Monday, September 18, 2017

How I Bought a Used Car on a Budget

Announcing that I bought a car on my budget living blog is kind of ironic, I know. But what if I told you I planned for this purchase, budgeted my dollars, and found a great deal? For someone who previously only bought cars from family members, I'm pretty proud of myself. Here's how it happened.

First, some history. About twelve years ago, Nathan and I bought a 2005 Ford Escape from his parents. They had purchased it for themselves but their needs unexpectedly changed - unfortunate for them, awesome for us. The car was practically brand new, in excellent shape, and they sold it to us for a steal. (They are very kind and generous people.)

For the next decade, we drove the hell out of that car. After 180K miles, multiple trips all over the country, two giant dogs that love to go for rides, and some strange sounds coming from the engine, it was clear that we were running on borrowed time. To prepare for its inevitable demise, I started a "New Car" category in YNAB about a year ago, diligently saving as much as we could. We were making great progress and my dreams of buying a used car in cash seemed within reach. Then we started living on one income, and progress slowed significantly. The Escape, along with our savings account, limped along. And then our yearly inspection was due. 

To no one's surprise, the Escape failed spectacularly. I won't get into the nitty-gritty because this isn't an episode of Car Talk, but suffice to say we were looking at $1500 of repairs just to make it road-worthy. Instead, we decided to go ahead and buy the new car we'd been saving up for. While we didn't have quite enough to buy one outright, we did have a hefty down payment, along with whatever we could get for a trade in. Financing, we hoped, would be minimal. 

Our criteria was as follows:

  • A used car from a dealer. 
  • Less than 50K miles. 
  • As fuel efficient as possible. 
  • 2010 or newer. 
  • Something we could drive for the next ten years. 

As you can see, we weren't that picky - we were open to pretty much anything that checked these boxes. We bank with USAA, and they have a great car buying tool that allows you to set parameters and search dealerships in your area. The same day the Escape failed inspection, I started searching to see what was available. Two cars in particular quickly rose to the top of my list - a 2016 Hyundai Elantra, and a 2014 Nissan Sentra. 

The Elantra was newer, a little fancier, yet $1500 cheaper. It had 50K miles, but didn't come with any kind of warranty, which made me nervous. The Sentra was in great shape, had only 25K miles, and came with a lifetime Powertrain warranty from the dealer, which ultimately sealed the deal. As our salesperson explained, most people only keep their cars for a few years, trading them in for something newer and shinier. Since we were planning to drive our car for the next decade, we would definitely take advantage of the warranty at some point. In other words: sold. 

My new-to-me car!

And because a budget blog is nothing without cold, hard numbers, here's what we spent on our 2014 Nissan Sentra: 

  • Cost of car: $13,125 (included title, tags, and registration) 
  • Cash down payment: $7,000
  • Trade in for Escape: $1,500
  • Total of car loan: $4,625

Our car payment is $136 a month, which means we will pay it off in three years. Except that's a pretty low payment for us, so we're aiming to pay it off in half that time. Obviously, I'll keep y'all updated. 

Overall, buying a used car was a good experience for us. I'm sure if we'd looked longer or were "car people," we could have found something cooler/cheaper/better. But we didn't, and we're not, and after thinking long and hard about our goals, lifestyle, budget, and what was available, this car feels like the right fit. Plus it's cute. (Hey, budgeting doesn't have to be practical all the time!)

The only negative (pun obviously intended) is seeing our bank account take a hit. Not only did we spent a large chunk of our savings, we also took on a not-tiny amount of debt. Thanks to YNAB's handy line graph of our net worth, the downward plunge is glaringly obvious. On the bright side, it's great motivation for paying it off as fast as possible.

What kind of car do you drive? Or are you one of those lucky people who are car-free? We used to be a one-vehicle family, but Wilmington is just big enough and our public transportation is just terrible enough that it's hard to get by with one car. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Good Reads From Around the Web

Here are some good reads I've been collecting over the past few weeks. Most of them are about work, food, writing, space, and activism. ✨

photo credit

When the Boss Says, 'Don't Tell Your Coworkers How Much You Get Paid', The Atlantic. 

This is What Happens to Ambition in Your 30s, The Cut. "The female dissatisfaction chronicled by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique was prompted by a widespread awakening to the bullshit promises of domestic happiness, manufactured by culture to make female containment look good. Now another bullshit promise has taken its place, and another generation is waking up."

Surviving This Summer On The Internet, Wired. I took Facebook off my phone a few months ago, and deleted Twitter a little while later. While I still spend plenty of time on social media thanks to my day job, it's harder to access when I'm out in the world or with friends. It's been a good change, and this article does a nice job explaining why. 

A Few Last Words on the Best Spacecraft of Our Lives Before It Dies, Gizmodo. Reading this made me feel sad yet hopeful - a rare combination these days. 

Democracy in North Carolina Could Disappear. Is Your State Next?, Time. "[Republicans] passed aggressive gerrymanders that gave their party 10 of the closely divided state’s 13 congressional seats and super-majorities in both houses of the state legislature. They also sought to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning constituencies — especially African-Americans and young people — by imposing sweeping new voting restrictions, including cutbacks to early voting, strict voter ID requirements and reductions in voter registration opportunities."

23 Vegan Instant Pot Recipes, Buzzfeed. Nathan got me an Instant Pot for my birthday. It's the first new kitchen gadget I've gotten since our wedding five(!) years ago, and I can't wait to make delicious dinners in less than 15 minutes. First experiment on my list: steamed dumplings. Coconut yogurt is a close second.

How I Get It Done: Martha Stewart, The Cut. Is Martha the most productive woman in America? Probably.

The White Lies of Craft Culture, Eater. I love a good local beer as much as (and probably more than) the next person. This article made me think about my choices in a more nuanced way. Here's an excerpt: "[F]or a movement so vocally concerned with where things come from, the proprietors of craft culture often seem strangely uninterested in learning or conveying the stories of the people who first mastered those crafts."

I'm Almost 40 and Still Getting My Stories Rejected. Am I Running Out of Time?, Electric Literature. Spoiler alert: no.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Traveling to the Path of Totality: Boneyard Beach, SC

The first thing you need to know about my husband is that he does not like to do anything the easy way. If there is an opportunity for complicating a process via do-it-yourself ingenuity, or going above and beyond when it is completely not necessary, he's all for it. The North American eclipse on August 21st was no different. 

Nathan was the first person who told me about the eclipse - he started talking about it over a year ago. "No matter what's going on, we're taking that day off," he said. He was very excited because we live just three hours from the Path of Totality, which meant we had the rare chance to see the full show. "Cool," I said. I may have even shrugged. There was a lot going on at the time, and a solar eclipse was the last thing on my mind.  

Fast forward a year, and Nathan has been plotting our trip for months, finally coming up with a perfectly complicated plan. We, along with our friend Chris, would wake at three in the morning on Monday, August 21st. We'd hop into Chris's truck, which would already be loaded up with our kayaks. We'd drive three hours to Awendaw, South Carolina, where there was a boat launch into Bulls Bay. From there, we'd kayak about four miles to the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refugee and land on Bulls Island. After that, it would be a three or four mile hike along a pristine shore to Boneyard Beach, a stretch of sand peppered with trees bleached by the sun and weathered by salty air. Websites refer to this area as "a living Dali painting" which, Nathan insisted, was an ideal location for viewing something as strange and surreal as a solar eclipse.  

Did you catch that? We're talking six hours of driving, eight miles of kayaking, and six or seven miles of hiking. And all this the day after I got back from a week-long trip to see my family in New York. Needless to say, I was less than enthusiastic. 

"Why can't we just stay in Wilmington and watch it?" I asked. "The sun is going to be 96% covered here. Is another 4% really going to make that much of a difference?" 

"I know I'm being a fanatic about this," Nathan said. "But if ever there was a thing to be fanatic about, this is it." 

"Fine," I said. "This eclipse better be worth it." 

Spoiler alert: it was totally worth it. 

Nathan's plan went off without a hitch. We arrived at our destination in South Carolina, sleepy and excited, at about 6:30 in the morning. Already the parking lot of the boat launch was filling with cars and trailers - we were luck to get a spot. A ferry taxied folks over to Bulls Island, while other people took their own boats out on the water. We were one of the only groups with kayaks, and with good reason - it was a long, hard paddle. Thanks to a wrong turn through marshes and inlets, it took us about four hours to reach the island. It was a beautiful day, though - a little overcast, humid but with a nice breeze. When we finally pulled our boats onto shore, my arms cried out in gratitude. 

The walk to Boneyard Beach was easy and pleasant, thanks to a few beers we drank on the way. (Gotta stay hydrated.) When we finally reached the gnarled trees, I definitely felt like I was in a Dali painting, or maybe on the set of Jurassic Park. We found a good spot on the beach among the white branches and upturned roots, went swimming in the warm water, had lunch, and waited for the eclipse to begin. 

Because we were in the very center of the Path of Totality, we would witness three full minutes of total solar eclipse, beginning at 2:43 p.m. At around 1:30 p.m. we could see it beginning with the help of our NASA-approved glasses. One thing that surprised me was how bright the day remained as the moon's shadow closed in on the sun. Even when only a sliver of the sun remained, it was still very clearly day time. I thought the eclipse would happen gradually, the afternoon darkening as time ticked by. Instead it didn't get truly dark until the moment the moon eclipsed the sun, and then it happened almost instantly. We tore off our glasses and watched the sky in awe. We saw it all - the sun's corona a brilliant white circle behind the moon, the solar flares erupting around the edges. To the west of us, heat lightening sparked, making the whole experience even more surreal and beautiful. Because we were on the coast in South Carolina, we were among the last people in America to see the eclipse, which felt significant. A farewell party, honoring it one last time before it disappeared over the ocean. 

And then the shadow moved away, the sun reappeared, and the day grew bright again. Almost as quickly as it had happened, it was over. We hung out for a little while longer, then began the long trek home the same way we'd come, but different than we'd been. 

And for the record, I'm glad Nathan made this trip complicated. Those three miraculous minutes made the whole journey worth it. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

How to Start Freelance Writing

After reading roughly one million personal finance blogs, you begin to hear a common reframe. "A side hustle will help you get out of debt, save for emergencies, and retire early." While I have some issues with the idea of glorifying the side hustle (wouldn't it be great if we all made enough money at our regular full time jobs?) I must admit the truth. Freelancing on the side helped us to wipe our credit card debt, and allows us to successfully live off one income. As it turns out, the best way to make progress on your financial goals is to make more money. 

Related: 5 Ways to Pay Off $13K

A number of people, online and IRL, have asked me for advice on freelancing - how I got started, how to do it successfully, and how to actually make money at it. While every person's experience will be different, I hope my story answers some questions, puts things in perspective, and helps other decide whether the freelance lifestyle is for them. 

How (and Why) I Started Freelancing 

My freelance journey began in late 2013. I was about to start my last year of graduate school and spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do once I'd finally earned that bright and shiny MFA in creative writing. The city where I live doesn't have the best job market, and I wasn't keen on spending 40 hours a week in an office. Instead, I decided I would try to earn my keep as a full time freelance writer. Had I ever written for money before? Not really. Did I have a background in business or marketing? Nope. Was I a good writer? Yes, of course - I wouldn't have scuttled my career and gone into debt for an MFA if I didn't think I was talented. 

I knew that diving in to freelance life the day after I graduated probably wasn't a good idea. It would be better to ramp up slowly, get my feet wet, and figure out what the hell I was doing before my rent depended on my success. Just as I was wondering how to do this, an acquaintance posted to Facebook that a local woman she'd been freelancing for was looking for a new writer, and was anyone interested? I messaged the acquaintance, met with the local woman, and landed my first client. I started working for her in January 2014, ghostwriting 600 word blog posts for small businesses for $50 a pop. It wasn't a lot of money, but it was something. More importantly, it gave me the confidence and the clips I needed to get more work. 

Ramping Up My Freelance Empire 

As graduation loomed, I knew I needed to find more clients. At this point, Google was my best friend. I stalked places where jobs might be posted, such as Craigslist and ProBlogger. I decided early on that my minimum rate was $0.10 a word, which worked out to $50 per 500 words. At this point I was mostly interested in blogging, since I'd been writing on the web for over a decade and felt comfortable in online spaces. As I applied for jobs and read more about what I was trying to do, I discovered the term "content marketing" and realized the career I thought I'd made up was already a real thing. (Want to learn more about content marketing? I highly recommend HubspotContently is also a great resource, and offers slick portfolio services for free - here's mine.) I sent letter of interest to local businesses I liked, telling them I was available for hire and including specific examples of how I could help them increase sales or leads or brand awareness. (I learned a lot of marketing buzzwords, which helped.) And I pitched ideas to all the local print magazines - because I live in a touristy town, we have quite a few. A number of these panned out, which was great. Local publications offer less competition and the pay was better, plus I got to write about things in my own community. 

Early on, I landed what is known as an "anchor client" - a regular gig that made up roughly 50% of my income. I was writing about alcohol for a local startup, and it was an awesome opportunity that I held for nine months. Even though I was only part time, I had office space, company lunches, and all the free wine I could drink. (I can drink a lot.) Between this client, the local woman I was still writing for, my various other assignments, and a class I was teaching at the university, I was making decent money. (Before taxes, that is.) Everything seemed to be going pretty well, and then the inevitable happened. 

Losing My Anchor Client 

Yup. The startup that was filling my pockets and making big promises? They cut the blog I'd been writing and decided to put their marketing dollars elsewhere. No hard feelings - business is business - but my bank account felt otherwise. Losing 50% of my income was pretty devastating, especially since I was still fairly new to freelancing. When I started, I didn't have a cushion built up in my savings account, or an emergency fund I could draw from during lean times. We were living paycheck to paycheck, which is a precarious way to run a business. At this point, I realized how naive I'd been. I assumed my empire would continue to grow, without planning for inevitable setbacks or slow months. You might say it was a wake up call. 

When you're a full time freelancer, you never stop looking for new clients and pitching stories to publications. I kept doing that, but I also started looking for full time jobs in Wilmington. At this point, I had a decent portfolio of work and a good understanding of marketing, which could make up for the fact that I didn't have a background in business or communications. I wasn't giving up exactly, but realizing that freelancing full time is a lot harder than it looks. The constant hustle ate up so much time, and cut into the time I spent on my own, non-paying projects - like writing a novel. I wanted more balance in my life, and working for someone else seemed like a good way to find it. 

Full Time Job + Successful Side Hustle

Reader, I got the job. While I missed many things about freelancing (working from home, making my own schedule, going to yoga in the middle of the day) there were many other things I was glad to leave behind (constantly pitching to new clients, waiting for checks to finally arrive, wondering if I would make enough to pay my rent). The best part, however, was that the freedom of a dependable salary made freelancing on the side so much more enjoyable. Yes, that's right - despite my new job, I kept up my side hustle, and continue to hustle to this day. The difference is that now, I can be picky about the extra work I take on. I only write for publications I really love, like The Billfold, or for those that paid very well, like the local print magazines. If I go on vacation using my hard earned PTO (no such thing for freelancers!) I can take a break from freelance without feeling guilty. 

This balance - the steady job and the side hustle - had been great for both my sanity and my bank account. It keeps my skills sharp and allows me to add to my freelance portfolio, and the extra cash (around $300 to $500 a month) is extremely helpful, especially for long term needs, like a new used car or a Nebraska wedding. Of course, freelance work ebbs and flows. Sometimes I don't have a due date in sight, while other times (like this summer) I'm overworked and stressed out because I took on too much. Finding that balance is (never mind finding time to work on my own projects) is something I'm still working on.

Do you have a side hustle? How much extra does it pull in? Have you figured out how to strike that perfect balance yet? If so, will you share your secrets with me? I could certainly use them.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Learning to Live with Intention

A few weeks ago I turned 35. If we've talked, emailed, tweeted, or chatted recently, you already know that this birthday, more than any other, has sparked a lot of thoughts and ideas. I've been jokingly referring to it as an "existential crisis," but that's not entirely true. I don't feel like I'm in crisis - more like I've reached a moment of reckoning. Despite my lackluster professional career I'm an ambitious person with big dreams, and there's something about 35 that has a distinct "now or never" feeling. 

On the one hand, I know this is dumb. Age is arbitrary, everyone is different, and milestones are, at best, a moving target. Still. This birthday seems to have lit a fire within me, and I'd rather embrace it than question it. Which is why I'm deeming my 35th year as the one in which I learn to live intentionally. 

One of my favorite quotes comes from Annie Dillard, a brilliant writer and fascinating person. Back in grad school, I read The Writing Life and this passage was and remains one of my favorites:
"I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order - willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern."
This quote is shared all the time, by a hundred people a day. Search Google images, and you'll find that central idea - "How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives" - photoshopped onto a countless images of the ocean. As an example, I made one in less than two minutes. Feel free to pin it.

While I like this snippet, it's context of the quote that I find even more powerful. The idea that routine, that scourge of free spirits, is precisely the thing that gives our lives meaning and shape. "A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days." As someone who feels unmoored without her paper to-do list and color coded Google calendar, this is good news.

And here is where I make a confession: despite my penchant for schedules, routines, and plans, I've allowed myself to become lazy. I used to get up early every morning and work on my novel. These last few months I've been sleeping late, hitting snooze until I'm rushing to get to work on time. I used to make mason jar salads every Sunday and eat them for lunch while reading a good library book. Lately, I zap a veggie burger in the office microwave and mindlessly eat it at my desk while scrolling through Twitter. Once upon a time I trained for marathons. These days, it takes all my energy to make it to the YMCA more than twice a week.

So what happened? Nothing specific - just the slow loosening of discipline. An object in motion stays in motion, and I slowed down. Part of it was circumstance. Money had been tight and I've been distracted by finding more freelance work and worry about the future. Part of it was the election, and the feeling that nothing I do actually matters, so why bother. Part of it was a series of rejections and disappointments that took the wind out of my sails. But these are all excuses, and I can see, suddenly and clearly, that they are not good enough.

I want to reclaim those hard won habits, get back on a schedule, and work toward a routine that is productive and affirming and results in good work and good health. Here is what that looks like for me:

  • Wake up early and write. I want to be at my desk by 5:30AM every weekday, armed with a cup of coffee and ready to write. The mornings are my most creative time, and too often I squander them by staying up late to watch one more episode of a show, drinking one more glass of wine, or laying in bed and scrolling through Twitter for an extra half hour when I should be falling asleep. To avoid these road blocks, I'm going to limit alcohol during the week, go to bed by 9:30PM, and sleep with my phone in another room. As my dear friend Nicola said, "I can end my 30s well rested, or with a published book." I choose book. 

  • Read more books. I am firm believer in the idea that reading good books is a key part of writing good books. So far, 2017 has been a slow reading year for me - I'm only at 17 books. There are currently 19 weeks left in the year, so my goal from now until December is to read 15 more. This is not an impossible goal - especially if it encourages me to watch less television, stop squandering lunch breaks, and unplug from social media. Three birds, one stone.

  • Get into fighting shape. A few years ago, a favorite blogger talked about the idea of "fighting shape" as a baseline level of fitness at which we feel good and capable and strong. I love this idea. These days I see fitness less as an exercise in vanity, and more as a way to ensure I'm capable of achieving my goals. When I'm fit and strong, and think more clearly, feel more optimistic, and have more energy for my goals. Lately, "fighting shape" has taken on a new layer - I want to be strong, mentally and physically, for the good of my inner life, but also for my outer life. In the last year or so, that includes the ongoing resistance against racism, bigotry, and white nationalism. This year I will get back to that place and make myself stronger so I can do more and help more. 

That's pretty much it. While this list of intentions may seem short, I'll have to work hard to maintain focus and momentum. And that's okay. I'm building "a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time." I am ready and willing and excited to change.