Needs vs. Wants

May has been an interesting month. It was harder than I anticipated to adjust to a biweekly paycheck from a weekly one (I started working on the last day of the last pay period, so Wednesday will be my first full paycheck) and as a result, I’ve returned to a few of the older money-blogs I used to read like “And then we saved.” I stopped reading it because I don’t actually find the new stuff that useful (not compared to YNAB at least) but one of her older posts got me thinking. In it, Anna made a list of her wants versus her needs in preparation for a year-long spending fast. I’m not planning anything so grandiose, but with the trip to Glasgow on the horizon and my travel funds somewhat depleted, it would be nice to cut some of my expenses to put more money toward travel (to say nothing of my still outstanding car loan).

So I made my lists.

Rent (including utilities) $550/month
Cell phone $28/month
Health insurance $175/month (this may drop in June on my work plan. I forget the exact calculations because I did it at work).
Car insurance $106/month
Other health (co-pays, prescriptions) $20/month
Car Payments $500/month
Some gas $110 month
Food $190/month
HK food & litter $40/month
Vet trips $60/month
Household goods (TP, shampoo, non food groceries) $45/month
Derby $60/month
To give good gifts
New workout clothes
Eating out
Coffee shops
New laptop
To give to charity
Nice pens/office supplies
Writing subscriptions
Poetry workshops

Retirement $500/month
Saving whatever is left

The amounts in my “needs” column are averages of what I’ve spent in each category so far this year. The wants are listed in the order in which they came to me, not the order in which I consciously value them (though unconsciously perhaps).

If I could stick to just my needs, there would be plenty of money for most of my wants. So I’m thinking of instituting another “summer sequester” like I did a few years ago. Just spending money on my needs, cutting costs whenever possible–particularly aiming at the food and fuel costs. I’ve been biking to work whenever possible, which is glorious, but I have evening meetings offsite, so I usually end up driving in a few days a week. Still, I think it makes a difference.

I’m starting this week with a “spending freeze” until pay day on Wednesday. We’ll see if it actually works out, but I skipped today’s shopping trip in favor of eating what I already have in the house. One of my friends gave me a large purple cabbage on Friday from her CSA, so I cooked it up this afternoon and will be enjoying a lot of free cabbage over the next few days as a result. Then it will be black beans, now and forever. I’m exaggerating a little, I actually forget how many half eaten bags of frozen vegetables are in the freezer, but black beans are my go-to.

The hardest thing to give up, not for three days, but if I really do a summer sequester again will be eating out. Plumeria has become a convenient treat, especially with one of my friends, and it will be unpleasant to break that tradition, even temporarily (but probably good practice). They boyfriend and I budget a little “fun money” into our rent, so that we don’t have to keep track of who paid last time when we go out to eat, so we’ll still do that about once every week or so. I don’t feel like I eat out much otherwise, but the numbers tell a different story.

It’s nice to have a goal to aim for–Glasgow in August, but I really just want to get back into a frugal frame of mind for its own sake. I feel like I could be saving so much more, without great cost to my quality of life, if I only applied myself a little more closely.

Hey, long time no see!

Confession: I may have forgotten the password to this site. And it may be that I originally registered with wordpress when I was in college and using an email to which I also don’t remember the password. I’d like that to explain my long absence, but the truth is, I have no real excuse. Offline life happened.

So, some big updates! This is a long one since it’s been almost two months since I’ve written anything.

Starting on Wednesday, I go back to work for Girl Scouts! I’m very, very excited about it, not least because they offered me full benefits which is the first time that I’ve ever had such things!!!!*

I went to D.C. with my grandmother and my incomparable sister (whose blog, by the way is and she’s currently in 2nd place for  fiction contest that, if she won, would allow her to pay of her student loans, so you should totally download her great story here. Go ahead. I’ll wait.) It was the trip of a lifetime and I’m so glad that we did it. I’m also so glad that I budgeted for it because I was able to spend whatever I wished to make sure we were comfortable and enjoying ourselves. It was already in the budget! I personally bought three books (plus the one I brought) and my mother gave me a fourth. All nonfiction and so far, all great. My total cost for the trip, including airfare and hotels, was $3,214.63 out of the $5,000 I had set aside for travel (as it turns out, I’ll be needing the rest sooner rather than later since the Boy will be giving a talk at a big fancy conference in Glasgow in August, and I will be tagging along!).

As a result of the trip and taxes, my April spending was fairly astronomical, but it was in the budget and fully planned for. Taxes took a big chunk of change, $4,714.00 to be exact, but I had a little bit more set aside, so I was able to pay it without flinching.

This is one of the things I love about having switched to YNAB from my own excel spreadsheet. Even though I spent more than I earned this month, I had budgeted for it in previous months, so it was no big deal. In the past, spending more than I earned in a month would always stress me out, but some months are just bigger than others. The best thing you can do is plan for it in advance and build up that pot of money over time for when expenses like taxes or once-in-a-lifetime trips come along.

One area I did not plan to spend money but did was clothes. I’ve been musing recently about wanting to look more like an adult. I don’t wear makeup often these days, and I don’t want to start, but I felt like my clothes didn’t fit how I wanted to present myself. (Funny side note: I’ve always wanted to dress for business and have never really had a reason to. In seventh grade, I bought all my new school clothes from the thrift store, mostly dress slacks, button downs and some sweaters. I was mistaken for a teacher at least once). So with my new job coming up, I decided I’d go look for some new work pants.

I started by going to the thrift stores on 5th Ave, but didn’t really find what I was looking for. I have a hard time shopping for pants, and the problem with thrift stores is they don’t always have exactly what you want. If I want some wild party gear or some lovely sundresses, I know where to go, but nothing had that extra veneer of “well-dressed professional” that I desired.

So I hit the mall. Specifically, Ann Taylor, which since we share a name (I don’t hold it against her that she spells it wrong, I pity her) and since in an alternate universe, I’d like to be an Ann Taylor mannequin in the store windows–that’s how much the clothes appeal to me. Of course, I found a good (and expensive) pair of pants. And then I went to Banana Republic and found two more. Realistically, this is the most I’ve spent on pants ever, possibly the most I’ve spent on clothes since the great sundress hunt my senior year of college. But, they are really nice pants.

And, as it happened, I needed some work appropriate flats, so I could stop wearing out the soles of the one pair of work shoes I wear. So I hit up Target, where I got two great pairs of shoes and three work appropriate blouses to go with my pants, and two belts to hold up said pants since someone doesn’t appreciate when I borrow his. More money gone! More clothes obtained!

The grand total was approximately $400, which is a lot of money for clothes especially given that I hadn’t really decided yesterday would be the day when I solved all my wardrobe problems. But then I went home, pulled everything out of my closet and tried each new piece on with each old piece in every conceivable combination with every conceivable shoe option from the very practical flats to the red stilettos that my mother calls “killer shoes.” Every. Single. Thing. Worked. Every new piece worked together with everything I already owned. Pieces I didn’t like much before looked smarter when paired with a new pair of pants or any of the new tops. Things I thought I’d want to send to Goodwill looked again! And most importantly for me, everything I put on made me feel like an adult. Which of course I am, even though I’m seeking validation through clothes. Girl Scouts better be ready because in the immortal words of Mark Ronson, “when we show up, we gon’ show out.”

In other news, my March goal was apparently writing related (not checking my own blog means I sometimes forget). I took a class on narrative nonfiction in March and April, which was enjoyable, but I’m not sure if I’ll continue to work on the piece I developed now that the class is over.  In April, one of my poems was published in A Year In Ink: Vol 8 published by San Diego Writer’s Ink. It’s thrilling to see my name on the page, but it was a little scary to read it aloud at the release party. And now, I’m vaguely working on some fiction, which about is funny (to me) since I’m ready so much creative nonfiction right now.

One of the books I’ve been pouring through is Gretchen Rubin’s newest title, Better than Before on habits. I love it, of course, since I love to make resolutions and habits and all that good stuff. Right now, I’m working on sleep: going to bed by 9:30 p.m. every night if I’m at home and working toward waking up consistently at 5:30 every morning so I have some time to write. Fortunately, Hillary Kitten is very supportive of this habit.

Other habits I’m developing (because I can’t read a whole book on habits and stop at just one!) are daily exercise and daily writing. You know, the usual suspects.

I have the next couple of days off before I start work, so hopefully I won’t forget my password and maybe you’ll hear from me sometime sooner than two months from now. We’ll see!

*Clarification: I had health insurance at the law office where I worked but no retirement, and I had retirement when I worked for G.S. previously, but no health insurance. Now I’ll have both! If there are other work related benefits, my generation knows nothing of them. 

February Recap/March Resolutions

A very good friend of mine gave me a wonderful gift yesterday, the best gift that I can remember receiving in some time: a deck of cards called the “Travel Anywhere Guide.” Each card has a prompt “for discovering the unexpected wherever your journey leads.”

The first card I drew says “look behind you, look above you, look underneath you. These are your surroundings.” Behind me is a window, that looks out onto a dark, wet Mission Hills. Above me is the ceiling of my apartment and a light fixture. Beneath me is the couch that we purchased from craigslist when we moved into this apartment, a little grayer than it was then. It feels good to take a look around and remember that whatever is going on in my head right now, I am physically here. I have a nice apartment (with electricity!) and comfortable furniture, in a neighborhood where I (most of the time) feel safe. Really, after that, the rest is details.

February flew by. I did not stop multi-tasking. I did not stop browsing the internet. I still need to stop multi-tasking, in large part because doing six things at once makes me feel hectic and stressed, whereas slowing down and doing one thing at a time makes me feel in control, but work hasn’t been cooperating. I think I’m better off replacing internet time than just quitting, but I also feel like this is a “small potatoes” goal compared to what I’m really trying to accomplish. Will spending less time on the internet make me happier? Probably. Will stressing out about how much time I spend on the internet make me happier? Certainly not. So, I’m letting go.

February was a good month, money-wise. I almost forgot how good until I was going back over my accounts today. I started a retirement account with Vanguard! I fully funded that retirement account for 2014! And I’m on track to fully fund this account in 2015! And pay off my car! That’s a lot of exclamation points, but I have a lot to be excited about. Things are happening.

I’m not expecting much to change in March financially. I’ve finally booked tickets to go to D.C. in April with my sister and my grandmother, so there will be a fair amount of extra spending related to this trip, but I’ve already set aside the money for it. Buying plane tickets for three people, leaving from three separate cities? No big deal. That felt really good. I’m excited to figure out where we’ll stay and what we’ll do when we’re there. I also realized tonight that my grandmother turns 88 at the end of April, which makes this whole trip seem more urgent. If not now, when?

I want to focus in March on the “what do I want to do with my life?” question I posed when I started this project. Lately, my work-life balance has been feeling off (or non-existent). I like my job, but it isn’t the end-all be-all of what I want to do with my life. I want to spend a little more time figuring out what that end-all be-all is (or at least, what my two year plan is right now) and I want to start working on it. I’ve found it really effective to keep a list of questions in my car to check in on my resolutions and priorities. Lately the list has been long, six questions, but this week I simplified it down to just one that I want to focus on:

Have you done one thing today to further your writing dreams? 

This is what I think that be-all end-all question might come down to (career-wise), at least, it is the piece of myself that keeps coming back to me and won’t let me go, so this month I’m going to make it a higher priority.

For my fun resolution, I just want to play with my new cards. It makes for good tweet inspiration, so if you’re on twitter, you should follow me @arecanter.

For family, it is my person’s birthday this month, so we have some fun things planned, and of course, getting ready and anticipating this trip in April.

You Do Not Have to Be Good

You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

It was good to read Mary Oliver‘s lines this evening (thanks, Mom). Even though they are wedged in a picture frame on my freezer door, sometimes I miss the words. They blend in to the white of the refrigerator and instead of reading them, I just glance at the bit of paper as I’m grabbing my lunch in the morning, walking away before I can remember “you do not have to be good.”

If I don’t even have to be good, that means I certainly don’t have to be perfect. It means that when I don’t have to treat every mistake I make (and I do make some) like it is a cardinal sin. A lost package, no matter how urgent, probably does not require the cat-o-nine-tails (I may have slightly overreacted to some work problems last week).

I don’t have to be good. I don’t have to be good in the strict, Puritanical, follow-the-rules way that comes so naturally to me, and I don’t have to be good at things, which also mostly comes naturally (and is devastating when it doesn’t). I don’t have to run a marathon or play on the A team. I don’t have to finish my reps. I don’t have to cut out carbs or eat cauliflower. I don’t have to go vegan. I don’t have to be good at sales or pretend that I want to get better at it because it is “good” for me. I don’t have to pretend to like every aspect of my job.

I just have to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves.

What I love right now:

  • my cat
  • getting up early to work out with November Project
  • the Dragon Noodles I made for dinner tonight (skipped the potatoes)
  • the thought of going to bed in a few minutes

Eat all the black beans

It all comes back to the little things, doesn’t it? I have been feeling a little off my budget lately, spending more than I should without much of a return on investment.

So it’s back to basics. Food and money are so tied for me. It is the first place I look for room to trim in my budget, probably because it is easier than transportation, more variable than rent or bills. I know that if worse came to worst, I have a big bag of rice tucked away, a security blanket of sorts.

I’d like to get back to spending levels from my “summer sequester” a few years back, the summer after I left the law office and was working as a camp counselor for Girl Scouts. In spite of the fact that I was earning next to nothing with no work guaranteed past the first week in August, it was a glorious summer. I spent absurdly little (in June of that summer, I spent less than $800, which to be fair, did not include rent) and lived well. I’d like to be as happy as I was that summer, and if I can’t be as happy as I was then, at least I’d like to be as frugal.

This week, I’ve only planned dinner meals. I eat leftovers for lunch, and oatmeal with raisins for breakfast, so dinner is all I ahve to worry about. For dinner tonight (and lunch tomorrow), I dug out the ends of three bags of beans and dumped them in the crockpot for chili.Scott will make chili and it will be a good meal for this grey-southern-California day.  The beans do not look delicious right now–the black beans have turned the chickpeas and the great northern beans a nauseating shade of grey, but I trust that when they are covered in tomatoes and chili powder, all will be well. At least, I hope so, because the beans have expanded enough, that I suspect I may not get to all of the meals listed below.

For Monday, I’ll make potatoes with kale from smitten kitchen. Potatoes are cheap, and the kale filling makes this meal feel decadent.

Tuesday is dragon noodles from Budget Bytes because it is light on ingredients, and I need to use up the cilantro. I’m subbing fettucine for lo mein noodles because I can never follow directions perfectly.

Wednesday is black bean salad, again to use up the cilantro. I’ll have to buy avocado still here because I hate buying it early. I will probably need to restock on black beans here as well. It’s too bad they don’t come in bags as large as my rice does. This is probably the meal I will skip if my chili is still around. They are too similar.

Thursday is potato fries and black bean burgers. I’m heavy on black beans this week because they are a cheap, delicious source of protein, and they can be repeated ad nauseum in infinite varieties.

Friday is an open day. Scott and I regularly end up going out to eat, so that might happen. Otherwise, I’m thinking pizza or burritos (with black beans of course).

Savings Started

Mischief Managed

For whatever reason, this title reminds me of the Harry Potter phrase “Mischief Managed” courtesy of Mssrs. Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs, but it is much truer to say my mischief has only just begun. As of this week, I have opened an IRA and I have back-funded it for all of 2014. As of now, I officially have $5,500 dedicated to my retirement. Every time I remember that fact, I get a little shiver of joy, so I should try to remember it much more often.

Having a retirement account, a real one, has been a goal of mine for several years, but it has always been pushed off until later dates. This year, I netted a significant tax reduction by starting and funding my IRA, which is what finally motivated me to do it. Keep more of my money and take care of a much needed responsibility at the same time? Yes, please IRS. My new goal, now that the IRA is in place, is to max it out again for 2015. And then… well, it is easy for me to get ahead of myself. It is enough for now, to just drop $500 in the account each month and watch it grow.

Other news: my reading reports have fallen off the wagon, as have my happiness goals. I am going to choose to blame The Happiness Myth by Jennifer Hecht, which has turned my notions about happiness on its head.  In a nutshell, the message of the book is that there are a lot of ways to be happy, and the ways that our culture currently subscribes to aren’t necessarily based on great evidence. it’s made me wonder if my constant measuring and striving is really making me happier, or if it is just a manifestation of America’s puritanical work ethic underpinnings. It was interesting to see how ideas about what makes us happy and what is “good” for us have changed over time, and of course, it follows then that what we believe now about happiness and what is “good” for us is probably not the pinnacle of human thought on the subject.

The most helpful idea in the book (for me right now) was the idea that not only is there more than one way to be happy, but there is more than one kind of happiness. Hecht talked about happiness as “good day happiness,” “euphoria,” and “good life happiness” and basically, she said all three were necessary to our overall sense of happiness. Good day happiness might be something like sleeping in and doing something enjoyable during the day (I think of the weekend), and maybe even getting a little something done. Euphoria are the big moment–the concert you were looking forward to, the party, the day you started your IRA (just me? are you surprised?). Good life happiness is longer term, and it doesn’t always feel happy (Gretchen Rubin also talks about this), but it brings a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction by working to overcome a challenge.

I liked Hecht’s style, and it was refreshing to read something that questioned most of the other books I’ve read (even though it still looked like your stereotypical happiness book with a big lollipop on the cover). I’m interested to read some of Hecht’s other books (nonfiction and poetry–a writer after my own heart!). I think I’ll look for Doubt: A History next.

In the meantime, I picked up Wishcraft and The Joys of Much Too Much from the library, both probably work/what do I want to do with my life? books. I’m laying off the “how do you have a good family books?” for awhile because they got repetitive. For fun this month, I read The Fellowship of the Ring and most of The Wizard of Oz, but I didn’t finish it because it turns out to be a kind of dumb book (Wicked is much better). I’m also poking around with In the Sanctuary of Women, but I haven’t gotten too deep into it yet.

Money and writing and lotto tickets and Ann Bauer

I have been buying lotto tickets for the last two weeks. Normally, I don’t buy tickets–just think about buying them and what I would do with the winnings–but the Powerball has been above $300 million lately and that’s such an absurd amount of money that I can’t help myself. I go down to Ibis Market on the corner and buy a ticket, and sometimes a six-pack of beer if I didn’t bring cash. Then I walk home and think about how idyllic my life would be if I won.

I’d write more, I tell myself first, because I’d quit my day job. I have a good job right now, the best I’ve had since college and the culmination of everything I used to think I wanted: midlevel at a tiny, tiny nonprofit devoted to women and girl’s rights around the world. But it’s still a full time job, and most of the time I’d rather be a stay-at-home-cat-mom and occasional scribbler.

I am not in a position like Ann Bauer, with a husband to sponsor my writing, at least not right now. My person is a PhD student with aspirations to be a professor, so maybe one day he’ll decide to “sponsor” my writing in exchange for free house cleaning and childcare, but that life feels as far away as the one in which I win the lottery.

And even if it did ever come, the lottery or the husband/sponsor, there would be guilt there too. I would miss the work, the feeling of earning my own paycheck, of contributing something to the greater good. I would worry about being a dilettante. I would miss work.

Sometimes I feel like a faker, at work and at writing. I am not as passionately driven by international development as I thought I was, and as my work-friends are, and at the same time, I am not dedicated enough to writing quit working and go back to school or freelance like my writing-friends do. I’m in the middle. I work because it pays the bills and it doesn’t make me want to stab my eyes out. Sometimes it even makes me happy. I write because I have to, even when it does make me want to stab my eyes out. Sometimes it even makes me happy.

Maybe one day, I’ll be in a place where I write and get paid enough for my writing to stay home with my cat. Maybe one day I’ll win the lotto and I’ll write from my yacht, or maybe one day I’ll be married to a professor who pays the bills. I think the best life would be the one in which I am content with the balance between my writing and my day job, which is probably the most realistic route. But it means giving up on the idea of being sponsored or saved by money. It means I have to learn to be content with the tradeoffs that are part of my life. I think I can learn to do that.

But just in case, my lotto numbers are 8, 21, 34, 48, 59 and 5. Wish me luck.

Why I have to stop multi-tasking

A couple days ago, I wrote a poem. Made a poem might be more accurate, since it was a newspaper black-out poem in the Austin Kleon style, and it was hard, particularly because his poems are so good and profound and mine that night was not.  It took a lot of focus and I was pretty grumpy while writing it. I was also cooking lentils in the kitchen, not two feet away from where I was sitting with newspapers scattered all over the table and a cat trying to burrow beneath my poem.

I put extra water on the lentils. I remembered from last time that lentils take an inordinate amount of time to cook (especially when you are hungry). I figured the pot would boil over before it would burn.

And then, you guessed it, in the middle of fighting with the cat over whether the sports section was for poetry or digging (poetry won), the lentils burned. I lifted the lid and smoke came out. I scalded the bottom of the pot and had to throw away the lentils and start over with the other pot. Scott’s been fighting to get it clean ever since.*

The lesson here is that even when something seems simple, don’t ignore it. Don’t leave it on autopilot because you think you know how lentils cook. Just cook the lentils. Save the poetry for after dinner when you aren’t hungry and grouchy. In retrospect, I should have swept the floor or done the dishes, stirring the lentils occasionally, paying attention to them, instead of burying myself in the New York Times.

I have always been a multitasker. One task has often been too easy, not enough of challenge. Add two or three or seven, and suddenly it seems exciting, but that is an illusion. When I multitask, I miss the moment. I miss the chance to smell the lentils before they burn, to take a second to stop doing-doing-doing all the time, and just breathe. Do something human. Make dinner. Relax.

Instead of multitasking, I want to be able to focus. I don’t want six browser windows open at the same time. I want to see the one thing in front of me, to really see it, and to enjoy it for what it is.

*I would do my part, but he’s home more.