Monday, July 28, 2014

Update on New Ways of Thinking

Months ago I posted about having a new mind for the new year. Here's a quick update on that "new" mind. 

First, in spite of being excited and inspired by the principles espoused by Mr. Money Mustache, we are not quite Mustachian, but we're getting there. 

I want to blame Kat for our slow progress. She is the perpetual project-making machine. Always starting a project around the house, and never an inexpensive one (is there such a thing?) On the plus side, she is a focused worker, always finishes what she starts, and her projects do improve our quality of life. 

The latest is a re-do of our back patio, converting it from ugly, bumpy, impossible to walk on, concrete molds to a beautiful, natural flagstone and crushed granite. And on top — an inflatable hot tub. I wasn’t too keen on the latter, but it was relatively inexpensive, and it feels so luxurious relaxing in it during our meltingly hot summer days. I hold so much tension in my shoulders that it causes me headaches, and those have been less frequent. Overall a great stress reliever with a cost of just under $1,000.00, paid cash because of actually being better about not consuming what we don’t need. 

One day though I want us both to adopt a more saving mentality rather than a consuming one. We have more money because we’re consuming less and have cut back on many bills, such as cable (gone), but that doesn’t mean we have to spend it just because we have it. Some does get saved, but not near enough by my estimation. This is an on-going battle, both with Kat and with my own wants. As satisfying as it would be, I can’t lay this at Kat’s feet (paws :-))

Second, the vegan diet we adopted morphed into a vegetarian one. We are both enjoying our vegetarian lifestyle. Like our spending cut-backs, it doesn’t feel like deprivation. Instead, we find ourselves eating lots of different foods, breaking out of ruts a lifetime in the making. We feel good, our actions are better aligned with our values, and we haven’t sacrificed on taste. 

There’s been so much going on this year; I let this blog go, but I’m not ready for it to die. I’ll be back.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A New Mind for the New Year!

Sometimes life bumps along, and then you hear or read something — maybe something you’ve heard a hundred times before — and for some reason, this time your spirit is ready for the message, and everything changes.

My experience is that this doesn’t happen often. However, this is exactly what happened to me not just once, but TWICE in the past few months.

The first was this past November when I happened to surf over to a blog I’d seen referenced by other bloggers. This blog was Mr. Money Mustache. I’ve read many excellent finance blogs, but this one pulled everything together for me in one big 'aha' moment.

If you’re not familiar with Mr. Money Mustache, I encourage you to read him for yourself. His message is basically this — live on much less than the typical American consumer, socking away the large gap between expenses and income into retirement accounts and index funds; thereby providing yourself the means to live a joyful life doing the things that really matter to you, free of financial worries. It’s not an original message (see Your Money or Your Life or Early Retirement Extreme*) but there is something in his perspective I find deeply inspiring.

I think I was ripe for the message partly because in the month before stumbling across the MMM blog, I had grown annoyed with high monthly expenses that brought little return. The worst of these was the cable bill — $170 a month for a landline we barely used, a bunch of TV channels we rarely watched, and internet. In a moment of resolve, I canceled cable except for the internet, reducing our bill by $120 a month. Feeling great about that, I cut Netflix down to streaming only and downgraded our newspaper delivery to weekends only. 

These actions seemed to loosen things up for me a little, like having just a bit of the winds of freedom blow through, so when I read MMM, I was like — WOWEE SIGN ME UP!

But I am one half of a whole, and Kat and I have to work this out together. Although Kat wasn’t quite as gung ho as I was at first, she has definitely changed after having read a few of the blog posts and listened to me rhapsodize about the possibilities. 

Almost by unspoken agreement, we stopped eating out. That alone saves us well over $200 a month. We also are much more thoughtful about the things we think we need, and more often than not, we decide not to buy stuff that just a few months before we would have tossed into the Amazon cart. With knocking down our regular monthly bills (still working on this) and not spending as much on restaurants and stuff, we find ourselves with more than I thought possible to put into savings or toward our mortgage (our last debt). We’re at the lower end of income for MMM’s target audience, and even for us, it makes a big difference. 

The second message came on the heels of all this. In late December, we happened to watch Forks Over Knives, a documentary recommended to us by a friend. Don’t watch it if you don’t want to change what you eat.** 

Overnight we went from being typical Texas meat-eaters to almost vegans. Because I am an animal lover, I had often flirted with the thought of becoming vegetarian. But in Texas, it's more acceptable to be gay than a vegetarian, and since I already have one strike, I didn't want to add another. (Sort of kidding here; the main reason I hadn't gone vegetarian is that I like meat a lot).

Because we were already cooking all our meals at home, switching to a mostly vegan diet was not too difficult. We’re fortunate to live in a city with regular grocery stores well-stocked on diverse food stuffs, a Trader Joe’s, several Whole Food Markets and farmers’ markets. I thought the new way of eating might be more expensive, but surprisingly, even with buying all organic produce, our grocery costs have been the same and perhaps slightly lower (need more time to compare) because we’re not buying meat or processed foods. 

So, lots of changes over the past few months. Good changes. One of the things I like most about MMM’s blog is his optimistic and joyful approach to living. We can tap into that joy when we open our eyes to all the good things that surround us, appreciate what we have, and let go of the instinctive need for more, more more, when what we have is enough. Kat and I have a wider perspective, new habits, and a direction for the future we can agree on.

*MMM states in his blog that he was unaware of these books/blogs, but discovered and enjoyed them after he started his own blog. I'm sure MMM and others are not the only ones to stumble across this counter-cultural perspective of money and success. I am glad they share their discoveries for those of us who need the eye-opener. 

**Don't worry. This film is not about cruelty to animals but focuses on the science behind the health benefits of a whole foods, plant-based diet. It's persuasive in a positive way.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Kitchen Makeover

Kat and I have been mulling a kitchen face-lift for a few years now. My reluctance to get started stemmed from what I figured would be the high cost. Our appliances started to crap out -- the disposal, the dishwasher -- and we have lived with them in their various stages of brokenness, figuring all would be replaced with the makeover. 

My real estate days had given me a few contacts, and one was a semi-retired carpenter who gave us an itemized quote for completing a wish list we had given him. We were happily able to afford most of it, and here are the results in before and after shots:



Unfortunately my pictures are like those cheesy weight loss ads that run in tabloids with the 'before' featuring a woman grumpy and slouching, and an 'after' of the same woman upright and smiling. I somehow misplaced my 'before' pictures and all I could find was this one of a dirty kitchen taken when I was trying out a new camera. Egads. But you get the idea.

We replaced our upper cabinets with cabinets extending to the ceiling and over the refrigerator, installed an over the range microwave, extended our counter with new laminate countertops and built-in shelves above and below, put in a backsplash, a new single-basin sink and faucet, and added crown molding to the kitchen and living room. 

The only appliance we replaced other than the microwave was the dishwasher, which, as I mentioned, was stumbling toward broke. The range and refrigerator (both nearly 15 years old but hanging in there) we will keep until they no longer function.

To save money, we did a few things ourselves. We put in the backsplash — subway tile — and Kat installed the dishwasher. As our carpenter worked, Kat realized that she could have done some of the trim work and the shelves herself, but he did give us a good price, so not too much regret.

We were able to pay cash, though we now need to replenish our short-term savings. We spend so much time at home, though, and have such a stream of company coming through, that we felt this project worth it.

What did it cost?

Carpenter (including countertops, custom cabinets, crown molding, a lower corner cabinet with large lazy susan, installation of new sink, faucet, and disposal, upper and lower shelves for extended counter, over the range microwave with installation and a vent through the roof) -- $6500

Backsplash -- $100

Window treatments (bamboo blinds) -- $150

Paint -- $70

Baskets, napkin holder, other -- $80

Sink and disposal -- $230 (The price of the faucet is included in the $6500)

Dishwasher -- $400

Total cost was right at $7500 for a beautiful, more functional new kitchen that we love!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Catching Up

I'm back!

I’ve been struggling to jump back into the blog pool. I climbed out, dried off, went in for a snack, and have felt reluctant to get wet again. I’ve been circling the pool for months and . . .

Ok enough of that metaphor. I ignored my writing goals and time passed. 

Since I last checked in, Kat and I have a new(ish) kitchen and another murphy bed. Hooray!

First, the kitchen. We had saved toward sprucing up our kitchen — adding storage and counter space — but we knew it wasn’t enough. We took out a small loan, hired a semi-retired carpenter who quoted us a very reasonable price, and went to work. 

Second, Kat took the opportunity of some time off and having her dad visit to build a murphy bed in our office. We had one already in the sewing room, and it is beyond wonderful. We have LOTS of visitors and need both rooms (sewing room and office) for guests, and now I will be able to simply pull down the already made up beds each time a sibling with family comes to visit. We’re heading into that bed and breakfast time of the year, and I am ready.

With our home improvement projects, along with work and being in charge of multiple events that happened to fall in September and early October, we let good habits lapse but also shed a few bad habits. More on that in a future post, and I’ll also be posting before and after pictures of the kitchen and office.

It’s good to be back!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Fumbling for a Simple Life

A couple of weeks ago I attended the daily Mass at my parish (an Episcopal parish in the catholic tradition). It was the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, the saint responsible for the most popular of monastic rules, one full of common sense for ordering the communal life. Our rector talked about the simplicity of a monastic life, a life very attractive to me. So much so that when I was in my mid-twenties, I entered a religious order (I was Roman Catholic at the time). 

I was with the sisters for six years before discerning a different path. I left with a taste for morning silence, a clean room, and an ordered life.

My struggle for integration is part of this attraction to a simple life. But here’s the rub. To engage with life pushes one outward, to help the neighbor, to address injustice, to be involved in community. These things complicate life. How much simpler life would be if other people weren’t involved! 

This will always be a struggle of mine, perhaps a defining struggle. Much of living more simply is internal — keeping perspective and mindfulness amid the busyness of the days, but external circumstances don’t always have to be as counter to a simple, more contemplative life as I let them become. I like to jump in and take charge and get things done, until I feel squashed beneath the weight of agendas, meetings, and follow-up. The day arrives that I’m not only not doing what is needful for my own life, but I’m probably not being as helpful as I think I am. 

Time to let go of the things that are no longer life giving. If they’re not life giving for me, I doubt they are for others. 

All of this is easier said than done, but the new school year is about to begin, and I am committed through at least May for some things, and through December of next year for others. My goal will be to shed those things I need to shed over the next ten months. And since  it is my habit to fill freed up time with more busy, I will commit to giving any of this miraculous time to creative work that brings some measure of joy. Like Tolkien’s road, ‘fumbling at joy’ goes ever on and on. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Good, The Sort Of Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and the Good Again.

The Good — 

Recently I was kicking myself for procrastinating on getting a new term life insurance policy, because with my recent skin cancer removal and a few other medical issues, I was looking at a rate below standard. Imagine my surprise when my insurance agent called to congratulate me for getting the preferred rate! My blood work results must have been quite good (I have to mail a request if I want to see them). So I’m surprised but feeling good about my health right now. 

The Sort of, Maybe Good — 

For the past three months, Kat has spent many hours studying for a promotional exam held last Tuesday. She actually took a couple of weeks vacation at the end to really focus on her studies. At her rank, promoting to the next level is extremely competitive. 

She did well on the test, but seniority is not on her side, and her score plus seniority put her at number thirteen on the eligibility list. Normally this would be good enough for a promotion sometime over the next year, but rumors are that it will be a lean year, with fewer than ten promotions. She’s convinced herself that no promotion is in the cards and is already working out her strategy for studying next year. UGH!!! I on the other hand, while disappointed that she is disappointed after her very hard work, am optimistic that she’ll be promoted. Time will tell.

The Bad  —

The San Antonio Spurs loss in Game 7 of the NBA finals. Actually, the disappointment came at the end of Game 6, which was almost won before being snatched away. Most residents of San Antonio have been suffering the past couple of weeks from PSSD - Post Spurs Stress Disorder. It’s not pretty. We love our Spurs! Time and perspective will heal this one.

The Ugly —

I’m dealing with family stuff from afar (two hundred miles away). My parents and sisters are going through some stressful times, details I’d rather not go into now.  I’m doing my best to be present by phone. It means a couple of hours every day, talking, texting. It still doesn’t feel like enough. This too will pass.

The Good Again --

My sciatic nerve pain is nearly healed, and I can sit again for long periods of time.  After Kat’s stressful promotional exam, we went to the movies for the first time in ages and saw Star Trek Into Darkness. I loved it. I was amazed that given how long the movie has been out, I had no idea going in the identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. I don’t want to spoil it here, just in case there are others out there who haven’t seen it. What a marvelous surprise it was! (And how I love Benedict Cumberbatch).

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Lovely Distraction

Kat is attending inservice this week and is therefore on daylight schedule — a perfect week for me to increase production. This morning I hit my to-do list hard and managed to:
  • Research and write an article for the neighborhood newsletter;
  • Format, print, and summarize a financial report for a meeting this evening;
  • E-mail various people for last minute information for said meeting;
  • Wash and fold a load of laundry;
  • Play with the dog;
  • Do yoga.

Then right before noon I remembered that today was the day for the Supreme Court decision. I went to where I spent the next hour reading live blog updates and clicking on news reports from various agencies. Then I went to the Iowa web site to see how much their marriage licenses cost, because suddenly I think Kat and I should get married and start pushing for some federal benefits, like being able to file our federal income taxes jointly, and wouldn’t it be great to be married in the birth state of Capt James T Kirk? Then a couple of friends e-mailed and we went back and forth about how this might affect Kat and me, and then I looked at the time, and it’s four o’clock!! Shoot. So, a very productive half-day, but I’ll give myself a break :-)