to function in a state of near-constant fatigue.

Our expenses have gone up, too. Living in a “safer” neighborhood in Austin costs us more in rent than our dodgy-but-familiar part of Los Angeles. The landlord-tenant laws are different here, so our rent is about to go up $200-$400 (the amount would depend on the length of the lease we sign). And our incomes decreased considerably when we left the West coast. We’re fortunate to still be earning enough to give us some margin, even with our current spendy lifestyle, but we’re keenly aware that adding children to our family, needing to care for aging parents, or experiencing a health crisis of our own would change the balance considerably. From where we sit, it’s very easy to understand how some “low monthly payments” for anything that makes life easier would start to look pretty good to a lot of people right about now.

Now we’re average.

What’s keeping us going is the knowledge that our situation is temporary: We’re currently in escrow on our first home. It’s a two-bedroom house, not much bigger than our current one-bedroom apartment, and we’ve got a healthy down payment so our monthly payments will be about the same as our rent. It’s got a couple of fruit trees in the front, a big backyard for gardening, a good-sized kitchen pantry, and a covered deck where we can hang our laundry but still have it protected from summer showers and the grackles that are ubiquitous here. There’s also a gas stove, more counter space and the opportunity to buy whatever size refrigerator we like. If all goes well, in a few months we’ll be collecting rainwater, composting, eating home-grown vegetables again, and playing host to bees, bats and butterflies. We’ll feel more comfortable inviting friends over for dinner and game nights, because there is ample street parking and zero chance of upstairs neighbors complaining about the noise we make when the conversation gets boisterous at our dining table. It will take some effort to keep our tired bodies moving after we come home from a full day’s work, but I think we’ll be able to do it, because we know from experience the good financial and physical health that any amount of urban homesteading can bring. And loathe as I am to do it, because I’ve come to love the people I work with, once we’re settled and have made a few improvements to the house I’ll be able to leave my part-time job and keep my workweek down to a more manageable five days a week instead of six.

We are not wealthy people, but we have had the luxury of working less-than-full-time, or at least of keeping flexible hours, for most of our working lives. Our year of living like “average” Americans has brought me a lot of compassion for people with fewer options. I now have answers to some of the questions in my head that start with “Why don’t they just…?” This experience has taught me that “they” probably don’t exercise the options I’m thinking of because “they” are exhausted and feeling unwell, and there isn’t always someone else to pick up the slack. I’ve learned that an unexpectedly busy week means that fresh fruits, vegetables, and even meats are likely to go unprepared and uneaten, so it’s easier to just not buy them in the first place. I’ve discovered that something as simple as a poor apartment design can have a big effect on a family’s ability to maintain healthy habits. I can see how a weeklong disruption in a steady income could throw off a working parent’s finances in ways that, if you throw in a few late fees and re-connection charges, could take years to recover from.

Living in this country, in this economic climate, is a real struggle for the average American these days. Working flexible schedules, growing and cooking your own food, staying out of debt, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance can go a long way toward making life easier, but those choices aren’t available for everyone. And they certainly aren’t options that I’ll ever take for granted again.

Have you been able to stay out of the “average” American cycle of work-spend-work? What choices have you made to accomplish that?

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?

Our Grocery Budget

I was halfway through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University personal finance course when Mr. Vega and I started dating, and he was nearing the end of a period of unemployment he had navigated more deftly than most. Because neither of us had any money when we found each other, we enjoyed mainly home-cooked meals on our early dates. And because neither of us had any money, that became a topic of conversation very early in our courtship. We began doing our individual budgets side-by-side while we were still dating, and have continued to create a budget every month since we’ve been married.

While we do enjoy cooking together at home, I confess that our food and grocery budget remains the biggest area in which we still have plenty of room for improvement. We generally pack and bring our lunches to work, do our best to minimize food waste, and have dinner at home most weeknights, but we are not immune to the siren song of takeout on the days we find ourselves exhausted, and I am very guilty of impulse buys at the grocery store. Menu planning is also challenging, because sometimes we just don’t want what we had planned to make, and we haven’t got ingredients in the house to make what we do want.

We’re still working on finding ways of planning, spending and eating that blend our desire to eat a frugal, organic, real-food diet that is also delicious and interesting. So we overspend. On a regular basis.

But we haven’t given up: we set up a balcony garden almost as soon as we got settled in Austin, and are hoping to have a quick learning curve about container gardening in this hot-humid climate. We signed up for a weekly CSA box from Johnson’s Backyard Garden, and are enjoying learning to cook new-to-us veggies like sweet potato greens and okra.

What are some of the challenges you face in keeping your food costs low? Where have you succeeded?

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.