HOLIDAY GIFTS: APOCALYPSE, NOW!

Welcome to the first post in a series of holiday gift ideas. With Black Friday just around the corner (or, for myself and hopefully lots of other people, Buy Nothing Day), I wanted to explore some perhaps unconventional gift ideas for you to show your loved ones you really care. 

The theme for this week’s post…

APOCALYPSE: NOW!

Wildfires will be a huge factor in the upcoming climate wars.

Last year, my theme for presents was ‘Apocalypse: Now!’ Everyone in my family got items that would be useful in the event of the grid going down. I know this sounds crazy, but most of my family lives in North Carolina–aka prime hurricane country (for example, my high school was pretty severely damaged by Hurricane Florence). While my family currently lives far enough away from the coast to miss a lot of the damage from all but the category fours and fives, they still live in areas that receive a lot of flooding. In the event of an emergency (aka the upcoming climate wars), I want them to be prepared. Here’s what I gave to my family:

LifeStraw

Each member of my family got a LifeStraw. A LifeStraw is a water purification device that is essentially a straw with a large filter. As per the website, the filter removes:

• 99.999999% of bacteria (including E. coli)

• 99.999% of parasites (Giardia, Cryptosporidium, etc.)

• 99.999% of microplastics

You can drink directly from a lake or stream if you want to! And it filters 1,000 gallons, which (according to the website) is enough to let one human drink for five years. It’s super lightweight, so it’s great for throwing into your go-bag when you’re running away from floodwaters or fires. 

(Just kidding. It should be in your go-bag already. CONSTANT VIGILANCE!)

This gift is also great for the explorers in your life (and feel free to use that as an excuse if you think your loved ones don’t take your fear of a total global meltdown seriously). I bought one for my partner when he went off to spend a year living and working in Bhutan. He drank the water there with his LifeStraw and didn’t die of dysentery, so it seems like it works.

Additionally, it also removes microplastics, so I’m thinking of getting one just for everyday use as well, since apparently there are 7 million microplastic particles in San Francisco Bay

36-Hour Candle

When the grid goes down, your lights will go out (unless you have a back-up generator…but that too can fail if you don’t have enough fuel to run it!). What can your family turn to when they need to light their way in the darkness? The SE Survivor Series 3-Wick 36-Hour Emergency Candle. It has three wicks to ensure the candle evenly burns (please note each wick lasts 12 hours, so don’t light them all at once), and it comes packaged in a reusable aluminum tin. Reusability will be a valuable asset in the upcoming zombie apocalypse, so this candle makes a great option for people who want to see but also want something in which to store their remaining ammunition. 

Heirloom Seed Pack

My mom and her husband live on a fairly large parcel of land (“large” by suburban standards). Straddling the line between suburban and rural (a subdivision next to farmland), she has the space to grow food and already has a large vegetable garden. However, she limits herself to just a few varieties of vegetables–tomatoes, peppers, etc. While she’s covered on the Vitamin C front, what about all the other nutrients that she will need to survive? 

I gave her the Survival Garden Heirloom Seed Pack from Open Seed Vault. This package contains 32 different seed varieties. While this clearly isn’t every vegetable or fruit that exists, it should keep the basics covered. For example, she’ll be able to get her protein (beans, peas, and sunflower seeds), greens (kale, spinach, and three kinds of lettuce!), and even get a little bit of fruit (cantaloupe and watermelon). 

Supposedly the package is air-tight and moisture-proof, and the seeds should last for at least 20 years. I’ll mark on my calendar to get her some new ones in 2038, provided we still have a civilization then. 

Emergency Biscuits

However, your family is going to need something to munch on while they’re waiting for the produce to grow (and as emergency supplies for when a mob tries to take over their compound). At this point, they’ll probably be so hungry that it doesn’t matter what they’re eating. However, you can save them from resorting to boiling shoe leather and then viewing each other as delicious entrees with some emergency biscuits. 

These Emergency Food Rations consist of 3600 calorie bars. They are cut into pre-measured 400 calories bits, and supposedly can sustain one person for up to three days. They’re kosher and halal (hooray!) and, according to the description, have a “pleasant lemon flavor.” Better yet, one reviewer describes them as being the “Best emergency ration [they] have tasted so far.” 

Think of it like lembas from the Lord of the Rings. You can finally live your fantasy of being a hobbit on a quest to throw the One Ring into the fires of Mt. Doom. It’s like LARPing, except you might actually die if something goes wrong!

These come vacuum-sealed but with a shelf life of only five years, so you’ll probably have a chance to taste-test them before end of days. Just don’t forget to order more!

First Aid Kit

So what happens when you accidentally burn yourself with your 36 hour emergency candle or injure yourself with a farm implement when you’re working on your heirloom seed garden? The hospitals will have long since been looted for opiates, so you’ll have to take the doctoring into your own hands.

Depending on the size of your survival colony, you’re going to need some serious supplies. That’s where the Lightning X Extra Large Medic First Responder EMT Trauma Bag comes in. This kit has everything*–a finger splint, two types of sheers, a CPR barrier kit, an airway kit…It even has a goddamn stethoscope! I could go on and on, but it’d be easier if you check it out yourself.

Most importantly, it comes with a First Aid Guide, so you know what the hell you’re doing with all that gauze.

You can get a first aid kit for your pets too! After all, all pets will become working animals once shit hits the fan.

In Conclusion

While we can be optimistic, let’s face it–shit happens. Climate change is real. Severe weather events are getting more extreme. The best way to show your loved ones you care is helping them prepare for the inevitable Mad Max future. Happy holidays, and stay safe!

* Ice sculptures, winos, Germfs – German smurfs – a Teddy Ruxpin wearing mascara, an old lady wearing Kid ‘N Play hair, and none other than DJ Baby Bok Choy…He’s a giant 300-pound Chinese baby who wears tinted aviator glasses and he spins records with his little ravioli hands.

A Month of Expenses in a HCOL Area (on a Non-Engineer’s Salary)

As I’ve mentioned about a million trillion times on this blog, I live in a high cost of living (HCOL) area. This area, the San Francisco South Bay, is known for Silicon Valley, computer engineers, and start-ups that make a shit-ton of money. I go to the gym with people who work for companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook (and Z-berg himself showed up on Sunday). The parking lot is full of Teslas, and I recently overheard a guy who couldn’t have been more than 23 talking about buying a house for his mom (which–that’s really nice–but also–23??? Dang!). Lots of people move to this area to take high-paying jobs at these companies. 

I am not one of those people. 

I work in education. And while I get paid more than the average public school teacher* in the United States ($60,483), I don’t make the type of money a Google person does ($112,849 average, as per payscale.com). I thought it would be fun to do a breakdown of what life can be like here on $72k/year.

RENT – $1351/month or $16,212/year (EXTREMELY LOW for this area)

I am very lucky in that I was able to get an apartment in a building owned by my employer.

Although this has come with a number of problems (for example, lying about available parking, having a July 1st lease start date but not actually getting into the apartment until August 8th because the unit was being renovated and no one bothered to double-check the unit # with the new leases, showing up on a Friday afternoon after being assured I would have keys and then waiting to try and hunt down someone who could help us find temporary housing, finally being told we could move in and then being given the WRONG KEYS, having the toilet installed incorrectly–BUT I DIGRESS), the savings in rent more than make up for the parade of problems I had just trying to move in.

I currently pay $1351 a month for a 417 sq ft studio that is walking distance from my workplace (1.3 miles or about 25 minutes depending on traffic lights). The average monthly rent of a studio or one-bedroom within a reasonable walking distance of my job (reasonable = less than 1.5 miles) is currently hovering around $1800 on craigslist. As such, I’m paying about 75% of what I would have to pay if I wanted to move somewhere not owned by my organization

And to be clear, that $1800 would be going to a real piece of work, if you get my drift. I’ve heard horror stories from others who live in the area about what basically sound like dorms owned by slum lords. My unit has at least been newly-renovated, even if I did have to wait five weeks for it to finish. 

This sweet living situation does come with some caveats, though–because of my rank, I’m only technically eligible to have this apartment for one year. Although some of my neighbors in the building who are of a similar rank have been able to stay from three to four years, it’s not something that’s guaranteed. I hope because of the very small size–studio–that not many other new hires will be interested. There are three open units in the same building, and I think they all have at least one bedroom. Because of this, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll get to keep my apartment for one more year. I should know for sure by June, but I’m making sure I have enough money stashed away to cover moving expenses, just in case. 

If I lose the unit? Well, that just further cements my decision to limit myself to about two years in my present position before moving on to somewhere else. 

Why two years? That’s how long it takes to be fully vested in the organization’s retirement program. If I stay for two years, I get my ten percent–that’s ten percent free money, not even a match, that I walk away with if I stay here for that long. But if I leave before those two years are up? Zero. Zilch. Nada.

I also got paid a moving reimbursement to bring myself over here. And by reimbursement, I mean they took out payroll taxes as if it were a bonus (which, had I known, I would have overestimated–nothing like paying payroll taxes on purchases I paid sales tax on that were bought with money I already paid payroll taxes on!).

Additionally, the phrasing of the moving reimbursement document was something about how I may have to pay back the moving reimbursement if I leave my job before two years are up. I’m choosing to interpret that may as a will.

TRANSPORTATION – ~$1160/year including two oil changes but not including major service or tires

Last month I had the joy of switching over my license and registration to the great state of California. This whole process, from smog check to license fees to registration fees, cost a total of $368. Luckily I won’t have to do this every year, but it was quite a bit more than the $100 it cost me in Colorado. 

Gas is also much more expensive here–according to AAA Colorado, as of last week, gas was going for about $2.73/gallon in Denver (although, since I’m not actually there, I can’t confirm this). Gas at the cheapest gas station in the area here in CA is around $3.90 a gallon. So, it costs $1.17 more per gallon, or about $14 more per tank, for gas. And while I can walk to work, a lot of other places–the gym, for example–require driving. 

I’d love to take the bus more here, but unfortunately none of the routes are very convenient. It would take me an hour and a half with two transfers to get from my work to the gym, but it’s only a 20 minute drive. So, in that instance, driving wins. 

HEALTH INSURANCE – $52/month or $624/year

I get health insurance from my work. I went with an HMO plan, so my options of where to receive care are a little limited. However, one of their super complexes is within a 15 minute drive from my apartment, so making plans to receive care has been relatively painless. This is the second-most expensive plan my organization offers, and I chose it because it has no deductible. 

 Why don’t I have an account that offers an HSA, as many personal finance gurus suggest for healthy individuals? To explain, a Health Savings Account (HSA) is an account that allows you to pay for medical expenses with pre-tax dollars. These accounts are associated with insurance plans that have a high deductible–the idea is that you pay lower premiums in exchange for a higher deductible, but you have the opportunity to save money to meet that deductible. When you contribute money to an HSA, you lower your taxable income.

Unfortunately, only one insurance plan through my workplace offers a high deductible with an HSA option. INTERESTINGLY, it’s a PPO plan–you choose your own doctor, as long as they’re in-network–which are always more expensive. So, in order to have an HSA, I’d been spending twice as much on insurance premiums per month in exchange for a higher deductible, all for the sake of being able to lower taxes. 

I’ll take my half-cost premium with no deductible and $1500 out-of-pocket maximum, thanks. 

And to be fair, I’ve been totally happy with my HMO so far. I’ve had four visits for various reasons, and I’ve paid a total of $20. 

GROCERIES – $200/month or $2400/year

I was surprised at how expensive groceries are here. I remember the first time my partner and I went to the grocery store and being shocked that there were no boxes of cereal that cost less than $4.00. Food and cleaning supplies are significantly more expensive here than they were in Denver. 

After being here a few months, I’ve started discovering the best ways of tracking down my grocery deals. Trader Joe’s is good for packaged items like my coffee, English muffins, and vegan butter, although they never really have sales. Sprouts is good for produce, but only when it’s on sale; if it’s not on sale, but is something I have to buy a full pack of at TJ’s (for example, carrots or mushrooms), it’s also best to buy at Sprouts. Safeway is only good when I have digital coupons. 

One argument against piecemeal shopping like this is that it wastes more gas; however, Safeway is next to my work, Sprouts is on the way home from my gym, and I only go to TJ’s once or twice a month. The savings more than make up for any extra gas or time spent. 

UTILITIES – $30/month for gas and ????/month for electric

My house is heated by gas, and since my apartment has no insulation, I run the gas heater for about 30 minutes on weekday mornings so I don’t freeze to death when getting dressed (I run cold, and my apartment is usually in the low 60s when I wake up. Not exactly Antarctica, but too cold for me!). In the summer, heat was only $9 a month; last month, it was $20. This month I’ve budgeted $30, since I’m using the heater more. 

Electricity is the real question mark. I live in a city where the electric is municipal–this has been great, because we were not subject to the same blackouts that others in CA recently underwent. However, since it is a government agency, things aren’t always quick to happen. I called and set up my account in August; I am still waiting for my first bill. I’ve called twice, and both times I was assured that everything is fine, and that I would “receive a bill soon” that would be “higher than usual” because it would “reflect the cost of service since starting.” This was about three months ago; I’m hoping to get this bill sooner rather than later, because I honestly have no idea how much my electric is going to cost me. I don’t have a lot of appliances, but still…

OVERALL

Overall, the biggest asterisk to my budget is my rent. Because I receive such a large discount, I know my experience in the south bay is drastically different than most others (including most of my coworkers). With my partner overseas, living by myself in this area is a huge luxury. However, it’s a luxury that is not guaranteed to last; as such, I’m trying to keep my budget low enough to cover what rent will be if I get kicked out of my unit. Right now, that budgeted money is going to student loans and retirement; I have the option of re-routing next summer if I need to.

While I’m doing OK, this area is not all it’s cracked up to be. I make $72k/year, but that’s not what the job started at; originally, they were advertising my position as low as $60k (to which I said–there’s no way I could take this job for that money). That’s also the starting rate for a very similar position that my organization is currently trying to hire for.

If someone is moving here without a partner, I honestly don’t know how they could comfortably support themselves on that salary. They’d either have to live with at least three roommates or have a two hour commute everyday, I guess (both things are true of my coworkers). That’s combined with the fact that my workplace wants someone with a master’s–so there’s the issues of student loans as well.  

I know I’m lucky to be able to have this job and live in this area making the amount that I do. However, it’s only possible because of this discount on rent. If I hadn’t been eligible for employee housing and received a pay bump, I would not have taken this job. The cost of living would have just been too damn high.

* I am not a public school teacher, but I have mad respect for those of you who are. I worked in a public elementary school running a tutoring center from Jan through May, and that was more than enough for me!

Open Grocery October 2019

Last month I made the first post in a series called Open Grocery. Every month, I will share a spreadsheet with all of my grocery purchases–dated, itemized, and notated. 

Not my groceries! Photo from pexels.com.

Why am I doing this? 

For one thing, I think it’s interesting to see patterns in my own spending. Is there something I’m spending an inordinate amount on that’s unnecessary? Are certain items flukes? Am I buying too much processed food and not enough fresh food?

Also, lists and spreadsheets are fun. And it’s nice to have some cold hard statistics through this blog, which often explores topics that Gaby Dunn referred to in Season 2 Episode 1 of her podcast Bad with Money as “Finances and Feelings.” 

If you’d like to get into the cold hard numbers, they’re available on this Open Grocery 2019 Google Sheet

Here are some fun facts from the last two months:

I spent an almost identical amount on fake meat products in October as I did in September.

In September, I spent $12.67 on various meat substitutes (LightLife burgers, hi-protein veggie burgers from TJ’s). In October, I spent $12.96 on meat substitutes (more hi-protein veggie burgers, tofurkey lunch slices). Because fake meat is generally more expensive than natural vegan proteins like tofu or beans, this was something I was planning on cutting out in the future; however, $13 is doable (especially when I get 26 grams of protein from one $1.75 veggie patty). 

I spent more money on alcohol in October than I did in September.

This one doesn’t surprise me. My partner left Germany at the end of August, and I just ended up not really drinking after he left. I figured it would just make me sad. Now that I’m used to the life of a lonely spinster (ha ha ha), I’ve started drinking a teensy bit more. In September I bought a bottle of wine; in October I bought a six-pack of beer and one can of sparkling wine (WOOO). Like the fake meat, this amount isn’t so large that I feel the need to cut back. 

I discovered that Safeway digital coupons don’t always depict the correct products. 

One of my downfalls from last month were coupon errors. As in the case of the Chocolove bars, sometimes the coupon shows an item, and we think we understand what it’s for, but the fine print indicates otherwise. This also happened with my Outshine fruit bars–the coupon was for only the regular fruit bars, not the chocolate-dipped ones (even though they’re the same price, you just get one less bar). I had this happen with a yogurt too (I think it was only for one specific flavor). Anyway, I did save myself from one coupon mistake this month–for cereal. For the past few weeks, I was eating Safeway Signature Select Raisin Bran (or Raisin Granola Clusters, or whatever the hell they call it). I got a digital coupon for a Signature Select cereal, and the cereal I usually ate was on the picture. Yay! However, after reading the fine print on the coupon, I saw it was only for cereals from 11.3 to 13 oz. But my Raisin Bran was over 14 oz. And they don’t make it in any other sizes. So the picture didn’t actually match the coupon. 

IT WAS A RUSE! A CLEVER ATTEMPT TO TRICK ME!

So now I’ve learned to read the fine print on every coupon at Safeway and never take anything at face value (sigh). Also, I eat oatmeal now. 

I spent more money overall in October than I did in September.

In September, I spent a total of $196.12 out of a budgeted $200. In October, I spent a total of $218.84, which is $18.84 over what I anticipated spending. There are two things that stick out in my budget that I think caused this over spending–pea protein and carrot cake supplies.

I recently had an appointment with a Registered Dietician (yet another perk HR gives us in exchange for not paying everyone a decent living wage in the HCOL south bay). After spieling off my laundry list of dietary issues (egg intolerance, possible soy intolerance, IBS, vegetarian), she suggested pea protein. Trader Joe’s had it the cheapest at 16.5 oz for $11.99. So, that’s $12 outside of what I usually eat. If I weren’t an athlete, I wouldn’t care; however, if I ever want to send V7 (climbing grade), I need to make sure I’m fueling myself properly.

Additionally, I wanted to make carrot cake. I had some coupons for supplies at Sprouts, but I ended up not being able to access them. Like many grocery stores, Sprouts has a rewards program/coupon situation. However, unlike many grocery stores, you can’t just type in your phone number on the keypad; you have to open the Sprouts app and scan a barcode in order to access your coupons. While I was in line, the app logged out. Then the app froze, and I couldn’t log back in. There were only two cashiers and I started to get really flustered because the line was really long, so I just gave up and paid full price for everything. THANKS, SOCIAL ANXIETY!

(Also, Sprouts, seriously, just let me put in my damn phone number.) 

(Also, if you’re still reading this, the vegan coconut-based frosting was super gross. Next time I’ll just get confectioner’s sugar, vanilla, and earth balance.)

So yeah, my grand plan of trying to get my grocery budget down to $175 for the month did not go well. 

Was this a huge problem? No. The $200/month is a limit I set for myself in order to help maximize the amount of money I put toward things like savings and student loans. I am very fortunate in even having the option of overspending on groceries; many people (my family in my childhood, for instance) don’t have that option. However, I am still committed to getting my grocery bill down (which honestly, if I just ate all the crap in my cupboards, I would probably spend like $10 on other groceries).  

Can I meet my $175 goal in November? LET’S FIND OUT!