Thursday, May 25, 2017

Five Frugal Things: Cake & Wine

This post is inspired by The Frugal Girl, who regularly posts five frugal highlights from her week. I like this series because it's a good reminder of the opportunities, small and large, to be mindful about my consumption and thoughtful about my choices while still enjoying my life. Now, on to the cake! 

This week I... 


Birthday cakes demand sprinkles.

1. Gave a frugal birthday gift. 


I'm a notoriously bad gift giver, but I'm trying to get better. Last week my dear friend and fellow blogger Kat had a backyard birthday bash and I wanted to give her something thoughtful without busting my budget. I ended up baking a cake to bring to the party, made from ingredients I had on hand (including eggs from my ladies!). I also cut some hydrangeas from our bush and arranged them in a pretty bouquet. Flowers and dessert - what could be better? 

2. Fed the chickens their own eggshells. 


Laying an egg every day requires a lot of calcium, and in the warmer months, when production is at its highest, the girls can get depleted quickly. This can result in weakened bones and super fragile eggshells. An easy to way get more calcium into the chickens' system is to save their eggshells, crush them up, and feed them back to them. The other option is buying crushed oyster shells, but since I already have the eggshells it's much more cost-effective to go this route. So I did!

Just call me Ofwine.

3. Embraced Trader Joe's boxed wine. 


At the end of a long day, there's nothing nicer than settling in with a glass of wine and the latest episode of The Handmaid's Tale. My budget, however, disagrees. Thus we've found a compromise - Trader Joe's boxed wine. Although I've sung the praises of boxed wine in the past, my price point had begun creeping up and it was time to get the old booze budget under control. The box from Trader Joe's is just $12.99, contains the equivalent of four bottles, and is the perfect beverage to sip while watching a feminist dystopia come to life.

4. Found a cheaper dog food. 


Our older dog, Seamus, had a sensitive stomach and required a very specific (and very expensive) brand of dog food. After he passed away in February, I kept buying the same food for Calvin, our younger dog. Then I remembered Calvin will eat literally anything and switched to a cheaper version. And when I say "cheaper," I should point out that he's still eating non-GMO, wild caught salmon that is free of wheat, corn, soy, and other weird additives. I'm cheap, but I'm not a monster.

Me, as seen by YNAB!


5. Got into YNAB's beta referral program. 


As we all know, I'm obsessed with YNAB. I'm so devoted to their budgeting method that I even wrote a guest post for their blog. I also managed to worm my way into their brand new referral program, which means I can finally benefit from all the people I've sent their way. If you subscribe through my referral link (and I hope you do!) we'll both get one free month of budgeting bliss. What could be better? For this frugal gal, not much.

Have you found a new way to rock a champagne life on a beer budget? Don't hold back - tell me all your secrets in the comments! Lord knows I need them. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Beekeeping on a Budget: Top Bar Hives

Over the weekend, Nathan and I inspected our new beehives. We brought them home on May 8th, which gave them almost two weeks to settle in. While they appeared to be busy and active, we had no idea what was going on inside. Was the queen laying? Was the hive overrun with wax moths and roaches? Were we going to fail at beekeeping yet again? Curiosity was killing me, but I had to sit back, be patient, and trust that the bees knew what they were doing. 

The hives that Nathan built.

This is our third time bringing home new bees, and our second time attempting top bar hives. Most beekeepers in America use Langstroth hives, which are boxes stacked on top of one another. As the hives grow, more boxes are added to the top.

Top bar hives, on the other hand, are horizontal. (See photo above.) As the hive grows, you simply add more bars to the back, giving the bees more space as needed. 

Top bars in action. The darker ones came from our bee guy. The lighter ones are brand new.

Our bee jackets were a fantastic investment. Look how calm I am!

We chose top bar hives for two main reasons. First, it's supposed to be a kinder, gentler, and easier way to keep bees. As you can see in the photo above, there's no heavy lifting involved, and we've built our hives to be a comfortable height for inspections.

The other reason we went the top bar route is because it's much cheaper. In the wild, bees will build a hive anywhere they think is safe and secure. Usually that's inside a hollowed out tree, but it can also be in the walls of a house or the trunk of a car. This means there's no magic formula for a good beehive, and there's no need to feel beholden to Langstroth's dimensions. Once we understood that, the choice to build our own hives from cheap pine was clear.

The other way top bar hives save money is by eschewing foundation. Usually made from either plastic or wax, these frames are basically starter kits for the bees, as they come with a pre-made foundation on which the bees build their comb. Foundation frames, however, aren't cheap, plus you have to put them together, which is a pain. With top bar hives, you simply give the bees empty bars (also made from cheap pine), and they build their comb from scratch. It's a little extra work for the bees, but it's also more natural. After all, it's what bees were born to do. (Beekeeping Like a Girl has a great post about the pros and cons of each method, if you're interested. She also favors top bar hives, which really sealed the deal.) 

So far, so good!

Like most hobbies, beekeeping has a number of startup costs. Bee suits and gloves are a must. (We tried to go without in the beginning, and quickly learned our lesson.) A smoker, which helps keep the bees calm during inspections, is also necessary. A bee tool is helpful. And, of course, the bees themselves - at least in the beginning. If you're a good enough beekeeper, you can eventually split your hives or catch wild swarms. We haven't gotten to that point yet, so for now we buy our bees locally.

Once you have those materials, though, there aren't too many ongoing costs. For the most part, bees don't require a ton of work, either. The reason we've failed in the past is because we went too long between inspections. By the time we opened the hives, they were infested with common parasites, such as hive beetles and wax moths.

This time, we're determined to keep our hives strong and healthy. That means inspecting them a few times a month, no matter how hot it is or how busy we get. Just because the bees can't shriek like the chickens or beg like the dog doesn't mean they don't need care and attention, too. 

Bees!

For this first inspection, we wanted to make sure the queens were still alive, that the bees weren't battling parasites, and that there was a good mix of honey, brood, and larvae. The process is pretty simple. Starting at the back of the hive, lift the frames out one by one, brush the bees off (we use a clean paintbrush), and take a good, long look. Then return the frame to the hive and repeat with the next bar until you're done. 

The first hive, which I've dubbed Queen Elizabeth, was doing fairly well. We saw one or two beetles, lots of honey, and some new comb. We also saw the queen, which was a huge relief. 

The second hive - Queen Cleopatra - was even better. So many bees! So much brood! So many larvae! And another strong, healthy queen! See if you can spot her in this photo. 

Hint: she's marked with a yellow dot.

We were extremely pleased that both hives have settled in to their new homes. I really hope that this is the year we keep them happy and finally harvest some honey. While I love watching the bees and I know they're integral to a healthy environment, I'd like them to earn their keep financially, too. Fingers crossed, and long live the queens! 


Thursday, May 18, 2017

How to Take a Perfect Lunch Break

I spent 40 hours a week working at a digital marketing agency, and my office is fairly traditional. The work day begins promptly at 8AM and ends at 5PM on the dot, with an hour break for lunch. We have an open office floor plan, which is the bane of my existence. There is a small kitchen, with a coffee maker that cranks out bitter Folgers and a microwave in which people insist on heating up fish. The days go by pretty fast, mostly because I like what I do (social media, copywriting, and content marketing) and because life is fleeting and much too short. Which is precisely why I try to make the most of that precious hour I get for lunch. 

The problem is that an hour is an awkward amount of time. My office is a bit isolated, so there's nowhere to go for a mid-afternoon stroll. I try not to spend money during the week, so coffee shops and retail outlets are a no-go. And a soggy sandwich, eaten while scrolling through Instagram yet again, doesn't quite energize me for the afternoon ahead.

Luckily I've discovered a much better way to spend my lunch break. It's easy, delicious, doesn't cost a penny, and gets me the vital things an office drone needs for a productive day - fresh air, sunlight, and a change in perspective. Today I will share my secret with you.



Step One: Pack Your Lunch In a Jar 


A jar might seem oddly specific, but hear me out. It's 12:30PM. You've been sitting in a sterile office all morning, sending tweets into space and wondering if anyone will read them. A client insists on adding a second space after each period in the copy you sent over for a approval. Your coworker has his death metal up so loud that you can hear it perfectly despite his earbuds. You already ate all the snacks in your special snack drawer, even though it's only Tuesday. Your day needs saving, and the only thing that can do it is a fresh, crisp salad, served up in a jar.


I make four mason jar salads every Sunday, and they sustain me through most of the week. (One day is a wild card, because you only live once.) Mine layer like this - Trader Joe's Goddess Dressing on the bottom, followed by diced red peppers and cucumbers. Then I add cannellini beans and quinoa for protein, and finish it off with a spinach/arugula blend. When the lunch hour finally arrives, all I have to do is dump the contents of the jar into a bowl, give it a good mix, and tuck into  a fresh, delicious, nutrient-rich lunch - the perfect fuel for a productive afternoon.

Step Two: Go Outside  


You cannot - I repeat, cannot - eat your lunch inside. This veers dangerously close to Sad Desk Salad Syndrome. Instead, I retreat to the picnic table behind our building, open the umbrella on hot days, and settle in for a full hour of freedom.


Let me clear - our picnic table is not fancy. Sometimes I am interrupted by delivery people or folks taking out the recycling. The view is nothing to shout about. But it doesn't matter, because this retreat is a mere five steps from the back door of the office, which means I don't waste time or gas in traffic, and no one else ever sits there. Freedom, vitamin D, and some alone time - in an office setting, these are precious commodities. I don't squander them.

Step Three: Read a Book


One of the reasons I don't particularly care about the view from the picnic bench is because I use this hour to read an actual, physical book. I love to read, but I know first hand how hard it is to make time for a good book. There are a thousand things competing for our time and attention - the latest Twitter outrage, peak TV, your dog or partner or children. But if you plan it right, your lunch break is wholly yours to use as you wish. I, for one, wish to read.


In addition to being just plain fun, reading also has numerous other benefits. Studies have shown it breeds empathy and literally makes you a better person, which your colleagues will surely appreciate.

So, to summarize: eat your lunch. Go outside. Read a book. Good advice for your professional life and life in general. Funny how that works.

PS: Need some reading recommendations? Here are all the books I read in 2016 and 2015 + the best vegan carrot cake, because life's too short to skip dessert. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

5 Surprising Facts About Chicks

Our second group of chicks were the most photogenic.

Last week our oldest chicken, Polly, turned five. This means we've been keeping chickens for five straight years, growing our backyard flock from a modest four birds to a slightly ridiculous 15. I never thought I'd be a crazy chicken lady, especially after a childhood in which the closest I got to "nature" was mowing the backyard for $5, yet here I am. It's a good place to be. 

The blame, however, can't all be placed on me. My desire - no, my need - to raise chickens was sparked by my in-laws. A few years ago they retired to a hobby farm in the midwest. During a visit I met their chickens, who looked positively idyllic as they scratched in the dirt and took dust baths in the sun. I cracked their eggs, which had the most vibrant, beautiful yolks, into a frying pan. I took one bite and saw my future laid out before me: chickens, and lots of them.

In addition to a never-ending supply of fresh eggs, chickens are also funny and fascinating creatures, and that starts from the moment they're born. Our latest additions are no different. While some of their qualities are expected (the adorable factor, for example, is very high) they have a few other quirks that I've learned through trial and error. (Mostly error.) 

Which is a good segue into the rest of this post, beginning with a conveniently pinnable graphic.


1. Chicks are loud - especially when they live in your guest room. 


During their first few weeks of life, chicks must be closely monitored. They need a clean brooder, despite their efforts to violate it immediately. They need access to fresh food and water, despite the fact that they keep pooping in their food and water. And they need to stay warm, which means you must invest in a heat lamp. Okay, you're thinking, fine. A couple balls of fluff napping cozily under a heat lamp - how hard could it be? My answer: HA. If the temperature gets even one degree too hot or too cold, the chicks will let you know - loudly.  Despite their size, they can make a racket. Plus, since they're under the heat lamp 24 hours a day, they're up at all hours of the night, which means I start to hear chicks in my dreams. An easy solution would be to move them to the shed, but I'm a nervous chicken mama and like to check on them every five minutes or so. The guest room, complete with weird chicken dreams, it is. 

2. Chicks can die from just about anything. 


I read somewhere once that cuteness is a survival strategy. I think it was related to dogs, and how puppies are so adorable early humans couldn't help but take them in. The ugly ones, it goes without saying, didn't make it. This seems like a very plausible reason for why I melt around puppies, and also explains how chicks survive long enough to become full-fledged hens. The threats to their tiny, fluffy lives are almost too many to count, but pasty butt, parasites, and predators are at the top of the list. And this is where I make a sad confession, buried deep within this post - of our latest flock of chicks, we've already lost three. It was a terrible mistake on our part. The chicks were getting too big for the brooder, and the nights were unseasonably warm. I decided to move them to the small coop, where they'll live until they're big enough to join the rest of the flock. The small coop is secure, but apparently not secure enough. Sometime in the night the chicks were attacked, and I'm 99% sure it was a rat. (Another fact of life when raising chickens is that you also end up raising rodents.) It was shocking, horrible, and a terribly upsetting thing to wake up to. Luckily, four of the chicks survived (including my silkies) but it was an awful lesson in chick-rearing. Nature does not mess around.

Silkies are apparently too cute to eat.

3. Chicks will fall asleep anywhere - even standing up.


The first time we got chicks, I was in a constant state of panic. I'd peer into the brooder, see them laying splayed out in unnatural positions, and scream "They're dead!" - which of course would startle the chicks, waking them up immediately and setting off another round of earsplitting chirps. As it turns out, chicks can fall asleep at any moment. Standing in the corner? Asleep. Having a bite to eat? Asleep. Toddling across the brooder? Asleep. It's so bad that when they're very young you have to make sure their water bowl isn't too large or deep, as they could fall asleep while taking a sip and drown. In related news, one of our new girls is named Ophelia because she kept trying to nap in the waterer, and I was planning to go with Shakespearean pseudonyms anyway.

4. Chicks go through an awkward teenager phase sooner than you think.


Enjoy that adorable fluffy nonsense while you can, because it doesn't last. Chicks' wing feathers start to come in during their first week, and most breeds are fully feathered by week six. On the bright side, this means they no longer need a heat lamp, as they can now regulate their own temperature. On the other hand, this means they look like awkward teenagers for far too long, since their feathers come in sporadically. In the meantime, they're growing taller but not wider, so you end up with this sort of scrawny, stretched out, half feathered creature which is still cute, just not in the traditional sense. (And for the record, while chicks are adorable, I think grown hens, with their gorgeous feathers and fluffy butts, are straight up beautiful.)

A face only a mother could love.

5. Chicks freak out the first time they experience darkness. 


Because chicks live under a heat map for the first few weeks, they don't know what night is. You, lucky chicken owner, get to introduce them to this concept. Some people just turn the light off and plunge the chicks into darkness. I did this with our first flock, and that was when I realized just how loud they could be. I quickly turned the light back on, did some research, and then started turning the light off for short periods of time, so they could get used to the concept of darkness. (I realize how poetic this sounds. It's only sort of poetic in real life.) As the years went on and I became less precious about my chickens (I still care for, appreciate, and spoil them, but I don't love them the way I love, for example, my dog) I dropped the helicopter parent act. I've found that keeping their brooder by the window means that night falls gradually, and is less jarring then just flipping a switch. The chicks still get a little noisy and nervous, but they settle down faster. Soon, they realize that the darkness is only temporary, and that the sun will indeed rise again tomorrow.

Birds, y'all. Who knew they were so deep? 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

How to Meal Plan for Two People

how to meal plan for two people

Last week, I mentioned meal planning was one of our major money-saving strategies. Today, I thought I'd go into a little more detail about how we plan our meals to save time and money.

First of all: what is meal planning? To put it simply, it's thinking about what you will eat ahead of time, and acting accordingly. (Nobody said this was rocket science.) Meal planning looks different for everyone and varies widely depending on all kinds of very personal factors. If, for example, you have a two-hour commute, or five small children, or only consume coconut water and bone broth - well, your weekly meal plan will probably not resemble mine. That's okay - you do you, I'll do me, and we'll all go to bed well-fed. 

Even though my commute is forgiving, I'm only feeding two people, and we're fairly standard vegetarians, meal planning is still a process. Over the years I've fine-tuned my system and now I can plan a week's worth of meals and make a shopping list in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. Thanks to meal planning, I only buy what I need for the upcoming week (which cuts down on food waste), I always know what's for dinner (very important for my mental health), and I very rarely order an emergency pizza because the cupboards are bare and I'm starving (key word here is "rarely" - nobody's perfect).

If you're new to meal planning or just curious about how other people do it, here are ten tips from my kitchen to get you started.

This week's menu. So far, so good!

1. Put your meal plan in writing. 


Years and years ago I bought a small dry erase board, glued magnets to the back of it, and stuck to the front my refrigerator. Since then, it has served as our weekly menu. Of all the lovely, interesting, handmade things in my home, this dry erase board gets the most comments. (Mostly along the lines of, "Ooh, I'm coming back on Friday for those burrito bowls!") It's a simple and easy way to keep track of our meal plan, and helps me remember to take the tofu out of the freezer in the morning. 

2. Take stock before you shop. 


Before you start planning your meals, figure out what you have on hand first. This is a great time to go through your cabinets, freezer, crisper, and garden, and see what you can use up before it expires or rots. It's also an excellent way to ensure you don't end up with four bottles of soy sauce. (True story.)

3. Check your calendar. 


We often have things going on in the evening. If I know I'm going to spin class after work, I'll plan a fast, easy dinner. (Spin makes me exhausted and ravenous.) If I know a friend is hosting a book launch party, leftovers might be on the table. If it's going to be 100 degrees and humid, I will choose a meal that doesn't require turning the oven to 475. If Nathan is working late and I'm flying solo, I'll just make a grilled cheese and eat it over the sink. Hey, it happens. And as long as you plan for it, it's fine. 

4. Don't be a slave to sales. 


This will probably be a controversial stance, but I have to be honest. I don't think coupons are worth the effort. I'll use them occasionally, especially if one falls into my lap, but I don't hunt them down, clip them from the circulars, or build my meal plan around them. In my limited experience, most coupons are for processed items I don't eat, or name brand products that are already marked up. Most of my meals consist of vegetables, grains, and vegetarian protein (beans, tofu, tempeh), so coupons don't usually apply. Instead, I've found sticking with seasonal produce, buying in bulk, and choosing generic brands is a better strategy for savings.

My two favorite cookbooks at the moment.

5. Keep a list of favorite recipes to fall back on. 


Despite my recipe page, I'm not a super creative chef. Most of my meals come from Google, cookbooks, blogs, Pinterest, and tried-and-true recipes, which I keep in a Google spreadsheet titled "Meals We Love." My favorite recipes satisfy the holy trifecta: fast, healthy, delicious. I've found that pretty much anything published by Isa Chandra or the Minimalist Baker are winners.

6. Limit yourself. 


Sometimes I like to think of my meal plan as a game of Tetris. If one recipe calls for, say, cilantro, I try to find another recipe that also uses this key ingredient. If our garden is overflowing with basil, we'll have pesto pizza and pesto pasta (and then freeze the extra pesto in an ice-cube tray). If I'm feeling really uncreative, I'll give each night a different theme - Mexican or Asian, crockpot or casserole. The plethora of choices available in the average grocery store can be paralyzing, but giving yourself artificial limits makes it easier to come up with a solid plan. 

7. Make your shopping list while you plan. 


A vital part of this whole process is the shopping list. I make mine while I meal plan, which means my kitchen table is covered with coffee, computer, cookbooks, dry erase board, pen, and paper. As meals make it into the plan, I write down all the ingredients they require - taking into account my well-stocked pantry, of course. This ensures I don't forget some vital element, rendering my beautiful meal plan powerless.

My haul for the week.

8. Embrace boring.  


Let's be real. You can plan elaborate, five-star meals every night of the week, but if you don't actually make them, this activity is pointless. Don't be afraid to be boring. Scroll back up to my dry erase board at the beginning of this post - you see where it says "leftovers?" A perfect example of boring. Or "tempeh pizza?" We eat this literally every single week - it's a great way to get rid of random veggies. Repeat favorite meals until you're sick of them, make double batches of recipes and eat them three days in a row, and for the love of god seek our recipes that can be on the table in 30 minutes or less. Your future hungry self will thank you for planning so well.

9. Be prepared for emergencies. 


As much as I like to pretend otherwise, you can't plan for everything. Shit happens, and when it does you're going to want to be ready with a frozen pizza, or a box of freezer-burned veggie burgers, or a microwavable burrito. Trust me. 

10. Splurge on special occasions. 


It might not be obvious from my passion for meal planning, but I love restaurants. Wilmington has a pretty good foodie scene, especially for vegetarians, and the experience of enjoying a meal without having to do any dishes is one of my favorite luxuries. The only thing that keeps me from going out to eat multiple times a week is knowing that a trip to a favorite restaurant is in my future. Birthdays, anniversaries, date nights, good news - they all warrant a celebration, and we incorporate them into our weekly meal plan. This means we have something look forward to, we don't squander fancy dinners out on a random Tuesday, and we can savor our celebrations guilt-free - drinks and dessert included.

Who knew I had so much to say about meal planning? (My husband, probably.) Now it's your turn: do you plan your meals, or leave dinner up to fate? How much do you spend on groceries each month? And what's your favorite vegetarian recipe? Let me know in the comments! 

Monday, May 08, 2017

The Benefits of Being a Late Bloomer

tulips

Recently my friend, who is a college professor, invited me to speak to her students. They were about to graduate with shiny new degrees in creative writing, and she thought I might have some advice on thriving in the real world. You know - how to find a job, pay off your student loans, and avoid moving back home, all while making steady progress on your creative endeavors. 

As the kids would say: LOL. 

Despite the fact that I'm not exactly the model of success, I agreed to visit the class. My own memories of graduating from college in 2004 were still fresh - specifically, the belief that my life would unfold according to a very specific timeline. "I'll probably struggle for a few years," I generously told myself. "But by the time I reach the ancient age of 30, I'll be living on my own farm, publishing bestselling novels, and spending summers vacationing in the French countryside."

I repeat: LOL.

Needless to say, things did not quite work out that way. And as much as I hated to break it to those college seniors, the road to success is rarely a straight line. This is especially true for creative writing majors, who can look forward to a lifetime of rejection, compromise, existential crises, and financial risk.

As I described the winding path I've taken, which includes crushing student loan debt, multiple career changes, and an ill-advised degree in library science, the students' eyes widened. My friend second-guessed her invitation. I apologized, again and again, for the doom and gloom I'd brought to their classroom.

Eventually, I managed to pivot toward the positive. We talked about making time to write, the pros and cons of an MFA, and - most importantly - how there is no official timeline for life. I'm pretty open about being a late bloomer (it's part of the title of this blog!) because accepting and embracing this identity has brought me peace and given me freedom. I wanted the students to know what took me years to learn - there are many benefits to being a late bloomer, and that writers in particular would be wise to appreciate them.

the benefits of being a late bloomer


You don't fall easily into the comparison trap. 


I'm 34, so pretty much everyone I knew in high school has checked off the traditional boxes - marriage, home ownership, children. Meanwhile I'm over here in my rental house, driving the car I bought from my in-laws 12 years ago, raising chickens instead of children, and budgeting like crazy so my husband can go back to school yet again. My life and goals are so different from most 34 year olds that the comparison trap simply doesn't apply. While I want some of the things other people have (real estate fever is real) I know those experiences will come when I'm ready. I just have to be patient.

Now, the comparison trap is trickier when it comes to creative success. I won't lie - sometimes, I read the news that an acquaintance landed a book deal or a dream publication, and waves of white hot jealousy roll over me. Or I wake up to my third rejection of the week, and I wonder why I even bother trying. Or some magazine publishes yet another list of 30 improbably-successful writers under the age of 30, and I feel like my expiration date has passed. In those moments of weakness, I remind myself that being a writer and being published are two different things. You have control over whether you write; you do not have control over whether you're published. I let the jealousy run its course, and then I get back to work.

You have the freedom to try new things.  


According to this highly scientific CNN article, the average millennial jumps jobs four times in their first decade out of college. I'm barely a millennial, but this stat still rings true. My first job out of college was retail - I worked in a bookstore. Then I got a job at the university library, where I held a few different positions thanks to promotions. Then I quit the library and worked in the research and development office. Then I went back to school for my MFA and taught undergrad classes. After I graduated, I tried my hand at freelancing before finally landing a job at a marketing agency - despite having no real marketing experience or a business degree.

While my resume might look like a mess, it's actually full of hidden strengths. Because it took me a while to find my place, I was able to have a lot of different experiences and develop a variety of skills. I also had the freedom to quit jobs that weren't a good fit and go back to school at the age of 29 - things that would have been far more difficult if I had a mortgage to pay or children to feed. In this case, being a late bloomer definitely paid off.

You avoid making (too many) mistakes. 


I got married at 30, which doesn't seem all that old - until you think about the fact that I met my husband when I was 20. We waited ten years to get married, and in that time many of our friends met someone, dated them, and got hitched. In some cases, we'd been dating longer than some of my friends had known their spouses! While we always had a very strong feeling that this was it, we weren't in a rush to prove it. Frankly it was nice to grow and nurture our relationship without the added pressure of marriage.

Many people rush into things because they're concerned with a self-inflicted timeline. They feel like they must do certain things by a certain age, and if they fall short of those goals then they've failed. This is a terrible way to live your life, and a great way to make some really bad choices. Marriage - ideally - is forever. A 30 year mortgage is a large chunk of your life. 40 hours a week in an office is a big commitment. Patience is a privilege. If you have it, use it. 

You have a deeper appreciation for milestones. 


When I spoke to the students in my friend's class, many of them were interested in graduate school. Like a true late bloomer, I told them not to rush. I finished my undergraduate degree when I was 22 years old. I didn't go back to school for my MFA until I was 29. That seven year gap was incredibly instructive and important. During it, I worked and earned money. I moved to a new state, strengthened my relationship, made a great group of friends, read hundreds of books, adopted two dogs, and kept writing. By the time I decided to apply for an MFA, I knew exactly what I was giving up, and what I'd be gaining. I treasured those three years in my program, because I knew what was on the other side. Plus I was a much better writer at 28 than I was at 22, which meant I got way more out of my workshops.

The longer you wait for something, the more you appreciate it. The harder you work for a goal, the sweeter the victory. The further off the beaten path you wander, the better your stories will be. This is true for writers, but it applies to anyone trying to live a productive and successful life. So ditch the timeline. Lower your expectations. Keep working toward your goals, no matter how impossible they seem. Remember that you're a late bloomer. You've got all the time in the world. 


Thursday, May 04, 2017

5 Ways to Pay Off $13K

$13,185.

That's a lot of money, isn't it? You could buy a used car in cash if you had that much money. You could put a down payment on a pretty nice home in Wilmington. You could travel halfway around the world. Or you could pay off all your credit card debt. That's what Nathan and I did, just as the new year began.


$13,185. We'd been carrying around that balance, or close to it, for about four years. We stopped using our credit cards two years ago, and we paid more than the minimum owed every month, but that balance still wouldn't budge. It was incredibly frustrating and demoralizing. Whenever you make a credit card payment - especially toward a balance you've been paying for YEARS - you're spending the money you make today on choices you made in the past. Trips you've already taken, food you've already eaten, clothes you might not even own anymore. Forget frustrating. It feels downright shameful. 

Every year, we resolved to pay off our credit card debt. Every year, we failed. Then, last May, we started using YNAB, a budgeting app whose praises I've sung again and again. Once I set everything up and finally entered our credit card balances, we were forced to confront the truth. Seeing those angry red numbers wasn't pretty, but we committed to getting rid of them, once and for all. We wanted to reach our goal by the end of the 2016, and while we missed that deadline by four days, we still felt pretty damn successful.

Thanks for the handy graph, YNAB!

In addition to paying off all that debt, we reached a few other financial milestones in 2016. We saved up an emergency fund. We visited friends in Rhode Island and only spent money we'd earmarked in advance. We set aside money each month for the holidays and didn't overspend on any festivities. We saved up a decent down payment and bought a used truck from Nathan's parents. Best of all, we still managed to have a good social life full of small luxuries, such as hanging out with our friends, visiting the local breweries, working out at the YMCA, and lots of beach days. We didn't really miss that $13,185, which was perhaps the most valuable lesson of all. 

But enough bragging. Here are some strategies we employed this past year that helped us overcome our credit card debt and finally get a handle on our finances. It's not easy, but it's worth it. 

1. Make More Money 


This is the number one thing that helped us pay off our debt. I hustled and took on extra freelance work in addition to my full time job. Nathan worked overtime shifts as much as possible. We also had a hurricane and he was deployed for six straight days, helping with relief efforts - bad for North Carolina, great for our wallets. Making more money is probably the hardest advice, because if it was so easy wouldn't we all do it? Still, every little bit helps. I've also found that freelance is much easier when it's not your main source of income. Imagine that.

While we almost certainly won't be able to make as much extra money this year as we did last year, we're still working on some side hustles. We're planning a spring yard sale and have sold a few things on Craigslist. We sell our extra chicken eggs for $5 a dozen. I'm always on the hunt for more freelance opportunities. The most important thing to remember is that anything extra you bring in is exactly that - extra. It needs to go straight to debt and not to entertainment, toys, or travel. 

2. Cut Your Costs


Once we started using YNAB religiously, I began to see all the ways we were wasting our hard-earned dollars. After a while, cutting our costs became an entertaining and lucrative game. Turning off our AC and opening our windows saves a ton of money. (We're holding out as long as we can - this is North Carolina, after all.) Hanging our clothes out to dry on warm days puts a tiny dent in our energy bill. Riding our bikes downtown or the beach saves on gas and parking meters. Ditching our iPhones lowered our cell phone bill by $30 a month. Developing a deep appreciation for boxed wine (it's actually pretty good) made our booze budget less horrifying.

Of course, the only way to cut costs effectively is to understand what you're spending and why. While I clearly love YNAB, any system that keeps you aware and informed will work. So many people don't want to budget because they're afraid of what they'll find. While we definitely dealt with a few frightening moments (the amount we spent on growlers of fancy beer was eye-opening, to say the least) the control you win back is worth it. 

3. Meal Plan Like a Mofo 


I was perusing the YNAB fan group on Facebook, as you do, when I came across a discussion on meal planning. As it turns out, many people don't do this. "But how?" I asked Nathan. "How could anyone possibly go to the grocery store without a list?" Leaving my list at home is one of my worst nightmares, and the fact that others willingly do this was hard to believe. So. If you don't meal plan, please start. My system is pretty simple - I keep a small magnetic dry erase board on the refrigerator and jot down what we'll eat each night. Then I buy the ingredients to make those meals. Honestly, it's that easy.

As for the actual shopping, I'll admit it: I love fancy grocery stores. Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, that cute little co-op near my office. Unfortunately, the prices are higher in those places and I always blow my budget on spontaneous splurges, like dark chocolate sea salt sprinkled almonds or artisan vegan cheese. A few months ago I started shopping at Harris Teeter and my grocery budget immediately went down. It helps that I signed up for their email newsletter, which sends me weekly coupons based on my purchase history. The coupons are linked to my e-vic card, and I get the discount as soon as they scan it. Which is maybe the most boring sentence I've ever written, so let's move on.

Meal planning is also a great way to avoid eating out, which is another money pit. It's a habit we've broken completely (unless it's a very special occasion) and that includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Does this get tedious? Of course. Am I bored of our very regular rotation of meals? You betcha. Does eating at home save us heaps and heaps of money? Yes, and that's what really matters.

4. Get Your Kicks for Free 


When you're aggressively paying off your debt, the best way to keep yourself from spending money is to never leave your house. That strategy, however, isn't really feasible or fun. Sooner or later you'll cave, fall off the wagon, and find yourself up late at night, ordering a bunch of things you don't need from Amazon for next day delivery. The only way to avoid this scenario is to find inexpensive ways to have fun and be social.

We enjoy the outdoors, so camping is one of our favorite low-cost, laid-back things to do. We keep an eye on free events in town and hit them up as often as we can. When we want to hang out with friends, we opt for backyards over bars and board games over... well... whatever it is people with lots of disposable income do. Now that we're in our 30s and most of our friends have small children, hanging out at each other's homes is a lot easier then staying out all night at the bar, which means everyone wins. 

As a former librarian, avid reader, and writer, I think the public library is pretty much the best thing America has to offer. Reading a book you borrowed from the library is free, fun, and will make you smarter. Sometimes I feel a little guilty that I'm not supporting the publishing industry by buying books, but then I remember that I'm broke and paying off debt, and I make a point to ask for books for birthdays and holidays. If I can't buy them myself, I'll get someone else to do it for me. I also like attending pay-what-you-can yoga classes, my book club, meeting friends for runs or long bike rides, having dog dates and dinner parties, going to the beach, and making an afternoon out of a crafty activity, like canning jam. Fiscally responsible AND delicious! 

5. Be Honest And Unashamed


Most of us don't want to admit that we're drowning in debt. We're afraid others will look down on us, judge us, or lose respect for us if they find out the truth. This means we have to maintain the illusion that everything is fine, which too often means spending money we don't have. 

But illusions are expensive, not to mention exhausting. It's much easier to be honest about your situation, with yourself and your loved ones. Do you think I like admitting that we paid off $13,000 in credit card debt? No, I do not. It's an admission that we racked up that much debt in the first place, which is nothing to brag about. While we were paying off our debt, we was tempted to lie to our friends about why we couldn't go out to dinner or meet them at the brewery. Instead, we told them the truth. And you know what? It was fine. Our friends didn't shame us. Our parents didn't lecture us (well, not much). We weren't ostracized, or made to feel like pariahs, or disowned. No one stopped loving us because of our debt, which was the best lesson we learned along our journey.   

A Better Balance


Today, we have zero credit card debt and a solid plan to keep it that way. All it took was learning how to budget, living within our means, getting creative in our free time, and facing the truth of our finances. (In other words, A LOT OF THINGS.) Needless to say, I'm proud of the progress we've made and excited to see where these hard-won lessons will take us next. I'll be sure to keep y'all updated.

PS: Want to try YNAB? Use my referral link and we'll both get a free month!

PPS: Why "Do What You Love" is terrible career advice + a review of Big Magic, a great book about living a creative life + How To Start a Book Club

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Why I Changed the Name of My Blog

I've been blogging for over fifteen years. When I started, the word "blog" didn't even exist. Instead, we called it an "online journal" and it was - at least for me - a natural extension of the notebooks I'd been filling throughout my adolescence. Within my earliest blogs, I kept my identify a secret and that gave me the freedom to publish all my thoughts and feelings without fear or shame. As I got older and blogging began to change, I started using my real name, but kept things more or less personal. My blog wasn't a business venture or a niche market. Rather, it was a way to record, collect, examine, share, observe, and celebrate the ups and downs of my life.

Then I turned 30, and slowly all those long-winded posts about my weekend began to lose their luster. My blog quieted down. Weeks went by without a new post. I still wanted to write and connect, but I didn't know what to write about

I spent the last few weeks thinking about what to do with this space and what I feel comfortable sharing. After reflecting on my interests, experiences, and the unique things I have to offer, I came to a compromise: I'll still write about my life, but I'll narrow the lens. As a 30-something woman who just figured out her finances, that lens is the mission to live well on less.

New Name, New URL, Same Me

Thanks to Canva, my agency's IT guy, and a few good friends, this blog now has a new name and a new URL. Welcome to Better Than Never: Budget Living for Late Bloomers.

Why Better Than Never? Because it combines two axioms that fit my outlook on life: "better late than never" and "better than ever." The former reflects my late bloomer status (I have a habit of achieving milestones long after their traditional due dates) and the latter is a good reminder that despite some ups and downs, life arcs in a positive direction. I won't retire at 40 (or, let's face it, 60) but I will live a comfortable life within my means. I don't own my house, but my landlady doesn't mind our chicken coop. I couldn't get to six figures as a freelancer, but I'm doing pretty well at my marketing agency. My first novel didn't sell, so I started writing a second one. Progress is progress and as long as I'm working on my goals, things will continue to get better. 

As for the shift in subject matter, my hope is that it won't feel too drastic. I already write about money, cooking, DIY projects, and our suburban homestead. Most of my "weekend adventures" are budget-friendly by necessity. And I'll still write about myself, because I couldn't stop if I wanted to, and I don't want to. I'm going to be my own guinea pig, experimenting with my life and letting y'all know what worked and what didn't. In addition, I've got a long list of ideas for future articles that are, I'll admit, SEO-friendly, but also relevant, entertaining, and - I hope - informative. For example, later this week I'll finally publish a post about paying off our credit card debit, which has been in my drafts folder since January.

Which leads us to the final change around these parts. I'm going to start posting twice a week. I know what you're thinking - that's awfully ambitious for someone who has averaged two posts a month for the last year. And while I agree with you, I also feel really motivated. When this blog was strictly personal, it was hard to maintain a more frequent cadence. My life is fairly seeped in routine, and when interesting things did happen, I wasn't always comfortable sharing them here. Now that I'm putting some distance between myself and my subject matter, I feel freer. I can write about what I'm thinking and doing, but it doesn't have to be in real time. I can reflect on things before I write about them, see how they fit into my journey before forcing my unsuspecting readers to stumble down those same roads. This change is for you as much as it is for me.

I hope any long-time readers still hanging around continue to visit this blog, because you'll always be my favorites. I hope new readers discovering this blog for the first time find plenty of reasons to return. I hope this shift, ambitious as it may be, works for all of us. Anything can happen and everything can change, but for the first time in a while I feel excited about the possibilities of blogging. It's a good way to begin, again. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Right Here, Right Now: April


T.S. Eliot claimed April is the cruelest month, and in many ways he was right. The last few weeks have been a roller-coaster - full of ups and downs, highs and lows, abandoned plans, new goals, and a whole lot of pollen. We planted our spring garden at the end of March and in many ways that set the tone for April. It's been a month of growth beneath the soil, laying the groundwork for things to come. More on all that later. For now, here's the rest of what's been keeping me busy these past few weeks. 

Reading


White Tears, by Hari Kunzru. It was my book club pick this month, and it was wild. At first, it's about two white boys who love the blues so much they end up appropriating it for their own commercial success. Half way though, like flipping a record to hear the B side, it turns into a ghost story about race and retribution that goes places I never saw coming. The structure was ambitious but Kunzru pulled it off beautifully. This book will haunt me (but in a good way!) for a long time.   

Eating


Leftovers, mostly. I'm convinced they're the unsung hero of the kitchen, and am always happy when I can get two nights of meals out of one night of cooking. Embracing leftovers also helped us finally get our grocery budget under $400 a month, which has been a long-time goal. Hooray!  

Watching


Nurse Jackie. The whole series (80 episodes!) is on Netflix and we've spent the last month or so working through them. It's about a talented and passionate ER nurse with a drug addiction, and it's really, really good. Funny and dramatic and sad and exactly 25 minutes long, which is the perfect way to end a long day. Plus Edie Falco, who plays the eponymous character, is a graduate from my alma mater, SUNY Purchase, which is pretty neat. 

Drinking


Peppermint tea. In an effort to trim our booze budget and also cut down on booze in general, I bought a box of peppermint tea. I realized that a evening glass of wine or beer had become more about the ritual then a desire to drink every single night. Replacing that ritual with something equally delicious and "special" tells my body it's time to relax without risking my budget, my body, or my brain. (Hangovers in your 30s are no joke.) 

Writing


30 minutes a day. A few months ago, I finished another draft of my novel-in-progress and handed it off to a few good readers. In the meantime, I've returned to short stories. In April I committed to writing for 30 minutes every morning before work, a good habit that had gotten away from me. I managed to meet my goal most days, and it's already paying off! I just placed a story with a journal I love (see you in July, Joyland!) and I'm excited about some new drafts. Oh! And I forgot to mention this, but I published two things in March - "Anatomy Lesson" appeared in Cleaver, while storySouth published "Dark Matter." Overall, it's been a good season for my fiction. 

Finishing


Outdoor projects. Nathan and I love starting projects, but we're not always the best at finishing them. This month, thanks to a few pockets free time, we finished a ton of them! We got new chicks, which spurred us to improve the coop. We already built two new top bar hives for the bees we ordered over the winter. We rearranged the kitchen and cleaned out some junk drawers. We sold a bunch of stuff on Craigslist and organized things for a yard sale. The start of a new season is always inspiring, but there's something particularly energizing about spring. I'm glad we were able to take advantage of the momentum and make so much progress in our home and yard! 

Planning


An overhaul of this blog! Regular readers might have noticed that I don't blog nearly as much as I used to. I've been thinking a lot about what I want to do with this space - mostly, how to keep writing about my life in a way that balances my desire to tell stories with my need for privacy. I think I've figured it out, and I'm looking forward to kicking off May with a new design, a new URL (!), and a new focus. I'll still write about my life (I couldn't stop if I wanted to) but I think a fresh focus will give me the motivation and enthusiasm I've been lacking. Stay tuned! 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Bringing Home Our Newest Chicks

Chickens are funny creatures. First you have four. Then, suddenly, you have eight. Before you know it, you're up to 12 (give or take a rooster). Now, as of Easter Sunday, we've got 17. Yup, we expanded our flock yet again. But really - can you blame us?

Seven tiny little birds!

Believe it or not, Nathan was the one pushing for new chicks this time. We got our last little ladies two years ago, and Polly, our oldest chicken, just turned five. (Of the original four, one was a rooster we re-homed, one died mysteriously in the night, and one had a run-in with a possum. Keeping chickens gets real fast.) The best part of having birds is the abundance of delicious eggs fresh from our backyard, and Nathan wanted to make sure production didn't lag. Chickens don't lay forever - most breeds begin to slow down as they get older, which is why bringing younger ladies into the fold is important. We've landed on an every-other-year schedule, which is working out pretty well. 

Cute fluffy butts.

The other reason we decided to get more chicks is because we've been letting the older girls free range in the backyard. Our chicken coop is pretty big but I'm always worried about space and comfort. Seamus, our older dog, didn't appreciate the chickens and would snap at them, so it wasn't safe to let them out in the yard. After Seamus passed away in February, we decided to see how Calvin handled the birds and it turns out he could not care less. I'm not sure if he's afraid or just lazy, but either way he keeps a friendly distance.

So why was I reluctant to get new chicks? Because the first few weeks are the most time-consuming. Chicks need a lot of care and attention. You have to keep them inside, under a headlamp. You have to make sure they haven't pooped themselves (pasty butts can be deadly!) You have to clean out their food and water multiple times a day, because they like to poop in it. Mostly it's just a lot of poop. Then again, it's also a lot of cute, fluffy chicks. In the end, the pros outweighed the cons.  

The nursery. Already counting down the days until they move outside.

Over the years, we've acquired chicks a few different ways. We hatched our first ones with the help of my in-laws, who brought us fertilized eggs from their farm in Illinois. Since then, we've gotten chicks from the farm store, the hardware store, and Craigslist. These little ones came from a backyard farm south of us. The breeders were an older couple who lived down a long dirt road and had quite the operation - rabbits, ducks, chickens, goats, pot-bellied pigs, and catfish. We landed on their ad because, in addition to selling some common, reliable breeds, they also had two silkies. Silkies are ridiculous looking chickens known for being friendly and docile. They aren't the most productive layers (about three eggs a week, in their prime) but when you look like this you can get away with that. 

photo credit

We also got some Rhode Island Reds and two Marans, which are known for laying eggs that are a deep chocolate color. One of my favorite thing about keeping a mixed breed flock is the variety of eggs we get. They come in all sizes and colors, and I can usually tell who laid which egg. Plus I love looking out and seeing the rainbow of chickens wandering through out backyard - AKA "Chicken TV." I can't wait until the new chicks make it to prime time.

PS: A tour of our DIY chicken coop & the first chicken I ever hatched from an egg