Suddenly, everyone can do all the frugal things after all.

What a time, ay? A pandemic. I won’t lie: It’s nice to be FIRE. I am also glad we joined the paid-off-mortgage club (even though housing prices will almost certainly fall) because our monthly costs are low.

We haven’t seen any losses in our portfolio yet, for the same reasons we missed out on most of the gains of the past four years: We were (are) in FIRE conservation don’t-lose-it mode, bonds and other preservation things. This has worked for us because we still earn some part-time/ad hoc income, more than enough to live on. We’ll see if that continues.

Yes, this pandemic is a disaster. We’ve had family and friends in the ICU, very near death, with this virus. Many more have been forced to shutter successful businesses that took years to build, and lay-off workers. We are doing everything we can to support our community during this time: paying our house cleaner more than before, every two weeks, even though she’s not coming; ordering books we normally wouldn’t buy from the local book shop; virtual Pilates sessions; Venmo donations to performer and artist friends doing videos; paying rent for a few folks in dire straits. In many ways, we’re spending more than we were before, but that’s what you do if you can in times like these: you share the wealth.

I worry about the mental health of parent friends at home, especially those expected to spin up a Montessori home school, teach children at various levels, cook everything from scratch, and continue working.

The disaster is not just a disaster, though. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t LOVE the air quality. Please, can we keep the air quality? The lack of traffic and smog, the brilliantly clear skies at night? And the dramatically quieter cities? I love how many allegedly impossible things are now proven to be mere matters of will for the powers-that-be, too many to count: unemployment benefits for self-employed people; whole school systems and university admissions departments suddenly not caring about standardized tests (that I’d argue needed to die anyway, if for no other reason that stress reduction in children); healthcare enrollment all the time and not just during certain periods; working from home; reducing emissions, especially via totally optional business travel; the list goes on and on.

But of all these things, what has me smiling MOST is just how many people have, overnight, shown they can indeed do all the frugal things that have created and maintained financial independence for so many. If I had a dollar for every Facebook post I’ve seen along the lines of, “My bank account is awesome after a week/two weeks/a month of not going to the bar and eating out,” I’d have a few bags full of groceries, and counting.

And this includes friends who have, over the years, hit me up for help with taking control of their finances. I made spreadsheets, worked out scenarios, and almost always had good news like, “If you go down to one car, pay off this credit card, put the kids in the excellent public school and reduce your food costs by just a few hundred dollars a month, you’ll be FIRE in five years.” With the exception of TWO people, no one did the frugal things. They “just couldn’t.” They liked eating out, they “needed” $10,000 vacations because overwork is hard, and so on. Ain’t my life, all the same to me, so that was that.

Well, well, well! With all the joy in my heart, all I can say is: Look who’s doing all the frugal things now! I am seeing more home haircuts on Facebook than I ever would have thought possible. I mean, a home haircut was an FIRE bridge too far for even me, for a long time. And all kinds of people are doing it!

I smiled and clapped my hands the first few times I saw posts about how stores were out of bread yeast. I’m sad for people who want it and can’t buy any (and if they’re nearby, I offer them my levain and/or sourdough starters), but it means so many people are baking their own bread that it’s hard to be sad. I like thinking about it, honestly, all those Dutch oven loaves on all sorts of counter tops.

I’m seeing book sharing/impromptu libraries spinning up, and so much DIY my heart sings: face mask sewing, child costume sewing, and the creativity around home workouts in particular is IMPRESSIVE. Someone I know made a lat pull-down bar with a broom handle, a rope thrown over a beam in the garage, and a five-gallon bucket filled with some water. That is NEXT LEVEL, in my opinion. I have never been that clever or resourceful, no way.

Another woman I know, a ballet teacher, enlisted her whole family of six in completely cleaning out their massive mess of a basement, which she’s turned into a dance studio for practically nothing, complete with a barre, a soft floor, and mirrors on the wall. It’s great during quarantine, but afterward, she also can teach private lessons in her house. How awesome is THAT?

A few friends have decided that this was the homeschool test they’d be curious about, but never attempted. Now that they’re acclimated, and the kids are thriving, they plan to do it permanently and save loads on tuition money.

One friend said he’s determined to learn to sew his own boat cushion covers during this period; his one big project will be replacing all the decades-old vinyl ones on his boat. Friends have mended their socks so artfully that they look too pretty to wear. An engineering friend works on infrastructure for the Fender guitar site, and it’s been inundated with people doing online lessons. Rad!

I’m so IMPRESSED with everyone. Thing is, none of those frugal excuses will fly after this. But I don’t think I’m going to hear them anymore. And that’s a great thing.

Holidays and Hygge

It is high Hygge season (“a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being, regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture”) over here, even if I am Polish. We’ve been relaxing, visiting, cooking, reading, and watching things like Playing With FIRE on Netflix.

December is always the month when I review the year’s spending, pay property taxes and renew our homeowner’s insurance, and chase down outstanding payments and reimbursements. I’m glad I did: this year, they amounted to $1,152. A $25 here and a $12 there adds up. I also make time to cancel services we’re not using, ensuring the odd domain name or hosting plan doesn’t auto-renew unnecessarily.

Compound interest continues to amaze me, and never gets old. The Vanguard account alone (mostly invested in preservation-mode bonds and other low-risk things) is trucking along at $1,534,000 and generating over $30,000/year in dividends, which covers our annual expenses. I double check our crossover point (the point at which investment returns provide more money than you spend) each year at this time, even though we are still adding to our savings at this stage of FIRE.

This year, that crossover-point check up renewed my sense of gratitude for the people who coined the term: Vicki Robins and Joe Dominguez, authors of Your Money Or Your Life (YMOYL). It’s been 25 years since I read the first edition of the book (before I could legally buy a drink), and I am grateful that, however I found it, I found it so early in life. I started saving for retirement in earnest at age 19. Whew!

Robins released an updated edition last year, with a forward by Mr. Money Mustache, so I checked out the e-book from the library, it appeared instantly on my Kindle (still big magic to me, when that all works in seconds), and dug in.

Re-reading YMOYL has provided a spiritual reset and energy boost. I did many of Robins’s exercises again, and was struck with more life-energy savings inspiration. Even though we’ve enjoyed the fruits of our labor for more than 4.5 years, YMOYL made me realize that I’m still using, or thinking of using, money (life energy) on things I’d rather not, like a new car, haircuts, and lactose-free milk for my husband.

A new car?
I thought I wanted a new car, I honestly did. Our seven-year-old, bought-in-cash, perfectly-great car is small: easy to park, great on mileage, but small. We have to rent cars when family and friends visit and, just before Thanksgiving, we added a large dog to our lives who occupies the whole backseat. And I hate paying for gas. I got excited about MMM’s video on 6 Cars For Smart People and started paying closer attention to the cars our friends drive: Nissan Leafs, hybrid Pacifica minivans. What was the trunk space like? The handling?

Then I re-read YMOYL and that took care of that problem. Nope! The solution is, as ever, to drive less and rent or car share as necessary, just like Best Husband and I each did for 10, car-free years. I don’t really want to spend more life energy on cars.

Besides, it’s hard to find a car without a screen that does not beep, that does not start talking to my phone, and that does not blast my phone into the car speakers to talk at me. I nearly drove off the road the first time that JUST HAPPENED in a rental car. Who thought that default was a good idea? (Never mind, I used to work in software, I can imagine exactly how that shit decision got made.) I have ASD and am highly sensitive to noises and light flickering, so I’m screwed with all these new future-is-now, full-of-screen cars. After another $150,000 miles, I’ll think about buying a car again. Who knows? Maybe our first car will also be our last car.

DIY Curly Haircut?
I have red, curly hair that’s been hard to handle my whole life. Two or three times a year, I get a good curly haircut for $120 (tip included). $240/year is hardly terrible in this HCOL area, especially for a stylist who makes my hair look good, but…it’s still almost $1,000 every four years. Say I live 40 more years. That’s almost $10,000 on haircuts — but more than that, because the stylist raises her prices each and every January.  And that’s not counting the hour in the chair, plus the hour-long roundtrip due to an inconvenient new location, the appointment time finding, etc.

I’ve had a lot of practice cutting the hair of the elderly relative we care for (and getting quite good at layers and shaping, if I do say so) with a pair of scissors from Sally’s, so I’ve got those. I’ve also been inspired by Mrs. Frugalwoods and her home haircuts, as well as Mr. Money Mustache’s video on the same. So I got the Curly Girl Handbook from the library, which has a section on trimming your own hair, and watched some YouTube videos (especially this one). I’m feeling pretty good about it…except for the guilt about not giving my hair stylist business.

I admit it. I was raised in an environment similar to the one described by the author of this piece, about generational people pleasing: “My mother wasn’t into make-up. She usually wore lipstick and concealer, but not much more. She bought the makeup because she couldn’t say no [to the Avon lady].” I don’t want to be that way, but I understand the feeling. If confronted by my (soon to be former) hairdresser, it would be hard for me to say “I felt like cutting my own hair.” I would have to practice that ahead of time.

DIY Lactaid?
Yep, we’re going to try making regular milk lactose-free, thanks to the frugal inspiration from Clem Chan in this post. My husband and Clem have a lot in common, it sounds like, and I’m tired of two things: 1) paying $2+ more for a half gallon of lactose-free milk, every time; 2) the excess packaging and thus garbage, because the stores near us only carry half gallons of Lactaid. If we DIY our lactose-free milk, we can buy a gallon of milk in a glass bottle (or from a milkman, which we’re also looking into for packaging reduction – not sure about it yet) and roll our own.

Why do you bother?
“You have so much money, you don’t need to worry about this,” etc. etc. Well, first of all, I don’t worry. And yes, but we got to more-than-enough by having the sort of consciousness that Robins describes in YMOYL. Once that’s a habit, you can’t undo it; I don’t think I could backslide into wasting money if I tried. I don’t want anything. Once you have enough, there is no joy in wasting life energy to get more — only in conserving the most valuable, and diminishing good there is: your time.


Bicycle: Sold!

That’s one more thing out of the garage, and $250 in hand. Not terrible, considering I bought the bike for $700 almost 12 years ago. Selling a perfectly good bicycle may not seem like a very anti-car, Mustachian move, but it was.

My bike use has decreased since achieving FIRE, as I no longer have a 14-mile roundtrip bike commute. I walk most places (often with the dog, who cannot run beside a bike for more than a block). The routes I drive often are not for the faint of heart (i.e. no-shoulder stretches on Highway 1). And, weak as it may sound, bike trips that are short, fast hops in flat places are not in San Francisco: they’re a proposition.

For the past several months, the bike sat, and sat, and took up space in the garage that I’m *dying* to use for other things, specifically the small chest freezer, so I can optimize our trash bin exit-entry game. And that’s what FIRE and minimalism are about: optimizing for what matters most, instead of STUFF.

The bike is sold, but I love bike riding. When I really want that sweet, free feeling of flying, I’ll pay $2-$10 for BayWheels (a Lyft program) bike share time – which includes e-bikes. It’s pretty cool, actually. You can connect your transit card to your Lyft account, and use your phone to unlike bikes. Tada!

As is so often the case with us, we value access more than ownership. We each lived without cars for 10 years, so bike share will be just fine.

Celebrate What You Don’t Have

Today, inspired by the Frugalwoods getting a dumpster, doing an epic clean-out of their barn, and writing about balancing minimalism and frugality, Husband and I finally tackled the garage. As garages go, it’s got room for one car and most everything else on shelves, but improvements could be made. We drove e-waste to the recycling center (and dump); tackled three boxes of the dreaded CDs and DVDs; took photos of a bicycle to sell (more on that later); and lots more.

And it’s tedious. As Konmari-happy and committed as you may be, you still have to find, sort, and deal with every single item. It’s always terrific inspiration to not bring anything else IN to the house in the first place. Those three boxes of CDs represented potentially thousands of dollars that could have been invested instead. Sure, at the time it was The Standard Format and we were in high school and college, but altogether, they still cost at least $1,000 and probably more.

To get through the tedium, stay inspired, and keep going, I took a break to post things on Freecycle and thought I’d take a look at my Freecycle history. “Let us celebrate the crap that is not in my house,” said I, “by reviewing what is now 10 years of Freecycle history.” I searched for everything I’d ever posted by my Yahoo group handle.

It had the desired effect. It’s horrifying to think of this long-gone stuff filling up my house. What’s really scary is that I gave a lot of this away when we lived in a 425 sq ft., one bedroom apartment, before moving to our comparably massive 900 sq ft. house. Where on earth were we keeping this stuff? It would fill a ROOM.

Interestingly, I honestly cannot remember what some of these things looked like or what we used them for. Who knows how much money spent on something, and it didn’t even register or make a memory. Talk about what we don’t need.

Let us count the victories of decluttering and giving things another life outside of our houses AND the landfill.

In 10 years, I have Freecycled:

Three Japanese wood block prints, wood Polish knick knacks, hot/cold therapy back wraps with magnets, kid-safe plug protectors, a Thames & Hudson typeface selector, a travel size EU/UK hairdryer, a weed wacker, a yoga mat, one Mah Johngg box (Shanghai souvenir), a large maple and plywood table, fusible sewing bonding, too many pairs of women’s shoes, a TV stand with glass doors, a standing desk riser, hair products, a rice cooker, a juicing machine, a cedar storage box, a coffee table, a vacuum with extra bags, and a color-changing LED Globe light (a gift not right for us).

Other people now have two pairs of hiking boots, a stainless steel keg, an iron, two camping pillows, work pants, a computer monitor, metal bike baskets, a large piece of pegboard with hangers, bubble wrap and packing peanuts and boxes, quarts of paint, card and board games, all manner of womens’ beauty products, back issues of several magazines, a brand new women’s watch (also a gift not my style), a USB headset, a messenger bag, Metro shelving, and a San Francisco souvenir spoon. Where this spoon ever came from and what it looked like, I cannot tell you.

Folks have picked up free frames in packaging, a travel bag beauty set, a new and boxed Madeline doll, and a Pecan Pal. (The latter two were still more gifts. Who gives child gifts to grown adults? Fortunately I don’t remember.)

But wait, there’s more. A shower head, used once. A freestanding wood coat rack. A four-drawer rolling chest, wood cabinet, and storage coffee table. White plastic binders and resume folders, wood garden planter boxes, an unused Holga camera, and a soccer team hat, Christmas ornament and mouse pad (gifts from a fan of said soccer team).

That’s in addition to the analog recorder mic, a blender, moving boxes, wine boxes, and a metal recipe box and cards. (Whose recipes? Who knows – I still have the ones that matter, from my mom).

Besides all that, I gave away a box of tiles, a leather handbag, never-worn bathing suits, a wetsuit, a Roomba and a Scooba, cut-resistant gloves, three fishing rods and reels, stationery and cards, yarn, a recipe book, wine stoppers, DVDs, a small sofa, three glass bottles with spray tops, a blind wine tasting kit (wedding gift), another fishing reel and some tackle, a Bucky Brand travel pillow, many books, a microwave, a fleece blanket, a flat iron for hair (I’m a curly girl, WTH was I ever thinking?), four pillows, two more memory foam pillows, two speakers and one subwoofer, still another wine rack (more gifts), a tabletop ironing board, a box fan, a coffeemaker, and an unopened box of hair dye.

By tonight, the list will include more frames, a never-used floodlight from my father-in-law, surplus beer brewing bottles, three pairs of (machine washed and sun dried) running shoes, and rain boots (another gift, which didn’t fit). Keep it up, get it out, and keep it out. The fancy hand tools are being donated to a fine woodworking program at a community college that is happy to have them for students just getting started – that’s another project.

And now, thusly inspired… Back to the garage I go!

Dryer Ditching, Housesitting, and Happy Accidents

I’m feeling the relief that comes from having put more attention, and intention, into recovering the RE part of FIRE. Summer feels much more mellow, even if “summer” in our parts means June Gloom and Fogust, and summer summer means Fire Season. Here are a few thoughts on unditching the dryer (for data) and an accidentally frugal vacation, three ways.

All For Data: Unditching The Dryer 
Coastal fog notwithstanding, we do have sunny days and interior drying space, so I decided to do a little ditch-the-dryer experiment. Line drying clothes is common practice for us and in the FIRE community, but our spendy San Francisco neighbors (they of the 5,200 sq ft. McMansions that cost $3m+, who exude all the stress to go along with it as they pace their balconies with bluetooth headsets and scream on phone calls) look askance at our garments waving in the wind. More typical are our FIRE-curious neighbors, or actual-already FIRE neighbors (several houses on our nondescript block of 860 sq ft. boxes), who say “Line drying makes sense, but how much money do you really save?”

The answer? $40-$50/month. I dried most (not all) of our laundry for one month and that was the difference in our bill, in this area, at this time. That’s a lot of groceries, a few bottles of wine, a tank of gas or, even better, an easy way to get $480-$600 in an emergency fund over the course of a year if that’s where you are in your debt-payoff or pre-FIRE journey.

The Accidentally Frugal Vacation
The funny — and fun — thing about frugality is, I think, the auto pilot part: when it’s an easy, ingrained habit you don’t think about, yet benefit from. In this case, the habit had a life of its own, and taught me a lesson I’ll incorporate on purpose, forevermore.

Every year, for almost 20 years, some friends of mine and I have rented a house in the same Undisclosed Vacation Location. It is a land of vacation house rentals, from dirt-cheap single rooms for $90-$150/week, to $10k-$20k/week ocean-front mansions. We started going to this place for our frugal vacations 20 years ago because, for about $300/week and a $80-120 roundtrip Southwest fare per person, eight of us got a seriously deluxe, 7-day vacation in a house WITH A POOL AND HOT TUB BY THE OCEAN.

There’s not much to do in Undisclosed Vacation Land, and we’d load a suitcase up with Costco quantities of booze, buy some groceries, catch up with one another, and lay about for a week. Heaven. I recommend it.

Prices have crept up over time, but by going in the off season (post Labor Day instead of mid July or early August) we still get fabulous deals. This year, though, the most fabulous deal was an accident in our favor.

Because we’re so familiar with Undisclosed Vacation Land at this point, the addresses of houses we’ve rented in the past (some multiple times) accumulate and float around in our (now aging) brains: 333 Tree Walk, 555 Frugal Fish Path, you get the idea. And some of the addresses are very similar to one another: 555 Frugal Fish Path and 515 Fancy Fish, say.

In my squarely middle-aged, elder-care-addled brain, I’d confused these two houses. (I’m joking, but not. Hang out with someone who has dementia for the better part of a few days and you, too, can eventually be confused about what’s what.) 555 Frugal Fish Path is (clearly, with its fake name), the more frugal choice of the two houses. It’s not on the waterfront, has a less-great pool and a historically malfunctioning hot tub, but is otherwise a wonderful house.

515 Fancy Fish is FANCY. It’s big, has been updated a bit, sleeps more people, and is on the waterfront with a small private beach. The pool at this house is basically infinity style, given how it’s situated on the deck. In the off season, 515 Fancy Fish is listed at $10k/week.

But in my mind, 515 Fancy Fish was the address of 555 Frugal Fish Path. So I asked the summer let agent about 515 Fancy Fish, all the while meaning 555 Frugal Fish Path. The agent suggested we offer $7k for the week, $3k under the rental asking price, and see what the owners said.

Pish, I thought. $7k/week is still quite a bit more than we paid for 555 Frugal Fish Path two years ago. “Yeah!” my friends said. “Offer $4,800. That’s closer to what we paid last time.”

So I did, completely unaware that I was actually asking to pay less than half the listed rental price for 515 Fancy Fish. The owners asked for $5,500 all told ($1,500 less than the agent had advised), cleaning fees and all. $5,500/week divided by nine friends is $611/person. If our $300/week per person coastal fancy-house vacation has, in the course of 20 years, doubled to $611/person, I am okay with that.

The funniest part, of course, is that I still hadn’t realized my mistake. I thought we’d rented 555 Frugal Fish Path. I didn’t understand the deal we’d gotten until my friend and vacation co-planner heard the address and said “What?! We got what for how much?!” “It’s not that crazy,” I said. “It’s close to what we paid two years ago.”

“Except that’s NOT where we stayed two years ago!” he said. “515 Fancy Fish is where we stayed TEN years ago, during the financial crash when people couldn’t rent those places to cover the mortgages.” And then we laughed and squealed about our deal, and got to tell the rest of the crew that, indeed, we were back at 515 Fancy Fish for 555 Frugal Fish prices.

As frugal as I am, I never would have asked to pay less than half as my opening bid. And to be honest, I was mortified when I realized what I’d done, even though the owners had come back with a price they, clearly, were willing to tolerate. Why? I don’t know. Because it feels like too much to ask? Too rude? Too bold? And yet, the outcome can’t be denied: we saved $4,500 *per week* compared to people who would just rent the house without asking. The savings quickly made up for any temporary blush of shame. That is a huge, memorable lesson, and reason enough for me to repeat a behavior I would not have tried on my own.

Used It So As Not To Lose It
The rest of the vacation is frugal, too. Husband and I had flight credits on two different airlines, due to trips that were canceled for elder-care-emergency reasons. We’re flying to vacation on one airline and back on another and, in so doing, used ALL of our $400 worth of flight credits before they expire in 6-9 months. I know we already spent that money, but not losing it is huge. We don’t fly much (mostly for environmental impact reasons) so we don’t have many opportunities to use our flight credits.

Frugal as I am, the two-airline move is not one that naturally occurred to me. I had to see combined-airline offers on flight deal websites before I realized I could book the same one-way legs, at the same prices, AND use up all of our flight credits. Even in post FIRE life, I’m still learning to play the frugal game better.

Getting Over Conceptual Discomfort: Trusted Housesitters

Anyone in the FIRE journey knows that it’s more about changes of heart, mindset, and behavior than it is about money. It’s about what each of us needs to be happy, and the numbers vary accordingly. As we examine and change our spending in light of our life goals, we get comfortable with what initially seems like discomfort: eating out less or not at all; living car free; etc.

And yet, most of us also have a healthy sense of skepticism that helped set us on the FIRE path in the first place (and that made us skeptical of it, too). It’s the skepticism that made us ask “Is this all there is?” of stressful jobs; look upon crowded chain-store parking lots wondering what on earth everyone always seemed to be buying; and re-examine and read every thread on the entire Internet about the 4% rule.

All a long way of saying that, for me, every new thing I hear about creates a healthy tension between these two things: knowing that the willingness to change can create better outcomes than I ever imagined (no job again, ever, as of age 38), and maintaining healthy skepticism that, hopefully, prevents me from making poor decisions. This was the case when my shared-frugal-values neighbor across the street told me about (not an affiliate link) when I wondered aloud about cost-effective ways to avoid a $106/night dog-boarding charge for that upcoming vacation, which would have added $1k to our vacation cost. UGH.

Trusted Housesitters works like this: You pay an annual fee to the website, $119 (but I searched for an online coupon and got it for $89). Everything else is free. You create a profile of yourself, house, and pet(s); list the dates you need a house sitter; and people who want to travel cost effectively apply for those dates. There are two levels of verification checks and, like a lot of similar sites, people have reviews and references listed.

But a total stranger in our house, with our dog, for a week? I felt resistant and wary at the idea but, I noticed, no worse than I did about some of the friends I was thinking of asking, and certainly no worse than I did at the idea of a dog in a kennel situation for eight nights.

I respect and trust our Mustachian-living neighbors immensely. They are not abstract, and are some of those trusted house sitters. They bought their gorgeous, primo-view, San Francisco house nearly 20 years ago in what was then an “undesirable” (for whom?!) area. He’s a contractor, she’s a social worker, they have two kids. They paid off their house four years ago and painted it to celebrate. They teach their kids about trade-offs and hard work, constantly. The kids water our garden and get our mail when we’re gone for short trips (and we pay them, even though their parents admonish us for that). The parents rent the house on AirBNB when they go on vacation, and stay in destination places as house sitters, because that’s how you pay for vacation.

And yet, and yet…a stranger, with our dog?

So I did what I always do: checked the Mr. Money Mustache forums and found that folks either used, or house sat, or both on Trusted Housesitters.

I decided to try it. I paid the $89 for the year, created a profile, and listed our dates. I received four applications in a matter of hours and put our listing on hold; I didn’t want any more to evaluate. Lo and behold, I already “knew” one of the people who applied from two different online communities, the Mr. Money Mustache forums and another community dedicated to one of my hobbies. The name and profile photo in each online community was similar enough that I quickly linked the three and asked “Hey, are you also so-and-so and so-and-so?” She said yes.

We spoke by phone and I feel good about the situation, far better than I do about either a kennel and other folks watching the dog. I’ll post about how it goes after our trip, but after going through the process, I can better see how everyone benefits. Even in post FIRE life, I keep getting comfortable with initial discomfort, and learning about new ways — like house sitting! — to travel more frugally. These may all be “duh” moments to you, but other people’s duh moments add up to my big savings, so I take them with gratitude.

More RE to the FI

It’s nearly June, which marks our fourth FIRE anniversary. And I feel almost as exhausted as I did when I quit my job in 2015.  Why? Too much FI, and not nearly enough RE.

Too-much FI has taken two forms: paid work I love, and even more unpaid work I (used to) love. This year — and last year, if I’m being honest — I have allowed too much of both. Dear Husband, ever the wise one, doesn’t have this problem. He ONLY does paid work he loves. Everything else is fun stuff: gardening, cooking, rock climbing, video games, whatever.

Me? Not so much. “I’ve been so fortunate,” I say. “I can, should do more. I’m in the give-back phase of my life. I can give more.” The problem is that people will take everything you give them, and ask for more. I have been giving 2-3 hours per day to two nonprofits, gratis, and the list of requests and expectations from both only grows longer.

The upshot is that I now feel almost as burnt out on unpaid volunteer work as I once did in my well-paid job. Boo. Boooo. Who’s bad with boundaries and 100% responsible for this situation? Yeah. This gal. What was once employer-imposed is now self-imposed.

My punishment is depression at not spending enough time outside, staring around and learning to identify birds and plants and rocks. It’s sadness at days insufficient in gardening, travel, working out, reading, writing, craft, and friend time. It’s household projects piling up along with the mail.

My goal for the remainder of 2019 is to fix this. I have firmly decided that, once my two-year, voluntary board term is over at Organization A, I will not run for re-election for any board position. In line with a No New Projects rule, I have declined any and all new work this past week and will continue to do. I have put out calls for volunteers to take on more of my responsibilities, and announced that my board position is up this year in the hope that it may light a spark in someone else who wants to give it a go. Organizations benefit from new people and ideas.

I have practiced saying no to all of the people who will inevitably ask me to serve for “just one more year” (forever), so that I can be practiced and stalwart in my response when these moments happen. I have ASD, so this sort of social practice is critical for me. Otherwise, I tend to freeze, stare, or say yes to things I don’t want just to make the social discomfort end.

I have also started to hand off small but annoying tasks at Organization B, namely social media campaigns and event organization. I’ll still be involved, but will serve on just one committee and not in a leadership position. When my obligations at Organization A (the more demanding of the two) are as small as possible, the work at Organization B will go back to being fun.

Because both of these volunteer gigs stopped being fun about 8 months ago.

I already feel so much better, relieved, happier. Yes, I’ve been up a few nights worried about the future of this budget or that project, but ultimately, if organizations and social-change projects really do have legs, they will succeed — and may even thrive more strongly — without me. In my pre-FIRE life, I often said that work tasks needed to be role dependent, not person dependent, and I still believe it.

And — just like I did when I submitted FIRE notice — I have senioritis! I am way too excited about the end of this board term. I may even start Xing out dates on an app or wall calendar, just like people who are about to…retire.

I didn’t anticipate that, four years into FIRE, I’d be overcommitted and burnt out, again. I didn’t know that I was still at such risk of slipping into “productive member of society” habits. But it’s also a nice reintroduction to the magic of FIRE, the whole point of which is not having to do anything you don’t want to do, paid or otherwise.

Switching to Kaiser from Blue Cross

The cost of health insurance is a big one — perhaps the biggest — for FIRE folks in the U.S. We are too young (often by decades) to qualify for Medicare like traditionally retired people, and the Republicans have only sought to block, and subsequently undermine and destabilize, the ACA and state health insurance marketplaces since their inception. This creates rising costs for consumers.

Mr. Money Mustache put it best in his post titled When Your Shitty Health Insurance Doubles in Price, the difference being that he already has the provider we are switching to. Unfortunately, it’s the best we can do.

Every November, our health insurance renewal email comes from Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) of California. And every November, our monthly premium rises by almost $200/month ($2,400 year), on top of a deductible that rises by $1-2,000/year, for a total annual price hike of $3-4,000.Every. Single. Year. For the foreseeable future.

And all of that still does not mean we’re 100% covered. Oh, no. Some things are covered at 40%, some at 60%, and the mental energy is ours to spend figuring that out.

This cannot go on forever, obviously. Eventually, it becomes pointless for everyone to pay for debt insurance (which is what health insurance really is) rather than save this money, get a credit card with a high limit, and declare bankruptcy in case of astronomically high medical bills.

When we achieved FIRE 3.5 years ago, our monthly premium was $635 for two of us, with a $9,000 deductible. Now, it is $1,085/month with a $12,000 deductible. There are other hidden, higher costs on top of those: reduced coverage when traveling, etc. Every year we get less, for more.

The only thing that keeps this barely tolerable is the fact that we can deduct our monthly premiums as a business expense, because we are technically self-employed. But it’s no panacea: We’re still out $12k/year in premiums that we’d rather allocate to other expenses.

Of all the infuriating things about the U.S. insurance (because one cannot correctly call it “health care”) system, though, two things make my blood boil more than others. First, none of it hangs together, logically speaking: Monthly premiums in no way reflect anything quantifiable and sensible, like our risk. They increase because they can.

Second, as high as the costs are, they do not reflect the extraordinary amount of free labor every American has to do in order to manage the relationship between their doctors, myriad third parties (labs, radiology providers, medical supply companies, pharmacies, etc.), and the insurance companies.

If people were to account for their time spent project managing this crap system at a fair wage (say $20/hour), especially for seriously and chronically ill selves or family members, it adds an additional $4-$5,000/year to the tab, minimum. Americans serve as unpaid middleware to hold the myriad parts of this inefficient, ineffective system together, and that is time that they cannot spend earning money in other ways.

All a long way of saying that it is both monetary cost (a savings of $3,000/year on our premiums alone) and efficiency (streamlined, less painful care) that drove our switch to Kaiser for 2019. As an American, I did hours of research before making this decision, speaking with friends who have had Kaiser for many years.

My friends and neighbors described things that would count as straight-up miraculous in BCBS PPO land: Complete records online. (Oh, the hours lost to chasing those down and waiting for them.) On-site pharmacies, saving a trip and a long wait time there. Specialists called in right away to look at something beyond a GP’s expertise, no waiting 1-3 months to see some sort of specialist elsewhere. No need to obtain referrals to see those other doctors, and chase the referral. Many types of doctors at a single location. And for $300/month less.

I don’t expect anything to be perfect, but we are willing to experiment with something new that may be better and cost less. If we don’t like it, we can change again during open enrollment next year.

And with that done, we can shop around for new homeowner’s insurance, joy of joys. Even though we do not live in a fire zone, fires elsewhere in our state have most insurers charging more, and valuing homes for less. Every year, like magic, AAA tells us that it would cost less to reconstruct our home than the year before. In their detailed breakdown of this thinking, they assume things like $600 to replace windows. Cute.

Onward in insurance shopping. How I wish Black Friday deals extended to this.