Sunday, May 17, 2020

plague sabbatical

So, we've all been told to stop going places and doing things to try and stem the tide of this plague tsunami. 

I must admit I was feeling a bit nervous about homeschooling and being home with my kid all day every day. But two months in, it hasn't been as hard as I was expecting (though admittedly much easier than it would've been five years ago during the late toddler years). It's actually turned out rather pleasant, in fact.

A cheering thought through all of this has been things like how everyone's been forced to reduce their often-unnecessary driving levels, spend more time bonding with their kids, take up more enriching hobbies than shopping at strip malls for fun, and enjoy more sunshine and activity outside than usual (but this of course depends on where you live and how strict the local rules are).

I’ve noticed our spending levels have dropped dramatically since we’ve been home bound. I’m not entirely sure what to attribute this to; I’m sure part of it is less money spent on gas getting kiddo off to her favorite local playgrounds. Another part has been my personal self-challenge to reduce the grocery bill by focusing on pantry staple meals and canned food cuisine (while maintaining my apple-banana-frozen kale smoothies for nutrition). But beyond that I guess we were doing a bit more impulse buying and splurge spending than usual before this apocalypse-lite started.

So another cheering thought is that even frugal-trainees like me and DH have been pushed to the next level of frugal living. I do plan to challenge myself to try to keep our spending levels to their current lows even as my area phases back out of the rona-shutdown. All the more savings for getting to an earlier retirement.

*As it goes with promoting certain lifestyles, there are always caveats. My heart goes out to the essential workers who can not enjoy such time off at home, the probably-not-essential workers who are forced to work anyway under grueling conditions, people who've been laid off and don't currently have any income at all and are faced with the massive stress of being able to pay bills and buy any food at all, anyone stuck at home with an abusive partner or parent, and anyone without the means to get outside. These are certainly issues that deserve much needed attention.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

plague times

While the country is reeling from trying to stem the tide of the current plague this is washing over the nation and reeking havoc on the stock market, DH and I have remained at relatively low stress levels. Yes, very lucky for us, we still have our jobs and are still being paid. I'm on extended leave of absence due to the expanded FMLA allowing me to stay home with kiddo, as all schools in my state are closed through the end of the academic year, receiving 2/3 pay for up to 12 weeks. And DH has retained his office job with partial telework. So yes, I fully acknowledge that we are very lucky, with cush jobs through which we've wound up in a relatively luxurious new Rona-inflicted routine, as compared to many others' situations at least (such as our front-lines healthcare workers and out of work restaurant and retail workers).

However things are all still very uncertain. What if kiddo's camp care is canceled for the summer when I'm supposed to return to full-time work? What if our state's school system decides to go with distance learning for the next academic year? I would certainly have to leave my job in order to stay home long term for something like that.

But we're still not sweating such possibilities. Why? Because of how frugal we've worked to become over the last several years. We chose to downsize from a 3-bd townhouse to a 2-bd apartment condo, with no yard to worry about maintaining, to reduce the costs of our fixed expenses. We decided to do this for two reasons: 1) save more of our take home pay so as to progress toward early retirement faster, and 2) to get by comfortably in case we had to go down to one salary or two much smaller salaries. There were some peripheral reasons, too, such as the place we moved to happens to be in what we view as a nicer school district (although some frugalists might take issue with that statement for a variety of reasons), and a small, cozy space such as our little apartment happens to be much more "us".

Now I am fully aware that a growing proportion of jobs over the last decade has gone to fields like retail and truck driving and healthcare, many of which are now in limbo, gone entirely, or overworked-and-underpaid due to the current crisis (and often in general). There are many many situations in which it would be excusably difficult if not impossible to spend less than you earn and invest the difference. But for many people I know, most of my friends and family, they make solidly middle-class to upper-class income, yet could not financially handle the possibility of losing half of their income stream.

This was a big factor in our decision to downsize. Downsizing has resulted in lower housing costs, lower utility costs, lower maintenance costs, less upgrade temptations, less impulse purchasing from less available storage space (but slightly higher commuting costs as we added and extra two miles). We also continue to refocus and challenge ourselves and reboot our efforts to get more frugal, which has admittedly been easier here in the apartment condo than it was in the old townhouse. Thus, now, our expenses our low enough that if one of us were to lose our jobs, we could continue to get along quite comfortably.

If both of us were to lose our jobs, well we've also managed to pile up enough in cash savings to fund 3-5 years of living expenses at our current spending levels. And that's the beauty of consciously placing a personal priority on frugal living. You can reduce your stress in life, enrich your life with the challenge of spending less than you earn, and you tend to end up far more prepared when tough times arrive.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

buying impulses

After about five years of working to become more frugal, I still struggle against the desire to buy things I don't need. This seems to be one of the toughest challenges in life for many people whether you manage to become a frugal pro or not. It's probably a little easier to resist if you are on a very tight budget and can quickly dismiss something as out of budget. But when you're making very comfortable money that you're trying to focus on saving, it becomes measurably harder to resist the impulse to buy some pretty thing you think will improve your life.

I've succumbed to this consumerist trap many times, even as I've improved my frugal reflexes over the years, and still continue to make weak purchasing decisions. Especially when it comes to entertainment for kiddo. I'm far better at frugality when it comes to buying on myself, but with kiddo both DH and I are still bumbling novices splurging and random things that give about a day-and-a-half of entertainment then collect dust in a bin forever (until we finally manage to give it away). And sometimes those random eventual-wastes-of-money are for myself, too.

And those pretty little things often end up sitting in the cabinet indefinitely until we finally admit we're not going to use it enough to justify keeping it, and out it goes again. As humans we tend to forget the lesson that we don't need these pretties to enjoy a fulfilling life, of course. But after the zillionth time, DH and I continue relearn the lesson, getting better at retaining it a little bit each time. Embracing a little bit of minimalism as a concept and a practice has gone a long way in helping us stick to it.

There are things we enjoy spending money on like fancy alcoholic beverages, but often end up having to remind ourselves that a great bottle of wine for twenty bucks can be quite satisfying, and that we won't die feeling our lives are incomplete having not tried a reportedly mind-blowing wine at $1500.  

In the end it is a worthwhile exercise to keep working at, even if we've been conditioned in modern society to think otherwise. Because while we spout mindless platitudes that we like to ignore about money not buying happiness, it is actually true that we really don't need to blow big bucks on more well-marketed stuff to enjoy life. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

phones

Several years ago I began seeing commercials for a cell phone service provider called Consumer Cellular. The commercials still play today and are clearly targeted at seniors living on a fixed budget. But I didn't care, they had me at "plans starting at ten dollars a month" and "why pay for more than you need?"

I told DH about it and we both poked around the website a bit, along with other research like looking for reviews and whatnot. Before long we were plugging our info into the online form and got ourselves switched over. Just like that, our cell phone bills were slashed to maybe a quarter of what they were before with our conventional 'brand name' service provider.

Over the years as we've upgraded and added more apps and gotten into playing with the phones a bit more, the bill has inflated a some due to eventually opting for bigger data plans. But the bill is still less than half of what we were paying in the old days, at about 50 bucks a month (total for the both of us).

When the subject of finances and savings comes up at work or among friends DH always tries to turn people on to our current, very affordable service provider. But our friends always wave off the idea outright simply because they have also seen the commercials and know that the company's marketing is targeted primarily at senior citizens. This is baffling. Why? Would it make them feel uncool? Even though nobody knows what cell service provider anyone else is using until you ask and they agree to tell you?  

But these friends scoff at saving 50, 60, even 100 bucks a month because knowing the company's marketing strategy makes them feel as if they're being asked to push around a walker with tennis balls attached to the feet.

I never quite realized how profound an effect marketing can have on our brains until I saw this phenomenon in effect - an advertisement that offers an equal service product for a lot less money that makes people not want to buy it. Presumably because of the lack of 'cool factor' in the ad's imagery? How is this such a big factor in a purchasing decision that doesn't involve anything having to do with your outward appearance?

I told DH he could try suggesting other similar companies like Republic Wireless that don't seem to spend much ad money on commercials targeting senior citizens. But he sighs and replies that it's no use, people are just stuck in their mindsets until they decide to get out of it. 

Friday, May 3, 2019

trying to eat healthy

Trying to get more veg in your diet when you're generally tired, forgetful, and lazy like me (or just very busy like most other people) seems like a daunting problem. It's easy to keep your food spending lower if you rely on nothing but starches (breads, beans, bread-stuffed sausages, frozen pizzas, etc.). But what to do if you want to eat a bit healthier (and leaner)?

For me personally as a very lazy person, I've found it helpful to keep a supply of vegetables that keep a long time, like bags of green beans in the freezer and whole carrots in the fridge. Carrots will keep a surprisingly long time in the fridge, especially the bag of fat ones from Costco. 

But I also like to have some variety so I will also pick up fresh cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, asparagus, eggplant, and chard from regular grocery stores. With these I've learned the hard way (more times than I will admit) that the critical thing is to cook them right away. Don't buy them until Saturday (or whatever day in your schedule works best for cooking) when you are more confident you'll have a chance to cook them within the next day or two. This is especially true for leafy greens like chard. Once you cook them up, you can then stick them in fridge and worry less about them going bad so fast (and ending up having wasted both food and money). Then you have cooked veggies waiting for you ready to heat during the week.

Here are my lazy person all-applicable recipes: 

For the tougher type veggies:
-Preheat oven to 375 degrees
-Take veggie of choice (carrots, green beans, cauliflower, broccoli, beets, summer squash, winter squash, brussel sprouts, asparagus, etc.) 
-Chop as needed or desired
-Place in a large bowl and drizzle a couple tbsp cooking oil and sprinkle a pinch or two of salt
-Add a light sprinkle of other spices as desired (pepper, curry spices, 5-spice, bbq rub, etc.)
-Toss in bowl with large spoons until everything is coated with oil and spices
-Spread on sheet pan and roast for 20 minutes
-Store in fridge and reheat during the week for lunches or dinners

For softer veggies:
-Pan on stove, set heat to medium-low (setting 3 or 3.5)
-Once pan is warm add cooking oil of choice or melt one tbsp butter
-Add in veg (tomato, cucumber, chard, kale, bok choy, etc. - chopped as needed)
-Stir and toss once every minute or two with pan-friendly utensils (such as wooden spoons)
-Sprinkle a pinch of salt, continue to stir and toss
-Add other spices as desired
-Remove from heat once veg is warm and slightly softened (probably about ten minutes, give or take a few depending on what veg you're cooking)
-Eat or store in fridge

*Tomatoes, cucumbers, and leafy greans also make great salads of course, but have your dressing ready and consume within a couple days of purchase.

For veggies with a short shelf life, the best practice for me seems to be to only buy one or two things a week to cook up for later and rely on the longer-keeping stuff otherwise.

Similar practice for fruit: apples and oranges keep comparatively long so those are nice to buy in larger supplies. Berries and bananas tend to fade faster so I buy those maybe once a week or two. 

With fruit I tend to be too lazy to bother doing much cooking with them so I typically just eat them fresh. DH however does like to toss blueberries into the pancake mix once in a while  which I can also recommend (Kodiak cake mix bought in bulk from Costco - seems a bit healthier than conventional pancake mix and certainly easier to make with no need for oil and eggs n stuff).

I also keep fish fillets in the freezer as they're both lean and quick and easy to cook (almost the same process as the veggies), to pair with the veggies. Although it's not uncommon for me to just cook up veggies to wrap up in a tortilla by themselves. 

Saturday, April 20, 2019

more thoughts on living space

Most of our friends simply cannot wrap their minds around living in as small a space as we do (2-bedroom apartment condo ~1k-sq-ft). They also like to whine about how 'lucky' we are to live so close to work.

Due to our move last year we have a slightly longer commute than we did before, but the extra mile difference is negligible compared to the 40- to 50-mile commutes our friends and coworkers put themselves through so they can live in a "nice place", even though visitors always remarked how beautiful our old townhouse was (which was 2.5 miles from work). I think "nice place" is just code for "gigantic place".

Indeed our realtor was surprised by how hard it was to get a decent offer on the townhouse. We had upgraded it nicely over the years and the circular street it was on wound around a large grassy lawn maintained by the HOA and gave a very cute good-neighborly vibe. But, no, most house shoppers who came along found the 1,450 square feet too small for their taste. We found this baffling as even with a kid and three cats we had long felt like we were wasting time, money, and effort maintaining far too much space for our needs and comfort.

We do occasionally miss the spacious kitchen and the basement we'd sometimes use for movie watching. But overall we don't miss the never ending and stressful maintenance costs. 

Occasionally DH tries suggesting the idea of downsizing to coworkers (like say from 5500 sq ft down to 2500) to save either on housing or commuting costs. This wouldn't even necessarily involve going to an attached home such as a townhouse or condo (but in our area would that likely result in good savings on both housing and commuting). But their minds always reject the idea outright. "Nah, I couldn't do that! I need my 5,000+ sq ft because.... occasional parties! And feeling rich! And sunk costs!"

One coworker lives with her grown son an hour away from the office. She's okay with a townhouse, and could easily find one at the same price much closer to work to cut her commuting distance in half (extra easy when you don't have to worry about the reputation of local public schools), but just can't bring herself to even think about the fuss of moving. 

My parents are retired empty-nesters who could also do with a significant downsizing, but instead opted for a reverse mortgage rather than deal with the trouble of purging all the accumulated excess and selling the place to move somewhere smaller. My mother is pushing 80 now and and has known for years it would be beneficial on many levels to get rid of a lot of stuff and downsize to a cheaper area, but as she claims, she "just can't think about that right now."

I'll grant that moving is a big stressful pain in the arse but to me not more so than commuting every day from a distance I would only consider driving for the occasional weekend getaway. Or living in a house much larger than you've need in a very expensive neighborhood for which tax, maintenance, heating/cooling, lawn care, etc. costs are bleeding your funds profusely because you just can't bring yourself to deal with the hassle of moving.

Having also started working on embracing the principles of minimalism we've gotten rid of enough stuff to give the apartment a very spacious feel so it really does not feel like we are sacrificing space. I also like to think of it as the kind of setup that city dwellers pay through the nose for, except we're way out out in the quiet leafy burbs so we get the effect for a fraction of the cost (and a fraction of the noise).

Apartment condos have their downsides for sure. If you end up with an unstable neighbor there is little anyone can do to help you with noise and harassment problems unless that person manages to get themselves arrested and/or committed. You can get the cops to come out and harass them in return but that won't do much to resolve the issue. (We actually did have this problem, but luckily - and it really was luck - events unfolded to work out in our favor and the neighbor situation is fine now.) I'd recommend knocking on a few neighbors doors to ask about that if you are interested in shopping for a condo. 

But I will say that townhouses are a good middle ground if they are available, as they provide a spacious, fairly private, and relatively affordable alternative to typically overpriced single family homes in a high-cost housing area. Some of the newer ones are built quite huge (~2500-sq-ft) with a covered garage to boot.

On top of savings from reduced mortage, taxes, utility, and maintenance costs, an added advantage of our little condo is one that may be familiar - space constraints tend to help you stop yourself from buying stuff you don't need. Extra savings toward my freedom in the increasingly foreseeable future.

Monday, April 1, 2019

updates and moves

So it's been a very long time since I last scribbled anything down here. Since then a lot has happened, mainly DH and I moving out of our townhouse. We did this for a number of reasons, the foremost being that we are not handy and addressing the seemingly never ending problems in the townhouse was robbing us blind and causing a lot of stress. 

We had also been clearing out a lot of clutter and had long felt we had too much space anyway. Since we weren't planning on having any more kids and overnight visitors were exceedingly rare, when we came across a nicely updated two-bedroom condo just a few miles we decided to take the plunge and go for it.

Selling and buying homes and moving between them at the same time was an incredibly stressful process. I can see why people tend to shy away from the idea of moving even when it would best serve their financial interests.

The new place is just a few miles away, which increased our commute slightly, but I feel this is more than compensated for by the reduction in several other costs, including mortgage, utilities, yard maintenance, and overall home upkeep as the apartment had been nicely updated by a flipper and doesn't need much spending on improvements anytime soon. And the commute only increased by a few minutes.

It's been freeing. After getting over first few months of the initial stress and adjustment of settling in we both feel happier with the overall decision and setup than we have in years. We had remembered something - big fancy houses just weren't us. 

In Texas we were perfectly content in an efficiency apartment, zooming off all over the state for sightseeing adventures every weekend. When we moved to the DC area we found ourselves with new civilian careers and excited about our DC money and somehow got sucked into that mindset that real estate is always a good investment and that bigger is always better. We still always felt like we had much more house than we needed, even after kiddo came along.

So the new place is much more us (petite little easy-to-clean space, big communal yard managed for us along with water and gas covered by a very reasonable HOA fee for the area, lower mortgage freeing up more cash, and far less maintenance and improvements to worry about freeing up all the more cash). We're both feeling a lot more mellow about sticking around in the area a while longer, and last but not least we are saving quite a bit more money.