My First-Ever Tax Refund

For the entirety of my career, I have worked part-time and freelance jobs. For all intents and purposes, I have been the sole proprietor of a one-woman business, and my tax status has reflected this: every year, I receive up to a dozen 1099 forms and maybe a W-2 or three. Every year, I comb through all of the previous year’s expenses, making sure I haven’t overlooked any possible business meals, office supplies, or mileage. Every year, I sweat it out in the accountant’s office, waiting to be told exactly how much I owe.

I got into the habit of filing my taxes as soon as possible each year, so I could find out exactly how hard I was going to have to work in the two months or so I had left before the Tax Day bill came due.

Over time, I got clearer about how this tax thing works, and started putting aside a set percentage (corresponding to my tax bracket) every time I received a check. Eventually, even though I owed taxes each Spring, it felt as though I was getting a refund, because after paying my balance due, whatever was left in my Tax Fund was mine to keep.

But 2014 was the year we moved more than fifty miles away from our employers, and found gainful employment in our new home town, all of which means we got to deduct our moving expenses from last year’s taxable income. And we moved to a state with no income tax, which was a lot like getting a raise (both our salaries are actually lower than they were in California, but we’re still not complaining). Combine all that with the first year in decades that my business expenses outweighed my freelance income, and it all adds up to a not-insubstantial tax refund.

Our tax preparer e-filed for us today, so we won’t see the money for a few weeks, but I’ve already spent it several times over in my mind: I’d like a Spa Day, a trip to visit family, some new hiking boots, and a few of the ridiculously expensive bras I like. Maybe some new shoes and baking pans, too, because I really know how to party. And Mr Vega has suggested a solar generator and some new iStuff, too.

In the end, our little windfall is going straight into the House Fund, but you probably knew that already. It gets us close enough to our goal of a 20% down payment toward a house we could afford on a 15-year mortgage with payments totalling no more than 1/4 of our total take-home pay. We’ll probably start looking for financing next week.

Still, I’ve enjoyed spending a little time thinking of ways to spend the money, if we were going to…

Did you receive a tax refund this year? What will you spend yours on?

Welcome, Get Rich Slowly Readers!

Years ago, during a pretty bleak time in my life, I happened across an article by Donna Freedman called “Surviving (and Thriving) on $12,000 a Year,” in which she outlined some of the ways in which she intended to not only get through the lean times she was facing, but to do it with grace, dignity, and even joy.

I wanted what she had.

I returned to that piece many times over the next few years, and continued to read everything she published that I could find. I followed along as she charted new-to-her territory as a midlife college student, as she healed her finances and expanded her career… I tried many of the money-saving tactics she wrote about and even began to do a little writing of my own about how things were going. I wrote about what it was like for me to begin that process– and begin againhere.

Nearly a decade after Donna’s words first illuminated a screen in my dark little studio apartment, I find myself sharing a life and a name with a man named “Vega,” who joined me on a journey to becoming debt-free, amassing a fully-funded Emergency Fund, and now, saving to buy our first home. Because we’re becoming financially literate a little “later” in life, we acknowledged that homeownership would be more likely for us if we left our native Los Angeles and struck out for parts unknown. Unknown to us, anyway: Austin, Texas is one of the fastest growing cities in America, and that trend shows no sign of slowing any time soon! You can read more about how we came to our decision here.

We’re learning our way around our new home town, working as hard as we can to make sure our “starter home” isn’t a retirement home, and trying to have as much fun as we can in the process without delaying our dreams.

Mr. Vega and I finally got to meet Donna in person last summer when she visited Austin on a short trip. We had only been here a couple of weeks ourselves, but I was happy to spend a little time talking with her over breakfast tacos in the Central Texas summer heat, and when she asked if I was writing anything, I mentioned this little blog that was only a couple of months old and was still finding its voice. It still is. But she took a look, and it was this post that inspired her recent article over at Get Rich Slowly.

If I could stumble across someone else’s blog and be inspired to make deep and lasting change in my life, then anyone can do it. And if some of the work Mr. Vega and I are doing inspires even one person to start doing it for themselves, then something wonderful is happening. Because if we can free ourselves from the burden of debt that has become the norm in our society, who knows what else we can do to alleviate the poverty and financial stress that keeps some of our best and brightest women and men from achieving their full potential?

That may sound pretty lofty, but every paradigm shift the world has ever known has started with just one person thinking quietly to themself: “What if I could really do this?” The idea of personal financial responsibility and freedom didn’t start with me, or with Donna Freedman, or with any of the other wonderful bloggers who have been brave enough to share their experiences with the public. But the most important thing is that the ideas don’t end with us, either.

Thank you for visiting, and I hope you’ll stick around and share some of your own thoughts in the comments. One person, one decision at a time, can change the world. But none of us has to do any of it alone. And the best part of all? We can have a hell of a good time doing it!

Minding the Pennies

There’s an old English saying: Mind the pennies, and the pounds will take care of themselves. When I discovered the writing of Donna Freedman back in 2006, I began to really understand that attention to smaller details– particularly in the area of personal finance– will definitely help sort out the bigger picture.

When we moved from California to Texas, we got a letter from our roadside assistance provider, asking whether we wanted to transfer our membership to the chapter in our new home state. We filled out the form to reply in the affirmative, sent it back, and never heard from them again. Not even when the membership was up for renewal, and so it lapsed without our noticing.

Several months later, we received a bill for $60, due to a service call Mr. Vega had made after our membership ended. Or so the bill said. Yesterday, I made a phone call to sort that out. It took me half an hour on the phone (most of it on hold while the California representative talked to the Texas representative), but eventually it was made clear that the service call had indeed occurred before the coverage expired: “Please disregard that bill, Ma’am, and thank you for your patience.”

I haven’t figured out my Real Hourly Rate (as outlined in Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin) for this job yet, but I promise you it’s a far sight less than the $120/hour I “saved” by making that phone call.

Another, shorter phone call saved us a $25 returned-check fee (our first in many years!) several weeks ago. I had misjudged the amount of time it would take for the funds from my new-job paycheck to be available, and the auto-draft from the credit card we use for airline miles showed “insufficient funds.” Although they had every right to assess the fee, I called the credit card company and asked politely if they’d be willing to remove it as a one-time courtesy. Because I had never made a late payment or bounced a check to them before, they removed the surcharge immediately.

Were the phone calls worth it? You betcha! I’m grateful that we’ve gotten to a place in our finances where we don’t have to choose between paying an unexpected bill and keeping the lights on, but just because we can afford to pay for mistakes (theirs or ours) like that doesn’t mean we should. I shudder to think of how many erroneous charges we’ve paid for over the years because we couldn’t be bothered to deal with it.

Taking a few minutes to carefully review our bills as they arrive, and sometimes a few more minutes to make those phone calls, has helped us get out of debt, build an emergency fund, and start saving for a house much more quickly than we would have without such vigilance. And perhaps more importantly, taking the time to track down those smaller amounts of money has taught us discipline in our spending habits: after all, if I just spent half an hour clearing up a bill for $60, I’m much less likely to blow that money on a concert ticket or a cell-phone upgrade, or a shiny new pair of… well, of anything, really.

Pennies don’t buy much of anything these days, but keeping an eye on all of them is the best way to make sure their larger relatives don’t go too far astray.

What small savings have you come across lately, and how do you think they affect your finances overall?

What Makes you Feel Rich?

The other day, I got to thinking about why some folks that seem to struggle with money also seem to be eating in restaurants a lot. I’m not judging, as food is the single most troublesome category in our budget… I just sometimes ponder things like that. I thought back to my days of being broke and in debt (read: 1987-2012), and searched for reasons my spending was so inconsistent with my financial reality. What I recognized about myself was this: I overspent because I wanted to feel rich. I never thought I could be a homeowner, or afford a nice vacation, or a luxury automobile, but dangit, I could absolutely have a fancy salad at a sidewalk cafe on Sunset Boulevard, or spring for the deluxe facial treatment– on a credit card, of course– at the best spa in town. And if your “town” is Los Angeles, that’s a pretty pricey indulgence.

So I posed the question on my own social media page: What makes you feel rich?

I was thinking along the lines of spa days or minibreaks at lovely bed and breakfast inns, but the vast majority of responses revolved around time spent with loved ones, days off, and the chance to sleep in. Even the “stuff” people wanted was more about sharing meals with people or indulging their loved ones. People, or at least the ones I know, feel rich when they get to be human beings instead of “human doings.”

In her comment-turned-article, This Is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense, Linda Tirado explains: Rest is a luxury for the rich. Grocery shopping takes time, cooking (and cleaning up afterward) take time… and if you’ve got two hours after work to spend with your kids before their bedtime, you might not want to spend it in the kitchen, or with the mending basket. Frugality may be increasingly popular with the shrinking middle class, but it’s not a poor– or broke– person’s game. I suspect that people’s expenditures on restaurant meals are more about sharing time with friends and family than about eating fancy food.

Upon further consideration, I re-examined my own list of the material things I now consider luxuries, and realized that most of them could be accomplished for very little money, or none at all, given enough time. Things like a clean, well-appointed home, a freshly-waxed and vacuumed car, and a fresh mani-pedi. Perhaps those things feel like such indulgences to me because with my new status as a full-time worker, if I make the time to do them, I won’t have time to enjoy them… and choosing to deep-clean my home, do my own nails, or hand-wax my car takes precious time away from my relationships. It sure is tempting to throw some money at my discontentment and go for a salon mani-pedi with a friend or enjoy a bloody mary brunch with the gang while my car is getting detailed. As it is, most non-essential tasks remain undone these days, because we’d rather save for our house than pay someone else to do them, and we’d rather be with our people than do them ourselves.

But there are times when I look at the smiling faces over a potluck meal on my smudged glass table, raise a jelly jar full of discount wine with my unmanicured hand, and feeling like a wealthy woman indeed, offer a toast to my loving husband and to some of the Finest Friends in the World. It doesn’t get much better than that.

What makes you feel rich?

More Than Money (Hidden Emergency Fund Ideas)

Last week, we got word from my sister-in-law that my husband’s mother had taken ill, and needed to be hospitalized. She’s home now, and on the mend, thank goodness, but we were naturally on high alert, preparing for the possibility of traveling the thousand miles that separate us from her. We’ve got a decent number of airline miles that we’ve accumulated for use in the event of an emergency requiring last-minute travel in the continental United States (we’d have to use our Emergency Fund to get to our loved ones in Hawaii, if the need arose), and that got us thinking about what other non-cash resources could get us through an emergency or hard times.

Years ago, I read an article by personal finance writer Liz Weston called “The Emergency Fund You can Eat.” In it, she wrote of maintaining a fully stocked pantry and kitchen as a first-line defense in the event of a financial crisis. Picking up an extra item or two with each visit to the grocery store may be easier for some people than trying to pile up a month’s or more worth of cash, but might ultimately yield the same results: if the money stops coming in for a time, a person or family wouldn’t go hungry while they sorted out their next steps. Bonus points for keeping a garden, no matter how small. This particular strategy has come in handy for us countless times: when we’ve been too sick (or too busy!) to get to the grocery store, during the gap between starting a new job and receiving our first pay, and since we moved to Austin, during the occasional Severe Weather Alert, when it’s safest to stay off the roads.

Savings can take on many forms, and one of the ways we’re ready for emergencies is that we’ve saved up some of our paid sick days and vacation time at work. Well, Mr. Vega has, anyway… Being new at my full-time job, I have yet to accumulate much paid time off, but it’s my intention to get and keep a couple of weeks’ worth banked to use if an emergency should arise. Not everyone has this option at work, but some places will let you swap shifts or cover for each other. Helping co-workers out when you are able can also act as a sort of Rainy Day Fund: even if it won’t replace your lost income, having people willing to cover for you can save your job when you have to miss work.

To that end, maintaining good health is another crucial component of a cashless Emergency Fund. Cooking up some of that healthy pantry and garden food, staying hydrated, sleeping well, and getting regular exercise can not only prevent missed work days and lower medical expenses, but it can also provide the ability to physically respond to crisis. It’s easier to handle the loss of a car for a person who is in good enough shape to ride a bike to work, or walk to and from a bus stop. Someone who finds themselves unable to afford their rent is also likely unable to hire movers; having spent some time slinging weights around will make a DIY move much less painful. And healthy bodies stand a better chance of thriving should the need arise to care for an ailing loved one, or to take a second job to make ends meet.

Sometimes it is nice to be able to rely on plastic when times get tough, and that’s when we reach into our wallets for our library cards. I went a year without internet service when I was paying off debt, with the help of free library wi-fi. When I was finished with my work, I’d head over to the easy chairs and spend a little time enjoying current issues of magazines that would have cost me $5 each to buy. I’d leave with an armful of borrowed books, CDs and DVDs that provided a sense of abundance in addition to the information and entertainment I got from them. Most big-city libraries also provide classes in financial and computer literacy, job search help, storytimes for children (it’s not child care, but just letting someone else read to the kids for half an hour can be a real sanity-saver for stressed-out parents), movie screenings (sometimes with popcorn!), and here in Austin, the public libraries even host monthly Adult Craft Nights!  And all of it is free.

Finding money to deposit into an Emergency Fund is difficult, and even when we have the money, it’s not always pleasant. But investing in supportive relationships is a fun way to create a strong safety net for ourselves. Healthy friendships and familial relationships lessen the risk of depression and reduce the length of unemployment. If we remember to stay in touch with and enjoy the people we love when things are going well, then in hard times, those same friends and family will be there so to help each other move, provide care and companionship during illness or after an injury, or even prevent homelessness. While none of us like to imagine it, we wouldn’t hesitate to do the same for them, and it’s important to remember that accepting and receiving help when we need it also provides the giver with a sense of meaning and importance in their own lives. And being part of a robust social network makes us more resilient, so our difficulties are likely to pass more quickly than if we were trying to handle them all alone.

Getting some money in the bank to rely on in an emergency is ideal, but there are also plenty of other ways to prepare for crisis ahead of time. What are some of the ways you’ve found to be ready for whatever life throws at you? 

Nothing Changed When we Paid off our Debt

Mr. Vega and I became debt-free a couple of years ago. It happened quietly, and without fanfare. He’d been working hard to negotiate some old, unpaid credit card bills that had gone to collection, and ended up settling about $10,000 worth of debt for around $4,000, one bill, one phone call, at a time. The only thing left was my car payment, which for some reason, I had been stalling on paying off even as we amassed a healthy savings account. Then one day, on a break from work, I called the loan company and did the payoff over the phone. Just like that, we were free from debt.

And nothing changed.

Not having monthly payments outside of rent and utilities is nice, but we have continued to save so aggressively that our lifestyle hasn’t changed: we cook at home, search out free and inexpensive entertainment, consider even the smallest purchases carefully, and do our best to negotiate the best rate for everything we spend money on. This year, I volunteered to be a support person for our bocce league in exchange for free registration ($45), and a $25 weekly credit, which I share with Mr. Vega, at the team’s sponsoring pub. We exchanged both our juicer and our vacuum cleaner several times because we kept finding lower prices. And on our last Date Night, we hustled over to a local bar right after work because the first sixteen customers that ordered cheese plates (normally $16) got them for free. We chase bargains because it’s fun for us: we like getting a good deal nearly as much as we enjoy whatever it is we’re buying or consuming. Living frugally helps us live a little more lightly on our ailing planet, as well: growing and cooking as much food as we can for ourselves eliminates a lot of packaging, as does buying in bulk. Every article of clothing that we buy used or trade with friends is one less thing that has to be shipped from overseas and then driven by truck to our local store. Our habits and practices are right in line with those of our friends who earn less than we do, or who are busy paying off debt themselves. We also socialize with people whom we suspect make and have much more money than we do, but our friendships revolve around time spent together enjoying activities that don’t cost much, so the subject of money rarely comes up.

This week, I made a long-overdue phone call to roll a 401(k) from a previous employer into a personal IRA. I spent quite a bit of time speaking to a customer service agent at the investment firm, who was gathering our personal financial information in order to ensure I was getting into a product that met our needs (and presumably the company’s need for profit, as well). Part of our conversation went like this:

CUSTOMER SERVICE GUY: Okay now, so, if we were to take all your debts, your car loans, personal loans, credit cards, home equity lines of credit, and student loans… how much money would it take to pay all of that off today, hypothetically speaking?

ME: Three hundred and forty dollars. We use an airline miles credit card that we pay off each month.
(pause.)
CUSTOMER SERVICE GUY: WOW. Well, um… Congratulations!

I really enjoyed the feeling of hearing someone who is privy to the innermost financial workings of thousands of families so taken aback. We are not wealthy, earn a modest income, and in fact, are woefully “behind” in our retirement savings, but simply being debt-free is so unusual, it seems, that it rendered this guy momentarily speechless.

So, nothing about how we live our daily lives changed when we paid off our debt. We didn’t buy fancy new wardrobes, take a vacation, or start upgrading our electronics. But there is an indescribable lightness about us now that we go to work every day because we want to be of service and earn money to save for our house instead of showing up just because we couldn’t make the rent if we didn’t. Car troubles for us these days are inconveniences and not crises. And we moved halfway across the country to pursue our dreams knowing that if an emergency should arise for any of our family members, we could afford to be at their side within a day’s time.

Nothing really changed when we paid off our debt… but somehow, everything is different.

 

 

When Plans go Awry

Last month, we were supposed to fly back to California to attend the wedding of one of our dearest friends. We felt very fortunate that many of our close friends were also on the guest list, so that we would be able to see many loved ones all at once. Our newest niece was born a few months ago, and we were looking forward to meeting her, as well. The flights had been booked and hotel rooms reserved months in advance.

And then I got sick.

Not just a little sick, either… I was running a temperature, my sinus cavities and ears were filled with fluid, I had a cough, and my throat felt like it was on fire. The doctor at the Urgent Care clinic sent me home with some powerful antibiotics and orders to stay in bed. There was no way I was getting on an airplane. What happened next is going to read like an advertisement for the companies we used, but we got such terrific service across the board that they earned the good word-of-mouth!

Fortunately, we had booked our flight using our Southwest Airlines Rapid Reward points, and there was no penalty for canceling the trip. All the points went back into our account. Our hotels had been booked through Hotels.com, and canceling by 6pm local time the day before meant that we wouldn’t have to pay a dime for the rooms we had reserved. Except that I didn’t throw in the towel until about 9pm local time. Mr Vega called customer service and explained the situation… And they let us cancel for free even though we were late! We had reserved our weeklong car rental through Hotwire.com, who also allowed us to cancel without penalty. Finally, we had each gotten some new clothes to wear to the wedding… which we returned, unworn, to the department stores where we bought them.

All in all, our canceled trip cost us… nothing.

I wish I could say that it was all due to my fantastic travel savvy, but the truth is, in a few cases, we were just lucky. To keep costs down, I frequently bid on and pre-pay for non-refundable rental cars at the name-your-own price sites, or reserve hotel rooms that come with very low rates and no-cancellation policies. To us, those are acceptable risks that we take in order to get the savings. This time, the travel gods (or the cancellation gods) were with us.

But in addition to taking extra vitamins in the hopes of making sure that we never have to miss another trip, you can bet I’m going to read the fine print from now on when we book our travel, just to make sure we could get out of it if we needed to.