Know Your Spending Triggers

Y’all, it’s been a spendy month, and it’s not even over until Thursday.

I had a lot of expenses pop up this month. Some planned, some unplanned. And the biggest one is yet to come–on Wednesday, I have an appointment at the DMV to register my car and switch my license over. I’ve used the online calculator on the DMV website, and it’s going to cost a pretty penny. Or about 30,000 pretty pennies. 

I’ve gone over on my grocery budget for this month as well. Last month, I was officially diagnosed with IBS, so I’ve been trying to live that low-FODMAP life. I’m a vegetarian, and protein has always been a challenge for me; now, however, it’s even worse, because I’ve discovered my triggers include beans and soy (and eggs, which I already knew about). So, this month I’ve been investing in more yogurt and pea protein powders, protein bars, etc. than I usually would consume, in an effort to meet my protein goals while also not feeling like my stomach is going to explode (fun!). 

I also got my first haircut in about two years, which put me back about $108*. I got my hair cut at the mall–which was a BIG MISTAKE. BIG. HUGE.

Julia Roberts calling me out for getting my hair cut at the mall.

I’ve been needing a couple new sweaters for work, so I figured I’d just pop into a few places to see if I could find any I liked. Well, I needed socks too (I told myself), so I got a pair of those. And I don’t really go to the mall that much (or, really, ever), so I guess I might as well stop by Sephora while I was in the neighborhood and get a new eyebrow pencil. My eyeliner is a little low as well, so I might as well pick up some more of that too…

You can see where this is going. Please, learn from my mistakes.

If we want to save money, it’s important for us to know our own triggers. 

I have two main triggers that I’m aware of. The first is plunking down a large chunk of money at once, especially at the beginning of the day or month. The second is ‘being in the neighborhood.’

Let’s address the first one. If I spend a lot of money at once, it’s like a switch gets flipped in my brain. I’ve already been bad by spending more money than I had intended; so, at that point, I might as well be as bad as I want to. After spending $108 on a haircut, what’s the matter with throwing $12 at an eyebrow pencil? Additionally, knowing that I’m going to have a big expense at some point in the month–for example, a cool $350 for everything associated with getting my car registered–seems to throw me off the savings track as well. Instead of keeping me ‘good’ for the rest of the month, my brain has gone into ‘fuck it’ mode. ‘Well, fuck it, I’m already spending more than I want to this month, I might as well get X, Y, Z.’ 

Being ‘in the neighborhood’ is also an excuse that I’ve used to much recently. I go through stages of being a hermit locked up in my apartment spending all my time watching Netflix, followed by highly productive phases of going out on long hikes, visiting friends, getting errands done, etc. When I’m in my hermit mode (which is probably default mode, if I’m being totally honest), I’ll start my day or weekend with the best of intentions of hitting up the grocery store after work or finally going to get an oil change. However, by the time work is over or I’m done at the gym, I usually want to go home. I’ll put it off for another day, I say to myself, and weeks go by without me going anywhere unless I have an appointment. I’ve been needing a new eyebrow pencil for a couple weeks now; I haven’t purchased one because I would have to make a special trip for it. However, because I was in the neighborhood, I went ahead and bought one. But then I thought to myself, when will I really be at the mall again? I’m in the neighborhood, so I might as well pick up x, y, z…

Me vs. Sephora, on a bad day.

That’s when whims turn into losses. I’m definitely an advocate of combining errands to save time, money, and fuel, but not when those ‘errands’ turn into ‘grazing,’ a behavior which comes out in full force when I don’t make a list. 

Being in the neighborhood also causes problems in my more extroverted phases. If I’m out and about and find myself close to Trader Joe’s (which is across town from me), I’ll just pop in because I like their english muffins and cheap coffee. I did this the other day, when I was getting my smog check. However, I didn’t really need to buy groceries. I would have been perfectly fine if I had waited until my regular weekend shopping trip. But I was thinking of a mindset of time scarcity–well, I don’t know if I’ll have time to go later, so if I’m in the neighborhood, I can get these things now. Even if I didn’t need english muffins, because I still had half a loaf of bread at home. 

These are just a few examples of my spending triggers. By identifying my issues, I can be more mindful of them in the future. 

In the instance of my car, if I know I’m going to have to spend that much money on such a purchase, perhaps I should consider putting it in a separate account and saving up over time instead of taking it all at once. If I know I’m going to have to make one major purchase in a month, I should consider scheduling other major purchases for the next month. And if I find myself just in the neighborhood, I should reflect on my purchases–do I really need more english muffins, or am I just buying them because I’m feeling a false moment of scarcity provided by locational opportunity? This is where sticking with a list, and with set grocery shopping days, comes in handy.

So how bad was this month, really? Although I haven’t registered the car yet, according to my calculations, I should still technically be in the black for the month, and I’ve already made my trifecta payments. However, if I want to save more for my future, I need to get my spending (and my reactions to my triggers!) under control. 

What are your spending triggers, and how do you avoid them? Feel free to let me know in the comments!

* I just want to say that this was totally worth it, though. The lady who cut my hair did a lovely job, and I’m really glad I don’t have the hair of a neglected third-grader anymore. 

Reallocating, or, Changing Your Spending Plan Categories

When you first start reading about personal finance, there are several big pieces of advice that you’re given to follow: pay off high-interest consumer debt, create an emergency fund, and invest in your 401k (especially if it comes with an employer match–free money, baby!). 

But what do we do when our financial reality changes, and it seems that we’ve possibly met some of our goals already? How do we choose how to change our spending plans?

Much like this chimp, I have some thinking to do. Image from pexels.com.

I recently took a look at my spending plan to tweak my in-case-of-emergency expense totals. In the event that I am laid off, how much money would I need to support myself, and what expenses would be sacrificed first?

There are some obvious ones–goodbye, climbing gym membership and Netflix–but there are some other expenses that aren’t as straightforward. For example, my housing is tied to my job. The organization I work for owns the building in which I live, which means I get to live in a studio in a HCOL area that costs about 2/3 of what rent would be if I paid market rental rates. This works for me as long as I keep this job. However, if I get laid off or choose to leave this job, I have 30 days to move. 

My current emergency account is calculated based off of keeping this apartment. However, if I were laid off from my current job, I know I wouldn’t want to look for another one in this area. No offense to all of you who absolutely love the south bay, but I haven’t exactly fallen in love with the area–I miss the Rocky Mountains, and snow, and not having to take more than one flight to see my family. None of my family lives in the area, and I have no “deep connections” to anyone or anything here–as such, if I lose this job, I would just move somewhere cheaper. 

At my current rent, I have 4.93 months of expenses covered. But is my monthly rate even accurate, if I would move anyway? Do I need to calculate at my current rental rate, or could I calculate at a lower one? 

More importantly, what would I do if I lost my job right now?

That’s pretty easy. I already have a ticket to Germany for December; I’d probably max the 30 days in my apartment here while putting in as many job applications as possible, throw all our furniture into monthly storage, and then fly out to the east coast to hang out with my family* for a month before heading to Germany to see my partner. And if I didn’t have a job by then–either back to mom’s to help her prepare her house to sell, or maybe spend some time job hunting while traveling in some low-cost locations.

Long story short, I had several numbers in my head. The first was six months of living expenses at my current rate. The second, which was higher, was $15,000. Why 15k? It covers a little over six months of my expenses, is enough to buy a new-to-me car if my 2007 Yaris decides to finally call it quits, and, frankly, it just seems like a nice big round number. But is that excessive, and is there a better way in which I could be using my paychecks? I’m currently throwing all this into a high-yield savings account, but at 1.8%, it’s not exactly the ideal place to make my money work for me. Additionally, I’m already on track to max out my IRA contributions for the year. So where should it go?

The way I see it, I have three main choices: put this money toward student loans, retirement, or invest. 

Student loans seems like it should be the obvious choice. I have over $40k of student loan debt at an average interest rate of 6.3%. As many financial advice books say, paying off student loans early is a guaranteed return–I won’t be losing any money, and I’ll have to pay these off eventually. At the current interest rate, though, it’s hard to decide–is my rate low enough to make me comfortable paying through the full 10 years, because the gains I would make in my other accounts would be more? Or would the money I lose to interest eat up anything I would make elsewhere? 

But there’s the psychological effect too–this $42k is hanging over my head, dragging me down and making me feel like I am in a financial panic, even though I know, logically, that I am not. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m pretty high strung, so maybe the sense of relief that would come with removing this debt faster would be worth the potential losses in other accounts. 

Another place my money could go is into retirement. I currently have a 401(a) retirement account with my employer. I do not receive any matching; they just give me 10% of each paycheck into that account. As long as I stay for two years, all that money is mine. I do, however, have the option of also starting a 403(b) account. This would use pretax money, so not only would I save for retirement, I would also lower my taxable income (which would be great, because, as I’m discovering, CA has a shit-ton of taxes–the highest income tax in the nation, to be exact). I just have to be comfortable knowing I can’t touch this money for about 27 years–although retirement savings is a long game, is it not?

Finally, this money could go into a non-retirement investment account. I would love to FIRE or FIOR, and an account like this would let me withdraw money before 59.5 without any penalties. As such, I could invest and know that I could access this money at any time. However, with that freedom also comes responsibility–namely, things like tax-loss harvesting and capital gains tax and a bunch of other shit that I have no idea what it is. Even though I keep trying to read more books, I still have no idea what I’m doing. So the thought of investing in an account like this still seems very overwhelming. I’ll get to that point… one day. But right now, I have a lot of other things on my plate to deal with. 

Besides, I have my Roth IRA. And though I know I shouldn’t touch that money until 59.5, knowing that I can access the deposits I’ve put into it, in case of emergency, does make me feel a little better. 

So what should I do? Loans, retirement, or non-retirement investments? 

I’m going to open a 403(b) for half of my emergency fund money, and put the other half toward student loans. I guess I just want to have my cake and eat it, too.

Realistically, though–with my interest rate, it’s hard to make a confident call. And although paying off my student loans early would give me some sort of psychological comfort, I would also have to face the reality that I put my retirement savings on hold, so when my loans are paid off, I wouldn’t have anything left to show for it. 

I currently have $500 going toward my emergency fund–I still plan on funneling $100/month toward it, but $200 will now go to a 403(b) and the other $200 will go to my student loans. This $200, plus my 401(a) money, plus my IRA, puts me at retirement savings of about 29% of my take-home pay. And $200 added to my current student loan spending plan amount is about $750, or about 150% of my estimated required payment**. I’ll be able to make a payment and a half each month. 

The whole point of this post is realizing that your financial goals may change–and that’s ok! Checking all your accounts every day might not be the healthiest thing to do, but every once in a while, you should look at your accounts, look at your numbers, and ask yourself: What would I do if I got fired this instant? 

See how you answer that question, and adjust your financial goals accordingly. 

* I recognize that the ability to just say I would go hang out with my mom is definitely a privilege–a lot of people don’t have that as a viable option, either because they don’t have any living family, or they have a bad relationship with their family, or their family simply couldn’t help support them. However, not only would my mom be absolutely thrilled to have me back for a little bit, but she would also get a bunch of labor from me in regards to cleaning and fixing the garage, painting, helping put down new carpet, etc. etc. etc. 

** This payment is estimated because my loans are still in their grace period. I graduated in June but won’t be required to make payments until January. However, I’ve used some calculators to estimate what my payment will be and have already budgeted for it/started paying these loans back. Once January rolls around, I’ll know the actually payment amount, and maybe consider refinancing with a lower interest rate.

No More Using the ‘B’ Word, or, Changing the Language Around My Spending Plan

For the past two years, I’ve kept a budget.

And by budget, I mean a breakdown of all my monthly expenses, their estimated costs, and lists of every single purchase I’ve made. These lists include information such as date of purchase, whether it was paid for via credit or debit, and whether or not it was in the budget. I also keep a tally of how much money I put each month toward student loans, savings, retirement plans, groceries, and gas, and recently have started listing every single grocery item I buy. If you asked me what I bought on July 11, 2018, how much it cost, and how I paid for it, I could tell you (shitty toll for when I accidentally missed my exit and the highway turned into a toll road, $8.30, credit card)

However, I’ve recently been thinking that the word “budget” just feels too… restrictive. Not restrictive enough to make me stop spending money sometimes (some consumer goods transcend issues of semantics, apparently), but restrictive enough to make me feel like I’ve done something wrong if I spend money outside of my planned monthly bills. 

Some personal finance gurus would say that I have, in fact, done something wrong. Every dollar should be accounted for, and each one of these “little green men” should be put to work. The work could be in a savings account gaining 1.80% interest (thanks for lowering the rate again, Ally) or being used to decrease my student loan debt. The reality is I have hobbies, and I like to spend money on them. I can be interested in personal finance AND make art, damn it!

In the words of Walt Whitman, I am large! I contain multitudes!!!

Does this count as a hobby? Image from pexels.com.

If I want to spend $20 on some new paints and brushes, I shouldn’t have to beat myself up for it. After all, if I don’t cultivate my hobbies now, what the hell am I going to do when I hit my FIRE goal? An article in the Wall Street Journal from earlier this year describes how not having a solid out-of-work life can affect workers when they retire: “Without the purpose of fulfilling work, retirees can feel adrift and become depressed. Without the camaraderie of their co-workers, retirees risk becoming socially isolated. Without the intellectual stimulation that work can provide, retirement can accelerate cognitive decline,” (Although I have to point out this article is from the Wall Street Journal, who probably has a vested interest in squeezing every last drop out of worker bees as possible…).

I think there’s a point between being financial savvy and completely losing your sense of self. 

And if keeping my sense of self requires supplies so I can make art, then I am damn well going to spend that $20. Besides, I’m investing in hours of entertainment and pleasure. 

And I’m not throwing myself completely out the window financially, either. I have my savings accounted for in this spending plan. My trifecta–$500 to my IRA, $500 to savings, and $550 to student loans–is automatically taken out at the beginning of every month. These amounts, combined with the $1351 I spend on rent for my 400 sq ft studio, account for 66.5% of my take-home pay. And that $500 in savings doesn’t include the $100/month I’ve planned to cover any travel expenses; I bookmark this money to go into a special account every month, so when I want to take a trip, I don’t have to feel guilty about using it.

(Although I just bought an $1850 ticket to Germany to visit my partner over Christmas, and having the money in a separate fund didn’t make me feel less anxious about it. Now that the initial band-aid has been ripped off, though, it’s not so bad.) 

All in all, I’m not doing that bad. My spending plan is comprehensive enough that it covers all my bills, including the ones that vary from month-to-month. And I have a tendency to grossly overestimate those, too. For example, it currently costs about $35 to fill up my 2007 Yaris here in CA. I have budgeted $70/month, or two tanks, for gas. However, since I walk to work, I use very little gas. Most of my driving involves going to the gym, a park to hike, or to Oakland to visit my best friend; as such, I very rarely meet that $70. 

However, if I lowered it to the true average–$35–but spent more than that, I would feel as though I had committed some horrible crime against myself. I would be something that I find inexcusable–an irresponsible person

I may be irresponsible in some aspects of my life, but finance is not one of them.

(At least not now, anyway, since I’ve learned how to handle money.) 

And some expenses that would have been labeled as “Out of Budget” on my previous spending plan are actually expenses that (a) I can afford and (b) genuinely make my life, and the lives of others, better. For example, I recently got accepted as a volunteer at a large animal nonprofit in my area. And by large, I mean there’s a volunteer force of over 1000 people. These volunteers all need training (and t-shirts) in order to volunteer with this organization. As such, volunteers are requested to pay $40 when they undergo training. I very happily paid this $40 (plus an extra $10 donation), because I want to help with this organization and I’ll have my time occupied doing something I enjoy for three hours a week for at least the next six months. And if I want to continue my tenure, I can do so without being re-trained. For me, this $40 is an investment that will greatly enrich my life (not to mention allow me to finally love on some animals without violating the terms of my lease). 

This may not have been budgeted, but it does not break my budget. 

So, in sum, I’m changing my budget-based vocabulary to one that frames my money situation as a spending plan

This is how I plan to spend the majority of my money. And as long as I utilize my money in accordance with my spending plan, then I can do whatever the hell I want to with the rest. And what does that look like?
Some months it might all go into savings or student loans. Some months, like this month, it will go toward car registration and a dang haircut. And some months I might spend an extra $20 on fucking paint, because my sanity and joy is worth it. And that’s totally OK.

How Your Local Library Can Help on Your Path to FIRE

A big part of achieving FIRE is lowering your monthly expenses to a point where it would be sustainable to live off of your portfolio earnings/passive income. However, many of us have hobbies that we love, and part of being able to pursue those hobbies includes buying supplies for them. Do you love reading? There’s a good chance you love buying new (or new-to-you) books. Do you love building things? I bet there’s a Craftsmen set that you’re just waiting to go one sale. Do you love knitting? New circular needles would really take the crafts you make to the next level…

The list goes on and on. 

The good news is you don’t have to continue buying the tools for these hobbies. How so? 

Visit your local library.

Stacks on stacks on stacks. Image from pexels.com.

To me, this seems like obvious advice. I grew up poor, and as previously mentioned, one of my favorite free outings was going to our local library, getting cozy in some bean bags, and flipping through Calvin and Hobbes comic books (even though I didn’t quite understand the philosophical undertones when I was seven). The library was a part of my childhood.

However, this isn’t true for everyone. Some people may not have had access to libraries when they were growing up–time, transportation, or distance may not have made it possible to visit the library in person. Additionally, people may not have been part of a family in which going to the library was seen as a great way to pass the time. Or perhaps their families didn’t know about all the great free services the library provides. 

Someone recently posted on reddit that they didn’t realize joining their library was free*. They thought they had to pay and were shocked that they could just go in and borrow a book without money exchanging hands. Well, I’m here to tell you. Libraries are full of free stuff that they want you to take advantage of!

And there’s more than just books. 

Libraries these days are vibrant places that offer a number of resources and services to their uses. My local library offers the following physical items available for check-out:

  • Video games
  • DVDs
  • Magazines
  • Book Club Kits
  • Laptops
  • Museum passes
  • Seeds for your garden
  • Tools
  • Fitbits

Before I made this post, I didn’t even realize they had Nintendo 3DS games! The Nintendo 3DS is the only video game system I have, and I bought it several years ago. In my current stage of life, I have a hard time justifying spending money on video games (especially when that money should be going toward student loans). However, now I can finally try out Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, because they have it at my local library! Now I don’t have to have some weird guilt-ridden discussion with my inner self about whether or not spending $20 on a game is an irresponsible idea. THANKS, LIBRARY!

I also didn’t know that we have seeds! Unfortunately, I don’t have any gardening space at the moment; but if I move somewhere else in this area, I’ll definitely take advantage of the seed program. All you have to do is write down in the binder what seeds you took, and if your plants are successful, you save a few seeds from your plants and bring them back to replace what you used. Hooray for sustainability and empowering communities to grow their own food (which can also help on your path to FIRE)!

They offer classes and services, too. 

Interested in learning something new? There’s probably a class for that. In addition to ESL and Citizenship classes, my local library offers free access to Mango Languages, an online language-learning program (which is great, because I am still trying to learn German. Am I good at it yet? Nein.). Want to learn how to research your family tree? Take a genealogy class (and get free access to Ancestry.com!). My neighborhood library also offers financial literacy classes and fitness classes!

Want to learn how to create a dang virtual reality (VR) experience? THEY MIGHT HAVE A CLASS FOR THAT! At least, my library does, although we are located in Silicon Valley so that probably helps. But your library might have something similar! I’ll be going this weekend to learn how to leverage Unity and other VR programs to create my own VR experiences (time to make my own google cardboard!). 

For those of you with kids, the library also provides a number of programs to keep you and your little one engaged and having fun. For instance, my local library has storytimes, teen craft nights, children and teen book clubs, and, from what I observed on my last visit, some kind of mommy and me yoga situation.

You don’t even have to go in person to take advantage of the library. 

Most libraries offer access to ebooks that you can download to your e-reader or read online. Many also have subscriptions with audio book services, so you can drop that $15/month Audible subscription and listen to books for free from your library. Some libraries allow for unlimited audiobook downloads, while others may limit to four or five a month. 

Will you have to wait sometimes? Yes. I’ve been on the waitlist for Michelle Obama’s Becoming for several months now. But that just makes me more excited to read it–anticipation is everything. And, frankly, there are way more books I want to read than I have the money to buy. Waiting is a small price to pay for unlimited access to any book I could ever want. 

Many libraries also offer access to some kind of streaming service, such as Kanopy or Hoopla. These streaming services provide free access to hundreds of documentaries, audio books, movies, and musical albums. Some libraries don’t even require you to go in person to sign up for these services–you can register online! 

If there’s something you’re interested in, there’s a good chance your library can hook you up with the right resources, without you paying a dime. 

If you haven’t paid a visit to your local library recently, I strongly encourage you to do so. There’s a wealth of resources, and all you need to do to access them is sign-up**.

*Although many libraries are funded with taxpayer money, so you’re already paying for it a little bit anyway!

**Some libraries require some sort of proof-of-residency, like a utility bill or photo ID with your address. However, I’ve never had to verify my information at any of the libraries I’ve signed up at in the last five years. Policies vary from library to library!

Ignoring Common Money-Saving Tips, or Things I’m Not Willing to Compromise On

A big part of the FI movement is streamlining your expenses and finding ways to increase your savings rate by either (a) increasing your income or (b) drastically reducing the amount of money you spend*. You should locate all the fat in your budget and trim it, leaving only the absolute essentials and squirreling away the rest into your FIRE fund. Common tips for doing this include things like cancelling monthly subscriptions, splitting rent costs, moving, getting side hustles, etc. Could I be incorporating some of those things into my life? Yes. Am I willing to consider some of those things? Honestly, no. 

Fancy gym memberships should be the first to go. BUT I JUST CAN’T QUIT YOU. Image from pexels.com.

Here are three things I’m not willing to compromise in order to achieve FI faster: 

Living without Roommates

Right now, I live alone, and I intend to keep it that way. I do have a serious romantic/life partner, but he is currently out of the country living his dreams, etc., which means he is not available to live with me and, erego, split my rent in half. Eventually, two will become one again, and rent will be easier to pay. As it is, I am living on my own.

I am not willing to compromise on that.

Here’s the thing: I have IBS. And what that means is that I use the bathroom a lot. Sometimes I have to use the bathroom very suddenly. And if someone strolls into the bathroom to take a nice long shower and get ready for their big night out, it can create a very uncomfortable situation for me. And while I (apparently) don’t mind explaining my embarrassing situations to strangers on the internet, I’m not looking to go into roommate interviews and having to reveal all the secrets of my bowels just to have people choose another roommate anyway because my bodily functions gross them out. 

Maybe if there was a situation in which I could have my own bathroom, I would consider getting a roommate. However, I also hate people and love quiet and cleanliness, so as far as keeping stress levels low, it’s not ideal. And while I live in a HCOL area, my current apartment is subsidized by my employer, which means I am essentially saving nearly the same amount as what I would save if I had a roommate, give or take a hundred bucks a month.

To me, the extra hundo is worth the peace of mind.

Once my lease runs out, and if I don’t get a renewal, I might be singing a different tune. But I have until June to worry about that. 

My Gym Membership

My gym membership is approximately $100/month, which I know may seem like an astronomically frivolous expense to a lot of people. However, it’s a specialty gym–a climbing gym. Climbing is one of my favorite hobbies, and other than hiking (which is difficult to fit in after a full eight to nine hour day at work), is pretty much the only real ‘active’ activity that I do to stay in shape. Gym memberships are often listed as one of the first things that should be axed when slimming down your budget (and, indeed, if I lost my job, would be something I would consider taking off), and it’s usually accompanied with such reasoning as (a) you can work out anywhere, (b) running is free, (c) there’s probably a park or somewhere with pull-up bars that you can just hop on and get in shape, and (d) you’re not really going that much anyway.

While those are all valid points, they don’t translate well to climbing. The only way to truly get better at climbing is to climb. There are definitely a lot of add-on and cross-training activities that can be accomplished–hang-boarding, pull-ups, etc.–but to be active in the sport, one needs to either have enough free time to go outdoors several times a week or keep their muscles moving indoors on plastic rocks. 

Additionally, I don’t really love basic workouts. I get bored. I have to watch a movie on the elliptical, because if I don’t, I just keep counting down every second until I can stop. And if I haven’t had fun climbing first, I’m not motivated to just go into the gym and hop on the treadmill or do my pull-ups. Climbing provides me with a mental puzzle to solve in order to successfully complete the exercise. And because I’m vain and want to solve all these puzzles**, I’ll try really hard to do it. 

What it boils down to is this:

  1. Climbing is fun
  2. I will not work out unless it is fun
  3. Erego, if I do not have the opportunity to do some climbing, I will probably not be very motivated to work out

One way to view the gym membership is as an investment–I’m making an investment in my current and future health, which will hopefully pay off by reducing the chance of any major medical issues that can be prevented by keeping myself in shape.***

Moving to a LCOL Area

Another way which is touted as a route to FIRE is moving to a LCOL area. However, this is not possible with all jobs–and my job in particular. I work in an education-adjacent not-for-profit sector, and jobs that pay as well as my current one are few and far between. If I moved to a low cost of living area, I would possibly be able to accomplish the same savings rate by percentage, but I would have far less money to save. My partner’s job is also relatively location-dependent–he’s studying language and cultural/refugee issues, and if he would like to actively pursue employment related to those fields, we’ll probably end up back in NY or DC (although he says he doesn’t mind going back to teaching, but once again, teachers make very different salaries in different places). If we moved before July 2021, I’d also lose my 10% retirement from my employer (it’s not even a match–they just give me 10% once I meet two years, back-dated to my first pay period. They just give it to me!!!!) and I’d have to pay back the $4,000 in moving money they reimbursed me. So, a move would currently cost us about $19,000 before we even shipped a single chair. 

I also have big expenses that I don’t want to compromise on–for example, my student loans. Once my grace period ends in January , I will have to start paying around $500/month to pay these off (although I’m making estimated monthly payments now). If I move to a LCOL area and make less money, I could change my repayment plan to be income-based, but I don’t want to spend 20 years paying off what could be paid off in nine. Additionally, while my debt amount feels high to me, it’s not high enough to grant me the freedom-after-twenty-years-of-payment perks that income-based repayment plans (IBRP) offer, nor am I confident that Public Service Loan Forgiveness will exist in ten years (nor do I want to limit myself to only working at nonprofits for a decade in the hope that one day the government will forgive my loans). 

Additionally, moving to a LCOL area generally involves some sort of compromise in regards to public transit and walkability. Right now, I can walk to work, to the grocery store, to a movie theater and mall (not that I go to the mall that often, but whatever), several bars and restaurants, etc. This means I use my car much less. Even though gas in California is currently over $4.00/gallon, I only spent $35 on it last month. I drive to the gym and to go hiking. That’s about it. And that’s something I would have to compromise if I moved. 

For now, staying put is worth it.  The benefits described above–the solace that comes with living alone, the health benefits (physical and mental!) gained from my gym membership, and the salary and perks of my current job–outweigh the potential benefits by compromising on these three issues. While I believe its important to plan for my future, I know that it shouldn’t come at a sacrifice to my current mental health.

How about you? Are there certain measures that may make you reach your FIRE number quicker, but would seriously compromise your quality of life? Feel free to share in the comments.

*A combination of both is usually advocated, but one is usually easier to accomplish than the other.

**And there’s definitely some self-esteem issues combined with wanting to smash the patriarchy and gender norms in here, etc. etc. etc. I AM SMART AND STRONG AND I CAN DO IT, SO GET OUT OF MY WAAAYYY!!!!
***Please note that this is a very able-bodied viewpoint. Not everyone has the ability to work-out, sign up for a gym, etc., and not going to the gym is a totally valid lifestyle, etc. etc. etc. For a much better/more eloquent exploration of the intersection between FIRE, personal finance, perceived health issues, and fat-shaming/fat-phobia, please view this excellent post on Owning the Stars titled ‘The FIRE Movement’s Fatphobia Problem.

Open Grocery – September 2019

Welcome to the first post in a series titled Open Grocery!

I love this photo because it was described as ‘Cabbage, Up Close.’ Image from pexels.com.

Once a month, near the beginning of the month, I will post my entire grocery bill from the previous month–including a breakdown of every grocery food purchase I made during the month and whether or not it was on sale and/or I had a coupon. There are two main reasons why I want to do this.

I want to keep myself accountable in regards to budget. Currently, I have a budget of $200/month for my own grocery needs. In theory, this amount should be more than enough to cover my diet. However, sometimes I have a tendency to slip novelty items into my cart–for example, fruit bars or cookies–that don’t directly correlate to a healthy diet. I don’t feel like I need to cut these items out entirely (everyone should have a cookie now and then!), but I think it would be interesting to see just how much I’m spending on them. This budgetary concern also includes accidentally buying damaged products–but more on that later.

Additionally, I thought it would be a great exercise in seeing how much it actually costs to feed a single human being* in a month. Frankly, the $200/month I have budgeted is probably excessive, given my actual nutritional needs. It would be an interesting experience to see how low I can get my bill while still meeting all my dietary concerns. Also, as of February 2019, the maximum monthly allotment for SNAP for a household of one is $194–I think it would be a useful exercise to see just how you can stretch that amount.

For the sake of transparency, here are some things that may make my bill different than yours:

  1. I don’t have high caloric requirements. I am currently about 112 pounds and about five feet four inches in height. Even though I am athletic and go to the gym several times a week, I’m not a bodybuilder or currently trying to put on more muscle mass. As such, the amount of calories I require each day may be much lower or higher than others, depending on their nutritional needs and fitness goals.
  2. I have gastrointestinal issues. My doctor thinks I have IBS; as such, there are certain foods that I can and cannot eat if I want to be comfortable. This means I can’t always pick the cheapest foods at the grocery store or only eat what is on-sale. Beans are thrown around a lot as an affordable protein option–unfortunately, if I eat too many, my bowels riot, so I have to find other sources of protein as well.
  3. I try to eat a plant-based diet (with some cheese thrown in on occasion). I don’t purchase meat, eggs, milk, or butter. I do purchase hard and/or goat cheese sometimes. While I should stick with getting protein from pulses, my IBS makes it difficult to eat more than small amounts of things like beans and lentils. This leads to a tendency to rely too heavily on expensive protein-added products as opposed to more ‘natural’ sources of protein. 

So let’s get started!

If you’re interested, you can view my September 2019 groceries in this google sheet

Overall, I spent around $196 for groceries in September 2019 (I lost $0.90 somewhere between the receipts and the totals, but whatever).

Several things affected this amount: (1) not paying attention to coupons and whether or not they were applied correctly; (2) accidentally purchasing damaged products; (3) vegan meat substitutes; and (4) alcohol.

  1. Coupons. Some of the products I purchased should have had coupons applied to them. The biggest store that I had problems with coupons at was Safeway. On the website, shoppers can download digital coupons to their accounts and, when they type in their phone number on the credit card key pad, they get those coupons taken off. For some reason, for several of my products, the coupons were not applied. On one particular visit, there was an especially long line and the cashier was in a hurry to get me rung up. I didn’t notice that the coupons hadn’t worked correctly until I got home. Next time I go, I will ensure that the coupons ring up correctly–regardless of how fast they’re trying to push me through. I also had issues with coupons at Sprouts, although these issues were my fault–for example, on my first visit, I didn’t know that you had to download the app in order to have your coupons applied; I thought I could just enter in my phone number to get my coupons (you know, like at pretty much every other grocery store in the US). Nope! As such, a couple items I had coupons for rang up at full price. The other coupon I had issues with was a BOGO Chocolove coupon; apparently it was only for one specific flavor. I have now learned a lesson in checking the text of every coupon I intend to use.
  2. Damaged Products. Out of everything I purchased this month, I had issues with two products. The first was a pack of tempeh I purchased at Sprouts. I didn’t look at it properly until a few days later when I was going to eat it; however, there was a paper-thin slash across the front of the package. I’m guessing that it was the first layer in the box, and when someone used a box-cutter to open the box, they accidentally slashed the first layer of tempeh and either didn’t notice it or didn’t care. Regardless, $3.29 down the drain, because lord only knows how long that package had been open. The second damaged product was a Silk yogurt I bought at Safeway that was three weeks past the sell-by date. I didn’t take this off the grocery bill because I accidentally ate it before I saw the date (although I didn’t get sick, so I learned something?). This was slightly hilarious to me because I usually check the date on every refrigerated item I buy. So, in essence, what should I remember?–CONSTANT VIGILANCE.
  3. Vegan Meat Substitutes. I go back and forth on this one. Mostly, my downfall in this category this month was purchasing two packages of Lightlife Plant-Based Burger Patties. I’ve been a vegetarian for over four and a half years now, but gosh do I remember what burgers taste like. This new frontier of plant-based burger-y burgers has rocked my world. However, at $2 to $4 for a single patty**, it’s not a cost-effective way of eating, although in some instances I cut the patty in half and spread it over two meals. I also purchased a four-pack of soysage, but I feel less bad about that because I usually stretch those out over eight meals. As long as they’re on sale and I am mindful of the cost per meal, I’m willing to forgive this a little bit.
  4. Alcohol. I bought a bottle of wine for like $10. I include it in my grocery bill because I consume it and I buy it at the grocery store, but alcohol is not a necessity. In fact, now that my partner is gone, I don’t even really enjoy having a drink that much anymore. And if I buy an entire bottle of wine, I feel pressured to drink it all before it goes bad, and since I’m such a lightweight, this just leads to headaches and lethargy the next day. So, I think I’ve pretty much decided that, at least until my partner gets back, I’m probably just a social drinker as opposed to an enjoy-a-glass-at-the-end-of-a-long-day type of gal. 

So there we have it! A month’s worth of groceries for a single human and my lessons learned. The goal for next month: maybe get it down to $175? We’ll see!

(But no pressure though.)

* In the US — California — South Bay area.

** Not to mention the saturated fat. THIS IS NOT A HEALTH FOOD, Y’ALL.

The Thing About Money, Part 6: Reflection, or, So now what?

(This is the sixth and final post in a six-post series titled The Thing About Money. Click to read The Thing About Money, Part I.)

The last few weeks have been an exploration of my attitudes toward money (Part I), how they were formed (Part 2), the debt issues I am currently facing (Part 3), my fear of being forced to eat cat food in my old age (Part 4), and how tracking my daily spending helped control my money anxiety (Part 5). So what have I learned about myself over the past few weeks?

  • Wanting money makes me feel like a phoney because…
  • I view money as an evil that just makes people emotional/feel bad because…
  • I grew up in a household where money caused people to be upset.
  • I am afraid that my student debt will never be paid off and…
  • I will be poor in retirement because I don’t have enough saved up but…
  • Tracking all of my spending and income kind of makes me feel better, because the situation is not as dire as it seems.

Whew. 

Those are my truths. So where do we go from here? 

Is life really all about the Benjamins???? Image from pexels.com.

I recently stumbled across the FIRE movement, which, if any of you are into personal finance blogs, you will know as standing for Financial Independence, Retire Early. The idea behind the FIRE movement is that you save as much as possible until you have 25 to 40 times your annual salary worth of assets, and then you can RE — retire early — make your grand exit from the world of your nine-to-five, if you so choose. There are several variations of FIRE — fatFIRE, for instance, is for people who want to retire but still live a life of comparable luxury; leanFIRE is for those looking to retire at a lower income; baristaFI is for those who will supplement their income with a part-time job (usually the plan is to “work part-time in a coffee shop,” hence the name) after retiring from a career; etc. 

What particularly interests me is FIOR–Financial Independence, Optional Retirement. This mindset involves saving enough money so that if you wanted to step away from working, you could; but that doesn’t mean you have to. Some people have a weird vision of FIRE–if you do any type of work at all (blogging, building things, selling art, etc.), you haven’t actually ‘retired,’ and you’re somehow lying about your life experience by claiming about being retired (*insert extreme eye roll here*). To me, being ‘retired’ just means that you aren’t chained to a desk/warehouse/counter and unable to make any life-changing decisions because you fear dying in the street of starvation. 

I would like to FIOR, and I can certainly tell you I wouldn’t just put my feet up, sit on some imaginary porch with a glass of lemonade, and watch the world go by*. What I want from FIOR is the freedom to do whatever the hell I want, whenever the hell I want, and it just so happens that what I want to do involves things like volunteering at causes I care about,  enjoying and preserving nature, working on my art and writing, and spending time with people I love. 

What FIRE, FIOR, and all those other acronyms buy is time. Time to not only make the world a better place by serving others, but also by serving ourselves. For instance, I recently went to a volunteer information session about working at a local adoption center for my region’s humane society. I’ve submitted the application and am waiting to hear back on whether or not I’ll get an interview** for a three-hour-a-week shift. In the past, I’ve volunteered at museums and historic cemeteries–all worthy causes that I care about. If I pursue FIOR, I’ll have more time to dedicate to these causes without having to worry about whether or not I can feed myself. 

I would also have time to increase my relationship with nature and move toward a more sustainable lifestyle. I’ve mentioned previously on this blog about how the earth is dying; I’d like to do my part to prevent that. I love hiking, camping, and rock climbing; I love just being in nature and letting its awe and beauty wash over me. I love breathing and drinking without dying. These things–trees, fresh air, the ocean, birds–are worth conserving. FIOR would give me time (and money, depending on how I budget) to help lessen my own impact on the earth (i.e. growing my own food or having time to go to local farmers’ markets, as opposed to going to a grocery store which has had produce shipped in from elsewhere, wasting fossil fuels; stop purchasing/consuming clothes whose only value is to make myself look ‘presentable’ at a job, etc.) and volunteer for causes that help the earth.  

I would be able to pursue my own artistic interests, many of which I have had to stifle due to a lack of resources–both time and money. This may seem like a selfish reason; however, I’m a firm believer in self-care, especially when it results in the self having a more positive and kinder outlook. If you haven’t discovered already, I can get pretty, uh, wound up, which results in what I view as some not-as-kind-as-I-could-be behavior. Right now, after work, I feel so drained that when I come home, I just end up cooking dinner and watching netflix or youtube until it’s time to pass out and start the next day afresh, repeating the same cycle until the weekend. I feel that I have projects bubbling away inside me, but I don’t have the emotional energy to do anything with them (oh, the joys of working in a service-centered profession…).

And finally, I would have more time to spend with my family. I have a small family–my partner, and my mom and her husband***. Not working would let me spend more time hanging out with and supporting these people whom I love. I would have the freedom to move across the country to wherever my partner wanted to work without worrying about the geographic constraints of my own career; I could visit my mom when she goes to her doctors’ appointments. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life using work as the reason I can’t visit (I can’t get the time off, I can’t afford it, etc.). I know that time is going to run out before I know it, and I want to spend that time with my family. 

There are still some hard truths to swallow. For instance, I struggle with the issue of wanting more money when I know that it causes so many problems in the world. This is what I like to refer to as ‘crust-punk syndrome’–I claim that I want to live ‘outside the system’ of work/general economics, but if I’m investing in ‘evil corporations,’ I am still just as dependent on the system as before, but in a different way. Doesn’t this just make me a hypocrite? Is it better to be a hypocrite that can support herself than a hypocrite who relies on the support of others? Is the only effective way to change the system to work from within–for example, investing in ethical companies whenever possible and not spending my consumer dollars on fast fashion and gas guzzlers? Does taking the money I make off of them and using it for good cancel out how it was created in the first place? 

What this all boils down to is the existential dread of living an inauthentic life. I work anywhere from eight to ten hours a day in a traditional job that, while providing essential services to those we work with, also perpetuates a highly inefficient work culture. There’s a lack of innovation and challenging of the status quo in ways that could radically alter how we disseminate our services. Additionally, without being too specific, I am working for an institution that doesn’t reflect my personal values. There are ‘values’ that this organization claims to have, but there are a lot of different viewpoints and incidents that have happened in this climate that I don’t feel reflect my own ideas of what is ‘right’ or ‘just’ (although, to be fair, it’s certainly nothing like, say, an oil company or hedge fund). This, combined with the negative health effects of working a job that is heavily cubical-based, makes me desirous of a bit more freedom, including the opportunity to be able to work part-time in this field****. 

I still have a lot of unanswered questions. Perhaps it’s just my family-ingrained Catholic guilt speaking up; perhaps it’s a fear of being exposed as some sort of fraud. I don’t know, and I don’t know if I ever will know. But what I do know is that money would give me the time and resources to work on projects I care about and would give me the option of not working those that I don’t

So I guess the budget’s worth it. 

* But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and if that’s your dream, more power to you. I just know I would go bonkers with restlessness. 

** This particular organization gets a high level of volunteer interest, so the application process is pretty… intense. 

*** I have a brother and grandparents and aunts and uncles and a biological father and an ex-stepdad as well, but with all of those people, things are… complicated, and I haven’t spoken to any of them in years.

**** I actually quite like the job itself and the field I am working in; it’s just the incessant bureaucracy that really grinds my gears. 

——-
Thank you for reading this series, titled The Thing About Money. What’s your deal with money? Are you working towards FIRE? Do you feel that you are trapped in the capitalist machine with no real options about how to lead an authentic life? Are you just trying to free yourself from the grip of THE MAN? Or are you able to emotionally distance yourself from money? Feel free to tell me in the comments.