Ripping off Scalzi, Day 3: Home

I am still (and maybe forever, now, at this point) trying to get into the habit of writing more than I am worrying about what I write about, so I am still taking inspiration from John Scalzi who wrote a 20 year retrospective on his blog, covering 30 different topics over the course of a month (it was in September 2018 if you want to go find them). Day three is home.

Since I’m one of the many millennials who can’t now/maybe can’t ever afford to buy a home, I think about this more metaphorically, I guess. Emotionally. Sometimes I think about my house, which doesn’t exist yet: It has hardwood floors, and windows that let in the sunlight. It’s an older house, not one of the modern boxy monstrosities they’ve been building in Denver for the last decade or so. There’s a garden in the back, though I imagine myself composting more than I imagine myself actually growing anything. There’s a dog or two. There’s a big wooden table where I can eat and work on projects. In this daydream, I am the sort of person who remembers to sweep baseboards and dust things and so everything is homey and clean and maybe a little shabby, but not dirty. I have hammocks in my backyard. I have a nice shade tree. I have money saved up to buy a new roof or a new water heater. I have a nice human that lives with me, whether a partner sort or a roommate sort isn’t important, but we agree on things like making soup on cold days is good, and a clean bathroom is healthy, and nobody eats anyone else’s food without asking first. I can walk to work, or bike there, in less than half an hour. Friends come over to play Dungeons and Dragons. It’s a very nice house.

Sometimes home is a place, right? We usually define home as a place.

I grew up amongst Quakers in the Western US, and for the past 15 years we’ve had our annual gathering in northern New Mexico, in this conference center in the high mesa country. It’s hot and buggy and the accommodations leave something to be desired (I just got an email that some of the older housing is not available this year due to “structural issues,” because they are letting buildings fall down instead of repairing or replacing them). It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong. And it’s where some of the people I love best in the world go every year. But I don’t go for the mesas or the rocks or the sunsets or the little lizards. I go for the people. We’re changing sites next year, and some people have said that if the gathering isn’t in this one specific place, they won’t come. Which: what the fuck? You were never supposed to come for the scenery. We’re not there to worship the scenery. We’re supposed to be there for each other. You know that Billy Joel lyric, “I need you in my house, ’cause you’re my home”? Yeah. That. That’s how we’re supposed to be with each other. A friend of mine grew up in a lot of different houses during his childhood, and for him, when he thinks of home, he thinks of his church building. Across a lot of childhood moves, that was the place that stayed constant for him.

Other things that make me think of home: Roasting marshmallows over a campfire and making s’mores. Watching rain fall into a ditch in New Orleans. Powdered sugar down my front after eating beignets. Hanging my arms over the rail at a concert right before the band takes the stage. Standing on the top of a mountain, either after climbing it or right before bombing down it on my snowboard. Taking a deep breath while standing under the sky. Lying on a couch with a dog draped across my legs.

I’m in my mid 30s now (I don’t have to say late 30s until next year, fuck you), and am starting to realize that there’s some markers of “responsible adult” that I’m not just late in hitting, but may never hit. Home ownership is one of them. Having kids is another. And that feels fine, as long as I can remember not to compare myself to anyone else or what they’re doing and accomplishing. I would love to have my little square of the world all to myself, but it’s also a thing that I’ve learned to want because I’ve lived in the US for my entire life, and home ownership is huge here. So if I never get my own house, if I have roommates and apartments until the day that I head for the old folks home, how do I maintain that sense of home? Can I remember that home is a feeling, not a place? Is that how we win in capitalism?

Because love is free and life is cheap,
And as long as I’ve got me a place to sleep,
Some clothes on my back and some food to eat,
Then I can’t ask for anything more.
—Frank Turner, “If Ever I Stray”

Ripping Off Scalzi, Day Two: Money

fabian-blank-78637-unsplashI just saw Avengers: Endgame, which I feel like I can’t talk about yet, so instead I thought I’d come back to this entry that I started writing oh, hey, six months ago.

This is another entry in which I take inspiration from John Scalzi, on his blog Whatever, as he continues his twenty-year retrospective of blog writing. He is on day 26. I am on day 2. At this rate, I’ll be able to keep bouncing back to his blog until the end of the year. Up today: Money! And how I have none of it! (Well I do have some and I’m insanely lucky in some ways and I suppose we’ll get to that.) So far Scalzi has blogged about cats and money, two things that I don’t have any of.

I grew up in a house that always had enough money, enough food, Christmas presents under the tree. I’m fairly certain that my parents never had to worry about having enough money for Christmas, though they didn’t exactly go wild with materialism either. They were and are very deliberate with their money, something I’ve only come to realize in hindsight and observe as an adult. Like Christmas and birthday presents were always a thing, but cable TV? Never a thing. We never had cable television in my house. We only had dial up internet until after I moved out. But that had less to do than my parents not being able to afford it than it did my parents not wanting to spend money on garbage. We could go on a trip every year. My parents have their retirement worked out. My dad pays off his credit card bill every month. Whatever long term plan the books tell you to follow to financial security, my parents followed it.

And then they raised me, and I had no idea what the hell to do with money until well past age 30. Osmosis and environment didn’t do the job there. Part of it is just that I barely ever had any money of my own. In elementary school I got $1.25 a week in allowance, and even though this was the early 90s, it was still below average for my classmates. In middle school I got $5. The last couple years of high school I got $20, but I was responsible for buying my own lunches at school, which ate most of it (I never did what would’ve been the smart thing and made my lunch while still pocketing the $20). I think I was a junior when I got my first retail job, and I worked all through college, but after college I never quite transitioned from retail/coffee shop jobs into “professional” jobs. I just kept coffee shopping. For most of my twenties I probably earned between $20-$25k a year. I had roommates, I had a landlord who was happy to rent their space to us for below market value for some reason, I never went to the doctor, I didn’t own a car. But still, every dollar I made was basically spent the minute it landed it my account. I never learned to budget, never learned to not splurge. If you know you’re going to be running out of money anyway, why not just spend it on something that’s fun? If you have to buy food, why not buy hummus instead of beans and rice?

Could I have been thriftier? Sure. But I also had a fundamental income problem. I was earning like $9/hr and had no health insurance. (I think this is a really common millennial dilemma, by the way: Not being able to figure out where your own mistakes end and the shitty system you find yourself in begins.)

In 2010, I made the dumb decision to go back to school. Dumb because I had no way to pay for it, so I took out loans and asked my parents to help me, and they did because education is basically the one thing they’ll always help pay for. This led to my dad discovering exactly how bad I was with money, how much I don’t keep track of it, how much of his I was spending, how little of it I could account for it. I remember him shoving a paper copy of his budget/yearly planned expenditures in my face in frustration, asking Why the hell I couldn’t just do this. What was so hard about this?! And I felt so dumb. So, so so stupid. It took a couple years before I realized, wait, where the hell did he think I was supposed to learn this? When was the budgeting 101 conversation supposed to happen? Should he have taught it to me? Should I have learned it from school? Should I have gotten a book out of the library? Like I’m sorry I’m a dummy and I’m sorry I didn’t take steps to fix this ten years ago but also basically no one ever told me how I should do it or even that I should learn it. It was just assumed that I knew. 

Actually, I had tried to learn, now that I think about it. I read a couple books by Suze Orman and other personal finance people whose names I heard from Oprah. I had a Mint account where you were supposed to set a budget, and I did the thing they tell you where you write down every single cent you spend in a little book. This is supposed to make you more deliberate and thoughtful with your spending, kind of how logging all your calories supposedly helps you eat less. Neither of those things worked for me. I went overbudget every month. I would forget to write down my expenditures after a few days of trying. It just did not ever work for me. It was like, every month, I looked back, saw that I had fucked up once again, tried to do better the next month, only to discover that I’d gone overbudget on everything again. It was exhausting, and discouraging, and just made me feel like an idiot. Like maybe I’m just bad at budgeting. I always struggled with math. Maybe budgeting just wasn’t my thing.

But anyway. I came back from New York poorer, sadder, and feeling a whole lot dumber than when I left. And now I had student loans, and the same income (once I found a job) as before, so I had to learn budgeting. Had to.

Somehow I stumbled upon zero-based budgeting, and no exaggeration, it changed my life. I use a service called YNAB (You Need A Budget), which costs money but it unlocked a whole world of personal budgeting for me, so it’s worth it. It’s also called “the envelope system,” which you may have heard about through Dave Ramsey. (Dave apparently didn’t get along with Oprah, which is how I ended up trying to follow Suze Orman’s system instead of his all those years ago.) Instead of looking backward at all the money I had spent in the last month, instead of trying to budget based on output, zero-based budgeting has you look at the amount of money that you have, and allocate funds to categories based on that. Like if your rent is $1000, but your paycheck today was only $750, you cannot put $1000 in your rent category. You just can’t. That money doesn’t exist. This somehow managed to switch my perspective around so that I was looking forward with my money instead of backwards. And I started to think about my money in terms of category balances, instead of bank balances. The fact that my bank account has $1000 in it means nothing, my Movies category has $0 in it, and so I’m not going to the movies. YNAB also highlights categories that you’ve fully funded with a little green circle, and I’ve kind of made it my mission to get categories green and keep them green. It gamifies it just enough that it works for me.

So that’s been my past four years or so. Turning into a person who actually knows what’s in her bank account and what her credit card balances are. I have a retirement account with multiple hundreds of dollars in it! I also have a personal net worth in the negatives (because of student loans), but I’m paying on those too and watching balances decrease. I save for trips and pay for them out of pocket instead of on credit cards. Who knew. I’m a person who can budget, given a wage that is more than half the median national income and the tools that make sense to my brain. And that is no small victory, as far as I’m concerned.

 

Random resources that helped me, in case you’re looking for help:

  • YNAB software. It currently costs $84 a year, which is probably less than you’re paying for Netflix, but is also more than I’m paying currently (I got grandfathered in to what the cost was when I signed up). If $84 seems like too much, they have a YouTube channel where you can watch tutorials for free and get a sense of zero-based budgeting. There’s a bit of a learning curve with the software, but once it clicks, it’s like a whole new world and you’re off to the races.
  • Dave Ramsey. I listened to his podcast a bunch, both to learn and to keep myself in the mindset of being mindful with my money. I’m pretty sure I disagree with him about just about every social issue, and I don’t like how he steers college kids towards prosperous careers instead of doing-what-you-love careers, but when it comes to finance stuff, he has absolutely helped me.
  • Bad with Money, a podcast by Gaby Dunn. It also helped keep my attention focused, and I appreciated her perspective of “I’m fucked up and don’t know anything about this and that’s my bad, but also, the system itself is not much better.”
  • Various communities on reddit, including r/personalfinance and r/ynab.