Monday, October 16, 2017

5 Frugal Things: Back on Track

Camping at Carolina Beach State Park = Good, Cheap Fun

Apparently starting a fancy, brand new job means there is even less time for blogging than usual. Sorry for my silence these last few weeks! The good news is that I've settled into my new role and as a result I feel more energized about every area of my life. Exercise? Killing it. Writing? Every morning. Dinner? A masterpiece. It's amazing how fixing one part of your life improves everything. A rising tide, right? 

Even though I haven't been blogging regularly, I remain frugal and budget-minded. We took on some debt recently and after paying off our credit cards, seeing our net worth sink was not a good feeling. The current goal is get out of the red as fast as possible, which means continuing to live like I did not just get a big raise. That should be pretty easy, to be honest. Frugality is a habit and we've been practicing for pretty much our whole lives. Which brings us to these most recent frugal accomplishments. 

1. Chased down a freelance check. 

I am still committed to cutting way back on freelance work, but before that change took hold I did one last big project for a friend of a friend of a friend. It only kind of wanted to do it, so I gave a pretty high quote for the work, thinking they wouldn't be able to afford me. Apparently their budget was bigger than mine, so off I went. Of course, the hardest part of freelance is actually getting the check, and it took a few polite reminders until they finally acknowledged my invoice. I put the money straight into savings, which we had to dip into for the down payment on my car, and that was a big help. 

2. Wrote our booze budget on the fridge. 

While I am still fully committed to YNAB and check it multiple times a day, my husband remains supportive but hands-off. Like, he'll tell people how great YNAB is and how it changed our lives, but he does not open the app and look at our categories. Since the only thing he ever buys is beer and/or wine, I started jotting our booze budget balance on the dry erase board in the kitchen where I plan our weekly meals. So far, it is appearing to keep him in line. (Except for when he slips extra 1s and 0s in the total posted. I see you, Nathan.) 

3. Joined The Produce Box. 

For the last year or so, my good friend Kat has been getting her veggies via a weekly subscription to The Produce Box (<-- my referral link). It's basically a CSA, but the food comes from a variety of North Carolina farms and is delivered to your doorstep once a week. I haven't done the math, and it's almost certainly more expensive then just buying the same items at the grocery store, but I'm considering it a frugal win for a few reasons. First, when you eat 95% of your meals at home, it's easy to lose your cooking mojo, fall into a rut, and order a pizza. By getting a box of fresh ingredients each week, I feel excited and motivated to cook them. Second, budgets aren't just about spending less. They're about making sure you spend your money mindfully, in a way that aligns with your morals. Supporting small farms, getting produce locally, and eating veggies when they're in season makes me feel good about my choices and healthier, too. Plus my monthly grocery budget hasn't gone up as a result, so it's a win all around. 

4. Paid off a small debt. 

About a year ago, I went to a chiropractor three times a week, for three months. My back had been bothering me for a while, and in a moment of desperation I got roped into an extensive and expensive treatment plan. Even though I stopped going months ago, I've continued to make monthly payments. I'm still not sold on chiropractic care (even though I must admit my back has been much better ever since) but I definitely felt the pain each time that automatic withdrawal hit. Which is why I'm so happy that I just made my last payment. Now I can put that money toward other things... like paying off my car faster. 

5. Enjoyed free snacks at work. 

The best part of my new job is that we have a fully stocked kitchen filled with all types of healthy snacks that are free for the taking. String cheese. Chobani yogurt. Snapea crisps. Luna bars. An espresso machine! As someone who lives for snacks and hates spending money, taking advantage of these freebies has been a wonderful and delicious perk. 

That's it for me! I'm hoping to get back to blogging once a week, so stay tuned for more adventures in the life of a late bloomer on a budget. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

How Learning to Budget Helped Me Get a New Job

Those who follow me on Instagram and Twitter have already figured out the news. For those who prefer blog posts, I'm happy to share it here as well: I got a new job! 

It all started with my budget. No, really. As you're probably well aware because I never shut up about it, I began using YNAB in May 2016 to manage my money, slay my debt, and become a budgeting superstar. (Want a referral code? Here you go.) The YNAB method, in which you give every dollar a job and budget to zero, helped me understand how far my money actually went.

At first this was thrilling. In the past, managing my money amounted to putting out fires and occasionally getting scorched. With YNAB, I was able to make decisions about how to spend my money in advance, stockpiling kindling for a controlled burn. (And with that, I believe this 🔥 metaphor is finished. Thank goodness.) 

Once our immediate emergencies (like paying off $13K in credit card debt and learning to live on one income) were handled, we started to look ahead. And the future... well... it didn't look great. Sure, my husband was back in school with the hopes of eventually landing a lucrative career, but my earning potential had stalled out. To make up the difference, I picked up a lot of freelance work this past year. While the extra cash kept us from dipping into our savings, it wasn't sustainable - I was stressed out, overworked, and constantly juggling deadlines. Plus my own writing, which is incredibly important to me, suffered from lack of time and attention. A few months ago I realized that the side hustle lifestyle, despite the way it's glorified and celebrated, simply wasn't for me. I didn't want to hack my paycheck or monetize my free time. What I wanted was a job that paid enough, so I started looking for one.

Job hunting, as I'm sure you know, is not a pleasant process. Everyone says that it's easier to find a job when you already have one, but I beg to differ. When you're already working 40 hours a week it's really hard to find the time and the motivation to pick through job boards, rewrite your cover letter, schedule screening calls, attend interviews, and write sample articles. (I was applying for marketing and content writing jobs.) Needless to say, my job search was a long and slow process, with a lot of false starts and shattered hopes. And then a really good opportunity opened up right here in Wilmington. The company is growing by leaps and bounds, a bunch of my friends already work there, the benefits are AMAZING, and the job description sounded as if it was written just for me. I applied. I interviewed. And reader - I got the job.

Today is my first day as the Content and Social Media Specialist at a company that bills itself as the "worldwide leader in cloud banking." This position is in-house so, unlike the marketing agency where I previously worked, I only have one client to focus on. This will allow me to pitch more ambitious campaigns, all while taking a deep dive into the fintech world, carving out a niche for myself, and working for a company that truly values its employees.

I'm grateful today for a lot of reasons, not least of which is YNAB. Budgeting my money showed me its value, which in turn made me question my own. If I wasn't so in tune to my finances I might not have realized how much I was worth, or found the motivation to make more.

When was the last time you started a new job? Any tips for my first week? I don't love being the new person, but my company seems really good at onboarding new hires and preparing them for success. Another awesome bonus! 

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.