Work More, Earn More? Not Necessarily

A lttle over four months ago, Mr. Vega and I packed up a moving truck and left California for Texas, in pursuit of the American Dream. Real estate is cheaper here, we had read. Texas has no state income tax, and unemployment is lower, especially in Austin, our city of choice. What we didn’t quite plan for, however, is that while still much lower than in Southern California, the cost of living in Austin has increased dramatically over the past few years, and most incomes, including those in our fields of sales and service provision, haven’t kept pace. Our natural response was to kick into high gear at work, but we are coming to understand that working more doesn’t automatically mean earning more. Here are some things we’ve had to consider in our search for the sweet spot in our schedules:

In all freelance work, as in sales, it’s important to consider that opportunity cost is inherent in commitment. For every gig I accept, or every meeting Mr. Vega schedules, there will be others that we will miss. And while it’s unwise to try to keep one’s options so long that all the chances dry up, it’s generally a good idea to leave a little space in our schedules to take advantage of previously unforeseen opportunities. As a side benefit, rush jobs or last-minute gigs often come at a premium. In Los Angeles, same-day requests for service in my line of work are billed at a higher “emergency rate,” but that isn’t standard practice in Austin. What I’ve discovered as a freelancer is that, even though it’s out of the norm here, some clients are indeed willing to pay a 20% premium to have same-day service requests covered, and so I’ve gone against the grain and set my rates accordingly. In Mr. Vega’s line, the more urgently his customers need service, the more they’re willing to pay for it. If he were to schedule all his meetings three weeks out, he would run the risk of not being able to provide service to clients who need contracts signed today, so they can be up and running next week.

Profits aside, helping people handle their professional emergencies builds goodwill. There are many reasons besides procrastination that people need service at the eleventh hour: deals fall through, providers fall ill, and bad luck can befall anyone. Whatever we charge (and it’s not always more) for last-minute work, our clients and customers will hopefully remember that we came through when they were in a tight spot, and express their gratitude through referrals and repeat business.

Another good reason to avoid the temptation to over-book is that diversifying work environments grows word-of-mouth. We could keep the bulk of our efforts focused on a few select clients, but that increases the risk of decimating our income if we were to lose just one or two. Instead, we believe that the more people we can get our faces in front of, the more our phones are likely to ring. We need to leave a little margin in our days if we want to widen our sphere of influence in order to keep our income more stable.

Once the opportunities have been claimed, it’s important to bear in mind that working less can yield a higher-quality work product. There’s a joke sign I’ve seen hanging over the cash register in auto mechanics’ shops: “Good, Fast, or Cheap. Pick two.”  In order to earn more, we have to be willing to deliver a quality work product on-time, every time. The more over-booked we get, the more likely we are to cut corners or miss deadlines. And the more we do that, the more we have to lower our rates. So, declining work every once in a while allows us to do better in the work we do accept.

So, we’ve left some options open, and we’ve given ourselves time to do good work, but we also need to leave some room in our lives for self-care. Because in reputation-based careers such as ours, image is everything. I work closely with my clients, often when they are meeting new people, and am frequently viewed as an extension of them. If I am late, disheveled, or too exhausted to perform my duties well, that will reflect on the people I am assisting. One bad experience can result not only in losing that person or entity’s business, but also to developing a reputation as a service provider to avoid. And in sales, people are more likely to buy what you’re selling if they want what you have. The “used-car salesman” stereotype exists for a reason: too many salespeople have bought into the “work more, earn more” paradigm, and they come off creepy and desperate. But if a salesperson who appears fit, rested, and organized recommends a product or service, then unconsciously, folks are more likely to think that making the purchase just might make them a little more fit, rested, and organized. And because we allow ourselves a bit of time to attend to our lives outside of work, we’re not the people asking you to wait while we make personal phone calls or respond to texts. When we’re at work, we’re… well… working! Doesn’t that sound like someone you want working for you?

The concept of working more to earn more also reaches its limits when we find ourselves spending more money to maintain a busy work schedule. In our household, healthy eating is one of the first things to suffer when we get overbooked in our household. We get so busy that cooking gives way to restaurant takeout, and eventually gets downgraded to fast food. “Just this once” becomes nearly every night, and then starts to include lunches, too. In addition to the expense of the food itself, the lack of quality nutrition contributes to lower energy levels and weakened immunity. The more poorly we’re eating, the less resilient we become, and eventually, our go-go work schedule leaves us sick and unable to work. Not to mention the weight gain, which can lead to buying clothes that actually fit (Also, am I the only person who has ever bought new clothes because I hadn’t found time to do laundry?) Minor clothing repairs can escalate into major wardrobe malfunctions when left undone due to busy-ness. Hectic schedules also deprive us of time to care for our homes and our cars… neglecting maintenance and repairs can be costly in the long-run, and few things are more embarrassing than exiting a cluttered, filthy car and finding yourself face-to-face with your client.

Keeping a too-busy life also harms personal relationships, which are a requirement for mental health and long-term happiness. After all, if we’re doing all this work to be able share the rewards with our loved ones, we’d better make sure there are some loved ones still around when we finally reach our goals!

To that end, I think it’s worth looking at why we’re so driven to earn. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the American businessman who takes a vacation to Mexico, where he meets a young father who spends his mornings on the beach, fishing only enough to feed his family, and then spending the rest of the day with his wife and kids. The businessman tells the fisherman that he should fish all day in order to sell some of the fish and earn money, so that he can buy a boat and employ a crew to earn even more money. The Mexican fisherman asks the American what the result of all that work would be, to which the businessman replies “Well, after many years, if you work very hard, you can retire, and spend your days fishing on the beach with your wife and grandchildren.”

Certainly working and earning to better our lot in life is a noble goal… That’s exactly what we’re doing, and why we made our big cross-country move. But there comes a point at which simply doing more work starts to take us farther from what we’re trying to achieve, rather than moving us closer to our goals. As Mike Rowe says, “Work smart and hard,” and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

Home (Away from Home)

Austin is finally starting to really feel like home. I’ve worked at my Dream Job twice now, so I’m finding myself in a familiar environment, and our social circle continues to grow. Our second-ever Bocce season began last Thursday, and it was a blast! We’re playing in a new, closer location with a reconfigured team, and one of our old teammates has become the Volunteer-in-Charge. I think relationships are strengthened when people get to experience each other in different ways, and because we’re new here, this is our first time doing that with our new friends.There’s something exciting about seeing them in slightly different roles (and new team colors!). The game was a lot of fun, we happened to win, and we all enjoyed spending some time together afterward at our new host bar.

The next morning, Mr. Vega and I volunteered to run a bocce court for our local Special Olympics Bocce Competition. We got to learn a little more about the game, and see what it looks like when the players aren’t drinking beer! As it happens, one of my interpreting colleagues was there, on duty… We’re starting to feel like real Austinites, running into people we know everywhere we go. Now I know why Texas ladies are always so put-together: you’re bound to be seen by someone you know anytime you leave your house! I, on the other hand, ran out of makeup two weeks ago, and haven’t bothered to buy any more. Whoops.

Saturday found us at  the Austin City Limits Music Festival, an event many locals avoid like the plague (“The traffic! The lines! The tourists!!). We got a ride from a neighbor– How nice is that?!– and had a wonderful day. The weather was perfect, and the lines for beer and bathrooms were short. We got to see some of our favorite bands, and get exposed to a few new ones. There were food carts galore, as well, so we tasted food from some local places we hadn’t gotten around to trying. All in all, it was a fabulous day. And of course, we ran into someone we knew!

Networking Works, Y’all!

My work takes me into all kinds of environments, but there’s one I prefer in particular (I’m being deliberately vague, for reasons of confidentiality). Before we moved to our new city, I was told by several people that there was one person in particular I needed to speak to about working where I most wanted to work. We had met once, several years prior, and I correctly assumed that I wouldn’t be remembered. I arranged an introduction, which went well. A day later, someone more influential re-introduced us, which was good, because again, I wasn’t remembered. Sigh.

Later, I sent a follow-up email, and…. you guessed it, I still wasn’t remembered. I’m not sure what was going on with this person, and I know it didn’t have anything to do with me, but I was getting frustrated. So frustrated, in fact, that I decided to drop it and pursue other avenues of employment.

A few months later, I found myself at a professional event. The person was there, but I didn’t attempt to reintroduce myself, and in fact, it appeared to me that there was no recollection by that person of having ever met me. As it happened, though,  I met a few people who work where I want to work. I enjoyed talking to them, joined them for lunch, and handed out a few business cards. Upon learning of my credentials, one of them told me that there was a need for my services, and that I should call the person in charge the very next business day.

Before I had a chance to make that phone call, though, I received one. It seems there was an urgent need for me specifically to come work there right away! A hiring process that normally takes weeks was expedited, and I was doing my dream job less than a week later.

The person that everyone says is the gatekeeper to that job was never involved, and appears to work in another department altogether. I’m looking forward to learning why everyone around here thinks that’s the go-to person, because it’s sort of a mystery to me right now, but I’m glad I found a workaround. Or, should I say, I’m glad the workaround found me!

 

 

The Evolution of Fun

When we lived in Los Angeles, we didn’t have a lot of fun: The death of my mother two months before our wedding drove me into a two-year depression, and we were working very hard to become debt-free, amass an emergency fund, and then save toward a down payment on a home. The long, hard work complemented my mood, and my mood drove me to work longer and harder.

And “fun” in Los Angeles, let’s be honest, isn’t always that fun. When you ask an Angeleno how they are, the response is generally “Busy!” and they aren’t kidding. Coordinating a meal out with a few friends can take several days, and dozens of phone calls and text messages. In addition to individual schedules, factors come into play such as dietary restrictions, traffic patterns, availability of parking, and whose ex-lover may still frequent the chosen venue (I’ve known couples that, upon dissolving their relationship, sat down and mapped out which 12-step meetings one person would avoid and the other would attend, and vice versa. Breakups in L.A. are serious business). Half the time, at least one person in the group will be reviewing the meal or event for their blog, and generally, everyone can be expected to post photos and commentary to social media. Which means, you’re going to want to be camera-ready at all times, because like it or not, you will be tagged.

Our first weeks in Austin we found ourselves terribly early and over-dressed for just about anything we attended. I found it hard to believe that so many free, and genuinely interesting, events weren’t overrun with people. But, perhaps because there are so many options, nothing has felt over-crowded. Parking isn’t usually a problem, and there are enough seats for everyone (if you didn’t bring your own: our beach chairs occupy a permanent spot in our hatchback these days, and we hope to one day upgrade to actual camp chairs). There’s just a sort of un-organized harmony about the way people gather, here. Strangers greet each other like friends and are always happy to scoot over, make room, or help you carry in more tables and chairs, if that’s what’s needed. People will share the beer they brought, the shade they found, and directions to the food truck around the corner where they got those delicious-looking tacos. And when you talk, they look at you, not at their mobile phones.

In the few months we’ve been in Austin, fun has taken its rightful place in the center of our marriage. In the past few weeks, we’ve found ourselves attending a company-sponsored Longhorns tailgate party (which included free barbecue, queso, and Lone Star beer), the evening Free Swim at Barton Springs Pool, a pre-season mixer for our Bocce League, complete with free beer provided by our sponsor (and Mr. Vega’s favorite), Dogfish Head. We’ve seen free outdoor movies, enjoyed free music performances, and taken advantage of free museum days.

Even with all this free fun, some things are still worth paying for: We attended a Robin Williams memorial screening of Dead Poets Society at Alamo Drafthouse, are taking a month-long series of Two-Step dance classes, and have splurged on tickets to a couple of upcoming concerts. We’ve also been saving our pennies for a Fancy Date Night at a local farm-to-table restaurant that’s gotten nothing but rave reviews.

We’ve found that clean, comfortable clothes and flip-flops work just about anywhere, and arriving more than fifteen minutes early to just about anything is only necessary if you plan to have a drink nearby before the event starts. Life is just easier here, and people are more forgiving.

The more we do, the more deeply I am able to shed my grief and relax into the joy of our married life, the comfort of our deepening community connections, and the growing sense that all is right in our world. I have the sneaking suspicion that after marinating in all these good feelings for a while, even Los Angeles is going to feel a lot more fun to me. But for now, I’m grateful to have found myself in a place where it’s all so much easier. And I’m enjoying every minute of it.

New Month, New Budget

The September Budget Meeting in the Vega household was not an easy one.

We had given ourselves a lot of financial leeway as we gave up everything we knew last May to move halfway across the country to a city we had only visited briefly, separately, and years ago. During our transition, we focused more on comfort than on frugality, which means that if we felt we needed something, we bought it… That included the purchase of a King-sized bed to replace the 10-year-old Queen mattress we’d been using. For some reason it surprised me that when we got a bigger bed, we also needed bigger sheets and blankets! The comforter set naturally came with King-sized pillowcases, which meant we also bought bigger pillows. We also had two cars to register the first week we lived here. Because we moved to a more affluent neighborhood than our old place in Los Angeles, our food bill grew considerably higher. The air-conditioning in Mr. Vega’s 23-year-old car gave out just in time for the local temperatures to hit triple digits, and when he took the car to the mechanic, it turned out that he also needed a new exhaust system and ignition switch (old cars sometimes wear out, what can you do?). Additionally, our attempts to meet people, make friends, and experience some of the awesomeness that is Austin had us spending a great deal more money in restaurants and bars than we’re accustomed to.

After four months here, our finances have begun to settle into a more familiar rhythm: we’ve found less-expensive options for groceries, our apartment feels fully furnished, and we’ve gotten our professional wardrobes better adapted to the local culture (and climate!). But one spending category still looms large: FOOD.

To be honest, this has been an area of concern for me throughout our marriage. Every month, I am horrified to see how much we’ve spent on groceries, restaurants, fast food coffee shops and alcohol. But every month, we find ourselves rushed, or tired, or invited out with friends and there goes the budget. Mr Vega believes that if we’ve tried our best, and haven’t been able to make a change, then perhaps it’s an unreasonable expectation to continue trying to wrestle the number into submission. We certainly earn enough, even at our newly reduced income, to accommodate what we’ve been spending on food. I, on the other hand, think that a lot of the expenses result from exhaustion/impulsivity/not having found a system that works well for us. During the Budget Meeting, we found ourselves at loggerheads, until, in exasperation, I said “How are we ever going to buy a house if we keep spending like this on food? We are eating our house!”

That broke the stalemate, and we took a closer look at the budget, and made some decisions about the coming month. Fortunately, we haven’t got much planned for September, so if there was ever a good month to rededicate ourselves to this mission, this is it. We’re going to put our attention to planning ahead so that fatigue doesn’t get the better of us at the end of our longer workdays, and to make it extra delicious, to fortify us against the siren song of takeaway, or lunches grabbed on the fly. I’m also going to focus on avoiding food waste, because I have a sneaking suspicion that, since our move, ours has increased by much more than we realize… it’s easy to tell ourselves that “It’s not that bad,” when it really is, or that “This week was an anomaly,” when it really wasn’t. Finally, I’m going to do something I haven’t done in years: I’m breaking out the envelopes! Every dollar we spend on food in September is going to be cash money, honey, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. If we can actually do this, we’re going to reach our goal of homeownership so much faster, and I bet our waistlines will thank us, too.

What are you saving for and spending on in September?

How We Deal With Traffic

Yesterday, I started Part-Time Job #2, at a college here in Austin. In Los Angeles, the start of a new term generally means you can plan on adding half an hour to your commute for a couple of weeks, while students figure out their new routines and driving patterns. Adding that half-hour to the 15 minute cushion I like to give myself means that yesterday I arrived… 45 minutes early! I reckon that’s what happens when a person moves from a city with the nation’s worst traffic to a city with the nation’s fourth worst traffic. Austinites are complaining– and rightfully so– about the increasingly congested traffic that is accompanying their rapid population growth, but honestly from our perspective, it’s pretty mild. Also, we’ve developed quite a few traffic-avoidance behaviors, because in Los Angeles, “Traffic was terrible!” just doesn’t cut it as an excuse to be late. Here’s what works for us:

The single best way to avoid the problems caused by traffic is to simply leave very early. I make it my goal to arrive 15 minutes early to business meetings and unfamiliar work assignments, and about 10 minutes early for social engagements and jobs I do regularly. To that, I also add 10-30 minutes to whatever results my mapping applications tell me, depending on the time of day, or popularity of the event. While I’m often very early to places, I never have a problem filling the extra minutes: those pockets of time are perfect for using my mobile phone to connect with loved ones, make appointments, or return emails. Sometimes, too, it’s nice to just sit and read a book, or enjoy the surroundings for a few minutes. In any case, I’m happy to trade those “wasted” minutes for the ability to arrive without the stress of running late!

If you’ve got the option to schedule your days so that you are avoiding rush hours, all the better. I’m fortunate to be able to do that, and I’m often heading in the opposite direction of the worst of the traffic. Not everyone has that luxury, though, and in those cases, it’s sometimes good to plan activities close to your destination in the early mornings or late afternoons. My husband generally arrives half an hour early to his office, and then takes his time enjoying his coffee and preparing for his day. Running a quick errand after work, or meeting a friend or coworker for a tasty beverage before hitting the highway will probably also save quite a bit of time spent in slow-and-go traffic, and even if you get home a bit later, it’s a lot more pleasant.

Live close to where you work, or work from home. Of course, if you can minimize or avoid the daily commute altogether, even better! When we were planning to move to Austin, we mapped out all of our potential employers, and chose an apartment that was sort of in the middle of those options. It worked out well: my main employer is about four miles from home, and although Mr. Vega has a longer commute– about eighteen miles– he travels against the bulk of traffic, and he’s able to work from home two or three days a week. Again, that’s not always possible for everyone, but when it is, it’s pretty great.

Although public transportation is not a practical daily solution for either of us, we occasionally use it to avoid the traffic congestion that comes with special events, such as concerts and sporting events. Angelenos in the know, for example, ride the Metro to concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, or take advantage of the park and ride shuttles they offer. Here in Austin, festival-type events have enormous bicycle parking areas, as the locals have figured out that riding their bikes and/or taking the bus can save them both parking fees and time spent sitting in gridlock.

The above suggestions  have become such a way of life for us that, having moved to a city with less traffic, we frequently find ourselves with up to an hour to kill before the event! I’m sure we’ll adjust our habits in time, but meanwhile, we’re doing our best to not contribute to Austin’s growing traffic problem, and while we wait, we’re getting a lot of good reading done!

How do you deal with (or avoid) traffic?

 

How I’m Approaching Freelancing in a New City

First Things First: Update That Resume!

As soon as we knew we’d be moving, I updated my resume, something I hadn’t done– not really– in years. I needed to know my exact dates of hire and separation, as well as exact rates of pay, which took several phone calls and a visit to an HR department across town. I had worked there so long ago, my employment history was on microfilm, but as the work was still relevant to my career, it was important information to track down.

Once I had my resume in order, I made sure to send it to all the potential employers in my new city, with a short note introducing myself. Also, I included it as an attachment with follow-up emails, so that they wouldn’t have to look it up, if they wanted to refer to it.

 

Attend to Social Media

Because I’d worked at the same jobs and with the same agencies for many years, I’d never bothered to join LinkedIn. Nearly the moment I did, a client of mine from years ago wrote me a glowing recommendation, for which I was very grateful. I spent some time creating a professional profile that was as complete as possible, working from my aforementioned resume and also poring over the pages of colleagues, scouting for language and ideas that might be useful for mine. I endorsed every connection that I legitimately could, and took a look at their connections for names that I knew (or wanted to know).

I recently posed for a professional headshot, as well, to add to my LinkedIn, as well as to a few other sites specific to my profession.

Mine is a tight-knit profession, based almost entirely on reputation. Personal and professional relationships are quite fluid and often overlap, and so in my case, it was appropriate to reach out to my Facebook contacts, and to add my new colleagues as friends right away. Because of that, I took a closer look at my privacy settings and personal timeline, in order to ensure that my social persona was represented as being in alignment with my professional image, so that potential colleagues and employers in my new city would be able to see whether I am someone they’d like to work and play with.

The idea here was not to change how people might see me, but rather to ensure that what they were seeing was congruent with how I actually live and work. Funny enough, the links I posted to the Community Supported Agriculture garden we have a share in sparked many a workplace conversation about healthy, local eating with colleagues who vary widely in their other interests. Being honest about my home life in social media has strengthened several good professional connections!

 

Reach Out to Tenuous Contacts

Several colleagues of mine from Southern California had moved to Austin in the few years prior to our move. Although I wasn’t particularly close to them back then, I asked a mutual friend to help me get in touch, and that proved quite helpful. One man in particular sent me a detailed email, outlining every agency and employer he could think of in the area. He was also, I suspect, instrumental in helping me get the part-time gig I like the most, and you can better believe I won’t forget that soon!

 

Manage Finances to Avoid Desperation!

Even though Mr. Vega would have liked a new car, and we both would have liked an infinite number of new gadgets and furnishings for our new apartment, we kept a tight rein on our spending until we had secured reliable income. We sought out free fun and inexpensive sustenance. We diligently turned up our thermostat each day until we got our first electric bill, and waited for those occasional free Redbox codes to show up in our email.

Moving with a fully funded Emergency Fund, and staying frugal during our transition allowed us to accept assignments based on more than money, and to gracefully weather those first few weeks before the checks started coming in. We’ve been able to avoid overworking ourselves just to make the rent, and to keep our options somewhat open while we learn the nuances of our new home town.

 

Accept That Not Everything Will Pan Out

Before we moved, I applied for a few job openings online, and, for the first time in my career, wasn’t even asked to interview for any of them (remember, our field is based on reputation, and no one knows me here, yet). Well, as it happens, my freelance assignments and part-time gig turn out to pay much more than the regular positions would have. And since Mr. Vega has a job with benefits, it’s better for us financially if I take the higher-paying work over the stable, lower-paying jobs that come with health insurance and the like.

I also had a few coffee dates with potential new friends in my field that weren’t quite a match. We tried our best, but just like romantic dating, there’s an indescribable something that must be present for a friendship to work. And like romantic dating, the magic usually happens when you least expect it.

But it’s a numbers game: the more you try, the better your chances of making a connection.

 

Listen More Than You Speak

Rather than trying to impress everyone with my vast knowledge and spectacular word usements, I chose to keep my opinions to myself for a while and listen to what others had to say. “Tell me more,” became my favorite response. In this way, I got to hear how folks navigate the professional culture here, and what works best for them. And although I do my best to avoid gossip, when three people I met in three different environments each expressed misgivings about a particular employer, I paid attention! Because the only thing better than leaving your difficult boss is never working for her in the first place!

Waiting to express strong opinions also gave people the opportunity to get to know me by my presence and work ethic, rather than by what labels I give myself elsewhere. Letting people think of me as “the one who always shows up early,” or “the one who is attentive and hardworking” is probably better right now than being remembered as “the one who votes Democrat,” or “the one who avoids GMOs.”

 

Attend Orientations, Meetings, Workshops

As much as I’d prefer to avoid any event where I get to wear my name on a sticker, I’ve gotten to as many networking events as I can since our move. The Saturday morning staff meeting at my new part-time job that my boss said I could skip because I was so new? I was there bright and early. The annual end-of-summer gathering of hourly employees at my other tiny gig? Present and accounted for, with my name tag on. Spend an entire Saturday in a skill-building workshop with other members of my profession? You’d better believe I’m going. Right now, I’m the person who will attend the opening of an envelope, if it will help build my name recognition, and familiarity with my peers and clients. Suiting up and showing up is half the battle, GI Joe!

 

Avoid The Temptation to Overbook (Accept Sub Assignments)

It’s been important to leave a little blank space in my schedule, so that I can accept the occasional last-minute gig. This allows me not only to be helpful when there is a need, but also gives me the opportunity to work in jobs I haven’t been hired on for permanently. And again, any time I’m able to meet a new client or colleague, it’s an opportunity to build reputation and create connections. As an added bonus, every time I accept work in a new part of town, I get to learn the city a little better.

And if the work doesn’t show up for the days I’ve left open? I still have plenty of post-move organizing to do, and it seems like I always am in need of a car wash, a manicure, or a trip to the grocery store.

 

Do Something Else! It’s Not All About Work!

We’re very fortunate to have moved to a place that offers abundant opportunities to get outdoors and have fun. Austinites are serious about their fun, and there is live music and good food just about everywhere you go. It’s been lovely to get out of the house a couple of times each week to disconnect and recharge. It took years to create the rich, supportive professional network I enjoyed in my hometown, and my new life won’t be built in a day. After doing all the work outlined above, it’s important to give it all some time to develop organically. Because as much as I love my work, it’s really only something I do so that I can enjoy the rest of what life has to offer!