Monday, May 22, 2017

Frugality is not the same as greed

If you look at how frugality is portrayed in the media and by acquaintances, it's easy to get the idea that anyone who's frugal is a money-grubbing tightwad, watching every penny with squinty intensity. This can give the impression that anyone who's frugal is not generous, and that they're downright greedy.

In fact, the opposite is often true. Those who are the most frugal are, frequently, the most generous with their extra funds. Since people who are frugal are also the ones who end up with extra funds to donate (examples here and here, although there are many more that I could cite) it can be fairly stated that greed is not the ultimate driver of frugality. My brother is one of the most tightfisted people I know, who can, as an aunt put it, "make every penny squeal". But that's only with himself. With other people he is absurdly generous.
Enjoying this sunset was totally free, and I even
got to share it with lots of friends.

Being frugal allows people to be generous with their money when and as they see fit because those of us who watch our pennies know where our values lie. We spend only on the things which matter to us, and which will lead to a good life. We're buying a house, a very expensive "investment" (we don't view it as an investment, but as our home), because it will help us live the life we want. It's something we were willing to shell out a rather lavish amount of money on and go into debt for, knowing that it will bring our family happiness and stability for many years to come. We've made plenty of trade-offs to be able to afford this, but the things we didn't spend on are things that we don't get joy out of, and which won't make us as happy as our house will. New clothes, haircuts, meals at restaurants, makeup, and fancy coffees are all things that we value less, so we've (mostly) cut them from our lives. It hasn't decreased our happiness at all. On the contrary, by saving for our big goals and making them come true we've vastly increased our happiness. We are able to do the things that matter the most to us.

I'm not going to reiterate the tired advice that buying lattes every day will completely ruin your budget. If you derive true enjoyment from your daily Starbucks cappuccino or by wearing fancy new shoes, by all means keep indulging. But, perhaps look at other areas of your budget which might not bring you as much joy and cut those things out whenever possible. The point of this is to live your best life, not someone else's. If you want to spend lavishly on travel while eating rice and beans at home to afford it, that's awesome.

Frugality is also not about pushing off for tomorrow the things you want to do today. I have daily evidence of the folly of that. My parents wanted to travel. My dad, in particular, had dreams of traveling the world together after they retired. In the treadmill of work and raising four kids, however, they pushed it off. There were short trips to Mexico and various places around the U.S., mostly to visit family, but the big trips that they wanted to do got pushed off. Even after we, their children, were out of the house they pushed it off. After all, they weren't far from retirement.

And then. My mom was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. She didn't get to retire in a blaze of glory but by being laid off, then being too confused to work a retail job she'd taken for the holidays. Immediately their world became smaller. They have taken a few notable trips--to England, to Israel--but for the most part the dreams of travel were crushed. When even a trip to the grocery store is difficult and fraught with confusion, international trips are out of the question.

Seeing this every single day, seeing how much my parents have been forced to give up first because they were sacrificing in the name of family and second by circumstance, has made me think very long and hard about what I want from my own life. The only real conclusion that I've come to is that I don't want to push off my dreams for some unknown future. Some people use that same unknown future as a reason to spend all their money now. I'm using it as a reason to save even as I live for the now. It's been the biggest driver of removing the unnecessary from my life so that I can be as happy as possible for every minute that I have.

I not only have my mother's illness in the back of my head, but I also have my own daughter watching me. When we embarked on the epic task of parenting the one thing we absolutely knew for certain was that we didn't want to be just weekend parents. We wanted to spend real time with our kid through all stages of life. If I die young, my daughter is not going to fondly remember the stuff I've bought frivolously. She's going to remember the time we've spent together, and that is the best gift I can give to both of us. Saving money and living on a much lower budget than we can afford is allowing me to spend this time with my daughter. Working part-time is not an option that every parent has and I'm very lucky that I can do it, but I can also do it because we've worked so hard to put ourselves in this position. I can work part time to create memories with my daughter, or we could buy a second car. I can spend afternoons at the playground watching her build new skills or I could sit in a cubicle to afford trips to the movies and the nail salon each weekend.
I get to spend my afternoons with these two
troublemakers, and it's pretty damn awesome.

Even for people who are not parents, there's a lot of happiness to be found in not relying on a job. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn't do more when I had a truly terrible boss. My former fantastic boss had retired and someone new took over. She made my life hell, and that's not an exaggeration. She honestly did all that she could to deliberately make my life miserable. However, I didn't feel like I could quit for various reasons. I did all that I could within the system--talking with management, bringing HR complaints and even a Title IX complaint--but I still felt that I needed that job. Pregnant and the sole breadwinner for the family, I hunkered down and quietly accepted that that was my lot in life. I would have given anything to tell that woman exactly what she could do to herself and where she could go, but I didn't. I didn't think I could. I eventually changed my job situation by getting a new job (that I loved, and was sad to leave when we moved!) but that period in my life still makes me angry for a variety of reasons, the biggest being simply my remembered helplessness.

How many other people are stuck in jobs they hate because they need the paycheck? And how much better would the world be if they weren't limited by money? How many people could change the world for the better if they didn't have to sit in their cubicle every day? Even just being personally happy would be a positive influence because people tend to be nicer when they're happy. Not everyone needs to have their name in the media as a hero to have an impact on the world, sometimes just being happy will do. Letting go of other people's expectations of what your life should be like, and what you should spend your money on, is as good a place to start as any.

I actually get mad when people use this image of frugality as a reason to be greedy, to hoard their pennies. That's missing the entire point. Being frugal is about being you to the best of your ability, without money getting in the way, and to only spend on the things that will make you happier or a better person. That's it! Your budget won't be the same as anyone else's, and it shouldn't be. When you know what will make you happy then it's easy to lower your spending, set and stick to a budget, and think about a time when you could actually have enough money and not need any more, which would mean that you're free to give away the rest as you see fit.

HusbandX and I are still working on our version of The Good Life, and how much money is enough. Our expenses are still evolving and we're still hashing out things we'd like to do. In the meantime, however, we're enjoying ourselves and we're not worrying about money, because we've set things up in such a way that we don't need to. Being able to enjoy our lives without stressing over money has been one of the best gifts we've given each other.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The Good

My last post feels like kind of a downer. You might think that I've been depressed (and I have, just not Depressed) or that I've been wallowing in anger since November. Some days yes, but for the most part no. I've just been living my life, with a few extra reminders about being kinder.

Some really, really good things have happened in these last few months too. HusbandX started a job back in December, one he enjoys and is happy in. Since my brother was home for a few months at Christmas, we were able to hire him as childcare for us when we were both at work. We've been so, so lucky that for childcare so far we've only ever had to rely on friends and family. That will change in the fall when our Munchkin starts preschool. We found an amazing outdoor preschool that I applied for back in the fall and we found out over the winter that she's in! She'll get to spend her mornings playing with other kids in the woods, and I could not think of a more perfect setting for my child. I know she'll learn a lot and have fun doing it.

So, now HusbandX and I both have jobs that we are happy with. In some ways it's been an odd adjustment. Double employment? What's that? But after hunting around for so long, it's nice to know that HusbandX found something that suits him so well. Having met his coworkers at their Christmas party (in January), they're nice people. The work they're doing is interesting and engaging, and HusbandX is just so much happier than he had been. It's nice to have purpose again.

Since he has a job, in February we started working on our next big thing. We began searching for a house. Waaay back we'd written down a list of our wants and needs for a living situation. Since I'm a planner and a dreamer, I have huge notes dedicated to features I want in my future yard and garden. We already knew what neighborhoods in the city we could afford, which coincidentally happened to be the same neighborhoods where many of our home-owning friends live. We narrowed it down to one area to look in, figured out how far out of that area we wouldn't compromise about even for an amazing house, worked out a budget we were comfortable with, and started our search.

We didn't expect it to be all kittens and roses, thank goodness. It started off slow. Many friends had told us to look at as many houses as we could stand to. It would give us an idea of what's available, what are good prices, what things are actually selling for, and would refine our ideas of what we want in a house. It did all of those things. And let me tell you, the Seattle real estate market is bonkers. There are tiny houses with frankly dangerous issues (broken retaining walls, cracked foundations, outdated electrical systems) that smell of cat pee and they're going for half a million dollars, or close enough. What. The. Fuck. We looked at so many houses with features that made us say, "Wut?" and a few that we outright laughed at. Outrageous house, outrageous price. But they sold. In less than two weeks a house, even a miserable and downright awful house, would be sold. What?

One day I sent HusbandX a link to a listing and said, "Maybe this is a possibility?" It was a $14million dollar penthouse with a view of the Space Needle. We had fun looking at the pictures and joking about, "Well, I would buy it but that kitchen is tasteless," or "the bathroom needs some work, you can't even fit an entire football team in that tub!"

We found one house we really liked in the first month of looking and put in an offer, but someone else got it. We found another house we liked less but which would suit us well enough and put in another offer the next month. Now that someone else has it, I'm thankful for that.

Then...oh boy. We found The One. A house that had all of our Needs, and pretty much all of our Wants. Bigger than I'd initially thought we'd go for but well worth it. The yard and garden match some of my dreams amazingly well, but there's still opportunity to make them just the way I want. Walking around, this place felt like Home.

We did a pre-inspection and that confirmed what we'd already known: this was a great house. There was one major/minor issue that I had some small reservations about. Not enough to deter us but enough to make me slightly less excited about paying so much money for a house only to then lay out even more money to fix this. Then it turned out the seller was having it fixed anyway, which frankly doubled my excitement as it meant that pretty much all of the issues in the house were purely cosmetic, or at least could be put off for a while.

The other houses we'd put offers on had both had many more offers at the same time. I know one had at least six other offers. This one, however, only had one competing offer. HusbandX worried. "Do other people know something that we don't?" I held onto the pre-inspection in my mind as proof that we weren't going for a lemon.

That there were only two offers worked to our advantage. In the end, we're getting a house and lot of a rather large size for the city, close to amenities and close enough to work to bike, close to a bus line. And we're getting it for less than we would have expected. It's rather incredible. I feel so, so lucky.

We're working our way through the loan process right now. For those of you who haven't bought houses, finding the right house and getting an offer accepted is just the start of the stressful process. The bank required tons of paperwork, some of which we had on hand and some of which we needed to contact others about. For about two weeks, every day I was scanning and uploading and searching and signing documents. It was chaos. HusbandX joked, "I thought the stool sample was a little much." It really felt as if they asked for everything just short of a virgin sacrifice.

In the midst of all of this, my part-time job asked me to work longer hours, so I've had more full days in the last month than I've had short ones. I got a small raise at the end of March, too. That's good news for our house fund, but the extra work has added a whole new level of craziness that had me sucking down chamomile tea to calm down. I slept horribly for a few nights, worried about paperwork or that the bank would randomly deny our loan. Ugh.

But now, things are almost over. The appraisal went through just fine. We're still getting the funds together, as about half of what we had was in an investment account, so the thought that it won't get here in time is my final worry. It's mild, however, not the kind of worry that causes my thumb to randomly start twitching for an entire day. (True story.)
These two helped me chill out. At least,
when they weren't causing further sleep
disruptions they did.

It's nice to finally relax. It's nice to feel like this house might actually become ours, although I'm still not going to count on that until closing day. Even then, I think I'll have a hard time taking in that we own a home. When does it begin to feel real?

There are so many reasons we decided to buy a house. There are online calculators out there about whether it's better to rent or to buy, monetarily. We didn't even care (although I think that in this area, it's pretty much a wash) because there were so many other reasons we wanted a home of our own. Among them, we're tired of crappy landlords and worse neighbors. Seriously, we've only ever had one truly good landlord, and we always seem to be stuck with awful neighbors.

I wanted to finally, finally have a garden space that I could do whatever I wanted to. Keep backyard chickens? Maybe! I don't have to seek permission from anyone to plant things, and I know that if I plant a fruit tree or berry bush then I'll be around to harvest it too.

We also will get to remodel our environment to suit us. There were plenty of houses I saw which were nice, but they were someone else's conception of what a nice house should be. The house we're buying has just enough work that needs to be done that we can make it to suit ourselves and our needs.

That includes making it more environmentally friendly. Of course, one of the most environmentally friendly options is just to not buy more crap that needs to get manufactured while throwing out other stuff that will sit in a landfill for who knows how long. And I get that. But even things like increasing the R-value of the attic insulation is exciting to me. How pathetic is that? And that's my point. We're becoming homeowners because this stuff is exciting and fun for us. If it's not making you squee, just a little, to think about it, then renting is a far better idea. Not everyone has the inclination to look up Youtube videos about plumbing, or the desire to refinish cabinets, or to paint walls, or build a patio, or whatever the latest DIY project for a home is. (And I'm not kidding myself--there's always one more project that can be done when you own a home.) We do care about and enjoy these things, so that's what we're going to do.