Personal Finance

July Spending Report

This month was one of the most extravagant in the history of our marriage not to mention since we started giving a crap about saving money. We went on a vacation to New York City and New England all by ourselves. We didn’t stay with friends. We didn’t sleep in a tent. We didn’t buy groceries and cook over an open fire. We flew direct. We rented a car for the week. We stayed in several hotels. We ate out every single meal. And we enjoyed the hell out of it.

Truth be told, we have never embarked on a trip like this before. Beginning with our honeymoon when we flew for free thanks to a relative who is a pilot and gave us passes, we typically focus on spending as little as we can to still have an enjoyable trip. That’s not to say that this trip we threw caution to the wind and traveled like Trumps – just that we veered from our typical travel M.O.

The past few months have been a combination of highs and lows. We really wanted a chance to get away, so we booked a weeklong vacation in July.

High: Brandon finished writing and defending his dissertation and is officially done with his PhD.

Low: My mother was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and died two weeks later.

Obviously we were thrilled that Brandon finished his doctorate, and we had planned for the past several years that we would take a bigger trip to celebrate, but my mother’s illness and death really took its emotional toll as well. We wanted to go to the east coast, and we found the best deal on airfare by flying to New York City. It has been a lifelong dream of mine to see the fireworks in NYC on July 4th, so we decided to make the city our base of the trip. We spent two nights in NYC (July 3-5), then hit the road in a rental car. We spent four nights in New England (in Maine and Massachusetts) before returning for a final night in NYC and our flight out the next morning. We were gone for seven nights, longer than we have ever been gone on vacation.

For the sake of really seeing where our money went, I broke down the vacation costs and the household spending separately.

July Spending Report

Car Parts: $848

We bought new tires and hydraulic shock absorbers for the Xterra, and I got my car washed. We don’t have an outside faucet at our condo, so we pay to wash our cars.

Car Payment: $331.48

Cell Phones: $137.46

Dining Out: $214

Electricity: $139.44

Entertainment/Amusement: $29.95

Netflix subscription, icloud storage and a Redbox rental

Gas: $181

Giving: $657

This includes our monthly church and charitable giving as well as two gifts purchased for loved ones. I make gifts on occasion for things like housewarmings or hostess gifts, but I also like to give generously for bigger occasions (like birthdays!) for those I love. Not to say one can’t give generously out of their homemade or free offerings, but I know my own heart and I know when I’m being stingy. So, I usually buy gifts.

Groceries: $506

Before we left on vacation, we ate everything we could in the house so it wouldn’t go to waste. When we returned, we were pretty low on some of our staples. Ergo, mammoth Costco trip upon our return.

Home Supplies: $17

Dish detergent, laundry detergent, A/C filter, etc.

Home Décor: $161

When my mom was sick, I borrowed an Aerobed for our houseguests (my sister and brother-in-law) while they were in town. It somehow sprang a leak during its use, so we bought one to replace the one we borrowed. We also bought a patch to fix the broken one. We didn’t feel we could return a broken item to our friends, so we now own an Aerobed that needs to be patched.

Health/Fitness: $1,048

We finished outfitting our garage with gym equipment. We have had the best time in our Crossfit box downstairs. We will never pay for gym memberships again, and we are really enjoying this free activity together. This was a significant investment in our health that doubles as free entertainment and quality time together.

Internet: $75.30

I attempted to renegotiate our monthly cost with our provider, but so far have been unsuccessful. Time Warner Cable tells me they are upgrading the technology in our neighborhood and that my current service will decrease in price sometime in the next month.

Personal Care: $28.30

Toiletries from Costco and a haircut for Brandon.

Total: $4,773.93

Vacation Expenses

Car rental: $395.34

Entertainment: $164

This includes our entrance fee to Acadia National Park, sea kayak rental in Bar Harbor and jazz club cover charges in NYC. Some of the best experiences of my life!

Food: $433.51

Fuel: $72

Flights: $552.40

Gifts/Souvenirs: $68.54

We buy a Christmas ornament and some sort of art print each place we travel. We also bought lobster paraphernalia for Brandon’s mom and sister who watered our plants for us while we were gone. And Brandon bought some souvenir lobster socks because a pair of his mildewed.

Hotels: $628

MTA Fare: $84

This includes two seven-day subway passes and transport to and from JFK airport via the Air Train. We rented our car from JFK because it was half the price of renting in Manhattan and we could take the subway and train rather than a cab.

Parking in Dallas: $104.88

Tolls in New England: $27

Uber to/from La Guardia Airport: $105

Other: $16.03

Sunscreen and a couple health related items

Vacation Total: $2,866.58

Total Spent: $7,640.51

House and Home, Personal Finance

Perfectionism: The Thief of Joy

I have this slight obsessive compulsive tendency that rears its ugly head at the most inopportune times. Anyone else have that problem?

They say that in job interviews, the quintessential “weakness” one should present when asked is a perfectionist tendency. How could it possibly be a bad thing to strive for excellence … and dare for perfection?

I’m here to debunk that myth and replace it with a truth. Perfectionism is the thief of joy. It has ceased to be a virtue for me. In fact, it makes me a little more miserable.

I came to this realization over a seemingly insignificant event: baking a batch of chocolate cupcakes for a friend’s surprise birthday party. My sweet friend’s birthday was actually the day my mother passed away a couple months ago, so I didn’t get to celebrate with her at all. She and her husband recently bought a house, and between moving, house updates and spring work chaos, her birthday came and went with nary an acknowledgement let alone a decent celebration – quite unacceptable for a 30th birthday.

Enter the three-months-later surprise party. My friend’s husband checked with us to be sure we were available and then planned a killer surprise for his wife. I volunteered to make these chocolate cupcakes that we are all obsessed with because they taste the way all birthday cake should taste. Little morsels of heaven, I tell you! The birthday party was on a Saturday, so on Friday night, I assembled my ingredients and began to bake.

And now about that OCD. In recent years, I’ve learned how absolutely terrible partially hydrogenated oils are for your health, so I’ve sought to avoid them as much as possible in my cooking. Occasionally, I do have to use plain old vegetable oil, but I usually only do this if a substitute would detract from the taste or quality. Let me just tell you: these particular chocolate cupcakes must be made with vegetable oil. But I didn’t know that on Friday. Or at least, I had conveniently forgotten my past experience. Plus, I was out of vegetable oil at the time.

A trusted cookbook explained that butter may be substituted for vegetable oil in cake recipes with perhaps a slight change to the texture of the cake. Truly light and fluffy cakes are made with vegetable oil, while butter yields a slightly denser texture and less height. Allegedly. The French prefer butter in their cakes, so I reasoned that butter would be just fine.

It could have been the humidity or something amiss with the cupcake liners (which were foil), but I was fairly certain the butter was the culprit for the batter sort of leaking over the tops of the liners and dribbling sadly across the cupcake pan. They tasted … off. So disappointing. By this point, it was after 11 p.m., so I trudged off to bed resolving to try again in the morning, this time with classic vegetable oil.

In the morning, I got up and dashed to the grocery store for oil and more cupcake wrappers. Came home and whipped up another batch of cupcakes, this time with the vegetable oil. And this time … they were still so imperfect! They failed to rise adequately, and upon taste test, had a weird aftertaste.

I fretted about the imperfection of the first batch reasoning that I couldn’t present such an imperfect product at the birthday party of my friend. After baking batch number two, I became more than frustrated. I was tempted to throw them all away.

At this point, I just have to tell you that I am not usually a total failure in the kitchen. I usually do pretty well with cooking, though I am not a frequent baker. It’s difficult to know if I should blame the butter, oil, cupcake wrappers, terribly humid summer weather or any other of myriad untested variables.

Anyway, I was ready to toss out the whole lot. But the husband put a stop to that. I also remembered my mother.

My mother once sent my father to multiple stores in search of an 8-inch square cake pan for a recipe. Why? Because she only owned a 9-inch square cake pan. And she was that crazy. No level of improvisation was acceptable to her. And yet, even by following each and every recipe to the letter, she still had failures. Because that’s what happens when you cook! If you only bake or prepare food once a year, your chances for failure are far less than when you cook almost every day. You are simply going to have some failures. And sadly, my mother’s kitchen failures (when they occurred) usually turned into a fit of frustration followed by writing off the whole effort as a lost cause. And throwing it all in the trash.

I struggle with the same sense of frustration when a project goes awry, but it is only recently that I’ve begun to see this not as a virtue to be celebrated but a weird self-critical obsession that verges on psychological dysfunction. And I’m going to war against it.

Here are the lessons I learned from baking those cupcakes.

The middle makes no sense. The cupcakes tasted weird soon after coming out of the oven. I waited for them to cool, hesitantly made chocolate icing and decorated the tops with sprinkles. On the way to the party, we began to worry that there weren’t enough for all who would be attending. On a whim, we stopped at a bakery and bought 15 more cupcakes for $30, an extravagance likely fueled equally by my fear over the homemade cupcakes tasting absolutely terrible as much as by worry that more people might show up than had responded to the invitation. I was certain that everyone who tasted them would spit them right back out. Instead, once iced and decorated, they looked rather charming, and my husband and I agreed that we actually preferred the homemade to the store-bought product. Someone even commented that they tasted like they had a bit of espresso in them. The finished product always makes more sense than the partially completed.

No one thinks that much about other people. I spent so much time worrying that I would be perceived a failure by others and that my friend would be disappointed. I failed to remember until later that, shockingly, I am not the center of the universe. My friend did not know or care that the cupcakes had been expected to be a dismal failure. No one was the wiser! Based upon my own experience and how much time I spent worrying about what other people thought of my efforts, I now realize how little time other people likely spend thinking about me. Most people are thinking about themselves and just as worried as I was about how they are perceived. If we’re all so worried about how we are perceived, you can bet we aren’t doing that much actual perceiving.

Perfectionism is the thief of joy. The bottom line is that my friend was touched that I went to some effort on her behalf because I care about her. She didn’t notice or care that the end result wasn’t bakery perfection. But I spent so much time worrying that I robbed myself of the positive experience and pure enjoyment of making something for someone I care about. I was so worried about what other people might think and so terrified of failure that I didn’t even enjoy the process or think that much about my friend in the first place. Perfection does not exist, and the more experiences we have, the more likely we are to both fail and succeed. Some of our experiences will arrive at near perfection, and when they do we may bask in the achievement knowing that the experience itself – not the result – is the goal.

Personal Finance

The time the girl leased a car

In my previous post, I mentioned that my sophomore basic economics teacher taught us how to buy a car without ever going into debt. Today, I want to share a little back story on how my failure to have a little patience and foresight led to the lease of a beautiful new Volkswagen Rabbit way back in my younger, single days. Basically how I forgot that wise teacher’s advice. Oh the trappings of youth!

If you want to know how to buy a car without ever going into debt, just Google it. Many a personal finance writer has more than explained the methodology, so I don’t feel the need to spell it out here. In fact, here’s a great explanation right here from Dave Ramsey. Now on to my story.

My first car was a 2001 Honda Civic which my parents purchased for me from a rental car company. They bought the car with cash following the payout of a lawsuit that dropped a heap of dollars in their laps that same year. The car had a mere 17,000 miles on it and was in perfect condition. Turns out rental car companies often take better care of their cars than private parties do. For an 18-year-old college student, it was the perfect car. In high school I shared my parents’ janky Ford Taurus, so having my own wheels presented so much independence and freedom! I loved that thing! I got the car just before Christmas that year. I drove it through college and took it with me when I moved to take a job in Waco after graduating and then when I moved to the Pacific Northwest for another job 1.5 years later. It came back to Dallas with me when I moved home in 2007. And at that point, it had 130,000 miles on it.

As an aside, yes I realize that 130,000 miles on a 6-year-old car is an outrageous sum. I blame frequent trips home from college and my job as a newspaper reporter which entailed a LOT of driving.

In 2007, my transmission gave out. The Civic required a $3,000 new transmission. My sweet mother went with me to the repair shop and once we found out how much it was going to cost, offered to pay for the repair for me. Given their financial situation at that point, the aforementioned cash having all but run out, I knew she had no business parting ways with $3,000, but she seemed really committed to her generous offer.

I just couldn’t do it. Instead, I told her it was probably time for me to get a new car. I reasoned that at age 25, I was well-positioned for such a significant purchase. It was time to step into adulthood.

I had a friend who had leased a car the previous year and had spoken highly of the idea of leasing. If you intend to drive a newer car, he said it was a good idea. This friend did not provide me with advice, but I suppose I figured what’s smart for one person is smart for everyone.

How I wish I had remembered that wise professor’s advice.

My mother and I took my car hobbling down the highway access road to the Volkswagen dealership. From the moment we stepped through the door, we were toast. We test drove several cars, and I ended up pointing to the car I wanted on the showroom floor. Yes, I was THAT person! Of course they had that exact car waiting for me at the back of the lot. I vaguely remember my mom feigning interest and encouragement, but the truth was that she didn’t agree with me buying a car and probably didn’t understand why I wouldn’t just take her up on her offer. I think she knew that I didn’t want to burden her, but she was probably more concerned with me not taking on such a huge financial responsibility. As it turned out, I didn’t qualify for the loan on my own. My mother agreed to co-sign the note with me (quite a stupid idea for anyone, and she is lucky that I was committed to paying on time each month and never missed a single payment). We handed over my paid-off Civic as a down payment (on a lease, mind you! So stupid!). I cruised out of there with a four-year lease and a mileage limit of 60,000. I was still working as a reporter. I’ll let that sink in for a moment.

Four years later, I was of course way over the mileage limit. By this point, I was married and the husband had already spent a lot of time teasing me for picking out my car on the showroom floor. The gig was up, and it was time to make a decision. We could either buy out the car or pay the ridiculous charge for the mileage overages. And I had to have some kind of wheels. This is Dallas, after all, home of the achingly inefficient mass transit commute. We decided that it made the most sense to go ahead and buy out the lease. We reasoned that at the very least, it had still only been driven by one of us. It was definitely the lesser of the two undesirable options. I drove the Volkswagen for another two years before a little hiccough between first and second gears became concerning. Upon evaluation, the cost of repairing the transmission on the Volkswagen quoted by our trusted mechanic was $5,600. We still owed $6,000 on the car. Never buy German, my friends.

At 25 years old when I leased the Volkswagen, the information I had about car-ownership was limited to my six years of experience as a car-owner coupled with my limited knowledge about how to handle money in the first place, a position of weakness to be sure. During the last two years of owning the Civic, it had occasional mechanical issues averaging about $500 per repair. I believe I had four $500 (on average) repair bills in about two years. Now, is it pleasant or desirable to shell out my bucks to repair a car? Absolutely not! But, what if I compare the cost of those four somewhat significant repairs over the course of two years to the annual cost of a car payment? The difference? My annual car payment for the lease was $3,660 or about $305 per month. The cost of owning the paid-for Civic was about $1,000 per year. In a community where it is damn near impossible to get along without a car, the auto ownership cost (aside from fuel and routine maintenance) of around $1,000 a year was obviously the much smarter choice. Even now, I wish I had just repaired the transmission on the Civic. The system had held out for more than 130,000 miles. I am confident that had I pulled the trigger on the new transmission I would still be driving that car today and I would own it free and clear in sharp contrast to the current situation of paying a monthly car note.

Several years ago, Brandon’s Chrysler Sebring gave out, and he purchased a used Nissan Xterra. The SUV now has around 135,000 miles on it. It is still going strong, though it does drive like a mature car. But, we own it, and it is reliable. Two years ago, the paid-for Xterra required a repair of around $1,000 which raised the question of when we would consider replacing it. When one of us asked the inevitable question, “Well, what happens if we have a $1,000 repair like this every year?” the other responded with the honest truth that our auto ownership costs would be that $1,000 per year plus routine maintenance and fuel.

After getting rid of the Volkswagen, we ended up purchasing a new economy car and got a relatively good deal on it, but even since that point two years ago, I have learned so much about shopping for a car, how easy it is to buy into scare tactics and what I can actually stand to drive! The auto industry would have us believe that it is foolish to drive a car once it is beyond or close to its value to repair and that we deserve better. My critical error was the mistaken belief that a $3,000 repair for a car worth maybe $5,000 at best was a foolish way to spend my bucks. Not to mention my prevailing belief at the time that what I drove mattered beyond its safety and ability to get me from point A to point B. Wouldn’t I rather have something new that will last rather than throwing away money on costly repairs every year? Didn’t I deserve to drive something nicer, well-designed and hip? I was young after all! Drive what you want!

Intrinsic in this line of thinking is a misguided notion about cars: that they are somehow supposed to be a good investment or a sound financial choice. Thou shalt not believe this stupid notion! Cars are depreciating, expensive luxurious privileges.  For me, the weekly cost of the car payment itself is about $76 or roughly 50 cents per hour. With gas, insurance and the occasional routine maintenance, the cost rises to about 75 cents per hour. Based upon my (albeit modest nonprofit) salary alone, I can tell you that my time is worth MUCH more than 75 cents per hour, so I am satisfied with paying down the note knowing that it affords me opportunities to spend valuable time elsewhere and in much more profitable ventures. However, if I compare the hourly cost of renting a condo with the hourly cost of owning my car (until it is paid off), the per-hour difference is actually rather modest when I consider the space that either payment provides. This gives me some notion of how expensive cars actually are.

I don’t believe I actually need a car – not like I need air to breathe or food and water or clothing to cover my person. In actuality, a car is a luxury that allows me to function more efficiently in my daily life. For many people and in many localities across this vast nation, a car may be worth the annual expense because the convenience and efficiency it affords allows its owner to commute to work in a timely manner, making valuable time at home, at work and at play much more accessible.

Over the next few years, I anticipate that we will need to make a major repair to Brandon’s Xterra. When that happens, it will not be pleasant to part with potentially more than $1,500 for a rebuilt transmission or engine repair. But, given that the Xterra is only nine years old at this point and given our positive experience with the reliability of the vehicle, the question of whether or not to replace it is (for me) an easy one to answer. I am comfortable continuing to drive it for several years to come knowing that in doing so, I am ultimately choosing my own freedom. Coupled with careful saving so that higher cost repairs don’t catch us completely ill-prepared, we feel that continuing on our course with an older car – one that has a track record of reliability – makes the most sense for us. And we are confident that driving an old car doesn’t say anything about us, our character or our goals or success in life. And it feels good to have that certainty.