Friday, February 11, 2011

Turning 30

Tomorrow is my thirtieth birthday.

Somehow, amazingly, I think I'm still on track. Well, not for 35, at least not without some significant lifestyle changes. But for being able to mostly retire sometime in the next decade.

Last year DH and I spent about $24,000. That makes our target for financial independence, using a quick-and-dirty calculation of annual expenses times twenty five, $600,000.

Right now, our net worth is about $150,000. In a few weeks, I should be getting another $30,000, the first "withdrawal" from my trust fund. So we're a little more than 25% of the way there.

Tonight, it feels very possible. 25% is a real number. I have a $2000 check for freelancing that came yesterday. If I liquidate my (excess) life insurance policy, that's a couple thousand more. If I sell my silver, another thousand or thousand and a half. (Both of those are things I've been wanting to do for over a year--geez, I need to get moving on those.)

I haven't made any progress on Being More Frugal in a long time--at some point a year or two ago I pretty much stopped buying books and clothes, but we're still spending the same on groceries and (more than I'd like) on eating out. And I wish our apartment was cheaper. And I wish I was hard-core enough to keep the heat down and the A/C off. But in spite of this, the money is starting to add up. And I could keep doing what I'm doing financially indefinitely--well, eventually I'll have to buy more clothes, but it takes those buggers forever to actually wear out.

I have everything--more--than I need materially: an excess of food, reading material, an Internet connection, transportation, warmth and shelter.

And by being content with that and having some fairly good luck, I guess I'm slowly getting rich.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Offices as Personal Storage and Community Libraries

In the three years I've been at my job, I've cleaned out all my personal files and my department's files. Almost all of that material was thrown away, because it was not needed. I now have a lot of empty space in my office, which is a room of perhaps 10x12 with a window, a bookshelf, a large u-shaped desk, 3 chairs, and various places in which to keep files. (It sounds much nicer than it is. The best part of my office is that it is private enough that I can do things on my computer or read without people watching me. This is actually a pretty major benefit.)

If I lived in a small space, I could theoretically keep almost all of my personal items at work. Even in a cubicle like most of my coworkers have, there is enough room to keep a personal library, files, etc. It's not uncommon for women to have some extra clothes at work, like shoes or sweaters, and one of my coworkers keeps his "good" suit here (why, I'm not sure, since his job in no way requires a suit). One could probably quite subtly keep out-of-season clothing in empty drawers. Keeping underwear or socks at work might be pushing it too far.

Using office supplies from work is nothing new, and often ethically questionable. But I have borrowed several items from work quite ethically by simply asking: a web cam, a keyboard, WD-40, spackle, and glue (returned after using). Our IT department has plenty of outdated but functional technology that they're willing to lend or give away. Some of my coworkers have borrowed elderly laptops for months. Other things that my office would likely let me borrow or have include basic tools, dishes (our motley collection includes dozens of plates and mugs, mixing bowels, various utensils, and what I think is a large souffle dish), bookends and magazine organizers, and excess office supplies from our epic collections of binders, folders, and pencils.

I don't see any ethical problem with using office supplies for which the cost of use is minimal--stapling a few things, making a few copies (not hundreds), shredding some papers. If you have larger jobs, it's worth asking if you might be able to reimburse the company for the use of a copier, printer, etc. (at less than the market rate for such services at a Kinko's or similar).

We also currently have a sort of candy recycling program going on--people are bringing in their unwanted Halloween candy and leaving it in a fishbowl on the front desk. I'm not crazy about that one as it tempts me to eat candy that I don't need but it's better than the food going to waste.

I've also done my share of recycling back into "the system": leaving magazines in the break room, adding my paperclips to the communal box once I decided I didn't need my own supply at home (or in my office, for that matter).

All of this is to say before you decide you need to buy something, or own it, think about whether there is somewhere or someone you can borrow it from or get it from for free. Several times I've seen frugality tips referring to "tool libraries," "free stores," or other community lending operations. I think it would be great to have places like this, but I've rarely come across one in reality. And, honestly, for most items we may not need specific organizations or institutions. When you need something, think about the "resource centers" you already have access to or belong to: libraries, offices, schools, churches. Would any of those places have a hammer? Markers? Goo-gone? A 20-foot ladder? Any number of other rarely needed items that you might otherwise buy?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Ludicrous Plan for Financial Independence

I calculated my net worth today (something I do about once a quarter) and found that I could quit working if I was able to live on $436/month or $5240/year (based on a safe withdrawal rate of 4%). This is only about 1/5 of my actual expenditures, so I'm nowhere near actual FI. But for the first time I found myself thinking, "Well, I could probably do that if I was really desperate."

I know of at least one blogger, Annienygma, who lives on about $500 per month (she owns a mobile home, but it sounds like she bought it for as little as a couple thousand dollars). She lives what sounds like a pretty decent life but she lives somewhere in the south (ugh) and really skimps on air conditioning--I'm a huge wimp when it comes to climate control.

A few years ago when I lived in Austin, I think I could have squeaked by on $436/month (in fact, I may have--I was working part time for $7.50/hour). I sublet a studio for $300/month (a discount off the usual rent of $450), and had a friend who lived in a similar apartment where the actual rent was $300. I lived alone but the apartment could have worked for a couple. It had a decent kitchen and a largish main room--if I was living there with R., he could have part of the room as an office with room for a computer desk, I could work on the card-table sized kitchen table, and there would be room for a double bed (maybe a queen, but not our current king).

At that time, I was spending about $80 a month on groceries, a number I still think I could stick to these days (especially since back then I was eating cereal with soy milk every morning instead of oatmeal with water).

I didn't have a car. My bus pass was $10 per month, bringing expenses to $390.

That leaves $46, which is enough for the electric and gas bill in an apartment like that with a few bucks per month left over, depending on the time of year.

I could almost do that. I could live without home Internet service by walking to the library (which is exactly what I did back then). I didn't have health insurance, and if I was really financially desperate, would probably go without it again as I'm still young and healthy. I could live without eating out, or buying clothes other than an occasional Goodwill purchase.

But I don't think I could live without a phone. If I didn't have Internet, I couldn't use Skype. And without that, I don't think I could get phone service for less than $20-30 a month. Today, my cell phone costs me about $10/month, but that's if I only use it for about 100/minutes a month, which wouldn't be enough if it was my only phone (I don't make many local calls, but I don't think I would be willing to give up talking on the phone to my parents and brother regularly).

If I cut out the bus pass (which would suck in Austin, with its hot summers) or cut my food expenditures down to the bone, I could free up maybe $15-20/month for phone. If I could limit my phone time to 200 minutes/month (still a stretch--I typically talk to my parents about an hour a week, and like to talk to my brother a similar amount), I could do it.

Just for fun, I searched what I could rent in the Chicago area for $300. There was literally nothing as far as actual apartments go (well, one condemned-looking house in Gary, Indiana). One can find a few shares in that price range--if I was single, this apartment is close to where I live now and the poster doesn't sound too crazy (though "dog-friendly" makes me worry that she has a large, enthusiastic golden retriever).

I guess I'm not even financially independent at a ludicrous level yet. But I'm getting there.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Typical Budget, 2010

It's been a long time since I've posted my monthly budget on here. Here are my actual expenses from July, which was the most "average" month for this year (some have been lower, some higher). This budget is hardly a model of frugality; just an example of how one nearly-thirty woman spends her money.

Total expenses: about $1806, plus a hard to determine amount for my train pass ($86 put into a pretax account, then reimbursed--maybe $70 post-tax?)

Rent: $1250
Electric: $142.32 (this seems to vary a lot month to month; this month was high)
Internet: $59.95 (same every month)
Gas: $26.12

Groceries: $108.44
This varies a lot, too, since we shop at several different stores and don't go to each one every month. I think this is fairly typical--we went to Jewel and the produce store in July but not to Aldi.

Eating out (convenience): $65.26
My biggest area of budget struggle--a typical month is probably $80-90. Ideally I think I'd like to spend more like $30 (one pizza night plus one fast food meal); this hasn't happened in recent memory.

Entertainment: $62.62
$28 for concert ticket
$9.39 food and drink related to concert
$3.87 for a chai latte at a social event
$21.36 for anniversary meal with DH
Counting "intentional" eating out separate from "convenience" eating out. Concert ticket was unusual--haven't paid for a concert in probably 5 years. Ticket was worth cost; food and drink not.

Waxing: $57.00
I do this most months but not every month.

Misc: $35.14
A video converter box plus $.15 for a copy I made from a Consumer Reports article. These purchases are unusual but I usually have some sort of "misc." purchase--stamps, phone credit, copay for a doctor visit.

Hating on my Job: The Long Haul

I’m back in the office today after a week of “vacation”--actually a week of mostly-good-but-not-terribly-relaxing family visits, novel revision, and school volunteering.

Now I’m looking at a nasty little pile of paper and 38 totally uninteresting emails and wondering if I can really do this for five more years. On Nov. 11, 2015, I will let myself quit, whether or not I have enough money to actually retire. Apart from the hideous conference season in the early spring, my job is usually not terribly taxing. But oh my god do I not care about it. Eight years is long enough doing something I don’t care about, and I ought to have enough savings by then that I can at least switch to something part-time.

3:00. Down to 2 boring emails and a very small pile of nasty paper. In other words, it’s back to the status quo: staring at the few unappealing items on my to-do list, occasionally doing one, and then killing time in one way or another. I’ve had very few interruptions today (yay!) but have been answering the phones for a big chunk of the day. Oh, and two people have come to talk to me about the attendance habits of one of the women I supervise. Joy.

4:15. I really want to go home. Have been reading for the past hour or so. Am actually a little tired of reading. Caught up on my RSS reader. No personal emails to speak of. Could work on revising my novel but I don’t think I have the concentration at the moment.

Maybe I’ll somehow find a job I like better in the next five years. I do look occasionally and once in a blue moon apply for something.

4:23. Back to counting my blessings:

  1. Make good money, enough that early retirement is plausible
  2. Job not taxing
  3. Job offers good benefits
  4. Flexible schedule
  5. Lots of vacation time
  6. Have own office
  7. Can read without anyone noticing
  8. Boss not crazy
  9. Free coffee and tea
  10. Access to Internet

Yup. Still better off than 99.9% of people in this world.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

How to Be a Writer for Free

1. Write. You don't need software or special materials. The best novel writing software? Any software that will give you a blank page. The best journal? One that you'll actually write in. Cute little handmade journals with recycled paper aren't actually all that comfortable.

Get a $1.50 spiral notebook you can beat up, carry in your bag, write in even when you don't have a flat surface to lay it out on. Some people like legal pads. Or raid a paper recycling bin and use the blank sides of printed paper. Since it's not lined, you can add drawings, write any size you want to. Since it's "trash" already, you never feel you're "wasting" good paper.

Writing at a cafe can be nice, but don't let yourself believe that you can only write with a giant coffee and vegan muffin. Learn to shut the door at home, make your own coffee, and turn off the Internet if you need to.

2. Read. Read the sorts of things you want to write. If your goal is publishing, read mostly new and recent publications. Check them out from the library, get them from paperbackswap, read online journals or stuff random people post (good for poets, essayists, or short story writers), or read in bookstores. Sometimes I've read entire books in bookstores over the course of several days--not entirely ethical, but not a mortal sin, either.

3. Learn about writing. The best way to learn about writing is to write. Most writing classes are really glorified critique groups, so instead of paying for classes find a writing group or writing partners (see point 4).

Books about writing can be transcendental or worthless. Check them out of the library or skim them in a bookstore. Take notes. If you're compelled to check out the book a second or third time, maybe it's worth buying a copy. Online sources may be even more valuable than books for genre-specific information or solutions to specific problems ("how to write a romance novel," "naming characters," "plot doesn't go anywhere").

Test different methods and tools. Be skeptical of people who say you "must" or "have to" write in a certain way. Use what works for you and discard what doesn't.

If you really want to take classes, ask at local libraries first to see if anyone is offering anything for free. I once found a good teacher through one of those "Learning Annex" catalogs--I think it was $75 for six sessions.

4. Get feedback. The main benefit of most writing classes is the feedback. It's valuable to find one or more people who are as good or better at writing than you and who write things that are at least roughly similar to your writing (i.e., don't team up with a bunch of hard-core literary types if you're writing cozy mysteries) who are willing to read your writing and offer advice or talk about writing with you. In-person groups are ideal but can be hard to find. Try:

  • writing organizations like RWA or SCBWI (local reps or chapters will know of critique groups)
  • writers' forums like AbsoluteWrite, the National Novel Writing Month forums (active year-round), or Verla Kay's message boards. In the Chicago area, there are regular "write ins" during NaNoWriMo, which I've found to be a low-pressure way to meet people as you're mostly writing, not chatting.
  • again, the local library
  • Google "writing/critique groups [your city or state]" This worked well for me in Austin, not so well for Chicago.
  • Go to readings or other writing-related events and talk to the other people there looking for like-minded writers
  • Post on bulletin boards at libraries or bookstores
Be ruthless about weeding out crazies and people who you don't mesh with...or even perfectly nice people who just at a different skill levels. You want people you can build a give-and-take relationship with.

Where I Do Spend Money on Writing
  • Research. I took an out-of-state trip to research the setting of my novel, and did get a much better perspective on the town I was trying to recreate. But try researching from home first--look at detailed maps and photographs, read biographies and journals of people who lived there, visit websites of local businesses.
  • Some memberships. I'm a member of SCBWI because I'm trying to sell a young adult novel and some agents give preference to SCBWI members. Before you join an organization, look at what you'll be getting and consider whether there aren't other ways to get the same benefits. Don't renew automatically--think about whether you've really used your membership in the past year enough to justify the expense.
  • Supporting other (living) writers by buying their books. I read somewhere that anyone trying to publish a novel should be willing to buy a new hardcover novel every week. I agree with this in theory and at times have done so. Right now the combination of ambitious savings goals and minimalism means I don't buy many books. At some point I'll start buying again and either donate or sell the books when I'm done with them or buy them electronically.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Being Boring

I’m back at work today after being on vacation since August 28. This was the first time I’ve had a totally unstructured week in God-knows-how long. I was sinfully boring—I left the house only a handful of times and didn’t do anything that most people would classify as “exciting” or “fun.” I caught up with a friend I haven’t talked to in way too long, read several books, worked out most days, wrote a little, and DH and I hung out, watching the third season of Survivor and starting up a scheme of tracking the calories we’re eating on a spreadsheet.

The last time I spent money was 8/31—just realized this and am rather proud. Lately DH doesn’t seem to be wanting to eat out quite as much. Usually he’ll suggest eating out about twice a week, and we’ll end up eating out 6 or 7 times per month. But in the last month I think we’ve only eaten out 3 times. This is probably not because DH doesn’t want to eat out, but rather because he’s getting sick of the places we close to us. Also our homemade pizza is getting better, so there’s less incentive to get delivery. Any reason is fine with me. I don’t like eating out as much as he does and it’s one of our more significant expenses.

I picked up a few groceries on Monday night, but paid for them on a gift card we bought back in April. In an upcoming post I’ll talk about our grocery strategy, which is not as cheap as it could be as we buy a lot of luxuries, but I think we generally get the best possible price for each item we buy.

Two big projects I worked on this week were trying to get a literary agent and preparing to volunteer at a nearby Sudbury school. I sent out ten or so letters to agents and got a bite back from one of them—my first request for a full manuscript! I spent a big chunk of yesterday looking at my novel and tweaking sentences here and there. This agent apparently requests a lot of manuscripts, but I’m very pleased that there’s enough strength in my manuscript for someone to ask for it.

A Sudbury school is basically a democratic school, meaning the students choose what to do with their time and each individual has a vote in school decisions. Most people find this concept odd or frightening, and I don’t know enough about it to really defend it in detail, but the principles behind it are similar to the principles behind unschooling, which I have more experience with. I’ve seen unschooling work very well for many individuals, meaning that they become functional adults who are generally happy, able to find work that they enjoy, and able to attend college if they want to.

I visited a Sudbury school last spring and am really hoping to be able to volunteer there. I think schools like Sudbury schools might be a better model for society in general than unschooling is, as there are various practical considerations that make unschooling difficult for many families.

I considered this vacation a mini-mini-retirement. I loved being free to structure my own days, deciding when to get up, what to do, and when to do it. I did some things that might be considered "work" (particularly the query letters), but I enjoyed them because they were things I wanted to do and I could decide how to approach them.

When I started thinking about coming back to work, I dreaded having to go back to doing things that I don't consider very important or useful. I just don't care very much about a lot of the things I do. I look forward to the day when all my days can be filled with thing I do care about.

At some point I'd like to do a "sabbatical" or mini-retirement of a few months and see how I deal with freedom over a longer period of time. My suspicion is that I would like it so much I would end up not going back to work. DH sometimes says he thinks I would get too lonely or depressed being home every day. I did get lonely one day last week, but quickly remedied it by having two good phone conversations. I don't think the limited and low-quality social interaction I get at work is really that valuable to me.