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?

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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?

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?

Tornado Warning

We had our first Tornado warning a few days ago, less than two weeks after moving to Texas.

Husband’s mobile phone started screaming like an air-raid siren in the middle of Orange is the New Black. After we got off the floor, we realized it was not a lockdown but an emergency alert, which was a good thing, as Netflix isn’t part of the Emergency Broadcast System.

We changed from pajamas to street clothes right away, filled the bathtub (because that’s what they do in the movies), and gathered the cats into their crate. We then realized that all of our emergency supplies– otherwise known as “camping gear”– were in the little closet out on our balcony, which is not the place you want to go in gale-force winds with lightning strikes happening literally every second. Husband braved it anyway, and before we knew it, we had our whole little family gathered in our bathroom, which is the only windowless room in our second-floor apartment. 

The threat passed quickly, and turned into one spectacular light show of a thunderstorm, during which, the soles of my sixteen-year-old hiking boots literally disintegrated. That had nothing to do with the storm, though… we were just sitting on the couch. 

It’s a good thing we have a big cupboard in the bathroom because from now on, that’s where our camping gear emergency supplies will have to live, along with the cat cage and a new pair of hiking boots.

When Life Gives you Lemon-Face.

What stereotypes do you have when you think of Californians? What images come immediately to mind?

Perhaps you think of people that say “Dude” a lot, folks that eat organic food and put avocado on everything, or drivers that see stop signs mostly as suggestions. Do you imagine Californians to wear jackets only as fashion statements, vote Democrat, and talk to children as though they were already fully formed human beings?

Ok, then you’ve got a pretty accurate picture of us, as well as most of our friends and family. And if these descriptions don’t apply to you, then a lot of it might sound humorous, if not downright distasteful.

Now think about Texas.

Different, right?

We spent a lot of time sorting out where in these United States of America would be the best place for us to live. We took into account weather, culture, economy, demographics, geography, crime statistics, opportunities for career and education, and of course, the availability of organic food. We researched property values. We talked about how it might feel to move so far away from family and friends, and what cultural shifts we might end up making. A lot of time and effort went into this decision, and we believe it to be a good one (Still, though, we do have a backup plan, in case we’re wrong).

But occasionally the response we get from people with whom we share our choice is a face that looks like we popped a lemon wedge into their mouths when they weren’t looking: “You know that’s in Texas, don’t you?!” they sputter, “That is a Red State!”

Or they remind us that it’s so very very hot, or that it’s over a thousand miles away from our current home, or that the pollen count in Austin is off the charts. My favorite was the one who turned her nose up and the corners of her mouth downward; “My ex lives in Austin,” she sneered. The whole state of Texas, it seems, is therefore contaminated. Dude must have really done a number on her (Hilariously enough, one of our exes just moved there, too. Won’t it be jolly to bump into each other and say “Hello” over the organic avocados?).

As for the rest of their objections, well… We know all that stuff. We actually have a few friends that are Republicans, and most of them are all right (which is why we’re, you know… friends). And we have cars with air conditioning, and access to maps, and doctors who confirm that while we are allergic to grass, and sensitive to dust, and that one of us could die if shellfish is on the menu, neither of us is allergic to pollen. Also, it must be said, we’re excited to move from the highest-taxed State in the Union to one that has No. State. Income Tax (“But they have high property taxes!” Yes, yes, we know that, too).

We get that our people don’t want us to leave. We’re going to miss them, too. We’re also going to miss living near(ish) to the beach, and perfect weather, and having our favorite theme park an hour’s drive away. But we were hoping for a little more excitement and a little less… Sour Face. And certainly, as each person registers his or her response, they have no way of knowing that it’s our dozenth time sitting through some version of “Texas sucks, and you’re going to hate living there.” Which might be true, but on the day we move to Austin, we’ll be just two of over a hundred humans that day who move there. Unemployment is among the lowest in the nation, and rental occupancy among the highest. If we’re making a horrible mistake, at least it’s a popular one.

Maybe– hopefully– the people who love us will come to accept and support this move. Maybe they’ll even find their way clear to getting on an airplane sometime and seeing what this place we’ve chosen is all about, when you get past the stereotypes and into the reality of it. The way they did when they moved to Hollywood, and discovered that not everyone here has perfect teeth or drives a convertible (Although most of us do, so that’s probably a bad example. You get the point though, right?). And, in all fairness, people do seem to enjoy SXSW. As a matter of fact, they’ve all pledged to absolutely, positively visit us for a week next March.

In the meantime, we’ve got plenty of raw, organic agave to go with those lemons…