When Burnout Hits
I’ve been talking to a lot of personal finance-minded friends lately about depression, anxiety, and most recently, burnout. The road to paying off debt or saving for FI can be a SLOG, especially if you’re stuck in a job that you don’t particularly love, but it pays well and you need the benefits. Thankfully, I’m not dealing with job-related burnout at the moment (there is stress at my job, but it’s mostly good), but rather, my family/life situation continues to weigh heavily on my mind. Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel that is measured in months instead of years. Unfortunately, there are lot of obstacles in that tunnel before we can reach the other end (namely: selling my parents house and helping my sibling through their remaining cancer treatments). It’s been rough, and my body and my brain are feeling the effects. It didn’t occur to me until a couple of weeks ago that part of my general malaise may be due to burnout.
Earlier in the summer, when my mom was in hospice, several friends gently reminded me to take care of myself, noting that “caregiver fatigue is real.” Oh, and it was. However, I didn’t expect it to manifest in almost exactly the same way as job-related burnout. I’ve only truly been burned out once in my career, towards the end of my PhD program. I was working all the time, I had several concurrent projects, friends that I loved were starting to graduate, and I was losing my passion for science. The articles that I read about burnout did not apply to my life situation – advice like “change jobs!” or “take a long vacation!” was not particularly feasible if I wanted to finish my degree. (I mean, I could have left grad school, but things were not quite so dire.) A few weeks ago I read another article on burnout, and it was like looking in a mirror. All of the sitting around like a lump, the not caring, the eating like crap, the constant exhaustion – it was burnout, my old friend! Haha! Maybe I should have been freaked out by this revelation, but it was actually kind of comforting. I’ve been here before. I’ve made it through to the other side before. This sucks, but I can absolutely overcome it again.
And really, the same things are true as they were a decade ago when I was finishing grad school. (Side note: holy crap, how is that a decade ago.) I can’t “change jobs” because the “job” I am burned out from is dealing with my parents estate and helping my sibling through a serious illness. I can’t “take a long vacation” because I’m using most of my vacation time to do my aforementioned “job.” (Plus, I can’t imagine the grief I would catch from my sibling if I was like “I know you have major surgery coming up but I’m going to Hawaii! byeeeeee.”) But I know there are things I can do to work within this challenging time, and make it through without my emotions spiraling out of control.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is characterized by a variety of physical and mood-related symptoms and can manifest in your life in any number of ways. Symptoms like exhaustion, cynicism, sleeping too little or too much, forgetfulness, loss of enjoyment, pessimism, apathy, irritability, neglecting your own needs, and feeling like you’re never doing an adequate job are all very common for those suffering from burnout. A lot of people will “joke” that they “feel like this all the time!” and hey, maybe that’s a clue that you should be changing things in your life. All of these symptoms can cause other really bad things like reduced immune system function, stress-related illnesses (shingles comes to mind), depressive episodes, and worsening relationships with your loved ones. So it really is important to recognize the signs of burnout and change what you can, when you can.
What does self-care even mean? Self-care does not mean spending gob tons of money on a spa day or a pedicure. Self-care, especially within burnout, can mean eating healthy foods when you are able, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, cutting out stressful activities (or people) from your life, and seeking professional psychiatric help. As I mentioned in my last post, I quit almost everything this spring after my injury and my mom’s illness. I haven’t really started any of those activities again because 1) they take a lot of time, and 2) while I love advocacy and volunteering, it can be very stressful. I lamented to my therapist that I felt guilty for laying in the hammock all afternoon one Sunday, but I also mentioned that it was really lovely and relaxing just to lay there and alternately snooze and read a book. She reminded me that it’s actually extremely important to do these things for ourselves so that we can have the energy to be productive in our own lives and to be there when our loved ones need us. When I’m in my hometown with my sibling, I definitely feel the need to get! shit! done! for them and for our parents estate and it’s really very exhausting. I’m also chasing a toddler around in the evenings, which, kudos to you, parents, that shit is hard. When I come home, it’s kind of a vacation from all that. I recognize that my sibling has to deal with the cancer and the chemo side effects and a toddler and work and everything else all of the time, so it’s nice to be able to help out when I can and give them a little bit of a break or get things done that they don’t have energy or time to complete.
The last few months of meals have been a complete shitshow – between the moving, the time away from home, and the general not giving a shit and not having the energy to shop for or prepare healthy foods. I try to do my best, but ya know, sometimes I eat a donut. There’s been a lot of pizza. It’s fine. There will be a time to put more energy into meal prep, but now is not that time.
Exercise, on the other hand, has been ok and semi-regular. After two months on the couch due to my injury, followed by a weird summer of panicking, packing, and driving to my hometown a zillion times, I’ve started to use exercise to avoid things I probably should be doing. I suppose it’s better than scrolling though Instagram, but I also know my motivations are not completely pure. I could unpack boxes….or I could go for a walk in the woods near our new house. I could get a load of stuff that’s lingering at the old house…or I could take my dog up to the lake and go for a walk. Do some cleaning or yard work at the old house…or go to the park and catch a bunch of Pokémon. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ That shit will happen, eventually, but it’s really nice outside right now. Self care, y’all.
Quit Stuff and People
I know it sounds callous, and maybe you think you can’t quit things you are involved with, but seriously, you can! I am the World’s Biggest Non-Quitter, and I quit so many things this year. At first, I felt like a huge disappointment, but I had to take a step back. As Ron Swanson says, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” I was constantly half-assing my civic involvements, and having to bail last minute due to yet another family emergency. That wasn’t fair to me or my advocacy friends. And right now, I need to whole-ass taking care of myself and my family. It doesn’t have to be forever, but you are absolutely allowed to suspend nonessential activities like volunteering, boards, hobbies, PTA, baking stuff for the bake sale, etc., even if you are in a leadership role. Just…..walk away. This tweet from Melanie is pretty much my situation in the last 6 months – in many ways I am in survival mode, and I just have to say no and walk away from a lot of things that were previously very important to me.
When you ruthlessly prioritize protecting your energy and your heart, there will be casualties
— Melanie Lockert (@DearDebtBlog) October 4, 2018
Also, people. Regardless of the circumstances of your burnout, it’s highly probable you are going to have some shitty people in your life who just can’t or won’t comprehend what you’re going through. They may try to minimize your issues, constantly tell you how much worse they have it, or just completely ignore the challenges that you’re facing. Guess what? You can quit those people. Your time is precious and you will probably be more fulfilled by an afternoon of hammock swinging than spending time with an energy vulture. (The linked article is about grief, but a lot of it applies to anyone going through a challenging time.) (If the energy vulture in your life is your spouse or partner, I am sorry, and I hope you consider some sort of couples therapy.)
Also! The same thing goes for news and social media. Just step away. Twitter is crazy, our president is crazy, the news is crazy, and seeing all of your friends on vacation on Instagram is just going to make you more crazy. You don’t have to completely cut it out of your life, but stepping away is good and healthy, especially when your brain is already exhausted by whatever is going on in your life. Read a book, watch a movie, go for a walk – but mindlessly scrolling Twitter is not going to improve your mental state.
Ask For and Accept Help
The “nice” thing about life being friggin’ terrible is that most people are really, really nice to you. (Except for the aforementioned shitty people, but they are few and far between.) I am in deep, deep debt to my friends and the universe right now. But, I’m trying not to focus on that, and accept help when it is offered. For example, we have two yards right now, because we haven’t yet sold our old house. That would be fine if 1) we had two working mowers and 2) it hadn’t rained 6″ in the last week. I was trying to find a teenager who could mow on short notice, when a generous friend of mine volunteered. I felt a little sheepish accepting her help, since I was perfectly capable of mowing both yards, but just didn’t have the means to transport the mower to the other house. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and it was such a small kindness that I really, truly appreciated. She also wouldn’t take payment, so I donated to a local charity group she is involved with.
People want to help. Let them. And then pay it forward when your life is more normal.
Automate and Take Small Bites
The forgetfulness part of burnout is real. Some call it “mom brain” or “pregnancy brain” or “grief brain” or whatever. But the result is pretty much the same – you have so many other things going on in your life that little details slip through the cracks pretty easily. That, coupled with the aforementioned exhaustion and not giving a shit, means that stuff just doesn’t get done. One great aspect of having my finances automated is that I don’t have to worry about missing a bill or a payment. Not having to rummage around in an overflowing mail pile or beg a call center rep to forgive a late fee saves you time and energy.
Speaking of exhaustion and not giving a shit, there are going to be a lot of things that pop into your brain that you should be doing in order to keep life moving forward. It’s ok to not do that thing the moment you think of it, either because you don’t have the energy or you’re busy doing something else (like, uh, walking around the lake). But you should definitely write it down. Believe it or not, whether you’re going through burnout, depression, pregnancy, grief, or a significant illness – there will be times when you feel ok and motivated enough to complete chores and errands. When the mood strikes, be ready with your list, and ride that wave of energy as long as you can. If there’s stuff that you absolutely need to get done, but you don’t feel motivated enough to do – pick a thing, set a timer, and work on that thing in small increments until it’s done. For tips on household maintenance while depressed, I highly highly recommend UFYH. For other stuff, try the Pomodoro Technique, which has a variety of apps and browser extensions that can help for work-related tasks.
roomba dog will help you clean!
Outsource If You Can
I recognize there is hella privilege that comes with this last suggestion, and that not everyone can afford to pay someone to do their work for them when they’re too burnt out to do it themselves. However, outsourcing even one thing may lift enough weight off your shoulders so that you can focus on more important tasks or have a little time for self-care. Also there are some outsourcing things that are basically free/cheap nowadays – grocery shopping is the greatest example of this, since most major chains now offer online grocery shopping + pickup, or even free delivery with a certain minimum. If you can swing it, consider outsourcing housecleaning duties or yard care, at least until you start to get your life back together.
So What Am I Doing With My Time?
Yesterday, I stumbled on a post from Jax, and I thought “Damn. That is absolutely how it used to be.” Work, extracurriculars, fitness, side hustles, civic involvement, volunteering, and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. Having a meeting or event every evening. Hardly seeing Mr. G. So, what am I doing now that I’ve stepped away from my “old” life?
- Family. First and foremost. I’m spending about 25% of each month in my hometown helping my sibling before, during, and after chemotherapy treatments. While I’m there, I’m helping with household stuff, helping with the toddler, going through stuff at my parents house, driving my sibling to appointments, and zipping around town gathering legal documents and signing paperwork.
- Our house(s). I finally started to have enough time and energy to start unpacking and sorting through things at our new house. I did not cull very effectively prior to moving, and I don’t really regret it. (Other than it’s taking way longer to move than it should have, but whatever.) I can’t imagine the amount of emotional energy and time it would have taken me to Kon Mari my entire house before the move, so I’m being pretty ruthless as I put things away and my “to sell” pile is getting quite sizable. I’m also slowly incorporating items that I bring back from my parents house.
- Friends. Truth be told, I am prioritizing social interactions right now, even if it seems selfish to eschew an advocacy meeting to grab dinner with friends or go see a movie. The idea of going to a meeting or volunteer event currently fills me with dread. However, It feels great to leave the house and go be among my friends, who are really more like my local family. I also have an incredible army of “pocket friends,” many of whom I talk to (type to?) on a daily basis, and who have been there for me through some of my shittiest moments.
- Health. I am slowly churning through a summer of deferred preventative care that I had to cancel and reschedule while my my mom was sick. (BLESSEDLY – no new cavities and everything at my physical seems to be normal…) I meet with my therapist about twice a month, which has become really wonderfully cathartic, even if I just spend an hour crying and complaining about trivial shit. I am also trying to be regular with my at-home physical therapy, going on longer walks with my dog, and cooking healthy meals. I’m also trying to get enough quality SLEEP, which is challenging since I am spending so many nights away from home.
- Work. I was gone for a month at the beginning of the summer, and I’m still kind of playing catch up from that time. We are just now entering new phases of two big projects, which is exciting but stressful. Since I’m still taking a fair bit of time off each month (be it to help my sibling with chemo or to go my own appointments), I try really hard to be present and productive when I am in the office.
So, that is life right now. Almost 3000 words on how I’m trying to “live in the crazy.” It seems impossible to have a routine at this moment in time, but either I’m finding some semblance of it or just getting used to the nuttiness of my current situation. Talking to Leigh the other day, we both commented on how wonderful it is to occasionally have a “normal” day where you feel like the world isn’t collapsing around you and you’re able to enjoy life and stop and smell the roses. It’s even more wonderful when those days start to become the norm. And it will happen – life will get better. The important thing is to take care of yourself in the meantime.
Life / Changing
Where to begin.
To say the past 12 months have been a rollercoaster would be a severe understatement. A little over a year ago, my dad died suddenly. Earlier this summer, my mom died after a long battle with a rare blood disorder. If you recall, I suffered major injuries in a car crash in the spring. And then, to cap off our year of insanity, my sibling got a cancer diagnosis just a few weeks ago. (The cancer is treatable and the prognosis is good, but that doesn’t make it any easier when you’ve just been through a year of hell and apparently there’s more fresh hell waiting for you around the corner.)
I’ve spent more time in hospitals in the last seven months than in the previous thirty some-odd years of my life. I’ve taken more time off from work this year than any time since graduating from high school. Many days have felt like weeks, and the weeks have felt like years. To think that my car crash was just six months ago seems insane – in my mind, it feels like a decade has passed. I’m exhausted – emotionally and physically – and feeling very unmoored.
And so, it seemed like a great time to buy a house.
It’s true – in the middle of our personal maelstrom, we decided to buy a house, and we closed on the property last week. The past year has been completely bereft of routine or ability to plan for the future, and also full of HUGE decisions in the realms of personal finance, estate planning, major purchases and healthcare. By the time closing rolled around, the house-buying process actually seemed pretty chill compared to everything else. (I have also spent more time with attorneys and bankers in the past couple of months than any other time in my life!)
Due to my injury and my mom’s illness, I quit almost everything this spring. I quit my civic engagements, I quit volunteering, I quit my hobbies, I quit my side hustles. I did maintain one appointed position with fairly light responsibilities, and also my job, but that’s about it. I didn’t see my friends for long stretches, although they were always helping me out behind the scenes. Being in my hometown and helping my mom while she was at the end of her life was incredibly difficult, but it was also kind of freeing. I was singularly focused on helping her and helping to care for the extended family that came to visit her before she passed. Reading Twitter was emotionally taxing (it was when the family separations at the border first came to light, and it was very difficult to process given the ongoing trauma in my personal life), so I was spending a lot less time on social media. Instead, I read books, ran errands, worked remotely, or prepared meals when mom was resting. After mom passed, and after the funeral service was over, it dawned on me how much I had given up in the past few months. That separation from my old life gave me the opportunity to gain a little perspective on everything that happened and what was coming next.
Housebuying continued to be a big question mark in my mind throughout the spring, even during my mom’s time in home hospice. Mr. G and I have considered buying or building a new house in our same city for a long time. The problem was I didn’t really know what I wanted, and I’d had a hard time envisioning our future once I started considering the possibilities surrounding financial independence and retiring early. My brain was firmly wedged between “buying a bigger house is stupid and expensive and you’re a terrible minimalist” and “old houses are expensive to maintain and wouldn’t it be nice to have a real garage.” We’d been seriously looking at houses for a few years, and nothing had screamed “this is the one.” However, the last year brought our house (and life) priorities into a sharper focus. Neither Mr. G nor myself have living parents, so we wanted a house big enough to host our extended family for the holidays, and a space where my niblings could hang out for a few weeks if their parents were traveling. We each wanted a dedicated office/hobby space and a master bedroom big enough for a king-sized bed. We wanted a second bathroom and a bedroom that could be a real guest room instead of a storage room with a bed in it. There were a few pieces of furniture from my parents that I wanted to have in my home (and a lot of boxes of personal effects I didn’t want, but knew they needed to be stored until they could be sorted through), and I knew we wouldn’t have room for those in our current house. Minimizing and decluttering are ongoing efforts in my life, but I also recognize I’m not going to move to a tiny house or RV any time soon. And I’m finally ok with that.
While I was still in my hometown after mom’s funeral, I saw a house on Zillow that piqued my interest. When they dropped the price after about a week on the market, it really piqued my interest. And so, a few days after I returned home, we went to look at the house. We asked a handyman friend to tour the house with us, and I immediately got a good feeling when he pointed out the raspberry bushes in the side yard. (My dad’s favorite.) It was the first house we’d toured where I thought the kitchen looked better in person than in the listing. It was the first house with a backyard that rivaled our current house. It was probably a little bigger than we needed, but it was big enough to accommodate almost everything we wanted. It was a teensy bit further to my office (increasing my bicycle commute from 7 minutes to 10 minutes, ha) and also super convenient for Mr. G’s commute. Several friends were within walking distance, and we wouldn’t even have to change grocery stores. It ticked almost all of our boxes, was in really good condition, and didn’t need gob tons of renovations out of the gate. Was this the one?
Well, we bought the house!
Of course, buying the house is not the end of the story. If this past year was a movie, this is where the credits would roll – with a tidy happy ending that includes us starting a new chapter of our lives in our new house. However, my sibling is still going through cancer treatments. We have a long road ahead of us in cleaning out our parents house, having an estate sale, and the closing of the estate. I dream of redoing a bathroom at the new house next summer, but we also have to fix up and sell our old house and my parents’ house. I dream of planting a thousand hostas in our shaded backyard, but I also know the landscaping at our old house could also use a few dozen hours of my time. I dream of returning to my hobbies, advocacy, traveling, and this blog, but I’m also happy to have a flexible job that allows me to spend time in my hometown cleaning out my parents’ house and helping my sibling through a difficult recovery.
In many ways, this summer is a new start, as we face a future without our parents. It is an awful reason to have a new start, but it is a new start nonetheless. We have an opportunity to build a new routine in a new neighborhood, and to build new traditions in our rearranged family. We have a lot of life ahead of us, and I would really like to start living it instead of always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Life has changed immeasurably in the past year, but we have hope and strength and we are resilient. And we have each other.
p.s. you can hear how my family dynamic influenced my attitudes as a “financial feminist” on the latest episode of the Fairer Cents podcast.
Emergencies and the Funds Who Love Them
Last year, freaked out by the US Presidential election, I set a goal to have 12 months expenses as cash savings in my emergency fund. Both Mr. G and myself work in sectors that have had substantial uncertainties in the past year – he in the energy sector, and me in public higher education. Sales are stagnant for him, and state education funding is flat for me. Neither of us got raises this year. Things weren’t great to begin with, and then, in 2017, they definitely got worse.
About a year ago, we found out one parent had a rare illness. Then, 6 months ago, my other parent died suddenly. A few months ago, my surviving parent had a stint in the hospital and it seemed we had reached the point where Decisions Must Be Made regarding the treatment plan. As a consequence, I began to seriously contemplate the finances associated with having to take substantial time off work to help care for my parent.
And that’s just my family drama. In the last year, I have been diagnosed with anxiety, had to have a tooth extracted, had major electrical repairs to my car after a squirrel took up residence in the engine compartment, and then…AND THEN… a few weeks ago, my car was totaled in a very scary car crash that left me with broken bones that required surgery and a lengthy recovery. Yeah.
Sometimes it’s hard to find a lot of optimism in the dumpster fire of the past year, but I also recognize how incredibly lucky I am to have supportive friends and family and an emergency fund that have helped me survive without losing my mind. First off, I am thankful every day I did not sustain a head or spine injury in the car crash, which could have left me permanently disabled. (I’m obviously still healing and don’t know how close to 100% I’ll be in a year, but it’s so much less scary than a brain or spine injury.) My job is fairly flexible and has an excellent leave policy and very good health insurance, which means that I haven’t many out-of-pocket expenses immediately after my hospitalization. I’m still youngish and otherwise healthy, and have been able to adapt to a mobility-limited life in short order. Mr. G is awesome (SO AWESOME) and has been helping me with transportation, meals, showering, and laundry since I got home from the hospital. (As a woman who was previously “I am independent, hear me roar,” the last few weeks have been a neverending lesson in humility and gratitude.) Fantastic friends have brought us food and sent me flowers and care packages from around the country. My village is strong, and I am so, so, so lucky.
“You Have a Large Cash Balance”
Real talk here: our savings situation is in a bit of flux and has been for quite a while. We have cash sitting around because we’ve been thinking about buying (or building) a house for a few years now. Or doing some major updates to our current home. We have another slush fund for minor home repairs and travel. And then we have the emergency fund, which is about 6-8 months of household expenses that is just sitting there, earning a little interest and waiting for a crisis. So, every time I log into Personal Capital, it likes to remind me that I have “a large cash balance” and serve me with helpful articles such as, “is it possible to have too much cash?” I GET IT, OK – but seriously, The Algorithm needs to cut me some slack while I figure my shit out.
When I was planning for the size of our emergency fund, I did a lot of research on how much liquid cash we should have socked away. My never-ending stream of life crises, for better or for worse, has highlighted things that I don’t need to worry about and things I should worry about more. It has also forced me to re-examine the savings strategy I have used for the past decade. The size of your emergency fund and the investment vehicle where it resides are both deeply personal decisions. Yes, Dave Ramsey or Suze Orman will tell you to start out with $1000 and move up to 3-6 months expenses “depending on your situation.” This is a good place to start! However, as you learn to manage your money in an efficient manner, you may find out that your access to credit (and ability to pay it off every month) improves substantially, and you might start thinking that your money could be doing more work in an index fund, rather than earning a measly whatever-CapitalOne-is-paying interest rate every month.
But, of course, there’s the other side of that coin. This recent Billfold post was illuminating as to how expensive it can be to deal with unexpected major medical expenses, especially late in life. If none of your cash is liquid, out of pocket expenses might be more than your relatives can deal with if you have a real health emergency. When my parent passed away suddenly last summer, we opted to pay cash for the funeral arrangements rather than wait for the life insurance to come through (at which point the funeral home will arrange to take their cut before any remainder goes to you). Even for cremation and a simple service, that was $6,000+ out of pocket, plus lots of other bills related to end-of-life care, attorneys, accountants, and all of those sorts of things that must be dealt with. Had all of my parents money been locked away in CDs and retirement accounts, it could have been a very challenging couple of months.
Have I Outgrown My Sinking Funds?
When I was making not very much money as a graduate student, I dipped my toes into saving and budgeting by amortizing most of my major expenses. How much did I spend on holiday gifts and baking each year? Divide by 12 and save it each month. What kind of car payment did I feel comfortable with? I’d save that amount each month and I had a nice down payment when it was finally time to upgrade. I initially had accounts for my emergency fund, holiday spending, travel, major electronics purchases (replacing a phone or computer), and then later on for my Roth IRA contribution, car down payment, and charitable donations. $25 here, $300 there, is automatically zapped over to each account a few days after payday. This was 100% a strategy I developed to keep myself out of credit card debt after I’d worked so hard to dig my way out after grad school. If I planned for a large expense, I could pay off my credit card immediately after the charge. Plus, I had a little emergency fund (it hovered around the aforementioned $1000 for a LONG time) in case of an unexpected expense. And it worked! But times are different now.
It’s been almost 10 years since graduate school. Mr. G and I are debt-free except for our modest mortgage. If either of us faced a job loss, we’re trained enough in our frugal ways that we could clamp down our unnecessary spending in a pretty rapid fashion. (I’m looking at you, eating out.) It’s very affordable for me to add him to my health insurance. (The opposite is a little more expensive, but still manageable.) We’re both pretty prudent with our spending, although our savings strategy could be a little more cohesive. An expense that used to be insurmountable for me to pay off immediately – for example, our annual ~$400 vet bill that includes the exam, vaccines, flea/tick/heartworm meds, etc. – is not anything I really sweat at this point in my life. (Although it still makes me cringe.) I just don’t need to amortize all of my major expenses anymore. And it seems somewhat superfluous to have “regular savings” for these large anticipated expenses, in addition to “emergency savings” for crises, when both can be replenished in a pretty rapid fashion.
The Path to an Adequate Cash Balance
We’re not going the $0 emergency fund route at our house, but it might be time to roll all of my little sinking funds into one account so that I have a more complete picture of my savings. I still think it’s important to have a chunk of cash available, whether it’s earmarked for emergencies, or just in a general savings account that is intended to cover all of those big, irregular expenses in addition to crisis time expenses. Job loss or having to take time off to help care for my parent aren’t one-in-a-million scenarios at this point in my life, unfortunately, so I’m ok with a cash security blanket that isn’t earning great returns. Maintaining a large cash cushion has obviously been driven by fear and uncertainty, and we still have a lot of looming questions about our future (as in, we are definitely going to buy another car in the next few months, and we are still thinking about a different house). However, I’ve recently started a regular contribution to our taxable brokerage account (trade war be damned), and I haven’t slowed my contributions to my 403b or Roth IRA. Because life will go on, eventually. (Right?)
One thing that really determines how much emergency savings you need is how well you are insured. Earlier this spring, Mr. G and I rearranged some things with our auto and home policies to more adequately reflect our financial situation and relationship commitment. We have a local agent for a major national insurance carrier, and although I hate doing it, I’m really glad we took the time to meet with them this year to discuss and adjust our coverage levels. For example, when we combined households 7 years ago, I still had a renter’s insurance policy because it would have been cheaper for me to take out a claim against the renter’s policy in case of a property loss. With a lot more savings in the bank than when I first started my job, I’m not as worried about the financial hardship that I would face if, say, my bicycle or my laptop was stolen from our house. Plus, our financial interests are a lot more intertwined than they were 7 years ago.
I also didn’t have any idea about the deductibles, out-of-pocket maximums and co-insurance levels for my health insurance prior to the car crash. It’s true! Call me lucky, but I’ve never been faced with a major health issue or hospitalization. I was blissfully unaware of coverage levels and co-pays for anything other than office visits with my primary care physician and prescriptions. I honestly thought that I’d be on the hook for a few thousand dollars almost immediately after my surgery, and I’d have to eat those expenses while we waited to see if the other driver’s insurance was going to accept liability. Well, as it turns out, my in-network coverage is very good, and my out-of-pocket costs are next to nothing. Even with a robust cash savings in the bank, this was a huge relief to me. Several months from now, after I have achieved “maximum medical improvement” (a term borrowed from worker’s comp, but the principle is similar), my health insurance and the other driver’s car insurance will duke it out in an insurance battle royale to determine who pays what. Between the other driver’s liability coverage and my health insurance, I shouldn’t have to cover any of my medical expenses as a result of the crash. This isn’t really a process I can really control, so I’m trying not to worry about it.
So Many What Ifs
I’m a chronic over-thinker. In the first few days after I got out of the hospital, I couldn’t help but dwell on all of the what ifs of my situation. What if I hadn’t taken that route to work that morning? What if I had turned instead of going straight? What if I lived alone – would I have had to move in with a relative or friend during my recovery? What if the injuries would have been more serious and I wouldn’t have been able to get around our incredibly inconvenient 100-year-old house? Would home healthcare be covered? Piggy, who had her own visit to the ER recently, points to a dozen more scenarios that could have made my recovery more difficult or expensive. Mr. G, despite his fairly no-bullshit/no-overthinking approach to life (I affectionately refer to it as “managing my expectations”) has also had his fair share of anxieties about my crash. Despite both of us being pretty angry about the injury and inconvenience of the last few weeks, we’re both very thankful it wasn’t worse.
But you can plan, at least to some extent, for those what ifs. Knowing what I know now about our insurance, I feel confident that we would have been adequately covered had my injuries been more serious. My takeaway from this experience is that being reasonably prepared for an emergency means having an understanding of your insurance, your employer’s leave policy, a small cash emergency fund, and access to credit. However, Mr. G and I need to get serious about writing wills and advanced directives, because we aren’t getting any younger and we are at a point in our relationship where we are very committed regardless of our marital status.* Any residual feeling of invincibility left over from my twenties has been pretty dramatically extinguished by this past year. The only thing I’m wondering about now is how much it costs to add a little more life insurance to my plan.
*Post-script for the unmarried: Mr. G and I are not married. We have been meaning to get married, and the delay was mostly us being really indecisive for a year followed by a never-ending cascade of clusterfuck for another year. We did not encounter any issues at our local hospital (in the Midwest) with him being able to be present in the ER or my hospital room, or with him being my emergency contact person during surgery. However, Mr. G pointed out to me that because we’re not married, he would not be able to file for FMLA to help me during my recovery. Thankfully, my injury was not so serious as to require that, but it’s been in the back of my mind ever since. There are a lot of things you can arrange, paperwork-wise, if you’re not married, but FMLA is not one of them. So, just keep that in mind if you’re in the USA and you’re long-term partnered but not married. And, if the clusterfuck subsides, stay tuned for Dr. and Mr. G coming at you this summer or fall, at a courthouse near you. Probably. 😉
My Year of 30-Day Challenges + January Reflections
I’m a a New Year’s Resoluter, I’ll admit it. Some years I’ve really stuck to my resolutions, some years I have not. But it will come as no surprise to anyone in the PF community that, like many of you, I like setting goals for my personal and professional development and I find satisfaction in attaining those goals.
This year, I decided to try something a little different from the standard New Year’s Resolution. I’ve had good luck with 30-day challenges in the past, from money related (Uber Frugal Month, not eating out for a month), to health or fitness related (30 Days of Biking, Dry January), or house related (January Cure). In late December, I stumbled upon a post from Wantless Blog about how she planned to do a whole year of 30-day challenges. This seemed like a great thing for me, a person with a short attention span. I would still feel like I accomplished something if I put my energy towards one goal for a month instead of failing at 87 self-improvement goals all at once. She also linked to this great (short!) video about the power of 30-day challenges.
Just after the New Year, I sketched out the first 6 months of 30 day challenges on Twitter:
I had already been talking about doing the January Cure again “with a gusto” (some years I have really half-assed it), and I have also done Dry January for the last several years and planned to do it again. I thought about some other goals I have for 2018 (with health and self-care being high on the list), and decided to revisit some challenges that I have attempted in the past.
What Is the January Cure?
To me, the January Cure is about more than just cleaning and decluttering. Although those are important, it’s also about resetting your house after the holidays, and establishing or restarting cleaning routines to keep your house tidy and clean-ish most of the time. I’ve done the challenge before, so I mostly knew what to expect. To summarize, the January Cure includes lots of short, weeknight tasks from cleaning out a drawer to doing a digital detox. Then, each weekend, you undertake a larger project such as deep-cleaning your floors, kitchen, or bathroom. You also choose a long-term project that you can complete in January (maybe hanging some art or replacing a light fixture), and make a plan to have guests over sometime in February to show off your clean and clutter-free home (I usually skip this, but we might try to have a party this year!).
The thing I like about both January Cure and my favorite cleaning/decluttering blog, Unf*ck Your Habitat, is that they both encourage routines and systems to keep your house uncluttered and to prevent yourself from “binge cleaning.” The January Cure has small tasks that you fit in to your evening routine, and Unf*ck Your Habitat uses its 20/10 system (20 minutes of cleaning followed by a 10 minutes break). I recently started reading the Unf*ck Your Habitat book, and I learned a little bit more about the psychology of the 20/10 system that is touted on the blog. A lot of people complain that the system encourages “too many breaks,” but the whole point is to trick yourself into realizing that cleaning isn’t that difficult and it is something that should be done in short spurts on a regular basis. It’s a really great system for anyone who struggles with completing unenjoyable household chores or staying focused on arduous tasks at work. (I’m also a big fan of the Pomodoro Technique and associated apps on my browser to keep me focused on work tasks.)
Wait, I Thought This Was a Personal Finance Blog?
I think at this point, most of us recognize that we all have different paths to financial freedom. Some people practice extreme frugality, some people practice minimalism, some people earn more through side hustles or real estate investment. To me, my decluttering and cleaning efforts are absolutely part of my personal finance journey. Just a few examples:
- After Mr. G and I combined households, we had a storage unit for several years. It wasn’t until I discovered the FI/RE community that I decided that a half empty storage unit full of forgotten junk was a terrible way to waste $65 a month, and decided to get rid of most of the remaining items in the unit.
- This month I’ve found probably half a dozen items that I’ve 1) been trying to find for a long time or, 2) were on my shopping list, but we had extras hiding in the clutter that I wasn’t aware of. Decluttering and staying organized prevents me from buying stuff we don’t actually need.
- Helping my Surviving Parent downsize and declutter after the death of my other parent this summer has helped me realize that I don’t want to spend all of my precious time on this earth tending to my junk and I don’t want to have to pay for a huge house or storage unit to store it all.
- Cleaning and maintaining my home on a regular basis means catching minor issues before they become costly repairs. Maintaining appliances, furniture and flooring ensures that they stay in good condition for a long time.
- Decluttering also helps me appreciate what we have and what we use. For example, we have a lot of kitchen gadgets, and we love to cook. (Fancy rice cooker, sous vide, Instant Pot, immersion blender, stand mixer, food processor, etc. etc. etc.) But if the kitchen is cluttered with a ton of junk we never use, we’re more likely to say “eff it, this space is unusable,” and go out to eat. Culling rarely used or duplicate kitchen gadgets makes our kitchen a more functional and usable space.
So there you have it, folks – cleaning and decluttering are verifiable personal finance endeavors. If you’re going to live the Uber Frugal life (or even a medium frugal life), you’re probably going to be spending a fair bit of time at home engaging in frugal activities, and your home should be a functional, beautiful, and enjoyable space that supports your lifestyle.
Reflections on a Dry January
This is at least the 4th (5th?) year I have done a Dry January. The rules are simple: no alcohol in January! Although the movement started in the UK, I read an article some years ago (probably on the now-defunct Hairpin or Awl, 😭) about the benefits of periodic abstinence from your vices, and decided to give it a go. What started out as a very difficult challenge for me has turned into something that is totally achievable and very good for my post-holiday health goals. There have been many times where January has totally gone off the rails and I’d love nothing more than a beer or cocktail to take the edge off. But Dry January teaches me that alcohol doesn’t have to be a crutch. That there are other ways to reduce my anxiety – deep breaths, a text to a friend, going for a short walk, cleaning up around the house, etc. My biggest personal growth accomplishment in this past year of never-ending personal dumpster fires has been learning to control my emotions and anxiety (most of the time), and I am happier and healthier because of it. Sometimes, that means taking a month to remind yourself that you don’t need alcohol to soothe your anxiety.
The first Friday of January, we went out with friends and I ordered my usual Dry January cocktail, a Diet Coke. (Sometimes, if I’m feeling fancy or don’t want the caffeine, I’ll have a soda water with lime.) I didn’t really say anything about Dry January (because I don’t want it to seem like I’m shaming my friends for not joining me), until a friend walked in and noticed my Diet Coke. “You’re doing it again, eh?” he said, having remembered years past. That sparked a lot of curiosity and I had to explain to several other friends that yes, I was actually going an entire month without alcohol. Then, of course, as a temporary teetotaler, you become the sounding board for everyone’s personal anxieties about their alcohol consumption and how they feel they could never achieve this level of self control. It’s very weird. I don’t personally see myself with a ton of self control, but maybe I am? Maybe this month is good for training my self control muscles? But there are other benefits, as well: not drinking, in combination with a lower-carb diet and eating a ton of veggies for lunch and dinner means I am down almost 10 lbs this month. 🎉 Plus, we don’t really drink at home very often, so we’ve saved a lot of money this month with me not drinking at bars and restaurants (although Mr. G still indulges).
Looking Forward to February
I won’t deny that I’m losing steam on my January Cure tasks, but I’ve accomplished a lot, and I’m very proud of my progress. There are also a few habits I’d like to bring forward with me into the next few months (or forever!):
- Prepping at least 3 lunch salads for the workweek and meal planning at least 5 nights of dinners (usually Sunday through Thursday).
- Creating and maintaining systems for healthier work snacks and beverages (see also: my new tea doodad).
- “Bussing” our end tables at the end of each day for any dishes that haven’t made it to the kitchen.
- Adding back alcohol on a limited basis, and sticking to one night a week for alcohol consumption (mainly for weight loss reasons).
With the January Cure, I’ve accomplished:
- Decluttered the kitchen drawers, socks & underwear drawers, my half of the closet, top of my dresser + night stand, pantry + spice cupboard, breakfast nook, dining room table, living room bookshelves, under the sink, the mail table, etc. etc.
- Managed to fill two large boxes for a spring rummage.
- Cleaned (CLEANED) our fridge, cleaned behind couch, cleaned behind dining room furniture, cleaned and dusted a lot of surfaces that had not been touched…in a while.
- Re-envisioned our dining room and bought a shelf (which helped with some storage issues) and a few strategic accessories to make it more functional and inviting.
- Hung some art that we have had FOREVER, but were too lazy or indecisive to hang.
January was freaking long, y’all. And, at times, not all that enjoyable. But as Mrs. Frugalwoods said in her recent post on decluttering, “while re-organizing a house is not exactly a life-altering event, it was a soothing balm for me in this time of chaos.” Liz’s personal chaos is related to the arrival of their second child and a flurry of activity surrounding her book release. My personal chaos is stemming from family health issues and uncertainty surrounding Mr. G’s job and the university funding climate. Fun! Thus, having a productive outlet for my nervous energy over this past month, especially during the brutally cold days where going outside was seriously unpleasant (or downright dangerous), has resulted in a cleaner, more streamlined home and a slightly saner me.
We’ve (almost) made it through the longest and most austere month of the year. Spring is coming. We’ve got this. 💪
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Getting Rid of Your Stuff – Ethically!
Trash is an ethical quandary. Americans produce a shocking amount of it – 4.4 lbs per person per day, or about 260 million tons of trash in 2014. Thankfully, the per capita trash production has leveled off in the last two decades, with about 34% of our municipal solid waste now going into recycling or composting. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year trying to minimize my own possessions, and with the death of a parent this past summer, minimize my family’s possessions as well. It’s tempting, at times, to call in a dumpster like they do on Hoarders and just start shoveling crap in there. However, I also know that a lot of our stuff can be reused by another person and escape the landfill (at least for a little while longer). Several other writers have pointed out the problematic nature of minimalism/decluttering in that it can generate a lot of trash. So today, I want to talk about the strategies I’ve been pursuing in attempt to minimize my possessions while mitigating the environmental impacts of downsizing.
You may read all of this and come to the conclusion that getting rid of your stuff without throwing it away seems like a lot of work. (Friend: “I admire the insane effort you put forth to avoid throwing away your stuff.” He’s not wrong. Ha.) Minimizing is a process, and it takes a lot of emotional and physical energy to deal with all of that stuff. However, it’s very satisfying to pass along neglected items to people who could use them, and to me, it is freeing to reduce the burden of possessions in my life. I don’t think I’ll ever be KonMari (nor do I want to), but seriously, we have way too much stuff.
Clothes, clothes, clothes. OH. EM. GEE. There’s been a robust conversation in the US in the last few years surrounding the economic and environmental impacts of fast fashion. Simply put, Americans buy A LOT of clothes and their tastes change rapidly, resulting in the disposal of A LOT of clothes. Clothing in the US is cheap, and you get a free t-shirt with just about every charity event or consumer promotion that exists. When we were cleaning out clothes from my Deceased Parent (DP), there were decades upon decades of old t-shirts from events, tourist destinations, concert tours – the list goes on. I think we cleared out 12 garbage bags full of clothing and that wasn’t even all of it. So what to do?
- Goodwill and Other Charitable Resellers. I know discussions surrounding Goodwill have been politically fraught over the years, but they are pretty good about re-selling clothes that are in good condition and sending stuff that doesn’t sell to textile recyclers. (This can present an ethical quandary in developing nations that receive about 60% of the US donations, but, in my opinion, it’s still better than textiles ending up in a landfill.) Goodwill and other organizations that receive a lot of clothing donations are usually pretty transparent with how they deal with clothing that won’t sell or isn’t reusable, so don’t be afraid to do a little research and make sure an organization deals with textile waste in an ethical manner. Other organizations such as St. Vincent De Paul or local charity “clothing closets” may focus more on giving away items to those seriously in need. I know the clothing closet in my area takes a limited selection of items, and tends to focus on seasonally appropriate clothing.
- Retro thrift/consignment shops. Got any paisley shirts or plaid pants? These items are as good as gold in a college town thrift shop for Halloween costumes. And if it’s a consignment shop, you may even make a few bucks.
- Traditional consignment. If you have modern clothes that are in good condition, a local consignment shop may take these items off your hands. Consignment stores usually take a percentage of the earnings as their fee for facilitating the sale of your items, and your payment may come as cash or store credit. Kids consignment is a BIG deal in my community, and it’s a great way to recycle clothing if you don’t have anyone in your family that needs the hand-me-downs.
- Poshmark. More like traditional consignment, but online! I’ve had modest success with selling a few nicer items on Poshmark, and it feels good to make a few dollars on items that are in really good condition but didn’t quite work in my wardrobe. It’s more time and hassle for me to photograph items and generate a listing, but the cut of the profits is larger than for a brick-and-mortar consignment shop. It’s more convenient in eBay in that they generate a pre-paid shipping label for the item you’re shipping, and it’s very clothing focused. eBay fees are much lower, but shipping is a much more DIY operation.
- ThredUP and Online Resellers. ThredUP isn’t really consignment, in that you don’t get paid per item. Instead, you get paid a small lump sum of store credit for the items you send in. I’ve heard from Penny and others that the payback is quite small, but it’s a lot less effort than selling clothes via Poshmark or eBay, and worth a shot if you like shopping with the service.
- Professional/work clothing drives. There are a lot small organizations that will take clothes that are appropriate for work to help low income people dress professionally for job interviews or employment. Many of these places want things along the lines of khakis/slacks, polo shirts, button down shirts, scrubs, nice shoes with non-slip soles (for food service work), etc. More along the lines of business casual, for people that are working in an office environmental, nursing homes, retail, or food service. There are a few organizations that will take your suits and other formal business clothes – check out Men’s Wearhouse National Suit Drive and Dress For Success.
Furniture, dishes, small appliances, knick-knacks, picture frames, etc. Whether you’re combining households or just decluttering, these items are typically in high demand if they’re in good and working condition.
- Goodwill. Goodwill is a goldmine for cheap furnishings in a college town. Check their list of accepted items here.
- Traditional Consignment. I tend to find that consignment shops will focus on clothing OR “stuff.” But the idea is the same – they’ll put your item on their sales floor, and give you a cut of the proceeds when it sells. I think this route is worthwhile if you have some nice furniture or household items that are desirable in the used market. (China and crystal is extremely NOT desirable, but a used KitchenAid mixer might fetch a decent profit.)
- Habitat ReStore. I tend to think of Habitat ReStore for donating extra construction materials or old cabinetry from a renovation, but they also take furniture.
Wedding Dresses. This is a bit of a tough one, since most consignment stores want you to clean your dress before reselling, and they only want modern styles manufactured within the last few years. So, unfortunately, the best option for a lot of older wedding dresses is a regular old thrift store. While trying to figure out how to donate a relative’s wedding dress, we stumbled upon the organization Adorned in Grace, which operates used wedding dress shops in Portland and donates the proceeds to victims of sex trafficking. We didn’t want to get the gown cleaned ahead of time, so we made a $50 donation to them to help cover the cost of cleaning.
Medical Equipment. When someone passes away, there is often medical equipment that is still usable but no longer needed. I know our local American Legion will take things like walkers, crutches, and canes, and there are a lot of other resources for donating gently used medical equipment around the country.
Construction Materials. Unused paint, leftover boxes of tile, extra trim, cabinet knobs that you replaced, old cabinetry, etc. Probably the best option for this, that I know of, is the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. This organization sells these items to the general public in order to fund Habitat for Humanity housing projects. A great way to get that old bathroom sink and those 2x4s out of your garage and help fund affordable housing in your community.
Books. This is something I haven’t totally figured out yet, as my DP had A LOT of books. However, there are a few options:
- Charity book sales. Libraries and charities often have large book sales as fundraisers for their organizations. Our library, for example, has an annual sale to liquidate volumes they no longer want in their collection in addition to donated books.
- Little Free Libraries. If you’ve got just a handful of books and want to make sure they get recycled into the community, Little Free Libraries are a great option. There was an internet kerfuffle this summer about these libraries distracting from the greater mission of large public libraries, and serving limited, higher-income neighborhoods, but I don’t find that to be an issue in my community. LFLs are everywhere here – outside schools, churches, the free community kitchen, shops, on campus, and in parks. They’re definitely accessible to people of all socioeconomic levels, and people will often go out of their way to deliver books to empty libraries or underserved areas.
- Teacher friends. If you have a children’s, young adult, or literary fiction books that you’re looking to get rid of, talk to your teacher friends! My friends are always trying to expand their classroom libraries, and I’ve been able to get rid of quite a few books this way.
- Used Book Stores. If you’re looking to get a little money back from your books, used book stores are a good option. Unfortunately, we no longer have one in my city, but it might be worth the drive to a bigger city if we can get rid of several boxes. Some friends of mine that recently relocated overseas took a carload of academic texts to a used bookstore in Chicago – they didn’t make a ton of money, but the were able to offload a lot of books and get an ok return for their efforts.
Buy Nothing Project. One of the best things I’ve discovered via Frugalwoods is the existence of the Buy Nothing Project. One formed in my community a few years ago. Our page isn’t super active, and for a time this fall it was the “Little Green Gives Away Her Junk Project.” However, I’ve learned that good photos and a little honesty mean you will be able to give away almost anything. For example, I gave away a couple of pieces of foam core board that we used for family photos at my DP’s memorial service (even though I was honest and said they had photo tape stickies on one side), and we have given away a vast, vast array of junk that lingered in our basement and garage for years. Dust it off, wipe it down, take a photo, and give that stuff away. This is often much easier on my psyche then trying to negotiate with someone for hours in order to extract $3 for something that’s been sitting in a closet for 10 years. Give it away, give it away, give it away NOW.
FB Marketplace, LetGo, Craigslist. I used to be a committed Craigslister, but the site has fallen out of my favor as Facebook sales sites have gained prominence. Integrated chat features with FB Marketplace and LetGo are particularly useful when communicating with a potential buyer. Most people have their real names on their FB accounts, and I think it reduces the likelihood of getting scammed. I’ve had good luck on Marketplace and ok luck on LetGo, but it’s probably fairly region-specific. I’ll also give things away on Marketplace if no one is interested in the Buy Nothing group, since the posting will reach a broader audience. When selling things to strangers, be smart and meet them in a well-lit public area, or near a police station, or bring a friend or a mean-looking dog.
Rummage sales/yard sales are GREAT, and we had one this summer. The caveats with rummage sales are that they take a lot of preparation, and they also require you to have a garage and/or yard where it can be accommodated. Here are a few things I learned:
- I listed big-ticket items on Facebook Marketplace or LetGo to reach a broader audience. Committed rummage salers are often looking for super great deals on anything that looks interesting, and don’t necessarily want to pay $50+ for a large piece of furniture. By combining online postings with the rummage, I could elevate the visibility of these large specialty items, and communicate with interested buyers about holding items until they were able get to our house to take a look. I wouldn’t do this for all items, but it helped me get full price for the big items.
- Inventory is important. If you are thinking about having a rummage sale, I would highly recommend recruiting several of your closest friends to 1) sell their junk at your rummage so you have a larger and more diverse inventory and 2) help out with the rummage as their schedule allows. A good friend of mine has had a “friends & family rummage” for the last several years, and it’s a great way to get rid of a few items and make a few bucks without putting in a zillion hours of effort.
- Price stuff to move. Don’t try to extract $5 out of the twenty year old fax machine that literally no one wants. Reduce prices on the second day and be generous when people try to talk you down a few dollars. This is as much about getting rid of stuff as it is about making a few bucks.
- If your neighborhood has a “rummage weekend,” be sure to plan accordingly. You’ll get a lot more traffic through your neighborhood, and you may be able to purchase advertising as a group.
- Weather can totally rain on your cash parade, so plan accordingly.
Some other great options are charity or city rummages. Much like the charity book sales I mentioned above, you’re typically donating your items to an organization and the proceeds will go towards funding the organization’s programs. A local church has a huge rummage a few times a year, and it’s a veritable sea of deals. A+ way to get rid of stuff if you don’t care about making money.
Getting Rid of Everything At Once
Sometimes the only remedy that makes sense is to get rid of everything at once – after the death of a family member, when moving a loved one into a nursing home, or prior to a long-distance move. This is when an auction or estate sale becomes necessary. I don’t know that much about estate sales (other than I’ve been to a bunch of them), but I do know that someone comes into your house, empties your closets and cupboards, arranges your knick-knacks, and opens your house to total strangers to come in and buy your stuff. (Of course, you and your relatives will have the opportunity to take things that are meaningful or useful in your lives prior to the sale.) They have staff, they have cash register, they charge sales tax, the whole shebang. And, of course, they take a decent cut of the proceeds. Unless you’re trying to extract every dollar from your family’s possessions, estate sales seem like a reasonable route to keep yourself sane while liquidating a household. Several estate sales I’ve attended also include the sale of the house or property. Auctions, I find, are more common for farms or acreages where there are large amounts of tools and machinery that need to be liquidated.
Old And Busted
Sometimes no one wants your junk, it’s too worn out, or it’s straight up broken, or it’s actual garbage. However, there are still a lot of opportunities to recycle your junk instead of having it go to a landfill.
Textiles, Bedding and Towels. As I’ve mentioned above, Goodwill continues to be the best option in many communities for textile recycling. Old towels and bedding items are usually in high demand from animal shelters and rescue organizations, especially those that regularly deal with litters of puppies and kittens. Towels and t-shirts cut up into smaller sections also make great rags. (But you only need so many rags!)
Appliances. Check with your garbage handler or municipality on the best way to dispose of appliances. You probably have a scrap metal recycler in your community that may also take them. It’s very important to recycle things like refrigerators, window air conditioners, and dehumidifiers – appliances that contain coolant that can be hazardous to the environment if it leaks out in a landfill. Your trash handler or recycler will often come pick up these items for a small fee.
Electronics. Your community may have specific electronics recycling options, but in a lot of places, the best options are Best Buy or Staples. (Staples took the aforementioned fax machine that no one bought off our rummage.) If it’s a cell phone or computer that you’re recycling, be sure to wipe the memory (reset to factory settings) or remove the hard drive, if possible. There are also some non-intuitive places that will buy back your working electronics, such as Half Price Books, and Best Buy also has a buy back program.
Sensitive Documents. If you have a lot of documents you need to shred, you might look around your community to see if your bank will accept documents for shredding, or if you have a “community shred day.”
Phew. Well, that’s almost 3000 words on a zillion resources for getting rid of your stuff. Did I miss anything? Do you have questions about getting rid of your stuff?
Staying Invested (In Your Community) While Pursuing FI
There is a certain segment of the FI/PF community that really embraces the “personal” and “independence” aspects of the journey, while mostly ignoring the importance of “community” in a way that extends beyond blog comments and tweeting at each other. Social media is great – I love it, and I’m probably a bit obsessed. But for me, pursuing FI has raised some real questions about where I stand in the community – in the FI/PF community, in my field of employment, and in the town and state where I live.
Let’s back up a bit. In order to achieve my career goals, I spent a full decade of my life with my head in a science book (or knee deep in a pile of journal articles), and I didn’t have much bandwidth to pay attention to the world around me. I’m sure many people in the FI/RE community that work demanding jobs can commiserate – the only difference being that my long hours didn’t come with high pay. My few service activities during grad school were science-focused. I went to work, I came home, and if time allowed, I’d manage to occasionally cook a real meal or get some exercise. On the weekends, I worked. On holidays, I worked. I’m not complaining about that decade of my life, but it was a rather monk-like existence.
And then… I got a Real Job. A job that was 9ish to 5ish with my weekends free to do as I pleased. I was able to look beyond my own life and truly commit to my city in a way that I’d never been able to before. Five years later, I am knee-deep in volunteer activities that come with their own varying levels of stress and time commitments. However, it’s also incredibly rewarding to be an advocate for things on the local level and see the immediate impact of a freshly planted tree or an improved park, and to be able to serve my fellow citizens face-to-face at a the community kitchen or town festival.
My Many (Unpaid) Side Hustles
My city, like many in the Midwest, currently has very low unemployment rate. Many retail stores and restaurants are having a hard time finding reliable employees and, consequently, are paying well above minimum wage to attract and retain people. I’ve often thought about how easy it would be to get a part-time job and make a reasonable side income that could significantly accelerate my FI timeline. However, I’ve done the 60+ hour workweek before, and spending my evenings and weekends working a second job would mean abandoning most of my community commitments. So that leaves me to wonder, what are my goals? To have the shortest FI timeline as possible? Or to invest my time and energy in my community while continuing to work my 9-5?
I fell into community advocacy somewhat by accident, when a neighborhood issue arose and I started attending city council meetings. In the past five years, I have learned a lot about city governance, codes, zoning, planning, and how to work with city staff on advancing issues. I have also developed a personal vision for the future of my city. If you find yourself saying, “LGR, why don’t you run for something?” Well, campaigns honestly sound like a real drag. I have door knocked and phone banked for local candidates in the past, and to say that I hate it is an understatement. I understand that when you’re on the other side of the dais, you’re the one making the big decisions. However, you’re also listening to all sides of a particular issue and making sure that the vote you cast is in the interest of your constituents, the city budget, and in line with the city’s code and vision. As an advocate, I can work with city staff on an issue I am passionate about, and educate myself and my elected officials about why this particular issue is important for the community. I can work to change the vision that my leaders have for this community.
In addition to my advocacy role, I’m involved with a group that plans and hosts community events, another group that provides financial mentoring for women, I serve on a city board, and I try to help friends with their community activities as much as possible. I’ve definitely manage to fill the extra 20 hours a week that I used to spend in the lab with community and advocacy work.
Is Volunteering Delaying My FI Timeline?
I see lots of posts from people who will buy furniture on the cheap from Craigslist, dust it off, shine it up, and re-sell it for twice what they bought it for. I see Penny busting her ass to supplement her teaching salary. I see Kara working long hours and extra jobs to pay off her debt. As a result, there’s a part of me that feels like I could #sidehustle a lot harder than I do. But to be honest, I haven’t really struggled with my decision to spend my time outside of my 9-5 on community endeavors instead of making more money. I decided that my interests and talents are better utilized as a community advocate as opposed to working a part-time job. I decided that I busted my ass for 11 years in college and grad school, and now I have a good-paying job to show for it. I decided that, given my nebulous FI/RE timeline, I don’t want to wait until I’m retired or financially independent to make a difference in my community. I live here now, I’m planning on staying here for a while, and I’d like to see my vision for this community become a reality.
I’m not knocking those who choose to spend their time making extra money. The best parts of pursuing a more frugal lifestyle are the flexibility and options that come with not living paycheck to paycheck. I don’t need a side job to pay my bills, and that’s really wonderful. Penny doesn’t need to make extra payments on her mortgage, but her side hustles enabled those extra payments and her ability to save money for the birth of her son and subsequent maternity leave. We get to decide our own priorities. Extra money I make through my very modest side hustle (only about 10 hours a month) or selling junk on Craigslist is just gravy. I can bank it or I can spend it on travel or entertainment without chipping away at my paycheck. I don’t need to do any of these things to make ends meet or even to meet my early retirement goals. But the flexibility is the key here.
One interesting example of community activism I have seen recently is the MMM World Headquarters. Mr. MM has decided to become the founder and benefactor of a facility that can serve as a space for workshops, trainings, health and fitness activities, DIY classes, co-working, etc. We have something similar in my city that I have been tangentially involved with, and I think it’s such a cool effort. However, it takes A LOT of capital and A LOT of time to get something like this up and running, and the financial success of the Longmont space will not make or break Mr. MM’s early retirement. To throw all of my money and energy towards a project of this magnitude would definitely derail my financial goals, not to mention send me to an early grave if I were to start this project while still working. It’s awesome – but file under “cool stuff to do after RE.”
Another awesome example is the work Kara is doing within her business, Bravely Go, hosting workshops and seminars to increase financial literacy among women in her community. Some of my advocacy work has a major educational component, and I’m working towards getting certified to host educational workshops in my city. While arranging these workshops will take a fair bit of time and effort on my part, it’s not so all-consuming as founding a co-working/maker space, and it’s (probably) something I can tackle in addition to my day job.
I also don’t discount the fact that volunteerism may lead to other opportunities. I’ve met a lot of fantastic people through community work, and many of them have become close friends. It never hurts to have a large network of people who can help you or your organization when shit hits the fan or when it’s time to take your next big step in your life or career. Or vice versa!
Time is Our Most Precious Asset
It will come as no surprise to anyone that spending time with my family has become very important to me after losing a parent this past summer. My parent’s death has also made me reevaluate how I spend my time more generally. If I value my community commitments, family, and friendships above a slightly accelerated FI/RE timeline, and I don’t need additional income to reach my goals, then I feel that my focus should be to spend my time on those civic and family relationships. I’ve also spent A LOT of time getting rid of junk in the past few months (both my junk and my parents junk) and that, in an of itself, is a very time consuming endeavor. (Especially when you’re trying to sell or give away most of your junk and not just throw it in a dumpster – more on that in a future post.)
Most people pursuing FI/RE are educated and intelligent individuals. We’ve all taken the time to understand things like index funds, the Trinity Study, taxes, health insurance, and many more complex ideas. You don’t have to value exactly what I value, but I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s so important to give time and energy (and not just money!) to your local community. There are approximately one zillion ways to do this, and you’re almost certain to reap some benefits in return. If you love budgeting and taxes, you can volunteer to help people with their tax preparation or to coach them on topics of financial literacy – and you’ll probably pick up some great skills and knowledge along the way. You’ll get a free workout in exchange for planting trees, a free lunch for helping with a city-wide cleanup, a safer bike commute after going to a planning meeting, or just the satisfaction that comes with making your city a better place. The rewards of volunteerism are numerous, and your efforts will certainly pay dividends to you and your community for years to come.
How do you volunteer in your community?
Procrastination and Priorities
Hey, remember when I was getting my shit together a few months back? Oh hohohohohohahahahaha …heh. Welp. Things did not go as planned.
My silence here has been because I didn’t know what I wanted to write about it, but here’s the truth: one of my parents passed away suddenly a few months ago. It was awful (and is still awful) and left us all reeling. It’s hard to put into words how I’m doing as it hasn’t been that long and, honestly, I don’t even know. Most of the time, it’s fine. I have been busy at work and in life and I am thankful for a wonderfully supportive partner and group of friends. But some of the time, especially when my mind is quiet at the end of the day, memories and thoughts of coulda/woulda/shoulda come flooding into my brain and it just really, really sucks. But I’m doing ok.
(p.s. Even the tiniest gestures from friends have meant SO MUCH to me in the last few months. I know everyone is different, but a card/note/flowers/I’m thinking of you has just been so kind and reassuring and makes me so thankful for my friends and extended family. I am bad at doing this, but have pledged to be better.)
I decided to start writing about my experiences after seeing some tweets from Fervent Finance and She Picks Up Pennies while back. I think estate planning within your extended family is not something I’ve read from a lot of the PF community. And, unfortunately, it has become glaringly obvious that my parents should have been much more open with me and my sibling about their retirement finances, end-of-life financial plans, wills/other legal documents, etc.
Since the parent that passed was the one with the financial knowledge, and my sibling and surviving parent do not have much financial literacy in the way of investments, a lot of it has rolled down to me (and various financial professionals) to make decisions and ensuring my family’s assets are safely invested and accessible for my surviving parent. (For clarity and privacy, I will refer to my deceased parent as DP and my surviving parent as SP in this post.) It has also dawned on me that getting my financial and legal house in order is probably a thing I should do now rather than later.
I’ve been open here that I don’t really have a timeline for FI. I don’t have a plan to increase my passive income, I don’t have a plan for what I would do if I retired in my 40’s (other than “travel”), I don’t have a plan for how I would handle health insurance and other necessities that I would need outside of traditional employment. I felt a twinge of sadness in August when a few blogger friends confessed they “could not wait for FI” so they could go chase the next eclipse. Today, I decided I’m fine with punting on FI (or, at least, the mechanics of it). My mind is cluttered with a whole lotta shit right now, and I am incapable of devoting much emotional energy to planning things that seem very far in the future. But.
I realized one problem my parents faced in retirement was a bit of a “failure to launch.” I think there were a lot of things they wanted to do, but hadn’t contemplated the costs and challenges associated with those ideas in a tangible way that would have allowed them to become reality. There was talk of RVing around the country, but that would have required substantial downsizing and decluttering. There was talk of international travel, but that would have required having a spending plan. And now here we are, with one parent gone, and a wake of obligations to fulfill before we can move forward with our lives. This process that I am going through right now – the decluttering, the organizing, the paperwork – it’s not only an important part of my grief process, but I believe it’s also part of my FI journey. Ultimately, I hope it will help me gain clarity on my long-term financial and life goals.
There Will Be Stuff
The other thing I have been faced with is the physical reality of dealing with a loved one’s STUFF after they are no longer on this earth. My DP was a “neat hoarder” or a collector or whatever you want to call it. I have already spent hours and hours going through clothing and helping to empty out a storage unit. My SP has put in many calls to the accountant trying to understand what to keep and what to purge. My sibling, who lives closer, has spent many more hours organizing paperwork and bills and shredding, shredding, shredding.
The other day, I stumbled upon an article about the “Swedish art of death cleaning” which is basically about getting your physical house in order should you pass away unexpectedly. It’s the same philosophy as all other estate planning – have all of your decisions made and money organized and paperwork sorted so that when the time comes, your loved ones don’t have to spend hours and hours shredding tax returns from 1972. I deeply wish that my DP would have have embraced a single nugget of minimalist philosophy while still on this earth. (Years of encouragement from my SP did not inspire much action.) So, we are going through the process now and helping my SP go through 40 years worth of collective stuff plus childhood stuff (theirs and ours) plus stuff from my deceased grandparents and even great-grandparents. It’s a lot of stuff, and I am trying to be prudent about the items that I bring into my house. This winter, I would like to undertake archiving projects and get precious family photos out of old albums and into acid-free envelopes and boxes (and scanned into the cloud). And continue the process of getting my own physical and financial house in order.
There Might Be Money?
Retirement accounts, business accounts, life insurance policies, proceeds from sales of property – the list goes on. We were in a fortunate situation in that we did not have to worry about having enough money to cover funeral expenses. Even with a very modest memorial service and cremation, the bill to the funeral home was still almost $7000. (DP had discussed funeral arrangements with SP and did NOT want to spend a lot of money on them.) Funeral costs are an insane out-of-pocket expense for a family that doesn’t have much in the way of savings or life insurance. Only about 60% of Americans have life insurance, with about 20% of those who do have insurance having a policy worth less than $25,000. That amount of money could get eaten up quickly by funeral expenses, with little or nothing left over for surviving family members. (As to not turn this into a post about life insurance, I refer you to Half Banked who had a recent and very good post on the subject.)
I was also not expecting to receive any inheritance at this point, with the assumption that all of the assets would go to my SP. However, DP’s will did include a provision that split some assets between me, my sibling and my SP. As a person who has worked very hard to put herself through college and grad school without taking on much education debt, and scoffed at my peers who had everything paid for by their parents, I’ll admit that I had complicated feelings about being the recipient of an inheritance. I also felt guilty about inheriting money that my parents worked very hard for and now my DP would not be able to spend in retirement. However, it is what it is. The paperwork says it’s my money, and my DP would certainly want me to be prudent with it. It’s not enough money to drastically change my life trajectory, but it is enough to achieve some of my savings goals much more quickly (namely, fully funding my emergency and house down payment funds). I have spent a little money replacing some household items that I’ve been saying “wouldn’t it be nice to have a new _______” for several years now, I bought a plane ticket to visit some friends, and I put the rest in a high interest savings account and Vanguard. No Maserati, no lavish jewelry, no year-long backpacking reflection journey through Europe – just a new vacuum cleaner and a savings account. Anticlimactic!
Grief Is Weird
One thing I’ve learned in the last few months is that grief is weird and deeply personal. Even in my immediate family, we are all dealing with our grief in drastically different ways. Having lived away from my hometown for almost half my life, at times I feel very removed from the sharp and immediate grief that my SP and sibling experience on a daily basis. For me, grief comes in waves of varying intensity – it punches me in the gut, it whispers in my ear as I’m falling asleep, it taps me on the shoulder when I’m laughing with friends, and it washes over me when I visit my hometown. But I’m doing ok.
Thanks for listening, friends.
p.s. I’ve alluded to my struggles with mental health in the past, and on this #worldmentalhealthday, I just want you to know that I got help, and it’s ok if you need help. And I’m always here if you need to talk.
Getting My Shit Together – With Money!
Phew, it’s getting a little dusty around here. What’s been up the last few months? Well, my ramped up emergency savings certainly came in handy. This year, as it turns out, has not been kind to my mental and physical well-being. After a couple months of aggressive saving and a couple of months of significant travel, I spent most of May and June getting my shit together after just about everything started to hit the fan.
- At the beginning of May we had a semi-planned, but still expensive home repair that Mr. G and I paid for jointly. The results were great, but it was the beginning of a very costly month.
- A few days later, my car suddenly started displaying ALL OF THE WARNING LIGHTS, which was a “fun” surprise! It turned out to be some rodent-induced electrical issues, requiring three trips to my local garage, a trip to the dealer, and about $750 in repairs and maintenance. I am finally warning light-free after a two month debacle. (Although my car still has to go back to the dealer for a recall issue…)
- Less than a week after my car started acting up, I inexplicably developed an abscess on my gums, which resulted in a trip to the dentist, the endodontist, and ultimately the oral surgeon. A molar had died and gone rogue, and the endodontist said we could try a root canal, but it may fail after a year or two and then I’d have to have the tooth extracted anyways. After two opinions from dentists and a significant amount of crowdsourcing from friends far and wide (thanks again, Maggie!), I determined that extraction was the best route to go. It was also the cheapest route, with my out-of-pocket costs coming in under $150, compared to at least $1000 out-of-pocket for a root canal.
- I also had a heart-to-heart with my physician about the unshakeable anxiety that I’ve been experiencing for the past 6 months. It was a long time coming, and took some serious soul-searching and help from writers like Cait in order to come to terms with the state of my mental health. This aspect of getting my shit together was actually the most affordable, with physician and counseling co-pays being very reasonable under my health insurance. I am not very good at talking about mental health, but if you are suffering, I want you to know that you’re not alone, and that it can and does get better. Taking that first step is hard, but I’m here to listen if you need someone to talk to. (And I thank those in the PF community who have listened to me and helped me in the past few months. Seriously. Thank you, thank you, thank you if you have reached out or shared your experiences.)
- All of this, of course, was compounded by additional life craziness – traveling to see family, coming to terms with some family health issues, drama at Mr. G’s work, several community activities (seriously, so many), and the start of summer – which is always a busy time in my office.
June Was Better
- June was still expensive, but I also earned a little additional money from side hustles and selling some stuff that helped cushion the blow of car repair credit card bills.
- Unsurprisingly, 6+ months of depression and anxiety has lead to a fair bit of weight gain for me. Too much booze and eating out, coupled with a complete lack of motivation to exercise are not compatible with the goal of “I would like my pants to fit.” My goals for the summer have been to slowly increase my activity levels (which happens pretty naturally for me with warmer weather and longer days), in addition to being more proactive about healthier meals (especially lunches).
- My weight gain has also made it so that I have almost no workout clothes that fit. You may suggest that the frugal way out of this would be to exercise in whatever shorts I can find and a crappy t-shirt, but maybe you’ve never experienced the glorious chafing induced by Midwestern summer humidity, or the discomfort of working out in a bra that wasn’t created for exercise. Instead of suffering through another bike ride while wearing a regular bra, I spent about $150 on a couple of new sports bras and a few workout tops. Plus-size workout clothes are not cheap, even after taking advantage of a few sales and coupons. (I surfed Poshmark, eBay and other sites for gently used items before buying new, but didn’t find anything.)
- June also brought the one-year anniversary of this here blog. No promises for the year to come, but I would like to become more regular in sharing my experiences and thinking out loud in this space. Life feels very busy right now with community commitments, but also very good. So it goes.
ALICE and the ACA
Recently I was introduced to a project through the United Way called ALICE, which studies how low- and moderate-income working people make ends meet in various parts of the country, and looks at the challenges they face as citizens and consumers. ALICE stands for asset-limited, income-constrained, employed – people that are working, but don’t have significant assets and typically live paycheck-to-paycheck. I’ll write more about ALICE in the future, but the last few months have left me wondering about the challenges that ALICEs of the world would have to overcome should they be faced with a scenario that resembled my May and June. Would ALICE have to use a credit card to pay for medical costs? Would he or she suffer from declining health due to delaying medical or dental procedures? Would ALICE have to deal with strife from his or her employer due to health and transportation-related absences? The last few months of my life could have been a lot shittier were I not in the privileged position that I am in with respect to my job and my finances. And there are millions of American ALICEs facing that reality on a daily basis.
For example, during my month-long toothstravaganza I read this article about the difficulty of obtaining affordable dentistry for people without dental insurance. (About 40% of Americans do not have dental insurance.) The realities that many Americans face when confronted with a health or dental emergency made me truly, truly grateful for decent insurance, accessible care, and a healthy emergency fund to cover co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses. We know from various studies that almost half of Americans cannot cover a $400 emergency expense without going into debt. I recognize that even $150 in unexpected medical/dental costs could be difficult for someone to cover, let alone the $500+ that consultations, x-rays, and extraction would have cost without insurance. During grad school, when I was making about $20k a year, I wasn’t always able to pay for dental care, but I still managed to get cleanings every couple of years and cover the out-of-pocket expenses for the occasional filling. Even the slightly negligent dental care of my 20’s left me dealing with an expensive and painful situation a decade later.
In addition to dental care, I’m feeling thankful for a kind and understanding general practitioner who is willing to listen to my concerns, an extremely affordable co-pay, and medical services that are close to my work. Accessible services made it possible for me to ride my bike to doctor appointments when my car was in the shop. This would be impossible for someone who worked far from home or lived in a rural area. With at least seven trips to the doctor and dentist(s) in May and June, I’m also thankful for a flexible job that gives me ample sick leave, and an understanding supervisor that lets me take it when I need it.
My point is that I am extremely lucky to have good insurance, accessible healthcare, the ability to take time off to deal with my health issues, and the ability to pay for out-of-pocket expenses without going into credit card debt. I feel like I have hit the damn lottery this month with respect to how fortunate I am to have such great care, and how dealing with the triple whammy of vehicle, dental and mental health issues all in the same month didn’t put me deep into debt. The ALICEs of the world have probably faced similar situations without insurance, without an emergency fund, without transportation alternatives, and without a job that offers sick leave and flexible hours. It’s not difficult to imagine that ALICE could have suffered lost wages for needing time off, in addition to having to pay for dental services without the assistance of insurance. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that ALICE could have lost her job if she was facing several weeks without reliable transportation.
We are at a pretty pivotal point in the US for discussing the rights of Americans to have access to these services in an affordable fashion. I went to grad school and got a good job, yes, but I don’t deserve better healthcare affordability or access just because I went to grad school and got lucky with a job that has great benefits. In this country, people shouldn’t die of preventable, treatable diseases and shouldn’t have to face financial devastation upon becoming ill. With various Senate health care plans (zero of which lower premiums or deductibles, or improve care or access) lurching their way to a vote (maybe), I’m worried that I’m not always going to be this lucky, and that someday the system is going to fail me. And, since various versions of the bills include mechanisms that allow states to waive essential health benefits (including mental health care), I have another reason to worry. As Ms. ONL reminds us, health isn’t something we can completely control. And that lesson has certainly been drilled into me this summer.
May and June were tough, but looking back, I feel good about handling wave after wave of health and car and financial crises without crumbling into a non-functioning ball of anxiety. Things are pretty good right now. My car is in good shape, my tooth is no longer exploding, I’m feeling much more in control of my emotions, I’m getting more exercise, and I’m eating better. I didn’t have to reduce my retirement savings to make ends meet the last few months, and only had to dip into emergency savings a little bit. It’s work digging myself out of that hole, and there are still hard days. But there are also a lot of awesome days, and I know that I’ve had a hand in doing some great things for my community over the past few months. I’ve got a lot of fabulous friends helping me out of this hole, and for that, I am eternally grateful. And that’s enough right now.
Frugal-ish Jetsetting and Kinda Minimalist Travel
Hello, friends. It’s been a while. The last few months have been very emotionally difficult, and the non-stop news cycle has, admittedly, gotten the best of me. Six billion in NIH cuts? That’s a sleepless night. Drastic cuts to the DOE Office of Science? Pass the Tylenol PM. The persistent drumbeat of war and unrelenting global human catastrophes? Pass the kleenex, too, because I’m probably crying. It’s easy to feel powerless right now, and I feel it keenly.
It seems trite to say “despite all that, life has been pretty great,” when truthfully, it has been difficult to rise above my dark cloud of anxiety. However, laying awake and reading Twitter and fretting about potential catastrophic budget cuts and potential global thermonuclear war – well, it doesn’t actually accomplish anything other than to make me feel worse. Everything seems absurd right now. So, I am trying my best to actually live my life and enjoy the blessings and opportunities I have been lucky enough to receive, while focusing on concrete actions I can take to improve my community and country.
Onto the positive stuff. In the past few months, I’ve had some great opportunities to increase my local civic engagement in meaningful ways, which is the best way I’ve found to battle the unshakeable paralysis caused by endless political drama. I’ve also had some incredible travel opportunities since I last wrote, and I’ve seen new parts of the country and re-visited some places and friends I hadn’t seen in several years. I thought a lot about money as I bounced around the country, especially since I visited a few very wealthy locales, and it was hard not to think about my financial priorities as I was surrounded by yachts, fancy cars, and literal castles. I tried to be mindful of my finances while traveling and also approach travel a little differently than I have in the past. I realized that if I want to travel more often, I need to work towards making myself a more nimble, efficient, and frugal traveler – and my travels this spring were an opportunity to try out some new strategies.
Frugality Out the Window?
My clothes-buying ban was short-lived, I’ll admit. While I did make it through January, a trip to a warm weather locale at the end of February left me scrambling for some capris. (UNFORTUNATELY, my UFM weight loss was not enough to counter the gain from the holidays and post-election depression.) I bought a few other things that were not entirely necessary but made traveling much easier – like a big ol’ portable battery pack and some (inexpensive) bluetooth headphones.
Expenditures on our warm weather trip in February were not the most cost-conscious, but overall they were not bad. Our hotels were not the cheapest, but they all included breakfast. We were able to gain admission to some National Monuments with our National Parks Pass that had yet to expire. We spent too much on eating out (always), but planned ahead for airport snacks and had sandwiches for lunch on a few days. This trip was a vast departure from our weeklong camping trip last spring that took us to areas so remote that our only food options were whatever we had in our cooler. For my work conference trip, most expenditures were reimbursed, although I tried keep things healthy (and within my per diem) by getting breakfast and snack items at a local grocery store. After my conference, I flew to another city to see friends. That trip included one very fancy and expensive meal, and a few medium-expensive meals. However, we also stayed in a few nights and invited other friends over for beers, which brought down the overall cost of the trip.
Even with significant travel expenditures, I was still able to save about 45% of my take-home pay in February and March and pay off my credit cards immediately upon returning home. It’s not my UFM goal of 60% savings, to be sure, but it made me feel like traveling more while saving aggressively is a real possibility, especially if I can be more proactive about rewards programs and more frugal with eating.
Travel Hacking Baby Steps
I have a bit of a fraught history with credit cards (having accrued a chunk of CC debt during graduate school), and it’s taken me several years of being credit card debt-free to be able to trust myself to use them responsibly. Consequently, I’ve been wary of signing up for any rewards cards and having to immediately rack up large charges in order to meet the bonus points threshold. Faced with a hotel-heavy itinerary for our February trip, I finally took advantage of a hotel rewards credit card (after making sure I had a plan to pay it off immediately and that I would be able to meet the bonus points threshold with vacation-related purchases). I’m not sure we’ll ever be Double Platinum Elite Superstar Guests, but we scored a room upgrade on the trip, and I’m well on my way to having enough points for free (or discounted) hotel rooms.
Why a hotel points card over a flight points card? We don’t fly all that often, and since we aren’t near a major airline hub, we don’t have a ton of loyalty towards any one carrier. (I’ve had four round trip flights in the past four years, including the two trips I just returned from. It me, international jet-setter.) Our vacations tend to be road trips, whether it’s cross-country visits to National Parks, or just around the Midwest to see friends and family. We aren’t opposed to Air BnB (and have used this option in the past), but sometimes being on the road requires the flexibility to make a last-minute hotel reservations.
My Attempt at Minimalist Travel
These trips were also an opportunity to try traveling without a rolling suitcase and in a more minimalist fashion. The second trip, in particular, was quite long and required bulkier cool weather clothes + nicer clothes + a laundry opportunity. As I mentioned above, I’ve only flown about every other year in recent years, and the last time I flew with a roller bag was 2013. I’m still hauling around a duffle bag (with a shoulder strap), but I’m in search of a travel backpack (or duffle/backpack hybrid) that will be a little easier to transition from airport to train to walking around a city. Some thoughts:
- Even though I was at a professional conference for a week, the dress code among people in my field is extremely scientist-casual. This eliminates the need for suits, dresses, garment bags, etc. I mostly wore what I wear to work, which is a sweater + jeans. There are other conferences that I know to be MUCH more professional in terms of their dress code expectations, but not this conference. That made packing easier.
- After the conference I flew to another city to meet up with some friends. We had dinner at a very fancy restaurant planned for one night, and that did require at least one nice outfit. I actually felt a little under-dressed, but I survived.
- These trips marked the first time I used packing cubes in a duffle bag. In the past, I’ve used them pretty religiously in a roller bag, but for a weekend trip to see my family they always seemed somewhat superfluous. However, they were GREAT for lengthier travel (especially my second trip where I did a load of laundry mid-trip). I love packing cubes. Don’t @ me.
- I’m not quite at the “one bag” level of minimalist packing. On these trips, I had my duffle bag for clothes+toiletries plus a small shoulder bag with my big camera, tablet, and Kindle (no laptop). YMMV depending on your computing needs – I was answering some work emails while at the conference, but I don’t mind doing this from my smartphone. If I was a more profesh blogger or needed to do more involved work from the road, I think I’d get a keyboard for my tablet or replace my older MacBook with the smallest MacBook Air. Those are not high-priority purchases right now, however.
- In the past, I’ve traveled with roller bag + a larger messenger bag. On the way home I’d check the roller bag and carry on my large messenger bag + a fold out tote bag filled with conference goodies and/or souvenirs. This time, I still traveled with the fold out tote bag, but on the way home it was only about half full with conference goodies, and I was able to put my small shoulder bag inside the tote and stay within the two bag carry on limit. My duffle was a little over-stuffed and I had to gate check it on two regional jets with tiny overhead bins.
My takeaways: care less about what you wear (I wore comfortable yet obnoxiously bright sneakers to most of the conference because I was walking a lot), pack less and pack things that are extremely interchangeable, plan to do laundry if your trip is longer than 5-6 days, buy less stuff on your trip, travel without a laptop if possible.
What am I practicing for if I’m only traveling by air once every two years? Although my ideas for early retirement still remain fairly nebulous, they almost undoubtedly include more travel, whether that be in the form of RVing across North America or getting a Eurail pass and vagabonding across Western Europe. Although FI/RE seems pretty far off right now, frugality has enabled me to prioritize travel expenditures more frequently than I had been able to in the past. I’ve had a few friends move to Europe in the past few years, and I’d love to plan a multi-city European trip to visit them, unencumbered by bulky luggage.
Resources and inspiration for minimalist packing:
- Ms. OurNextLife’s post on minimalist work travel
- Reddit OneBag Community
- Adventures with Sarah blog, specifically her packing posts and bag posts
- Tom Bihn forums and blog
- I have a mix of older and newer Eagle Creek packing cubes. I particularly love the Clean/Dirty Half Cube for socks and underwear. I’ve had the older cubes for several years, and I more recently purchased a Specter Starter Set to give the garment folder and ultralight cubes a try.
So that’s what I’ve been up to lately. My anxiety fog seems to be lifting a bit, and I’ve had some more ideas for posts, so I’m hoping to be more regular with writing in the coming months.
Hang in there, friends!
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Uber Frugal Month: Wrap Up and Reflection
Well, we survived January! This last month was very challenging for me, both professionally and personally. My big work project occupied the first half of the month, and left me feeling stressed out after working insane hours. The second half of the month brought an entirely different set of stressors from things mostly out of my control, and involved a lot of phone calls to my Senators. I’m still not handling the reality of our new president very well, and some of my fears have already materialized. The fact that this was a busy and stressful month added another dimension to my simultaneous attempts at an Uber Frugal Month and Dry January. I’m infamous for handling stress by eating copious amounts of junk food, overdoing it with alcohol, and buying stupid things on clearance. So, for better or for worse, January also forced me to figure out some new (low cost and alcohol-free) coping mechanisms. While my actual ability to handle the stress of this month is up for debate, I survived, and I learned a lot about myself and my finances in the process. So how did I do? Let’s see!
I Could Have Been More Frugal
Although we did a month of not eating out last year, I wanted to use UFM as an opportunity to really scrutinize ALL of my finances, and establish a baseline for month to month expenses. Although the month felt fairly successful, turning a critical eye towards all unnecessary spending definitely revealed some “fluff.” Even though we did have an eating out ban this month, we weren’t perfect. I ended up spending about $100 on non-grocery food purchases, including two restaurant meals (one due to poor planning and another due to being in a different city), a few trips to the convenience store, and coffee & desserts out for a friend’s birthday. I also spent about $100 on non-essential stuff, including some craft supplies to make signs for the Women’s March, a new glass water bottle at Target, and a signed book at a lecture I attended. I don’t feel particularly bad about the stuff, but I could always do better to not spend $5 here and there at a coffee shop or convenience when I am feeling lazy or in need of a donut. Having two modest restaurant meals during the (long, long) month of January also made it feel like less of a slog.
As far as groceries go, I think we actually did ok! I was trying to buy most of the groceries so I’d know the official tally, but there were a few times I forgot my wallet. I ended up spending about $250 on groceries, and I think Mr. G spent another $75 or so on top of that. My “dream grocery budget” is around $300, so we’re getting close.
I Was More Generous
I had a bit of unplanned charitable giving this month, and I didn’t have to think twice about supporting the projects and fundraisers of a few friends or throwing a few dollars at national organizations when they needed it most. Although I have annual planned giving as well (hopefully someday as part of a donor-advised fund), throwing $20 at a friend’s charity run or classroom fundraiser is something that gives me great joy.
I Spent A Lot on Travel
As mentioned in my planning post, I assumed I was going to spend some money on travel this month, but I wouldn’t count it as part of my spending baseline. Fuzzy math? Maybe, but I’m counting it a little differently since this discretionary spending could be axed if we suffered a financial emergency. I already save a little money each month that is specifically earmarked for travel, and this ensures that I can pay my credit card in full without having to dip into emergency savings. It also gives me a target budget for annual travel expenditures. And, since one of my trips is for work, I will be partially reimbursed two months from now. Being able to pay for travel arrangements in full is something that still delights me. During graduate school, I’d often have to pre-pay for travel to a scientific conference. Hundreds of dollars would sit on my credit card, accruing interest, until I got reimbursed after the trip. The ability to pre-pay work travel ensures that my reimbursement windfall can go right back into savings when I get back from my trip. (Is academia weird about this versus the business world? I have no idea. I don’t get an expense account or company credit card, but I don’t travel for work very often, either.)
I Still Did Pretty Great
Even with significant, anomalous travel spending this month, I still spent 19% less than my average month in 2016. If you deduct the travel and the fluff spending, my true baseline for monthly expenditures is 58% less than my average month in 2016. Could I truly maintain this low level of spending for the long term? Or does a little fluff spending save me from having to use all of my willpower on keeping my budget low? If I add a little fluff back in, I have a new number in my head for my target monthly spending, and I think I can achieve it without going crazy. It’s going to take some commitment on our part to keep our dining out budget quite low, but I think it’s achievable in a longer term scenario. This new long-term spending goal would having me saving about 60% of my take-home pay each month.
One revelation I had this month was in regards to travel spending. As I’ve documented here previously, it took me over a year of conscious spending changes and aggressively paying down debt to arrive at a place where I’m able to max out my 403b contribution each month. However, arriving at that place also left me feeling like there wasn’t a lot of other money to spend on travel, house projects/new house down payment, or to funnel towards a taxable brokerage account and early retirement. UFM wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t awful, either. It revealed to me that the goals of traveling or saving more are possible, but I’m going to have to sacrifice most eating out and non-essential shopping to make it work. In the short term, I’ll probably continue to sock this money away in my emergency savings. Once that account is at a level I’m comfortable with, I’ll start funneling it towards a house down payment, aggressive mortgage pay down, travel, or other long term goals.
On Self-Care and Battling Inertia
One thing that’s not obvious from the outset is how much a UFM changes your schedule in addition to your spending habits. Meals eaten out of the house often include trips to other destinations or a stop at the pub on the way home, and can end up occupying several hours of our evening. In my experience, meals eaten at home free up significant weekend or evening time, even when preparation and clean-up are taken into consideration. On evenings when I don’t have some pre-scheduled event, I’m terrible at picking up a new project, and inevitably I’ll just spend my evening watching Netflix or reading Twitter. It’s especially bad in the winter when it’s dark and cold, and a long walk or bike ride is not going to be particularly enjoyable. This month, my weird dynamic was especially glaring, since I spent the first half of the month working almost every evening and the second half in some sort of post-project depression. (In grad school, we lovingly called it the post-quals slump.) I’m hoping that “admitting I have a problem” in addition to being better about keeping a list of ongoing home/fun/hobby projects will help keep me a little more focused in the evenings.
An evening filled with eating out, shopping, and a trip to the pub is also a good way for me to mindlessly spend an evening without feeling idle. This outlet isn’t really an option during UFM (or UFLife), and it is really just another element of the treat yo’ self culture that leaves you broke and offers a temporary distraction from your problems. With this option off the table in January, I was not great about seeking out any other self-care opportunities (free or otherwise), despite an emotional state that left me feeling drained and despondent for much of the month. Some memorable activities that did leave me feeling energized included seeing Hidden Figures, community trivia night, my friend’s birthday at a coffee shop, my local Women’s March, two super interesting (free) lectures, and many weekend walks in the woods with Mr. G and our dog. Although not all of these were free, they didn’t involve shopping or drinking, and they required me to break my personal inertia. Looking to this month, I’m hoping to pick up some drop-in fitness classes and start taking longer walks as the days get longer and the weather gets warmer. And I’ll be embarking one of those pre-planned trips!
UFM To-Do List and The Year Ahead
I finished everything on the UFM to-do list that I had laid out in my halfway post, except for researching cell phone options. I opened a 529 for my sibling’s baby (super easy!), finished my taxes, and researched options for retrofitting my SodaStream (I went with SodaMod and also sourced a local store that will fill the canisters). I also lost about 6 lbs, which I tried not to regain this weekend when we broke our eating out ban and went out for pizza and beers. ? I did a little decluttering, but my house is still kind of a mess since I didn’t have time to do a full January Cure.
Moving forward from UFM, my goals are to:
- limit eating out – try to keep to one lunch and one dinner out per week
- limit random stuff purchase as much as possible (I’m looking at you, craft supplies)
- continue to frugalize grocery spending
- continue a “shopping ban,” of sorts – only buy replacement clothing items, and buy used when possible
- focus on opportunities for free and low-cost self care/personal enrichment
A big challenge for me: can I spend less in 2017 than I did when I was a graduate assistant?