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 Our IT department has plenty of outdated but functional technology that they're willing to lend or give away.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:

  • www.meetup.com
  • 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.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Most-Used Card in My Wallet

This morning I grabbed my transit card and realized that I use my transit card way more than my credit card. In the past week, I've used my transit card at least five times--four days of commuting to work and one bus trip over the weekend. I've used my credit card twice, for Domino's and snacks at 7-11.

Ignoring my poor eating habits for a moment, it's a rare week lately when I use my credit or debit card more than my transit card. I use my credit card for almost all expenditures so I can get a few rewards dollars at the end of the year. Obviously, I pay it off every month--my typical credit card bill is about 1/500th of my net worth.

Examining how often you use the various cards in your wallet seems like an interesting exercise to me. If you're trying to drive less or spend less, see if you can use a bus pass or train pass more than your credit card. If you're trying to build your small business, maybe you could set a goal of using your business cards more than you use your credit card.

Personally, I think I also use my library card more than my credit card--especially if you count every time I log in online as a "use." The only other card in my wallet is my driver's license, which I use only as a form of ID. (I haven't driven in about five years...I do want to start driving again someday, but it's pretty far down on my list of priorities.)

Which card in your wallet do you use the most?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Keepin' On

It's been about two and a half years since I really started saving for an early retirement. I've made progress faster than I expected (I'm about 12,000 ahead of where I thought I would be at this point). However, I don't think I'll be able to retire in four and a half years, since my financial situation has changed.

Right now I'm spending about $1900-2300 a month. This covers our rent, utilities, all the food my boyfriend and I eat, and my personal expenses (which now that I think of it are pretty low lately--$52 at the salon every month or two, an occasional event with friends, clothes, except that all I've bought this year are a couple of bras. I haven't spent anything on travel since December and basically nothing on "stuff.").

We're pretty frugal on day to day expenses. Eating out about once a week is basically our one splurge--at about $20 to $25, or $80 to $100 a month. Most of our expenses are in rent--$1250 a month. Could we reduce that? Probably by a little. We *might* (boyfriend, if you're reading this, I stress might) be able to find a place we're 85% happy with for $850. But would it really be worth the PITA factor of looking? We really, really hated looking for apartments last time. It took us FOREVER.

We are finally in an apartment we like. It's top floor, a good size for us, decent neighborhood and right by the train, but an easy drive to suburbs for my boyfriend's job, with central air and heat and an included parking space. This is without a doubt the best of the four apartments we've lived in together.

If we had enough money that a move to a new, cheaper apartment would actually allow us to stop working, I could see us doing it. But right now it would be more like "if we move into a place we're not crazy about, we could retire in several years." I don't think we have the patience for that. So for now the ER date is further out than I originally hoped.

I do, though, still have a little slip of paper on my desk at work with a date written on it--the day I'm "allowed" to quit. Whether I actually quit on that day, or before, or after, will depend on a lot of things. Will my job still be here in 5 years? Will I have a lot more work because other people have been laid off? Will I still have free health insurance? Will I still get the company match on my 403(b)?

I still hope to never need to take another full-time job. I make some money from freelancing, and I think I could increase it. I haven't really experimented with this because the work I do get keeps me so busy. But with the amount I expect to have saved in 5 years, I think I could make up the difference with freelancing, supplemented with another business or a little office temping if I had to.

And in the meantime I save about 40-50% of my takehome every month, plus the 25% that goes straight into my 403(b). I keep doing my freelancing. I keep getting little checks from ehow every month, and socking away anything extra that I get. The nest egg keeps growing. The growth will accelerate as the next egg gets bigger. I keep getting rid of things I don't need. We keep looking for little ways to slash the grocery bill. We slowly reduce the amount we eat out, because our cooking is getting better and it's not as much of a treat anymore.

We keep on keepin' on.

EDIT: Google/Blogger knows me scarily well, because the ads that they put on my blog are ones I'm actually tempted to click on. I've never been tempted to click on online ads on any site, but local sources for Indian food? Yes, please. Alas, clicking on your own ads will quickly get you removed from Google ads for violation of terms of service.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Financial Diary, May 29, 2010

Costs of my business trip to Washington:
$5 or so, copies at Library of Congress
$54 hostel since I went a day early and didn't want to shell out for the expensive conference hotel
Meals and cabs from airport will be reimbursed

  • Spent a delicious day and a half pre-conference at the Library of Congress looking up obscure journal articles and dissertations. Had a lovely conversation with the librarian in the children's literature research room about the project I'm working on. All free.
  • Last year I bought several snacks during conference; this year I managed to make do with things brought from home and extras from various meetings and receptions.
  • Binged on cable TV since I don't have cable at home; didn't have Internet in the room so checked my email in the staff office and the lobby.
  • Found left-behind magazines on both the flight there and the flight back. I always do a quick scan while exiting the plane and if I see anything that looks like a "real" magazine (instead of in-flight), I grab it. I'm sure people judge me for it, but I don't care. I had a good score this time: InStyle on the way there and People on the way back.
  • Didn't have time or energy to do any touristy things other than the LOC. Spent my down time watching TV, working on a critique of a friend's manuscript, and working on a synopsis of my book
  • Phone charger broke; not totally sure if it was my fault or the maid's. Apparently it can't be fixed. Grr. A new charger would be about $30; can replace the phone for less than that but I'm not sure how much; guessing $20.
Since coming home:
Pizza: $30

Other Misc. Developments in finance:
  • Going to San Francisco, again on business, next week. Maybe I can manage to keep my record of not spending anything? I don't seem to be very into touristy things lately; I can have plenty of fun walking around the waterfront and browsing at City of Lights.
  • Haven't used air conditioning yet, not because of finances but because after a bug infestation earlier this spring we really want the vents cleaned out before we use the HVAC again. Unfortunately, our electric bill was actually quite high this month. They had been giving us estimated bills for several months because the landlord wasn't providing access to the meter. Now we're back on the meter, but I guess the estimates (which we thought were high) were actually too low. Yuckola. So I'm sweaty and haven't even saved any money yet.
  • Checked out a new stack of library books this morning. Was practically out of fiction, which is a bona fide emergency!
  • Spent today working on novel-related things and watching Suze Orman Show segments online. CNBC is stingier with online video than most stations, but I can still get a good dose of "Can I Afford It?" segments.
  • Trying to convince R. to open a Roth IRA; I think progress is being made.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Financial Diary, May 17, 2010

Tomorrow, I'm leaving for a business trip to DC. A few days after I get back, I'll be going on another business trip, this time to San Francisco. I'm dreading being away from R. for so long. Financially, business trips are kind of sweet, since I get to eat out all the time for free. I could try to be frugal on business trips but it wouldn't do me any good since I get reimbursed for all the eating out anyway. And while I'm in DC, I plan on spending several hours at the Library of Congress looking up obscure academic articles, which makes me very happy.

Money related activities of the past few days:
- bought 2 T-mobile refill cards, $91.18 each for a $100 value. R.'s will last him about a year, mine will last about 6 months. That makes our total cost for 2 cell phones for the year about $300. I think that's pretty good, though I'm always hoping to reduce my cell phone use enough to make a $100 card last a whole year.
- Spent $14.00 on McDonald's. Didn't mind that since it's been a long time since we've eaten out.
- other meals included spaghetti with tiny meatballs, taco salad, a sort of nacho concoction, and apple crunch, all made from previously purchased groceries.

This weekend, my fun consisted of:
- creating a list of books and articles to look up at the Library of Congress when I go there on Tuesday
- downloading articles and dissertations from online databases
- picking out books to check out at the library before I leave
- watching cooking shows with R.
- writing a scene list for my novel
- critiquing someone else's novel
- playing a vapid online game
- cuddling
- cooking

I didn't leave the house from Friday night until Sunday night. Most people would probably find my weekends dull as sticks, but I love them.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The First 100,000 is the hardest?

My net worth is now hovering around 100k--to be exact, on April 6, it was $105,000. I've read that once you've accumulated $100,000, interest and investment gains start to add up and it starts feeling easier to save. I still feel like I'm a long way away from my "number" for early semi-retirement, which is somewhere between 300k and 500k. I used to think my goal was the lower end, but realistically, despite all our little frugal actions, R and I still managed to spend $40,000 last year. Ugh. Which, actually, would make our "number" 1 million. Double ugh.

I'm trying to decrease that this year, but we're not really interested in moving for financial reasons (we had a hard enough time last year finding an apartment we liked in this price range) and his health insurance and car insurance are pretty much set expenses. (Thankfully, we don't have a car payment, since the car is a hand-me-down, and it's used mostly for his brief commute to work, so gas and repairs are fairly small.)

We don't spend much on entertainment or household things. The biggest things we can cut on this year are travel (me), groceries (both), and eating out (both). It's likely I'll spend very little on travel in 2010, decreasing our expenses by 1-2000 dollars.

Groceries are a continual battle between "ooh, Doritos!" and "oh yeah, cauliflower." And there is definitely a balance between having appealing groceries on hand and the likelihood that we'll be tempted to eat out (which for us mostly means ordering a pizza).

On the plus side, our current apartment costs the same in rent as our old apartment, but our utilities costs are about $90/month less because of the smaller space and better insulation.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Last One Out Turn Out the Lights

Last week a woman was laid off from my work. My organization now has 17 employees, and I have a few new responsibilities.

We also got rid of our storage area in the basement of our skyscraper. (Side note: How tall does a building have to be to be considered a skyscraper? Our building is 24 floors. I usually just call it an office building, but I'm not sure if that means something different to people who don't live in cities.)

Storage is now in the former mail room and the mail room has been moved to the main work area. I'm convinced we could also do away with the mail room storage, which still holds a lot of junk like dozens of old binders and publications we'll never need, but I don't know if there would be any financial benefit to that.

R. has said that he doesn't think I'll ever have to face the scary task of actually quitting my job because "in ten years it won't exist."In 10 years, I think my company will have more like 10 employees than 17. I can pinpoint the order in which I think they would be laid off, too, and I think I'd be pretty accurate, because for months I've guessed that Ms. X would probably be laid off in April.

There are several people in their late 50s/early 60s who might retire before they get laid off--I don't know if they would be replaced or if we'd just redistribute their responsibilities. My boss is, I think, the oldest person here, and I dread her retirement, since I think she handles the organization really well.

Layoffs in our org seem to happen based on role more than seniority or work performance. I think my position will last for a while--it has existed since the early 70s. Though if I'm still here in 10 years I may be doing more work myself rather than supervising.

Will the company fold altogether? I think it would take a lot--it's been around for more than a century. Eventually, if we're down to just a few employees, we might merge with a larger organization. I could see that happening 20-30 years from now. At which point I'll hopefully be long gone--even if I loved the place, I wouldn't want to stay here that long.

I have a certain fascination with things closing in. Recession economics equal simplification. I'm all right with that. That's the kind of challenge I find interesting and fun--doing more with less. What can I declutter today? What work are we doing that's redundant or that doesn't create much value for the organization? What can I not do?

No spending, a few more discards

Mildly financially related things I did yesterday:

  • wrapped a paperbackswap book
  • brought lunch of leftover taco meat made into a taco salad
  • cooked dinner--butter chicken and broccoli
  • spent nothing
  • changed the amount for my biweekly automatic transfer from checking to savings. I think I can do another $90 per pay period without feeling the pinch too much.
  • 2 tubes of lipstick: I like how I look wearing lipstick, but I never actually do it. Also, R. doesn't like the taste of lipstick, and I like being kissed
  • one pair of earrings
  • one chain that inevitably gets tangled in my hair
  • many papers related to my novel, as I revise and resolve the issues

More upcoming discards:
  • bicycle
  • Family silver? R. is mildly-to-moderately against me selling this, because he thinks it will appreciate in value over the next fifty years. I disagree, but should probably do more research on the historical trends in silver prices (it's monogrammed, so I probably won't be able to resell it except for the metal value).

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sour Cream Banana Bread: A Love Letter

I love the Internet. Every week or so I have a moment when I just want to freaking shout this from the rooftops, even though I know it makes me seem like a crazy old person. And I'm only 29! Those of you under 25 or so will have to trust me on this: THE INTERNET HAS REVOLUTIONIZED LIFE.

For instance, cooking. A few months ago, R and I wanted chocolate chip cookies. We had chocolate chips, but no butter and eggs.

We thought that it might be possible to substitute something else, but weren't sure what. In the olden days, we would have looked through a few cookbooks, found that all the cookie recipes use butter and/or eggs, and either given up or tried to make up something ourselves, which might have been fun but probably would have turned out inedible.

Instead, we turned to the Internet and easily found a recipe. The result was not fantastic, but we now I know that you can make chocolate chip cookies without butter or eggs, in cases of extreme chocolate cravings during blizzards or famines.

Today, I searched for "sour cream banana bread" and came up with this recipe. So what? Probably everyone reading this has Googled a recipe a million times. The fact that you can search some sites for things like "banana bread with sour cream but no baking soda" is slightly more interesting, but nothing mind-blowing.

But look again--this boring, ordinary recipe has 383 reviews. I don't care whether these people liked it or not--the value of these reviews is in the modifications the reviewers made. One reviewer added craisins--mmm! Another made it with half Splenda and whole wheat flour. A third used oil instead of butter and claims it made the recipe better.

And one brave soul used strawberry banana yogurt instead of sour cream. Now that's something I wouldn't have tried, but it worked. No sour cream? Use your kids' leftover Go-gurt.

This isn't one banana bread recipe--it's 384. It's the cookbook that your grandmother had with careful pencil notes on oven adjustments and substitutions, only 383 people are making the notes.

These people will tell you what you can use if you're out of something, how to make a recipe healthier, how to make it low-fat/low-salt/vegan/gluten-free. You don't need a hundred separate cookbooks on Low Blood Pressure Cooking and Easy Microwave Dinners for Teens and Five-Ingredient Meals and Atkins-Friendly breakfasts. All you need is Google, RecipeZaar, and some strawberry-banana yogurt.

Read enough reviews and you'll begin to understand how to make these changes yourself. You're intuitively learning kitchen chemistry. I know people who have cooked their whole lives and never really understood that there's nothing magical about the exact ingredients and amounts in, say, a Joy of Cooking recipe. It may be really great when followed exactly, but you can also do all kinds of stuff to it and still end up with something recognizable as banana bread, and maybe even something that you like better.

There goes the oven timer--time to see if the people on RecipeZaar were right.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Modes of Being

I would like to be less focused on consumption. My days seem to revolve around undoing my past consumption (decluttering); consuming food and preparing to consume food (cooking, shopping); and consuming information/fiction (books, blogs, movies, etc.). Especially the last one.

What other "modes" of being are there? Creation, of course. That's the one I'm most interested in increasing. I call myself a writer, and have managed to do some fairly serious writing, but spend a shockingly small amount of time on it as compared to other things.

Reflection is another mode--doing nothing, or writing, or meditating. And then there's just plain action--exercise, physical labor. Maybe maintenance (cleaning, mending, fixing) is a mode of being, too, though to me that seems fairly closely related to consumption.

My financial and consumption-related activities for today:

  • Mailed BSC books off to the winner of the ebay auction
  • Posted the few remaining BSC books on paperbackswap
  • Returned a shower curtain that we were dissatisfied with
  • Picked up books that I had on hold at the library
  • Went to the grocery store and spent about $6.50 on basic groceries
  • Boiled a bunch of potatoes so we'll use them instead of letting them go bad
  • Cooked the "Spanish Rice Mix" that we've had for at least a year
  • Made the canteloupe that was about to go bad into a not-terrible smoothie (R.'s idea)
  • Got rid of a binder, a small notebook, a large journal, the sixth season of Sex and the City, two magazines, and a few assorted papers
With the removal of the BSC books and the other items I got rid of today I am finally feeling like I might be drawing closer to "enough"--my ideal amount of stuff. I only have 86 books left, and I think I might be ready to let go of a couple more. Files remain my biggest decluttering challenge, but I'm slowly making a dent in them.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Financial Diary, January 27, 2010

The money-related things I did today:

  • picked up an admittedly somewhat gross penny. I always pick up pennies. Every one is a minuscule amount of time that I don't have to work.
  • did several hours' worth of copy editing at $30 an hour. A type of work I actually like.
  • prepared a Paperbackswap book to send
  • read an article and watched a documentary on Dolly Freed, author of Possum Living. Was very excited to see that someone found the author of this strange-but-wonderful book on living very frugally. Was less excited to discover that her father was an alcoholic, and sounds emotionally abusive, too. He also spent several years vagrant and died alone. Which is ironic because...seriously, just read the article. And the book, if you're at all inclined towards extreme frugality or self-sufficiency.
  • posted an announcement of that still-continuing ebay auction on a Livejournal community
  • redeemed some Swagbucks (referral link) for a $5 Amazon gift card.
  • sent a check to my SEP-IRA to push my balance above $2000 so I can invest the money (instead of keeping it in the money market account where it's been for the past two years) without incurring a "small balance" charge.
  • got my annual "cash back" credit card rebate of $37.92
  • didn't spend any money. The last time I spent something was last Thursday, $1.90 at the post office. Tomorrow, though, I'll break that streak by paying rent.
I was about to publish this and realized I forgot to include the biggest economic activity I engaged in today: worked 8.5 hours at my day job, and earned about $170 after tax and my 401(k) deduction, probably more like $350 to $400 if you were to count the cost of my benefits.

I spent 2.5 or 3 hours of that actually working, including an hourlong conference call and a meeting with my boss where she both semi-chewed me out for something I considered quite minor and asked me if I'd be willing to switch my day off (currently Wednesday) so that we can have regular staff meetings on Wednesdays. Staff meetings at my job are a special circle of hell, due to the complex and tension-laden relationships among my coworkers, and usually are blessedly infrequent. I suspect this sudden ramping up of the number of staff meetings is in preparation for a layoff that may happen in April. Hopefully it will just be the one person I think it will be and not someone who actually does their work. (Despite the fact that I only spent about 3 hours on work today, I *do* do my work . . . I'm just fast.)

Ain't employment grand? About six years left to go . . . even if I don't make my early retirement goal by then (and judging from last year's spending I won't), I think I'll let myself quit my current job on my 35th birthday and at least go freelance for a while.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Past Week or So in Frugality and Minimalism, Bullet Point Edition

  • Sent my saxophone and music to my brother via my mom, who was on her way to see him. He's started trying to play it, and if he gets good enough will offer saxophone lessons (one of his major sources of income is teaching voice, piano, and guitar). I feel good about the decision to give it to him--the saxophone was definitely something that he can use more than me.
  • Deposited a $360 check from freelancing
  • Wrote an email to boyfriend explaining why he should open a Roth IRA (that is, so that we can tax shelter more money).
  • Cooked several things with boyfriend: potato salad, quasi-fries, fried chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and banana bread. Fridge is now full of delicious homemade food. Boyfriend, who grew up on pizza, McDonald's, and Stouffer's, is growing by leaps and bounds in his cooking skills.
  • Sent two paperbackswap books, one more ready to go.
  • Got rid of the books I own that are in the public domain--finally realized that there's no real reason to keep a tattered copy of A Little Princess when I can read it online anytime I want.
  • Listed my large Baby-sitters Club collection on ebay (this is the most embarrassing collection ever, but on the off chance that anyone reading remembers these books nostalgically, I'm putting in the link). I assembled this collection in 2006-2007, and I would have said back then I would keep it basically forever. I used to read books from this series all the time--sort of a comfort thing--but now I haven't touched one in almost a year. I think the real excitement with this collection came from finding the books (in thrift stores, on trading communities) and reading the ones I hadn't ever read. Many of the books I know I won't read again, and if I want to, I can always do the whole business over again. I probably won't get as much from selling it as I spent on assembling it, but it'll go to someone who will appreciate it and I won't have to lug it to the next 16 homes I live in.
What's Next?
  • Investing the money that's been sitting in my Fidelity money market account for Way Too Long
  • Figuring out something to do with the $24,000 that just rolled over from a CD into my savings
  • Canceling Netflix
  • Continuing to roll in the Swagbucks. Boyfriend has totally drunk the Kool-Aid and now we're getting an average of $10 at Amazon every two weeks.
  • More possible discards: Sex and the City DVDs, bicycle, dead Grandma's silverware, lots and lots of papers (I stacked up all my files yesterday and I have 41 inches of papers).

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Is Minimalism a Spiritual Pursuit?

On Early Retirement Extreme the other day, Jacob described minimalism and uncluttering as "new-age" practices. (I do occasionally read things other than Early Retirement Extreme. I promise.) At first I thought, my minimalism doesn't work that way. And then I thought, well, maybe it kind of does.

I'm not new age in the slightest. I tend to avoid people who are interested in new-age topics, because I am afraid they will start talking about a) The Law of Attraction, b) "monkey mind" or c) angels. I do not want to hear about your experiences with these things, but neither do I want to tell you my true feelings on these subjects, because you are a friend/coworker/pleasant-seeming stranger and I see no reason to start a conflict about these things when it's unlikely we will ever agree anyhow.

My interest in minimalism is not about "clean" design or ascetism. I simply want to have less stuff. There is a very practical side to my uncluttering--I want to create more space in my house. Plus it just plain feels good to me to have less stuff, to really use and value the things I own.

But there's also a less concrete side, that wants to get rid of the stuff to create mental space. I moved around a lot growing up and I have frequent dreams where I have to pack everything I own in a short period of time or with only a backpack to hold it or without packing supplies. They are very anxious dreams, and the stuff in the dreams is a confused tangle of utter junk and precious treasures, like my diaries. In fact, I had one of these dreams on Saturday night. And part of me thinks that if I minimize to the point that I only have the things that really matter to me, and can pack everything in a short amount of time, those dreams will go away. I have no idea if that's true. But part of me hopes that.

So I keep going. Yesterday I sent my saxophone to my brother in Texas. Today, I'll get rid of a few more papers. A little at a time.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Last Purchase of Year, First Purchase of Year

What was your last purchase of 2009? What was your first purchase of 2010? These purchases are no more significant than any other purchases, but thinking about them might provide some insight into your financial habits.

My last purchase of 2009: $19 for lunch with a friend and her mom.
My friend ordered a similar priced entree, and we both made a face when we looked at the bill and realized how much our food had cost. Her mom quietly ordered an "eggplant steak" appetizer, which looked like about the same amount of food and cost $6.95.

Was this purchase worthy of being my last in 2009? No! It was a good lunch, but I could have had a similar amount of pleasure for about 40% of the price.

My first purchase of 2010: $2.77 to mail a Paperbackswap book
Was this purchase worthy of being my first for 2010? Perhaps. I get a lot of obscure reading material from Paperbackswap, which I enjoy. But when I looked at my end of year spending, I didn't like how much I'd spent on sending Paperbackswap books. This amount should naturally decrease, since I liquidated a lot of my library in 2009 and no longer have as many books listed on Paperbackswap, but I'm also giving myself a limit of sending out 25 books on Paperbackswap. That should be more than enough credits for how I use Paperbackswap (getting books I want to read that aren't available in the Chicago Public Library).

I'm not really satisfied with either of these purchases. I especially don't like that both of them are luxuries. In 2010, I want to spend much less on "luxuries," increasing the percentage of my spending that goes to true necessities, like basic groceries and rent. This isn't because I don't feel I "deserve" luxuries, but because I have big goals (see older posts) that are made easier the less I spend.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Another, more extensive, inventory

The 100 Thing challenge undertaken by various bloggers intrigues me, but the number seems arbitrary. I've yet to see anyone claim to do this without making various exceptions for shared items, books, or "collections" of items. Probably this is because it's basically impossible for a middle-class Westerner to actually reduce his or her material goods to 100 things, including everything he or she uses for necessary activities (cooking, sleeping, hygiene, fixing things) and everything used for entertainment.

Clothes and books would be my two biggest challenges. Most people seem to make an exception for books, which I think is kind of cheating. If I were to undertake this challenge seriously I would probably have to make a similar exception, but why are books, as material objects, any more valuable than DVDs or knick-knacks? I haven't seen anyone make an exception for clothes, maybe because most of the people doing this challenge seem to be men.

I recently downsized my library to 100 items, and could probably lose 10 or 15 more volumes if I was really tough on myself. I am a *huge* reader (5-7 books a week), and most of the volumes that remain on my shelves are relatively obscure works that are either not available in the Chicago Public Library system or that are likely to be weeded soon (i.e., ephemeral works of 90s young adult literature). I also hung on to a few more popular works that I consider "comfort books," books I reread when I'm depressed or have a bad case of ennui, like A Little Princess and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Those would be the most likely candidates for removal if/when I do another purge.

I don't have any real interest in minimizing my wardrobe. I do weed out anything I haven't worn in six months, but I like having a variety of clothes to choose from. For a woman, I think it would be much harder to have a wardrobe of less than 100 items, although Tammy from RowdyKittens managed it. I don't see how I could get to a wardrobe that small without giving up skirts and "feminine" shoes altogether.

I currently own about 400 items, including books and wardrobe. I'm still cheating a little--well, a lot. I'm not itemizing a certain book collection or a Rubbermaid full of Christmas stuff that probably includes 100 items just on its own. And, uh, those innocent items "file cabinet 1" and "file cabinet 2" include thousands of papers. Possibly tens of thousands.

I am making progress, though. As of this morning, I own approximately 114 things that aren't clothes, books, or things shared with my boyfriend (hammer, DVD player, etc. are mostly shared with the boyfriend). Anything that I could get rid of without him caring is on this list. I also took off the consumables, like deodorant, even though I've been tracking those for my own purposes. (Again, though, that distinction is kind of arbitrary--is contact solution consumable, even though I've had it for years, and isn't an eraser, technically, consumable?) [UPDATE: While preparing this list for posting, I got rid of a few more things and am now down to 90. I intend to get rid of several more items, marked in red.]

Lists like this show me both how similar we are and how idiosyncratic. Almost everyone has a comb and a toothbrush, but Dave Bruno has a surfboard, plus two Bibles, in his 100 things, and Tammy has a fuel belt for running (I don't have the faintest idea what that is). I, on the other hand, even in my quasi-minimalist state, have oil pencils and a pair of old jeans that no longer fit.

1. Teak table (and desk blotter)
2. lamp
3. bookshelf
4. bike (and helmet, lock)--will be getting rid of and hopefully replacing with a bike more practical for our small third-floor apartment
5. papasan chair
6. file cabinet 1
7. file cabinet 2
8. cell phone
9. laptop
10. speakers
11. mouse
12. tweezers
13. bag for washing nylons
14. sponges and toiletries kit for holding sponges
15. comb
16. toothbrush
17. tongue scraper
18. bag’o’hairties
19. hairdryer
20. contact case
21. spare contacts
22. exercise ball
23. oil pencils
24. needlepoint canvas
25. needlepoint
26. gallon ziplock bag of thread and embroidery floss
27. cross-stitch sampler
28. 64-crayon set
29. pencil sharpener
30. stapler & staples
31. paintbrushes (5)
32. small box of sewing findings
33. flashlight
34. acrylics
35. bag of crochet hooks
36. Derwent watercolor pencils
37. box of business cards
38. box of stationary
39. eraser
40. poster putty
41. computer backup
42. Mouse software
43. Office XP

44. Windows XP
45. laptop recovery
46. Photoshop Elements
47. diskettes (5)--files on these disks are corrupted. Want to try them on another computer before giving up on them.
48. Zip disks (3)--Want to try to retrieve the files on these, but don't have a Zip drive
49. Stainless steel
water bottle
50. second stainless steel water bottle (acquired free; I wouldn't go out and buy a second one)
51. pot shaped like eggplant, made by me
52. handmade pot made by friend
53. volksmarch medal, designed by me as a child
54. stacking doll
55. gong--will probably discard
56. one bead
57. beach glass from friend
58. foreign coins (8, mostly Germany and England)
59. Middle Eastern plate--will discard, want to see if it has any resale value
60. cut glass crudite dish from Grandma
61. Rubbermaid of Christmas things
62. childhood teddy bear
63. jeans from high school with quotes, song lyrics, etc.
64. 1890 map of Minnesota
65. journal (current)
66. globe
67. Egyptian pillow cover
68. Grandma Evie’s silver--never use; will sell eventually
69. fabric from vintage dress
70. Egyptian silk
71. Picture of Audrey Hepburn
72. incense holder
73. binoculars
74. hot water bottle
75. eyeglass repair kit
76. wooden box
77. glasses
78. Life as We Knew It poster
79. wallet
80. earring hanger
81. jewelry box
82. sleeping bag and stuff sack
83. portfolio
84. pedometer
85. large suitcase
86. carry-on suitcase
87. duffle bag
88. Framed calligraphy
89. Framed photograph of my old neighborhood