Eight Months of Pandemic Time

The past month has been the hardest since Best Husband, Doggo and I locked down on February 25, a few weeks ahead of the official public health order from our city and then our state. Vastly distanced time outdoors kept us holding on mental health wise, but tens of thousands of lightning strikes on August 16 changed that. The lightning sparked hundreds of wildfires and weeks of serious smoke, including air quality levels too dangerous to spend time outdoors, even with N95 masks on.

And then we were REALLY stuck indoors, including during a 106-degree day with no air conditioning. Hard. We feel fortunate to be introverts with lots of hobbies and home projects, because extroverts must really be hurting. We saw a drive-in movie about a week ago and the smoke did not ruin it, which was the most fun we’ve had all year.

We were considering a cross-country road trip but have put the kibosh on that for now. We haven’t traveled back to the Midwest in two years due to elder care obligations here. When someone with dementia still remembers who you are, it gives you a tremendous advantage in dealing with things. They still recognize and trust you most of the time, which makes it possible to take better care of them in myriad ways: trusting that food you bring is okay, and actually eating it; being calmer when you’re around; that sort of thing. One risk of travel is that they’ll forget you if you stay away too long, so we limited our travel to no more than three or four days at a time for the past few years.

That elder family member died a few months ago, which would normally mean we could visit family back in the Midwest, but 2020 is not normal. Best Husband and I planned one-week routes between California and Michigan each way, and figured we could manage the trip in a very self-contained way by building out our minivan or renting a camper (though I’m not terribly worried about hotels as compared to restaurants); eating food we brought ourselves; and so on. We figured we could get home a few days before the election but have decided not to chance it, given Covid and the crazies coming out of the woodwork.

I have traveled all over the U.S. as a white female, solo, and never had any trouble, but two family members shared stories that made us think twice. A (quite conservative) family member in small-town, rural northern Iowa said they had finally had to call the police on a neighbor they’ve known their entire lives, because the man was threatening to shoot at any car with an out-of-state license plate that showed up before the election, “especially from Washington, Oregon, or California, because it will be Antifa transporting immigrant voters to Iowa.”

Family in central Michigan said they’ve run into small groups of armed men when out running errands on average weekdays, once on a visit to a city building (for a hunting license or something of that nature) and once on a trip to Costco. Michigan has become an open-carry state since I left. I was raised in a hunting and sport-shooting family with lots of firearms in the house, but in all my years there, we never, ever saw groups of men in Cosplay Army outfits with automatic weapons randomly patrolling and shouting or whatever it is they think they’re doing. After those incidents (neither of which were apparently considered newsworthy), my uncle put a pistol in the glove box lest he and my aunt end up surrounded by delusional nutjobs. He said now may not be the best time to be driving around Michigan.

Well, I don’t need to hear the same recommendation a third time. Though I am very eager for a road trip we can and will wait, though I doubt cross-country travel conditions will improve much in the next 6-12 months.

Otherwise, FIRE life is much the same. Financial preparedness is not something I want to belabor during a time of historically high unemployment, genuine struggle, and more limited options, it has put us in a much better and safer position. Too many friends are being forced back into unsafe office environments by their employers, even when it is not required for the work they do. They are stressed and terrified about infecting their families and wish they had FU money so they did not have to return. I hope people who can are ramping up their savings as much as possible, because I don’t see an economic boom on the horizon given the third wave of infections we’re seeing. And winter is coming.

Our spending remains unusually low as travel was our main non-essential expense. We’ve been eating out of our garden, chest freezer, and shelf staples. Autumn is clearly here and we will miss the abundance of free vegetables driving our daily meals. We’ve preserved some items but also had some losses (like raccoons stripping the last apple tree in a single night and poorly pollinated yellow squashes that were brown on the inside). Even so, we’ve put up loads of green beans, tomatoes are next, and more potatoes are coming.

Keep on keeping on.


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 TrustedHousesitters.com (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.

Still FIRE, Still Happy

After not posting for most of this year, I’ve gotten a few comments and emails asking if we’re still FIRE and what’s up in general.

June 2018 marked our three-year FIRE-nniversary. We love it more than we did in the beginning, which was still new in sometimes terrifying, transitional ways. The longer we’re free, the more unimaginable traditional employment becomes, not that it’s something we think about anymore.

Our spending for this year has held steady at $2,800/month for everything, including travel (airfare, gas, mileage), property taxes, groceries, wine, dining out, and so on. This puts us on track for $33,600 in annual, San Francisco Bay Area spending.

I published a book that is doing quite well, which is another reason I have not posted much here. Publication is a wild, agonizing, fun and, frankly, mind-blowing process for someone who never worked in either the publishing or media industries.  I won’t identify the book on this pseudonymous blog, but can definitely say having more time in FIRE made writing, editing, and publishing possible (though I started it before I quit my tech job 3.5 years ago). I’m curious to see what, if anything, the book adds to our annual income. It hasn’t been out long enough for me to have a good sense of that.

Despite the hysteria and anti-FIRE hate coming from Suze Orman, the FIRE waters are as wonderful as ever. In the 3.5 years since we made the leap, FIRE has only become more important and meaningful. We’ve been able to take care of sick and elderly family members, and some of our young friends with shitty, horrible, unfair diseases. The time we got to spend with our beloved people before they departed this mortal coil was the greatest possible gift.

The extreme weather effects of climate change become more severe with each passing year, whether you live with hurricanes, drought, floods, sea level rise and high tides, or (like us) wildfire. We don’t know what the future holds, but don’t think it will get much better during our lifetimes, and is probably likely to get worse. In retrospect, we are so unbelievably glad we did not spend too much more of that time working than was necessary. Suze, we have no regrets.

How We Spend Our Days

Long ago, as a 19-year-old undergraduate, a friend gave me a copy of The Writing Life by Annie Dillard as a birthday gift. Recently, during the KonMari process of going through my books, I reread (and kept) this inscribed gift. I came across a passage that has become quite popular:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing… There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. A day that closely resembles every other day of the past ten or twenty years does not suggest itself as a good one. But who would not call Pasteur’s life a good one, or Thomas Mann’s?”

The Writing Life changed the course of my life. That quotation haunted me, especially when wasting time on social media or at miserable jobs: “What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing,” I’d realize, painfully, as I closed another technical support ticket or walked toward the HR wing to report that my vile manager had rubbed my shoulders and smoothed my hair.

For more than 20 years now, that single sentence has been all the reminder I needed to be careful and judgmental about how I spend my time.

Almost equally striking was: “The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.” 

It is no coincidence that I adopted habits of frugal abundance at age 19, shortly after I finished my first read of this book. Dillard’s words sang out to me: Yes. That. I want a lot more time spent reading, and a lot less in cubicle farms.

Dillard’s call was stronger than the value mainstream, capitalist, industrial culture puts on reading vs. working, and the inner critic they create: “Reading is lazy. Being a worker, a productive member of society, is the very best thing you can be.” (Ignore, for the moment, the parties who have a stake in our enacting their particular, consumerist beliefs).

Dillard’s words were the very first that sounded like anything I actually wanted. I never wanted a big house, but a solidly made, cozy, affordable one. I never wanted a fancy car so much as a reliable one, with good gas mileage and without expensive parts.

During this 19-year-old time, I was absolutely content with a lifestyle other people referred to as “scraping by,” because I wasn’t. Yes, outwardly, I lived in a scarred and blighted Detroit neighborhood with abandoned, collapsed houses next door and across the street. Our “dangerous” neighbors were actually lovely, kind people who sold drugs for lack of other options (now totally acceptable behavior by white people who engage in the exact same behavior, but from a nice looking dispensary rather than the sidewalk).

I made $16k/year working full time. College cost me $9k/year out of pocket (plus $9k/year in loans for the difference). I had $7k to live on, so I learned, rather quickly, to make Mustachian choices to create a less stressful life. My share of rent in that spacious, 1920s, well maintained “ghetto” house was $160/month ($1,920/year) and I had a beautiful bedroom of my very own, as did each of my four roommates. Importantly, that $160/month included heat, in the form of those awesome-when-they-work steam heat radiators. Indeed, these worked so well that we often needed to crack a window because the house was too hot.

I could make that $160 in two to four nights of waiting tables or bartending. (Never mind that my being a bartender was illegal because I was not yet 21. Never you mind.) A lot of my food was free, dishes the cooks screwed up and saved for workers to take home at the end of the night. God love and keep those cooks: They always seemed to screw up more on slow nights, when our tips were lower.

Yes: I could have lived in a slightly nicer place, but lower rent meant more homework and sleeping time, and less working time. Time was already a calculus, even when each additional dollar was more precious than future dollars would be, because I had so few dollars at all.

I remembered all of this while doing the KonMari process (against the rules, because I was listening to a podcast). The Mad Fientist podcast introduced me to The Happy Philosopher, and his mind blowing post about the marginal utility of money. Don’t you just love people who put words to vague feelings and notions, and name them? Happy Philosopher’s post did just that. As with Dillard, I read “marginal utility of money” and thought: Yes. That. That is what I have been trying to say when I try to explain that, after a certain point, more money was not nearly as valuable to us as more time.

Without actually knowing or being all that conscious of it, Best Husband and I had completed Happy Philosopher’s steps (this is a direct quote from his post):

  1. Figure out how much money you need to fulfill your basic needs: food, shelter, transportation, etc.
  2. Think deeply about what in life brings you happiness (not pleasure, but happiness) and how much money above what is needed for basics you need to provide for this. This will take time and tinkering and will change over time, as what makes you happy will change as you evolve.
  3. Cut out all spending from your life that does not bring you joy. Examine everything you spend money on and ruthlessly eliminate or downgrade. Optimize everything that is left over.
  4. Use the saved money to buy your freedom.
  5. Use your freedom to do the work you love, or do less of the work you hate.
  6. If you are still working reassess and see if the trade makes sense, if not go back to step 1 and repeat until satisfied.
  7. If you don’t have enough money to get past step 1 you need to figure out how to make more money.

I think I’ve mentioned this before but, as soon as we paid off the house (and I mean within days), work became unbearable. We had bought our freedom. What had been, one week prior, “not always a terrible deal for the money” instantly became a “waste of a day,” time that kept us from spending time in other ways.

Now that we’re comfortably in step #5 (I’ve written in detail about our part-time self-employment, FIRE-for-us lifestyle), I wanted to return to Dillard’s big question, 20+ years on: How do we spend our days?

Every day, we wake up naturally, usually between 7:15 and 8 AM, though it occasionally ranges from 6:30 AM to 9 AM. I have not figured out why those swings happen for both of us when they do: Why, for one week, do both of us wake up naturally at 6:30 AM instead of 8 AM?

We do not set alarms unless we have a flight or something, and we rarely have a need to be on an early vs. later flight. I make coffee for us every day, and we have coffee in bed for an hour or so while we chat and read. I read the New Yorker and High Country News, he reads the Guardian and some other things from his phone.

This is the best part, by the way. This was all we wanted: more sleep and time together. You can probably stop reading right here, or I can probably stop writing. Our mornings are the highlight of my life. When, God forbid, death separates Best Husband and me, I will miss our mornings the most, but at least we will have had years of quiet, beautiful morning hours.

Then, we will either do some work (whether paid client work or volunteer, this is usually computer based work but may take the form of a call or meeting), or we will work out. We’ll walk to the gym to lift weights, or go to the climbing gym, something like that.

After 2-3 hours of either work or work-out time (or a combo), we’ll cook and eat lunch and head out to the garden to have a cup of tea, weed, plant, pick food, etc. We might also take a long walk or hike, or run errands (while everyone else is still at work – very important), or spend time on some of our hobbies – sewing, writing, brewing beer, woodworking, etc.

Sooner than we think, it’s time to cook a good dinner from scratch, which we do together while listening to podcasts. Evening time is, rarely, going out (to see a play or similar) but, more often, is time for more hobbies, maybe the occasional movie or PBS show. I usually knit or sew; Best Guy may play a video game or read a book.

We go to bed around 10 PM and read in bed until 11 PM or so, until lights out.

I would not trade a minute of it: “time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.” 

I can say with certainty, 20+ years later, “There is no shortage of good days.”