Thursday, May 17, 2018

Right Here, Right Now: Spring 2018

I have a lot of half-finished budget-friendly blog posts in my drafts folder - an intro to YNAB, a review of Republic Wireless, a chicken update, a mediation on the power of plans - but I don't feel like working on any of those today. I have 30 minutes before I need to get ready for work, it's a dark, wet day, and there's a full cup of coffee on my desk. In other words, the perfect morning for a little life update. So, in that spirit, here's what I'm currently up to. 


A lot of Jeopardy!, mostly. We've been watching consistently for about two years, and I'm getting better and better at the game. It's not so much about what you know, but more about what you know about Jeopardy!. Plus it feels better than "regular" TV, since it forces us to think a little bit. We don't always get a chance to watch it at 7:30 pm, but here's a hot tip - the Jeopardy! subreddit has a thread for each night's game, and in that thread a very kind soul posts a link to the episode, which he uploads to Google Drive, every single day. I'm not a religious person, but I'm pretty sure he's an angel. 


Protein, baby! I hopped on the macro train and spent a few days analyzing the balance of my diet, and guess what? It was about 90% carbs. After some trial and error and a few new habits, I was able to get that balance to a better place, and maybe it's psychosomatic, but I feel leaner, stronger, and more energetic, especially in the afternoons. I'm also spending a bit more on food, because as it turns out simple carbs are really cheap, but hey. Health comes first. 


Somehow, this has been the slowest year for reading yet. I've only finished eight books so far! To be fair, I started and abandoned multiple books, but still. Right now, I'm reading You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld, and I'm about to start What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, which is May's book club pick. My to-read list grows every longer, so hopefully these long and light summer days will offer more time for books! 


As always, I am working on my novel. As always, it's a slow, plodding affair, filled with starts and stops. Every time I have a breakthrough, it requires more work than I anticipated, but things are moving forward. In the meantime, I've cheated on the book a few times with shorter pieces, and one was published yesterday in Flyway Journal! It's called "Material Remains," and it's about two sisters, a family tragedy, and a very deep hole filled with strange and sinister things. I'd be honored if you checked it out. Also, if you like my writing and want more, I have a website with links to almost everything I've published. 


Too much! We still have a budget, of course - in fact, I celebrated my two-year YNABiversary over the weekend via a shopping spree at Costco (oops). Still, I've gotten in a bad habit of spending most of our money in the first half of the month - probably because we both get paid on the last day of the month. Once it's gone, however, it's gone. We don't pull from savings or move too much money around. We just suffer. So if you see me eating beans and riding my bike more during the last few days of May, that's why. 


Speaking of spending, we have a few trips coming up over the next few weeks, and I am very excited for them. One is a weekend on Long Island for my sister's baby shower (I'M GOING TO BE AN AUNT!!!) and the other is a trip to a mysterious location for my Texas BFF's 40th birthday. I say mysterious because we're still deciding where to go - stay tuned! I know I will. 

How About You? 

Tell me what you're watching, eating, reading, writing, spending, or planning right now. I'm super nosey and I'd love to add some new things to my list! 

* Amazon links are affiliate and I may earn a teeny tiny commission if you click them. Thanks! 

Sunday, April 29, 2018

5 Frugal Things: Spring is Here!

Two Sundays, two blog posts. Maybe this one-new-post-a-week routine will finally stick! In this week's update, we return to an old favorite: five frugal things. Big or small, every choice that keeps a little more cash in my bank account is a win. Here are a few ways we're staying on budget, despite the siren call of spring. 

1. I bought a last minute plane ticket to New York.

A few weeks ago my mom fell at work and broke her hip. After surgery and some new screws, she is healing well and should be back to normal in a few months. In the meantime, she can't put weight on her leg and has been stuck at home. Thanks to my budgeting powers, I was able to buy a plane ticket for relatively cheap and spend a few days entertaining her. And, because my job is awesome, I worked remotely from my parents' kitchen table, which means I didn't have to use PTO. While the trip wasn't the most exciting (we watched A LOT of HGTV and MANY Lifetime movies) I was grateful for the ability to show up for my family without putting anything on my credit card. 

2. We paid off our truck.

Two summers ago we bought a truck from Nathan's parents. We made a down payment and have been paying off the rest in very small monthly installments ever since. This debt wasn't high on my list of things-to-pay-off, since it was essentially an interest-free loan, but as we got closer to $0, I became more eager to see it gone. Last month I moved some things around, cut a few extra corners, and came up with the last $500 a whole three months early. I sent it off and was very pleased with myself, only to discover that, according to my father-in-law's calculations, I had actually overpaid them by $125. "Are you sure?" I asked. "Yes," he said, and who am I to argue? So they gave us a refund and I put it straight into our vacation fund. (We have a lot of travel coming up this summer and fall.) Next up: paying off my car by the end of the year. 

3. I attended a meeting about my new retirement benefits. 

My company recently switched 401K plans. Last week, we had an introductory meeting  with our new financial advisors during which they walked us through all the nuts and bolts. Next week, everyone in the company can sign up for individual meetings with the advisors for more specific guidance, and you better believe I grabbed a slot! Now that I'm an expert at budgeting and successfully living well within my means, the next step in my financial journey is figuring out how to retire before I'm 80. I'm really excited about all these new perks and also the chance to talk to a professional about the best path forward. I'll keep y'all updated! 

4. We started selling eggs again. 

It's spring, which means my chickens are laying eggs again! A chicken's cycle is tied to the length of the days, so during the dark winter, they slow down production significantly. Some people keep a light on them to trick their bodies into laying year round, but I feel like the ladies deserve a break, as inconvenient as it may be. In the spring and summer, though, I remember why I love keeping chickens. I've already sold two dozen to my neighbors, and I have another 12-pack ready to go. While the extra cash the ladies bring in is nice, I really love knowing that my friends and neighbors are enjoying more eggs from happy, healthy, free-range hens. 

5. Our windows are wide open. 

North Carolina is a land of extreme weather. We had perhaps the coldest winter in recent memory, and our summers are hot and incredibly humid. Spring, while brief, is a gift - it's warm but the mosquitos have not yet arrived. The mornings are cool enough to run without drowning in your own sweat, and the afternoons are the perfect temperature for drinking a beer in the sunshine. And, most importantly, we can open our windows. This means that we're not running the heat OR the air conditioner. I try to stretch this season out as long as I can - one year, we almost made it to July before we broke down and turned on the AC - not just because it's a literally a breath of fresh air, but because I also love the lower electric bill. 

Have you had any frugal wins lately? Share them here, on Twitter, or tag me on Instagram, which is where I've been spending the bulk of my online time these days. More soon! 

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Next Big Thing

Most of us are constantly looking ahead, instead of paying attention to what's right in front of us. How many times have you scheduled a trip or an event because you "need something to look forward to?" How often do you count down the minutes until 5pm? How often do you skim past most posts on social media, only pausing to comment or like on big announcements - the wedding, the baby, the new job?

In fact, you may have seen the title of this post paired with the image above, and felt a small thrill of anticipation. Is this post an announcement? A reveal? Am I about to embark on a new adventure and turn my world upside down?

Sorry to burst your bubble, but the answer is: none of the above. There are no big changes on the horizon. I am not on the cusp of a cosmic shift. Everything is fine; I'm just chugging along. And even though things are mostly good, steady and fulfilling, I still feel a twinge of wistfulness, a tiny voice whispering "But what's next?" in my ear.  

I started thinking about this phenomenon when I followed the Boston Marathon earlier this week. Watching Desi Linden cross the finish line to win first place, 11 years after she first ran the race, made me cry at my desk. (To be fair, I cry easy.) The cold, the pouring rain, the fact that her winning time was not even her fastest, the way she hung back for a teammate and still finished first. What a race! What an accomplishment! What a Big Thing!  

If my first response to the Boston Marathon was tears, the second was jealousy. I, too, wanted to do something big. Not run a marathon, exactly (though I am not opposed to taking on 26.2 again one day), but something exciting and impressive, that required hard work and sacrifice. It's been a while since I've set a big, scary goal and worked for it. (Not counting novel-writing, which is a goal so big and so time-consuming that it's just part of the fabric of my life, a fear I live with and write through nearly every day, and nothing, at this point, out of the ordinary, which I guess is a pretty Big Thing when you think about it, but I digress.)

I'm not sure what my next challenge will be. There are some things I've been meaning to try, some directions I'd like to push myself in. Lately I'm drawn to physical challenges. This past winter, I started focusing on speed during my runs, and set a new half-marathon PR. I've been lifting weights at the YMCA, watching tiny new muscles grow. I've been eating more protein. I'm not sure if these changes will lead to a new Big Thing, or if I'll simply enjoy feeling stronger in my body. I suspect not everything I do needs to be a Big Thing, that really I only need one thing at a time. All I have to do is figure out what it will be, and how big. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Simple Trick For Building Better Habits

(I'm going to ignore the fact that I went two months without writing a blog post. I blame a combination of work, novel-writing, and the coldest Wilmington winter ever. In other words: life.) 

There's nothing I love more than a good habit. This proclivity isn't because I'm smack in the middle of my 30s, either. Even in my wild youth, I always made my bed first thing every the morning. Always buckled my seat belt as soon as I got in the car. Always washed my bowl when I was done eating.

Of course, I have bad habits, too; nobody is perfect. One habit that I've touched on a bit was drinking a glass of wine (or three...) at the end of the day. In my "Best Budget Wins of 2017" post, I mentioned that I'd cut down on my drinking, which was better for my wallet and my health. This habit was especially hard to break, because relaxing on the couch with a delicious beverage had become routine. Not only that, I enjoyed it! What I did not enjoy, however, were the slow mornings, the extra calories, and the fact that alcohol was such an integral part of my day. (Coffee, on the other hand, is a totally acceptable crutch.)

So, I decided to cut back and it was not nearly as hard as I feared! Here's how I did it, in three simple steps.

1. Set a measurable goal. 

"Drink less" is a great idea, but it's not specific enough to work as a goal. After all, less is relative. It would be easy to rationalize that two drinks on a Tuesday night is less than three, or one bottle of wine on a Saturday is less than two. Yes, I'd be drinking less, but the benefits at that point are negligible. Plus, I know myself. I am very disciplined - until I start drinking. One sip and all bets are off. So for me, the best route was to skip drinking entirely. I started with two evenings a week, and I could choose any evenings I wanted. At the beginning of the week, I'd look at my calendar, see what was going on, and identify ahead of time which days were best for not drinking. Book club was out, obviously. But a night when I had a run scheduled after work was perfect.

2. Find a healthier replacement. 

One thing I discovered was that it wasn't so much the glass of wine I loved, but the ritual of a special drink at the end of the day. Settling onto my couch between my dog and my husband, especially during the cold winter months, while sipping something delicious and shouting out the answers to Jeopardy! is, for me, the height of relaxation. So I knew it was important to find a replacement beverage that would scratch that same itch. I'm not a fan of La Croix or seltzer, so I asked for an electric kettle for Christmas and bought myself a bunch of herbal teas. And wouldn't you know it - holding a hot cup of tea is way cozier than a bottle of cold beer.

3. Keep track of your progress. 

This is my favorite part. I love tracking things - I have more spreadsheets than I care to admit, tracking all sorts of mundane-to-anyone-but-me facts and figures. After trying out a few different apps, I downloaded HabitShare (available via Google Play and iTunes) and it's awesome. You create a habit, set a goal for how often you want to accomplish said habit, and then start tracking. Keeping track is simple - a green dot means you did it, red means you missed, and gray is a skip. Here are two screenshots of my booze-free progress for February and March:

My twice-a-week goal ended up feeling so good that I upped it to three times a week at the beginning of 2018. Most weeks, however, I actually hit four. As a bonus, I've also found that when I do drink, I imbibe less overall. For example, I drank four days in a row this past week, but I only had one beverage each time. So a total of four drinks for a whole week - not bad, especially compared to what I was mindlessly drinking out of habit just a few months ago.

I like HabitShare so much that I now have a bunch of things I'm tracking - a daily writing goal, a goal for workouts, a reading goal, etc. When I lie in bed at the end of the day, it feels great to go through my habits and check off the ones I accomplished. Some days are better than others, which is why I like looking at the month as a whole - it keeps things in perspective and helps me see how my habits are building over time and affecting one another. The less I drink, for example, the more I run and write and read. A fair trade, I'd say.

Do you have any tricks for tracking habits or creating good routines? I'd love to hear them! 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Budget-Friendly Benefits of a Depth Year

A few weeks ago I came across a new-to-me blog, Raptitude, thanks to a post titled "Go Deeper, Not Wider." The thesis is that humans are flighty creatures who love novelty. To combat this tendency, the author, David Cain, suggests a "Depth Year," in which you turn away from new experiences and possessions, and instead "find the value in what you already own or what you’ve already started." Instead of becoming a Jill-of-all-trades or spreading yourself thin, you commit to one passion or pursuit and go as deep as you can.

I liked this idea immediately. It echoes a lot of what I said in my 2018 Resolutions post, which boiled down to doing more, going further, digging deeper. I decided to make the Depth Year my unofficial theme for the next twelve months. If you're still searching for a goal or focus for the coming year, give it try - especially if any of your goals are financial.

Because the Depth Year is essentially another way to embrace frugality and live within our means. You choose to give up new possessions in favor of what you already have and learn to appreciate what you already own. There are plenty of examples of ways to do this in the original blog post, and there's even a Facebook group devoted to the endeavor where folks share what deep things they're pursuing.

As for me, my two Depth Year activities shouldn't come as a surprise. Finish all my writing projects (but mostly the novel) and get better at running. Both of these things take time, but not money. I have my fingers and my legs, and I don't need much else. Plus, the time I spent on these pursuits is time I'm not spending on things that cost money. I achieve my goals and preserve my budget - what could better?

Writing is pretty self-explanatory, so I won't focus on that right now. Instead, I'll talk a bit about running.

I started running in 2010, after my roller derby league fell apart. It was a fun and healthy way to kill time, and I found I really enjoyed long distances - especially the time to unplug and think. (I never run with music or podcasts or books on tape - running is one of the few times in my life that I am not actively consuming something.) I got so into running that I even completed two full marathons - Austin (in 4:45) and Houston (in 4:20).

Then I moved to North Carolina. I still run and continue to race an annual half marathon, but I don't really train or challenge myself. As a result, I haven't gotten faster - for the last few years, each half marathon I've run has actually been slower than the last.

This year, as part of my exercise in Depth, I'm actually trying. My yearly half marathon is on March 17th, and I'd like to run it in 1:55, which would be a new PR by a cool minute and a half. To that end, I've committed to running three times a week - a tempo run, a speed workout, and a long, slow run. While I like other workouts and am often distracted by shiny, new things like spin, yoga, and kettlebell, I'm putting running first until the race is over. I'm focusing, and committing, and going deeper. Or longer, as the case may be.

So far, it seems to be working. Each Sunday I add a mile to my long run, and each week, despite the increased distance, my overall pace-per-mile is slightly faster. This morning I headed out early, in an effort to beat the rain. I ran a misty 8 miles at a 9:32 pace, and my legs feel fine. Just three weeks ago, I could barely walk after 6 miles at 9:47. Progress is happening, step by step. The trick, I've learned, is to keep going.