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.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

2018 Goals: A Bridge

Despite being a person that loves goals and resolutions and new beginnings, I did not set any expectations for 2017. No blog post laying out a detailed plan for the new year, no single word to serve as my guiding mantra, no resolutions for improving myself day by day. Looking back, it makes sense. The end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 were rough. Obama left office, my dog died, and my husband resigned from his job, and that was just the first three months! Getting through the day was challenging enough, never mind self-improvement.

This year, I'm feeling a bit more optimistic. While the political climate has been as bad as I feared, I'm now better equipped to resist and fight for change. We may be surviving on one income, but we've stuck to our budget and managed to live within our shrunken means. Writing is still a long, slow process, but progress is happening, even when I can't see it.

Maybe it's a consequence of social media and seeing everyone's highlight reel, but the last few New Year's Eves have been melancholy. At the close of each year, I've looked back and thought, "That was okay. Not great, not exciting, not really notable. Just okay." I would tell myself the past year was one of growth, of laying down the foundation, of making room. But you can only use that reasoning so many times before it starts to sound like an excuse. And so, to ensure that on the eve of 2019, I can look back with pride at all I've accomplished, I'm getting back to my roots. I'm setting goals for next year, and I'm choosing a word to guide me.

photo credit


The word I've chosen for 2018 is "bridge." Both a noun and a verb, a bridge is a structure carrying a path or road over a depression or obstacle. It's a time, place, or means of connection or transition. And finally, it's a passage connecting two sections of something - to bridge a gap, to carry forward.

For me, bridge will serve as a reminder that life is always in transition and that we're constantly moving, growing, and changing. I hope it will encourage me to trust the foundation I've laid and to follow risker paths - to try harder in all things and take the higher road. Despite some upheaval, my life has felt fairly stable for some time. It's time to build a bridge that will take me to the next stage.

Another reminder of my word-of-the-year are the literal bridges that lead to and from Wilmington. We are a city surrounded by water on all sides - ocean to the east, river to the west. I cross bridges regularly, and in 2018 I hope each one is a tiny burst of encouragement.

That said, here are some more specific goals I will attempt to bridge this year. 

Art & Writing 

I've been working on both a novel and a collection of short stories for years. In 2018, I want to finish both of these projects and sell one of them. I also want to write more flash fiction, read more nonfiction, and pitch more essays and articles. More, more, more. To accomplish these things, I'll do the following:

  • Write every day for at least 30 minutes. 
  • Pitch one essay or article a month. 
  • Write four new short stories to round out my collection. 
  • Write ten new flash fictions. 
  • Read 36 books. 
  • Spend a long weekend on a DIY writing retreat. 

Health & Fitness 

Health, too, has been pretty stagnant. All my runs are the same average speed. I've been attending the same kettlebell class for six years (!). My skin is beginning to show its age. All the habits that once worked just fine are no longer cutting it. I'm 35, and if I want to age gracefully, I need to try a little harder, mentally and physically. Here are some ways I will do that:

  • Set a new half marathon PR. 
  • Build more muscles. 
  • Substitute herbal tea for wine/beer three times a week.
  • Stick to my simple skin care regime. 
  • Do one new-to-me thing a month.

Money & Debt  

Over the last two years I've become a budgeting guru, so much so that it's no longer a challenge - it's just the way I live. Which means it's time to up my personal finance game and take things to the next level - especially if I ever want to retire. Some things I will attempt this year to make the transition easier:

  • Continue to rock my budget and live within my means.
  • Pay off Nathan's truck. ($650 to go.) 
  • Pay off my car. ($4,000 to go.) 
  • Save $500 per month ($6K total).
  • Learn how to invest. 

This probably seems like way too much to do all at once, but that's the thing - I'm not doing it all at once. A year is a pretty long time, with plenty of opportunities to try, fail, and try again. At the end of twelve months I want to feel proud of what I've accomplished, how far I've traveled, and all the bridges I built to help carry me forward. 

Here's to a productive, happy, and healthy 2018. Let's make it a good one, okay? 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Best Books I Read in 2017

Another year of reading in the books! (Get it? In THE BOOKS?) As always, I was humbled and dazzled by the books I managed to read this year - there were so many good ones, most of them heartbreaking in one way or another. (I'm a sucker for tragedies.) I'm also beginning to see patterns in my reading, and how the writers with whom I choose to spend my time reflects what I'm doing or thinking or struggling with at any given moment.

This year, I read my most diverse range of authors yet, which was wonderful and necessary - especially during a year so rife with political tragedies and systemic inequalities. Many of the books helped me see the world in a new light, or expanded my view of an issue, or showed me something about myself I'd previously ignored. While other areas of my life felt stagnant (another post for another time) I grew more as a reader this year than in any other. For that I am grateful, and I have the following books to thank.

The Best Books I Read in 2017

Total books read in 2017: 29

Gender breakdown: 
Female: 19
Male: 8
Anthologies: 2

Diversity breakdown:
White: 15
POC: 13
Anthologies: 1

Genre breakdown:
Novels: 16
Memoir/CNF: 10
Short story collections: 3

Month I read the most books: 
August and November (4 each)

Month I read the least books:
October (1)

Most fun I had while reading:
All the Lives I Want, Alana Massey. (A collection of essays about famous people the author has never actually met. Not the best book, but definitely fun in a surreal and sometimes sad way.)

Most overrated book/disappointing ending:
I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Ian Reid. (A book club pick that everyone hated. We chose it based on its great reviews, and it did NOT live up.)

Best family drama: 
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng. (She's basically the queen of family dramas, and consequently the writer I most aspire to be like.)

Prettiest prose: 
Imagine Me Gone, Adam Hazlett. (Gorgeous writing, but every page was a fresh wave of grief. Proceed with caution.)

Best book club pick: 
White Tears, Hari Kunzru. (Some people in book club hated this novel, others loved it. No one was in the middle. For the record, I loved it.)

Best book by a friend: 
Felt in the Jaw, Kristen Arnett. (Stories about lesbians in Florida, and that's all you need to know.)

Most engrossing book: 
Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo. (A doomed marriage. Tragic offspring. Magic misconstrued. And it all takes place in Nigeria, which is one of my favorite settings. Couldn't put it down.)

Most epic book: 
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee. (This book covers about 80 years and five generations, and Lee manages this task beautifully.)

Most disturbing book: 
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado. (There are images from this book I will never forget, and that's good. I don't want to forget them. "The Husband Stitch," especially, is a masterpiece.)

Best book of 2017: 
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng. (We're all shocked, I know.)

The full list of books I read in 2017, in order: 

The Wangs Vs. the Wold, Jade Chang
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli
A Thin Bright Line, Lucy Bledsoe
Commonwealth, Ann Patchett
The Red Parts, Maggie Nelson
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
White Tears, Hari Kunzru
The Small Backs of Children, Lidia Yukanvitch
Hourglass, Dani Shaprio
The Idiot, Elif Batuman
Scratch: Collected Essays, Manjula Martin
The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen
All Grown Up, Jami Attenberg
Imagine Me Gone, Adam Hazlett
Hunger, Roxane Gay
A Beautiful, Terrible Thing, Jennifer Wait
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
All the Lives I Want, Alana Massey
Felt in the Jaw, Kristen Arnett
I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Ian Reid
The Fire This Time, Jessamyn Ward
American War, Omar El Akkad
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jessamyn Ward
Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo
The Futilitarians, Anne Gisleson
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado

See also: 
The Best Books I Read in 2016

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Our Biggest Budget Wins in 2017

2017, y'all. Where to begin? It's kind of crazy to think about how this year started versus where we are now. At the beginning of 2017, we had two dogs and two incomes. I worked at a marketing agency and my husband was a paramedic. Our big financial goal was to save $10K for a down payment on a house. 

Now? After a steady six months of searching, I have a swanky new job that I love. My husband went back to school and is working part time on the weekends. Our beloved older dog passed away in February. We're slowly rebuilding our savings after a rough few months, and I spent most of that down payment on a new-to-me car instead of a house. In the end, a mix of highs and lows, set backs and steps forward. Not much different from most years, if you think about it. 

That said, there were a few things we did right in 2017. Here are our biggest budget wins over the last twelve months, and here's to many more in 2018. 

1. We did not adopt a new dog.  

A few months after our best boy passed away, friends as well as strangers started asking us the inevitable: "Are you going to get a puppy?" It was an understandable question - we'd been a two-dog household for the last seven years, and I think dogs are the most precious beings on earth. That said, our answer was and has remained, "Nope." I loved sharing a home with Seamus and Calvin, and we were lucky they got along as well as they did. That said, having one giant dog is a whole lot easier and cheaper than having two. And during a time in our lives when funds are limited and time is a scarce, one dog is more than enough. 

2. We rekindled our love for camping. 

We managed to go on two camping trips during Wilmington's brief window of perfect weather. We were avid campers in Texas, but fell out of the habit after we moved to North Carolina. As it turns out, camping is the perfect low-budget activity - especially since we already have all the necessary gear. Cooking over a fire, hiking on trails, reading books, and playing board games because there's nothing else to do? Yes, please. We're already looking forward to more trips in 2018. 

3. We cut way back on wine and beer. 

I was in the habit of having a drink or two basically every single night. For me, it was less about the buzz and more about unwinding after work - pouring a glass meant the day was done and I could finally relax. However, I often imbibed more than I meant, which made waking up early to write unpleasant/impossible. In October, I set a goal to skip booze entirely two nights a week, and the habit has not only stuck, but grown. I'm drinking less than ever and, as a result, saving more than ever. I also sleep better, write more, and feel fitter. My new trick for telling my body it's time to relax is to sip a cup of herbal tea while watching Jeopardy!, which means I've finally become the senior citizen I was always meant to be. Lean all the way in, y'all. 

4. We did not use our credit cards once. 

After we made the final payment on our credit cards, paying off a total of $13K in debt, I was determined to never live outside my means again. Despite a lot of life changes, a wedding in Nebraska, a new car, and traveling for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, we've stuck with that goal and left our credit cards alone. This meant we paid for everything in cash, and that was an incredibly good feeling. It required a lot of planning and budgeting (thanks, YNAB) and the key was looking ahead, setting small goals, and putting aside money each month. Not exactly rocket science, but something we'd never been able to achieve before this year. While we did incur some new debt (a small car loan and some new student loans) I feel good that we paid for our day-to-day living expenses in cash, saved up for bigger things, and did not borrow from the future for any extras. 

5. We found a great deal on a used car. 

I wrote all about my new car saga back in September, but here's a brief update: the car runs like a dream, gets great gas mileage, and remains an amazing deal. One of my 2018 goals is to pay it off completely by the end of next year, a full 18 months early. I'm optimistic that this is possible, especially if I funnel all my freelance income toward it. Fingers crossed! 

6. I landed a new job. 

The best financial decision I made was to look for a new job. This was difficult, because my previous job was mostly fine, the job market in Wilmington is fairly dismal, and applying for jobs is time consuming and demoralizing. It would have been easy to settle and stay where I was, but I knew I deserved more, so I kept trying until I got it. As a result, I've been happier at work and our budget is in much better shape, thanks to my new and improved salary. I'm really glad this new job came towards the end of the year, because it means I'm ending 2017 with a win. And after a year like this, I needed one.

How did your year go? Did you make strides in your financial goals, experience set backs, or - like us - a little of both? 

Monday, November 13, 2017

How to Throw a Fancy Wedding for $10K

Over the weekend, Nathan and I celebrated our five year wedding anniversary. (Well, I use the term "celebrate" lightly. We've both been sick all week, so it was more a "snuggle under a quilt and drink a bottle of wine while watching Jeopardy" kind of celebration. We plan to go out for a fancy dinner next week, when we're feeling better.) 

Five years feels significant - especially when added to the ten we already had when we got married. A grand total of fifteen years with one person is a lot, and sometimes thinking about how far we've come stuns me. Who would have thought that weird guy I met at a college party who, at the time, lived in an actual tent, would end up my husband? Not me, that's for sure. Yet here we are, and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. 

In honor of our anniversary, and in keeping with the loose theme of personal finance, I'm re-sharing an article I wrote a few years ago about what where we splurged and where we saved in regard to our wedding. We got married pre-budget, pre-YNAB, pre-any idea of how money actually worked, but we were still fairly frugal people who loved a good deal. Some things never change. 

When Nathan and I decided to get married on our ten year anniversary, we didn’t know we’d both be back in school, with the bank account to prove it. At first, our $10,000 budget seemed like more than enough – until we started actually planning. As it turns out, weddings are really expensive! For a moment we considered postponing the event for a few more years (we'd already waited ten, after all), but quickly realized that was ridiculous. Instead, we saved where we could, splurged as needed, and ended up with a perfect day. Here are some of the choices that got us there. 

Save: Location.

For a couple that met in New York, lived in Texas, and had recently moved to North Carolina, choosing where to wed was not a cut and dry issue. We originally wanted to get married in New York – that's where our relationship began, and many of our friends and family still live there. Unfortunately, every venue we looked at was prohibitively expensive. I'm talking $4,000 for an empty barn with no heat or indoor plumbing. We switched our search to North Carolina and almost immediately found a historic train depot for only $600 - tables and chairs included. While we saved a ton of money, it meant that we were essentially hosting a destination wedding. However, considering how scattered our friends and family were, a large contingent would be traveling no matter what. We might as well make them come to us. 

Splurge: My dress.

Our wedding was five years ago, but every time I'm in a department store or thrift shop, I find a perfect, beautiful, and dirt-cheap wedding dress that would look amazing on me. Part of me regrets that I didn't go that route, and instead bought a dress from David’s Bridal. It was on sale, yes, but it still clocked in at $600. The main reason I chose it (besides being very beautiful) was because I only had one opportunity to go dress hunting with my mom and two younger sisters. Sharing the experience with them was really special, and worth every penny.

Save: Friend-ors.

Thanks to our super talented and generous friends, we avoided most of the usual vendors and relied on their kindness instead. One of my bridesmaids, who is a professional baker, made over 100 vegan cupcakes for the wedding. Another friend, who is actual pastor, officiated the ceremony. Two of our friends known for their epic dance parties took on DJ duties. My old college roommate served as day-of coordinator and bouquet-maker, crafting lovely arrangements from flowers we bought in bulk at Sam's Club. And we all had a great time drinking mimosas while decorating the space and assembling centerpieces. The only actual vendors we hired were caterers, because I was not about to ask my BFFs to cook dinner for 60 people. (Even I have my limits.) By the time I walked down the aisle, our handmade wedding was filled with so many personal touches and so much love, that even if I had all the money in the world, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Splurge: Party bus.

Our wedding venue was located 30 miles down a long, dark highway, in an area unfamiliar to 90% of our guests. We wanted everyone to have a good time (IE, drink as much as they wanted) and we needed them to be safe. Asking everyone to find a taxi seemed complicated, and Uber and Lyft hadn't come to coastal North Carolina yet. So we dropped $700 (more than the cost of the actual venue!) and rented a bus to take guests back and forth from the hotel to the wedding. At the end of the night, my brand new husband and I also boarded the bus back to Wilmington, because as it turns out, we needed a ride and we are not fancy. While the party bus was one of the most expensive items in our wedding budget, the peace of mind it provided was priceless.

In the end, it didn’t matter how much we spent or which corners we cut. The things I remember the most – all our loved ones in one place, our first kiss as husband and wife, the awesome dance party – ended up costing the least. Funny how that works.