My First-Ever Tax Refund

For the entirety of my career, I have worked part-time and freelance jobs. For all intents and purposes, I have been the sole proprietor of a one-woman business, and my tax status has reflected this: every year, I receive up to a dozen 1099 forms and maybe a W-2 or three. Every year, I comb through all of the previous year’s expenses, making sure I haven’t overlooked any possible business meals, office supplies, or mileage. Every year, I sweat it out in the accountant’s office, waiting to be told exactly how much I owe.

I got into the habit of filing my taxes as soon as possible each year, so I could find out exactly how hard I was going to have to work in the two months or so I had left before the Tax Day bill came due.

Over time, I got clearer about how this tax thing works, and started putting aside a set percentage (corresponding to my tax bracket) every time I received a check. Eventually, even though I owed taxes each Spring, it felt as though I was getting a refund, because after paying my balance due, whatever was left in my Tax Fund was mine to keep.

But 2014 was the year we moved more than fifty miles away from our employers, and found gainful employment in our new home town, all of which means we got to deduct our moving expenses from last year’s taxable income. And we moved to a state with no income tax, which was a lot like getting a raise (both our salaries are actually lower than they were in California, but we’re still not complaining). Combine all that with the first year in decades that my business expenses outweighed my freelance income, and it all adds up to a not-insubstantial tax refund.

Our tax preparer e-filed for us today, so we won’t see the money for a few weeks, but I’ve already spent it several times over in my mind: I’d like a Spa Day, a trip to visit family, some new hiking boots, and a few of the ridiculously expensive bras I like. Maybe some new shoes and baking pans, too, because I really know how to party. And Mr Vega has suggested a solar generator and some new iStuff, too.

In the end, our little windfall is going straight into the House Fund, but you probably knew that already. It gets us close enough to our goal of a 20% down payment toward a house we could afford on a 15-year mortgage with payments totalling no more than 1/4 of our total take-home pay. We’ll probably start looking for financing next week.

Still, I’ve enjoyed spending a little time thinking of ways to spend the money, if we were going to…

Did you receive a tax refund this year? What will you spend yours on?

Advertisements

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? 

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?

How to Start Living Below Your Means

I’m sick today. If I didn’t speak for a living, I could probably still go to work, but I’ve got laryngitis, so I am out of commission. Trouble is, as an hourly employee and freelancer, “no work” means “no pay.” The good news is, Mr. Vega and I have the great good fortune of a fully funded (3-6 months of living expenses) emergency fund, and have gotten the hang of living below our means, so we probably won’t need to dip into savings to cover a few days of lost work.

But it wasn’t always like this. Most of my work has come without paid sick time or vacation days, and before I learned to live modestly, even one sick day could create a financial crisis. Never mind “paycheck-to-paycheck,” I lived “credit card bill-to-credit card bill” for a decade, and viewed due dates as mere suggestions, racking up late fees and ruining my credit, while still getting $100 spa treatments on a regular basis. If I heard the suggestion during those years to live within or below my means, it didn’t register, because I wouldn’t have even known where to start.

It’s been eight years since I found myself living in a small, sad apartment, staring at thousands of dollars in credit card and tax debt, alongside statements for hefty paychecks, wondering how I could have earned such a high hourly rate for so long and have nothing to show for it. Less than nothing, actually, because I had a negative net worth!

Something happened in that lonely apartment, and before I knew it, I was canceling credit cards, filing amended tax returns in search of deductions that had been overlooked in my sloppy record-keeping, and trying out slow-cooker recipes to lower my food costs. I ignored my health and my relationships in order to work as much as I possibly could to get the debt paid. My intense focus got me debt-free within a year, but two years after that, I found myself with a $6,000 credit card bill, and a $20,000 car loan. I had learned how to pay off debt, but not how to avoid it in the first place. I hadn’t learned to budget, and I not learned to live below my means.

My first attempts at budgeting failed miserably, because I based them on templates that had little to do with my actual spending habits. As a single woman living in Los Angeles, I spent more than the national average on rent and transportation, but nothing on child care. Grocery expenses were low, restaurant spending was high, and visits to the hair salon were (and still are) non-negotiable. I came to understand that each of us is unique, and our earning, spending and savings will reflect that. What’s more, even one’s own budget will not remain a perfect fit year in and year out, or from one month to the next. Life changes quickly, and we have to change with it. I learned that if you’re ever going to get a handle on this money thing, you have to write down everything you spend. This is a requirement for success, but I struggled with it terribly until I discovered Mint (with whom I am not affiliated, and from whom I have received no compensation), which made it easy for me to see where the money was coming from and where it was going, so that I could begin to make changes based on what was actually happening.

With the whole ugly truth laid out in front of me, the first thing I did was to stop the most obvious money leaks. These are the areas where economizing is relatively painless: I started buying six-packs of soda at the grocery store and taking drinks to work instead of dropping $1.50 a day into the vending machine. I’d drive around the block looking for street parking instead of mindlessly pulling into the pay lot. My lifestyle didn’t change much, and I was still spending too much money, but I was beginning to wake up to the possibility of doing things differently. Things got much more refined later, but at this early stage, every time I didn’t super-size my order was a win for me.

After I got the hang of easier things, I began to get creative with the less-obvious opportunities for savings. I scoured my auto insurance policy for coverage I didn’t need, checked that my cell phone plan wasn’t more than I needed, and scheduled coffee dates with friends instead of dinners out. It became a game for me, and no savings was too small: the double-loader washing laundromat machine that cost a quarter less than two separate loads, the ten-cent savings at the coffee shop for bringing your own cup (later, of course, I switched to brewing my own coffee), the grocery store that offered a nickel credit for bringing your own bag…. I began to enjoy finding some sort of savings everywhere I went. After all, pennies add up to dollars, eventually.

Another major step in my financial awakening was beginning to declutter. I thought selling some of my no-longer-used things might be a good way to create more space in my home and in my budget. It was quite a shock to learn that I couldn’t expect to receive even half of what I had paid for most things, even if they had never been used! The exercise of decluttering and downsizing my possessions made me keenly aware of the purchases I made going forward. I have since cultivated a practice of buying less, buying for life when I can, and doing my level best to avoid retail prices everywhere else.

When I had just about reached the limits of minimizing my expenses within the life I was living, it became time for me to make a big move. For me, this first meant cutting cable and killing my TV, and later, moving in with a roommate to reduce my rent by $400 a month. And while it seems counterintuitive to not have begun with these things, baby-stepping my way up the ladder of frugality allowed me to garner small wins and develop an experiential conviction that larger sacrifices would be worth the effort. And they definitely were.

With my expenses cut as deeply as I could manage, my next task was to learn to earn more, which was by far the riskiest thing I did, as it involved working less, and taking a few chances with my schedule of part-time jobs and freelance work. But because I had finally paid off all my debt (again!), and brought my expenses more in line with my earnings, I could afford the gamble. The graphs and trends on Mint helped me realize that the job I deemed most stable, but that also caused me the most stress, accounted for only 10% of my annual income. With some trepidation, I left that job and increased my availability with the employer who was less stable, but paid much more. As last-minute freelance assignments come with a 20% premium, I held off on booking lower-paying work in advance, in the hopes that the higher-paying, same-day assignments would be plentiful enough to meet my needs. And I spoke up: when a new manager came on board at the freelance agency, I told him honestly that although the agency was one of my favorite employers, I frequently declined work there in favor of higher-paying jobs. Within the month, I was offered a rate commensurate with what I earned elsewhere. By choosing my assignments carefully, and giving highest priority to the highest-paying jobs, I was able to increase my income and reduce my workload.

Rinse and Repeat. By the time I had found so many ways to reduce my daily expenses, had brought down a few of the big ones, and learned to make more money in less time, life had changed enough that going back to the beginning seemed like a good idea. I had met and married my husband, and we began budgeting together early on in our dating relationship. “My goals” had been modified and expanded to become “Our goals,” which included saving for a house, and while the household income had doubled, regular expenses had not (two may not live quite as cheaply as one, but happily, the cost of running a household doesn’t double when its occupancy does). Eating a nearly meat- and alcohol-free diet didn’t work so well for my husband, so grocery expenses were higher, but cooking and eating at home was more fun with a companion, and so the restaurant budget shrank. And since we moved from California to Texas, we’re spending less on gasoline, but more on mosquito repellant!

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned on the path to living below our means is that you’ve got to have fun doing it. Brown-bagging my lunch means I get to eat healthier, more interesting meals every day, and still have enough money to get my hair done every other month, without having a minor panic attack when it comes time to pay. Losing my loyalty to name-brand products made by companies who aren’t concerned with my well-being means that I can fill our fridge without draining our bank accounts. Finding free fun on weekends lets us enjoy life while saving for a house. And taking a few calculated risks in order to earn more money allows me to stay home and write when I’m sick without fear that the lights will get turned off next month because of it.

Is living within or below your means important to you? What changes have you made, or would you consider making, to do it?

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.

New Month, New Budget

The September Budget Meeting in the Vega household was not an easy one.

We had given ourselves a lot of financial leeway as we gave up everything we knew last May to move halfway across the country to a city we had only visited briefly, separately, and years ago. During our transition, we focused more on comfort than on frugality, which means that if we felt we needed something, we bought it… That included the purchase of a King-sized bed to replace the 10-year-old Queen mattress we’d been using. For some reason it surprised me that when we got a bigger bed, we also needed bigger sheets and blankets! The comforter set naturally came with King-sized pillowcases, which meant we also bought bigger pillows. We also had two cars to register the first week we lived here. Because we moved to a more affluent neighborhood than our old place in Los Angeles, our food bill grew considerably higher. The air-conditioning in Mr. Vega’s 23-year-old car gave out just in time for the local temperatures to hit triple digits, and when he took the car to the mechanic, it turned out that he also needed a new exhaust system and ignition switch (old cars sometimes wear out, what can you do?). Additionally, our attempts to meet people, make friends, and experience some of the awesomeness that is Austin had us spending a great deal more money in restaurants and bars than we’re accustomed to.

After four months here, our finances have begun to settle into a more familiar rhythm: we’ve found less-expensive options for groceries, our apartment feels fully furnished, and we’ve gotten our professional wardrobes better adapted to the local culture (and climate!). But one spending category still looms large: FOOD.

To be honest, this has been an area of concern for me throughout our marriage. Every month, I am horrified to see how much we’ve spent on groceries, restaurants, fast food coffee shops and alcohol. But every month, we find ourselves rushed, or tired, or invited out with friends and there goes the budget. Mr Vega believes that if we’ve tried our best, and haven’t been able to make a change, then perhaps it’s an unreasonable expectation to continue trying to wrestle the number into submission. We certainly earn enough, even at our newly reduced income, to accommodate what we’ve been spending on food. I, on the other hand, think that a lot of the expenses result from exhaustion/impulsivity/not having found a system that works well for us. During the Budget Meeting, we found ourselves at loggerheads, until, in exasperation, I said “How are we ever going to buy a house if we keep spending like this on food? We are eating our house!”

That broke the stalemate, and we took a closer look at the budget, and made some decisions about the coming month. Fortunately, we haven’t got much planned for September, so if there was ever a good month to rededicate ourselves to this mission, this is it. We’re going to put our attention to planning ahead so that fatigue doesn’t get the better of us at the end of our longer workdays, and to make it extra delicious, to fortify us against the siren song of takeaway, or lunches grabbed on the fly. I’m also going to focus on avoiding food waste, because I have a sneaking suspicion that, since our move, ours has increased by much more than we realize… it’s easy to tell ourselves that “It’s not that bad,” when it really is, or that “This week was an anomaly,” when it really wasn’t. Finally, I’m going to do something I haven’t done in years: I’m breaking out the envelopes! Every dollar we spend on food in September is going to be cash money, honey, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. If we can actually do this, we’re going to reach our goal of homeownership so much faster, and I bet our waistlines will thank us, too.

What are you saving for and spending on in September?