In my spending plan, I usually denote about $200 a month to groceries. I live alone, so $50 a week shouldn’t be too hard to handle, right?
Oh, what a fool I was.
While I’ve been kind of successful meeting this limit in previous months, January’s spending blew this right out of the water. In January, I spent a whopping $241.61 cents on groceries, or over forty dollars more than I had anticipated.
What caused this drastic increase in grocery costs, other than my own lack of self control?
I blame two things: January was kind of a long month, and I am focusing on getting more protein in my diet.
First off, January. Other than for some reason feeling like it was several weeks longer than it should be, January also felt long because it marked my return from vacation. Before vacation, I tried to eat down as much of my in-house food as possible. I was gone for almost two weeks, so I didn’t want any vegetables or open boxes of cereal languishing on my counter until reaching the point of spoilage. As such, upon my return, I really didn’t have much other than a box of oatmeal and one Annie’s Mac and Cheese (my usual post-travel kitchen staples).
On December 31st, I visited both Sprouts and Trader Joe’s, in an effort to refill the kitchen. They’re included on this spreadsheet because they were purchased for consumption in January. This brought the bill up a bit.
Additionally, January has 31 days, so there’s one extra day in which to feed myself.
Secondly, I am focusing on getting more protein in my diet. Amongst my New Year Resolutions’ were tracking my macros and meeting my protein goal at least three times a week. Because of my many dietary restrictions (IBS, egg intolerance, vegetarian), my protein options can be a little limited, and traditional cheap protein fixes like just eating a ton of beans doesn’t work for me. Something my dietician recommended was pea protein powder. I bought two big jugs of protein powder this month, which together cost $28.00 (I upgraded from original to vanilla, which is $2.00 more a jug, but god does it taste better).
In an effort to fix my gut bacteria and get more healthy probiotics in my life, I bought kimchi twice this month. Kimchi is usually between $6 and $6.50 when it’s on sale at Sprouts, so two packages of kimchi were a little over $12.00.
These two products–the pea protein and the kimchi–equal $40, so maybe my overspending can be explained by these.
So, I went over $40 over. Am I going to beat myself up about it? Not too much. While I still focus on reducing my costs so I can throw as much money toward my student loan debt as possible, I don’t want to sacrifice my health and happiness by making too many cuts in my grocery bill. It’s worth more to me to have a healthy body than to pay off my loans early.
I’m not throwing the spending plan out the window though. For February, I am still aiming for only $200 a month, but I expect that I will blow that out of the water again. My partner is visiting for two weeks (yay!), and, as an athletic dude, he eats a lot.
However, he’s totally fine with eating an entire can of beans for dinner, so maybe it will be ok.
It’s the first Tuesday of the month, and you know what that means–it’s time for the monthly Open Grocery post! What’s Open Grocery? Open Grocery is a series of posts that include detailed information about all of my grocery purchases for the month. The spreadsheet I’ve included has a dated and itemized list of all my grocery purchases, down to the poundage.
The November numbers have been crunched, and out of my total budgeted $200, I spent: $198.51.
Hooray! I’m in budget for the month!
This is great, because last month I went $18.84 over and spend a total of $218.84. It’s good to see that I’m moving back in the right direction. This month’s total is much closer to September’s, when I spent $196.12.
(I should note that at the end of last month’s post, I put that I had a goal of $175 for November. I then promptly forgot about that goal. Let’s put it on the docket for January 2020, shall we?)
For one, I bought more alcohol. What can I say? It’s the holiday season. While last month I spent $13.28 on alcohol for the month (from a grocery store, anyway), this month I spent $31.97.
One major purchase accounted for this change–on 11/26, I bought a box of wine. It was on sale for $18.99 compared to the usual $24.99, and supposedly it contains three full bottles of wine. Now, I enjoy a glass of wine every now and then; however, since I live alone and don’t like to have people over, my problem was that I would buy a bottle and then feel obligated to drink the whole thing before it went bad. The magic of boxed wine is that it can last much longer after being opened than bottled wine. According to the Black Box website, their wines stay fresh up to six weeks after opening. This means I don’t have to chug a glass and a half every evening for three nights straight (more than I want to drink anyway) just to avoid the guilt of throwing away what didn’t get finished.
I plan on nursing this box for as long as possible and not buying any alcohol for my time at home in December. Uh, we’ll see how well this plan works out…
The biggest victory this month came from avoiding coupon errors! In September, I lost $14.06 to coupon errors. In October, I lost a whopping $27.25 to coupon errors. I count this as “lost” money because most of these products–October and the disastrous carrot cake ingredients in particular–would not have been purchased without the coupons. This month, I avoided this problem by (a) avoiding a lot of coupon-required purchases altogether and (b) reading the coupons more closely to understand if only specific sizes or flavors were covered.
Additionally, for the two months I stayed in budget, I made one less trip to the grocery store. In September and November, I made seven trips to the store (which seems like a lot, but in my defense, I eat a lot of fresh veggies!), while in October I made eight. I’m trying to make a conscious effort to ask myself–can I go just one more day?–before running off to the store. I’m trying especially hard to do this for December, since I’ll be out of my apartment for twelve days (and as such need to eat anything that may expire during that time!).
What can we expect for next month? Well, the budget will need to be adjusted–I will be traveling from December 19th to the 30th, so I’ve calculated a monthly grocery budget of approximately $130 dollars (the usual $200 divided by 31, multiplied by the 19 full days and two half-days I will be home, and rounded up to look better). I’m also trying to purchase zero alcohol and concentrate on mainly buying fruits, vegetables, and yogurt, while eating up all the rest of the food in my house.
That’s all for this month! Shorter than the previous two posts, but honestly, I just don’t have that much to say. They’re groceries, y’all. December will be a lighter month, and then hopefully in 2020 I can discipline myself down to $175/month!
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.
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?
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!
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
Climbing is fun
I will not work out unless it is fun
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.’
Welcome to the first post in a series titled Open Grocery!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I recently (as in last week) graduated with my Master’s (hooray!), a full ten years after graduating with my BA in English in 2009–during the Great Recession (less hooray). Like many others in my generation (with the heavily-loaded label ‘Millennial’), I’ve struggled to have a positive relationship with employment and money–namely, finding jobs that pay a living wage and allow for paying back student loans and perhaps even saving for retirement. This post explores things people have said to me about money (after I attended an in-person interview for my post-Master’s position).
“Lol those aren’t real! The full time jobs I mean.”
This was said to me by my best friend of ten years. She works as a labor organizer in the Bay area, and she understands the huge amount of stress placed on workers and the battles they have to fight in order to get benefits and a livable wage. A screenshot of this conversation is as follows:
To give you some context, this was when we were talking about a job interview I had. The job in question seemed like it would be a lot of hard but rewarding work, but the advertised pay wasn’t great. And by “not great” I mean that it potentially would be unsustainable in the south bay area, where the job was located. I said to her that I have a dream of one day having a full-time job that paid all my bills and didn’t require me to have a second job just to make ends meet/pay off my student loans. (Although the Sasquatch romance is still on the table. Any takers?)
“It is important to get paid enough to match your expertise/experience. On the other hand, sometimes one may need to take a step back in order to make two steps ahead.” and also “Do it for a year for the experience, and then leave.”
One of these was said to me by one of the women who works at the organization where I interviewed. The other was said to me by one of my professors. These are professional women who have many years of experience in our field and whom I respect. Essentially, they both have the same message—by compromising now, I’m setting myself up for a better career in the future. Which, on the one hand, is great advice, and advice I feel like I should probably follow. However, on the other hand, I’m already in my thirties (how much time do I want to spend compromising? and how many times have I already compromised?), and I feel like my years of related-but-achieved-before-my-masters experience are being disregarded by the powers-that-be at this prospective organization (here, replace “feel like” with “pretty much was blatantly told”). Should I take their advice, put my nose to the grindstone for another few years and try and carve out a better position for myself later? Or does taking this position just continuing a long history of me allowing others to undervalue my experience?
“You shouldn’t have to fight for cost of living.”
This was said to me by one of my classmates when I was talking to her about the interview. I felt a physical reaction to this statement; she’s right. I know she’s right, and I feel the same way. I shouldn’t have to have so many arguments with myself weighing the pros of this position against the very big con of having to draw upon my savings to support myself in my job. But unfortunately, that’s the reality of the world that we (young and young-ish workers like myself in particular) live in today—in many cases, we do have to fight for cost of living. And in return, we hear that we need to work hard or gather a handful of side hustles. I already work full time, part time, and go to school full time; at what point will I finally be working hard enough?
The question I feel like I am now faced with is as follows: do I want to do amazing work with good people, or do I want to be able to pay my bills? And the larger question behind that–why do we, as a society, support a system that forces us to make that choice? And if I take a job that I enjoy but refuses to pay me cost of living, does my participation just further support a system that I feel is unethical? And, finally, why do all the jobs that pay a living wage involve companies that make me feel, frankly, kind of scummy?
In the end, I took the job. Because of noble reasons of wanting to make the world a better place by working in a field where I can help students? Partly. But also because, after a conversation or two, the organization upped the offer to something that would enable me to both pay rent and make a monthly student loan payment. Would I still have accepted the job if I hadn’t been offered the pay raise? Perhaps that will remain an unsolved mystery. But if there’s a moral to the story (which is debatable), I would say it’s this–if you find a job you like, but don’t think it will sustain you, ask for more. The worst they can say is ‘no.’ You deserve fair pay for fair work. And if you’re in a position where you get to decide the salaries, maybe remember what it’s like to be on the other side of the table.