Monday, April 3, 2017

toddlers can teach simple living

Some parents I know have kids who breezed through infancy and toddlerhood, with barely a hard day or night between three months and kindergarten. Teething and growth spurts caused almost no noticeable difference in tempermant. There were no rough patches in sleep patterns, and these parents enjoyed early bed times and sound sleep through the night throughout their kids' entire early childhood .

We were nowhere near that boat of parents. It's never even been in sight on the horizon. Our night owl suffered from terrible pre-teething symptoms from nine weeks until the first tooth popped out at nine months. At about 15 months four large molars came out at once and kept her up screaming all night for a week. For ten months she had raging insomnia - every two to three days she'd pop up anywhere between midnight and four in the morning and be wide awake and ready to play for two to three hours... and still wake up at the same time as she would have after a full-night's sleep.

After that finally tapered off, she had a major illness every two or three months, and healthy or sick her sleep habits would still change by the week. It wasn't until she turned four did she suddenly start showing any regularity. But through it all, we got used to a dwindling level of fun-consumption (bars, wineries, restaurants, movie theaters, etc.), scared off by the exhausting thought of leaving the house. Which can feel depressing sometimes, but at other times I think of it as a very long bootcamp on discipline in such fun-spending.

Last year we finally felt energetic enough to attempt more long-distance trips. All of them ended with high stress and fatigue and a repeated so-not-worth-it conclusion. So, this year while there are trips I'm interested in (such as visiting some extended family in the Pacific Northwest), I am struggling to find the motivation to actually plan for one.

I've even become much lazier on local trips, struggling to push myself out the door for any drive further than about 3 miles. Even then those very short trips continue to get fewer and farther between.

This is all due to my laziness which has been exponentially compounded by parenthood (maybe calling it optimized management of internal energy efficiency would put a more positive spin on it?). But the silver lining would be that this year, as with other areas of consumption and spending, I have less desire to spend much time, energy, or money on travel (of almost any distance). One of my big wishes at New Years was that in 2017 my kid will be more interested and satisfied with the trails and playgrounds within walking distance, further reducing my need/use for driving through the northern Virginia congestion.

All of this laziness has an obvious silver lining: the added benefit of less driving, more walking, more Rest & Relaxation, and less spending.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

a few steps back

While DH and I get progressively better with our spending habits each year, we do still go through phases of backsliding on occasion. The last few months of 2016 was a good example, as we had definitely let ourselves go quite a bit.

At times we'll get discouraged with our quest, thinking if we've got at minimum several more years to go, we may as well get comfortable and loosen the purse strings a bit. Factoring into this issue is that as desires for expensive things, habits, and hobbies fade out of our system we sometimes feel at a loss for ways to spend our spare time and so spending on consumables like alcohol and fancy chocolate will have a tendency to tick up. Adding to this equation is the need to take our toddler into consideration when coming up with ideas to occupy down time (since it's tougher to pull off with frugal loner hobbies like reading with any length or regularity).

But as our kid gets older, things have started to get a little easier and more parent-friendly with routines, sleep, and play.

Like most people at least when each New Years comes around we feel a bit more motivated to get back on track. At least between progress and regress, I can say that we accomplish a net gain of increased savings and frugal values each year, progressively feeling less desire to buy new stuff or get into pricey diversions.

Friday, January 13, 2017


Ah one of the vices in my former life. I was on the path toward stereotypical spendy female with closets stuffed full of clothes, shoe, and bag collections that I don't use. I hadn't gotten so bad as Emelda Marcos or Carrie Bradshaw, though still quite wasteful so still I've been working to increasingly reign in the habit for years now. One of my worst habits was buying clothes online, which nine times out of ten I would regret because it wouldn't come out looking quite the way it seemed to in the picture or I wouldn't like the shape or way it fit. I'm also always reluctant to bother with returns because I'm very lazy and the shipping sevice shop in my area that stays open past 5:30 is four miles away. Lose-lose.

It's taken years for that expensive lesson to sink into my skull but I believe it finally has. Partly because DH and I now have an annual tradition of making a trip to the local outlet mall's IMAX theater for our one and only movie excursion a year and we take the opportunity to do some shopping afterward.

This way I can do the proper thing and actually try on the clothes before I buy them, with the added benefit of heavy discounts on higher-end clothes. I've realized that if I rely on this one annual trip for new clothes, then I will spend money on clothes that I'm far less likely to consign to the Purple Heart donation bag in short order. Thereby continually reducing my need for new clothes each following year.

In the name of minimalism I've also spent the past few years whittling my wardrobe down to my half of the master bedroom closet and half of the dresser, consisting of everything I wear regularly. (With a few seasonal things like thermals, swimsuits, and very heavy hoodies tucked away in their own location when not in use.)

The hangers up in my half of the closet are still pleasantly spaced out, too, so I'm even a bit further than just my half of the closet as it's not stuffed or even close to. But, I still feel like I have more than enough clothes to wear.

So this year so far I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself and optimistic about my habits in regards to clothes. Resolution: no new clothes until the next movie trip in next holiday season (a goal I definitely did not attempt or accomplish last year)...

Monday, December 19, 2016


As I've said before, every year I grow a little more bah-humbug about the holiday season. There's so much pressure to 'be happy' and make others happy that many people tend to end up making themselves and each other miserable if their Christmas doesn't fit into some ideal they've conjured up in their minds due to media or family traditions and/or pressures.

I was raised by parents who went with the consumer tradition of purchasing nice gifts to give to friends and family at Christmas, and for a long time I felt obliged to keep up that tradition. As I approached my mid-20s I really started to loathe the practice. Not only was it expensive and time-consuming, but managing to pick a gift the recipient would truly be excited about was always very hit or miss. It's a risky exercise even for the most thoughtful of people. I started going with consumables (boxes of chocolates, tins of cocoa-mixes, etc), since it's easier to gather them in one trip and they tend to have a higher chance of being enjoyed or at least could easily be passed/regifted to others.

Leaving town for the Army spared me a lot of the unnecessary pain of hunting down annual gifts for a minimum dozen other people among immediate and extended family and friends.

Around the time DH and I were separating from the military, DH got a bug to learn how to make his own fancy desserts. He mastered chocolate truffles and after relocating back to my home town we started making goodie bags stuffed with them to pass out at the annual gathering of my extended family - mostly to spare us from the effort and expense of all the 'traditional Christmas shopping'.

We've done different treats like chocolate chip cookes and meringues. As our kiddo sails through toddlerhood we've gotten lazier - this year was chocolate bark and fudge (the quickest and easiest treats I could think of to make). More effort than most conventional shoppers would care to make but I say still beats endless time in malls (either brick OR online ones) and hundreds to thousands of dollars on gifts that your loved ones may or may not even like.

DH and I don't even get each other things anymore; except on occasion if he mentions some gadget or goodie (and it's not terribly expensive or hard to find) I might pick it up and shove it under the tree. Certainly no his and her motorcycles, bling that neither of us ever have the occasion to wear, or overpriced smartphones. There is plenty of spontaneous purchases and picking up of restaurant tabs for each other throughout the year. But in general as far as 'stuff' goes, it seems to work out much better if we treat ourselves when we want to. (Of course as we get better at frugal living new stuff becomes an ever rarer occasion as well.)

Monday, October 24, 2016

real estate and real life

There seems to be an endless real-estate debate over the virtues of renting versus owning. Being indecisive and uncommittal myself I understand the pros and cons of both sides and as with many issues tend to be a fence sitter.

When I got out of the military and snagged a nice-paying contractor job, I had by that point been sucked into the conventional American dream of owning a single-family home.

We ended up in a small townhouse, however, shortly after buying our home, glaring problems started to surface that we hadn't seen with our inexperienced, first-time-buyer's starry eyes. In the first year we needed the roof reshingled and gutters redone, and the fire-hazard electrical box, missing bedroom ceiling lights, and ancient water-wasting toilets were also replaced. In the second year the basement, hastily and cheaply carpeted by flippers, flooded badly due to a tropical storm. We ended up getting the entire room down there re-walled and re-floored (with porcelain tiles and proper 5/8ths-inch mold-resistant drywall, to minimize risks of future expensive headaches). The third year we had to replace the heat pump.

There are many shoddily-done parts of the house that we still plan to renovate. Some are choices that we could get by without doing, which leads to the "temptation to upgrade" argument against owning.

I've heard it said that if you're not particularly handy or inclined to be, then you're probably better off renting over owning because the maintenance costs will rob you blind. Costs that could've been money put to better use elsewhere. I wonder how many people feel the weight of that statement as heavily as DH and I do.

So while we are content in the house (for now), I find myself often wishing we'd opted for renting an apartment from the newer complex in the neighborhood. The rent for a two-bedroom would've been a couple hundred more than our current mortgage payment, but if you factor in HOA fees plus a monthly average for all the upgrades and repairs, renting there comes out much more cost effective.

On the other hand I will concede that it does feel good to "build equity" as opposed to handing money to a landlord indefinitely. (But I'll also concede that arguments of that being a psychological trap are fair.) Additionally rent rates tend to drift uncomfortably upward which could undo potential cost benefits. I do heap a good pile of cash on the principal each year with the goal of both increasing equity and decreasing the total interest cost at the end. The tax deduction is also some consolation for the headaches of owning.

I will also admit to the anchored-down feeling that home-owning gives, which grates against DH's and my desires to keep moving around and having new adventures. Having a kid seems to counterbalance that a bit; instilling an increased desire for stability over adventure. And since we're both bringing home robust salaries from very tolerable jobs, for now we're content to stick it out in this house for a while.

In the end, we've grown content to appreciate the mortgaged house for what it is, at least for the medium-term future. But, I also think renting that apartment in the neighborhood could very well have fostered a similar (if not greater) contentment with our living arrangement. Live and learn.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

news diets

I used to go through phases in which I would feverishly watch, listen to, or read the news, thinking it was part of my duty as an American to be a well-informed citizen. But in my journey to become more frugal over the past few years I've attempted a thing called a news diet (or media-in-general diet) and, as I've gotten more used to lower media consumption, have found it very helpful to my state of mind.

In college I had this aggravating communist professor. While I still consider her "out there" in many ways I'd have to admit that she was right about one thing - modern news is still very much like it was in the olden days: sensationalist half-informed hyperbole that tends to promote hysteria instead of mitigating it. It's not much different from fictional programming that's designed to push you on an emotional rollercoaster purely for entertainment purposes. Conventional news outlets seem to only be a contributing source of stress in life. Living without it, or at least with a minimum of it, can be liberating.

These days I rely almost entirely on theSkimm, The Christian Science Monitor, and to know about what's happening in the world. I've come to believe that relying on these written outlets for my nutshells of news has led to an upgraded personal radar for detecting red flags on questionable reporting, trolling by bored jerks, and fictional click-bait. It's also led to more freed up time and precious little brain space to focus on other things in life.

And, like other frivolous, distracting, and even stressful pursuits in life (too much TV/news/adverts, too much gossip, too much going with the crowd, etc.), relieving yourself of it helps with things like discovering what's important to you, the individual, and sifting out things in life that you realize aren't worth your time, money, or energy. Hence, more life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

Friday, September 23, 2016

short commutes

I've held short commute times in high priority for most of my professional life. When I joined the military in my mid-20s, my first duty station was in Germany. Being single and among the lower-enlisted ranks, I was assigned to the barracks which at that particular station was a three minute walk from the office. You could say I was spoiled by this experience as I ever after had a very strong aversion to long commutes.

I later moved to Texas for my second duty assignment, where I got married and was able to move off post. A much longer commute by comparison, but while many of my peers paid twice as much for a gated community 40 minutes from work in a supposedly better neighborhood (and some of the officers would commute from much farther), DH and I chose an inexpensive apartment 15 minutes from the work. The complex was not gated, and while the entire area has never had a shining reputation (gated community neighborhoods included) and we had some typical headaches with apartment management, we never had any first-hand problems with crime, even strolling the neighborhood after dark several times with no issues.

Deployment to Iraq was similar to my life in Germany in terms of commuting, as it was a short walk to work and back from your assigned room which also contributed to my spoiled rotten-ness on commuting.

After I got out of the military and landed a nice new job with a nice new salary, I foolishly decided to buy a house (albeit a small townhouse). Happily this little townhouse turned out to be just 2.5 miles from the parking deck at the office (where we both now carpool to work). Yes I could bike there and choose not to. But even after six years of several impressive pay jumps to the household income, we both at least maintain no interest in moving farther out into the more distant suburbs, choosing not to sacrifice large chunks of sanity to spend extra hours dodging thousands of other stressed and angry drivers for the sake of a 5k-sq-ft single-family McMansion in a supposedly better neighborhood an extra 20-60 miles from work.

Call me a commute-snob, but that's yet another source of typical modern life stress that I don't have to devote depressing amounts of time, energy, money, health, and sanity toward dealing with. Leaving me more precious time and energy for lazy-tastic Rest & Relaxation pursuits.