Month: February 2018

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Real Talk About Money

I’m a huge fan and supporter of the podcast Real Talk Radio with Nicole AntoinetteOne question she has asked past seasons’ guests in her rapid-fire questions section is “What is one thing you wish people would be more honest about?”

And can you guess what the most common answer is?

Money.

A month ago in the podcast’s Patreon community, Nicole started a thread about this topic. Most everyone expressed an interest in learning the behind-the-scenes about people’s incomes and financial situations—especially for those on a more unconventional path. So as someone without a career who has lived abroad several years (Spain, South Korea, and France), I’ve decided to add my voice to this discussion and pull back the curtain on my personal finances.

Real Talk About Money

University: 2007-2011

My dad helped with one of my first housing or tuition payments my freshman year, I think it was around 1K, but from then on I covered everything myself via student loans and working. I had an office job throughout college, where I’d work 10-15 hours a week during the semester, and full-time over Christmas, Spring and Summer breaks. The summer of my sophomore year I got an additional weekend job at the hostel, so I’d work there Friday nights and Sunday mornings, picking up an additional Saturday shift here and there.

My junior year of college I studied abroad in Madrid. I knew I wanted to study abroad somewhere that spoke Spanish, and ultimately chose the Madrid year-long program because its tuition was about on par with a year at UW-Madison (~$7K). I applied for and received a $1,000 scholarship from the study abroad alumni foundation and taught private English lessons each week while living in Madrid, bringing in 65-80 euros/week. My rent was 320 euros/month.

By the time I graduated from college in 2011 I had ~23K in student loans.

Teaching English in Spain: 2011-12

I worked full time the summer after graduation, until I left for Spain. I’d accepted a position teaching English in Madrid, through Spain’s North American Language and Culture Assistants program. I received 1,000 euros/month for nine months (October – June). My rent was 240 euros/month. You can see all the financial details of my second year in Madrid here.

I paid on all of my school loans as soon as the grace period was up, overpaying each month. By the end of my time in Spain (September ’12) I still had over 1K euros in my Spanish bank account, which I left there.

Working in Madison: 2012-13

I returned to Madison and was able to work in the same office where I’d worked all through college, this time as an LTE. I made $16/hr before taxes, the most I’ve ever been paid to date. During the tax season I got a second (weekend) job at H&R Block ($12/hr). I would leave my university office job a little early on Fridays to work at H&R Block Friday night, all day Saturday, and all day Sunday.

My rent this year was around $420/month (I shared a flat with two housemates). I put all my extra money towards my loans and finished paying off two of them in 2013. To date, this is the most money I’ve ever made in a year (~35K), and that was at age 23.

Teaching English in South Korea: 2013-14

I left my office job in the fall of 2013 to teach English in South Korea. The school paid for my airfare (to/from) and my rent during the year. I made around $2,000/month, which included some compensation for the extra after school classes I taught as well (requested of me by the school).

I finished paying all of my student loans before the end of 2013, which felt quite freeing. I also opened a Roth IRA that year and contributed the maximum amount ($5500).

Working as a Virtual Editor: 2014-16

In spring of 2014 while still teaching in Korea I started writing blog posts for a language-learning startup. I made $65/post and wrote just a handful. Then I was asked to come on board as an editor for the startup—$13/hour. I started working a few hours after school each day, coming out to maybe 10 hours/week. When my contract ended in Korea that fall, I visited Spain and spent a month walking the Camino de Santiago, using the money I’d left in my Spanish bank account two years earlier to fund the journey.

When I returned to the states in the fall, I was able to bump up my editing hours full time. It was the same flat hourly rate without any health benefits, so I got health insurance through Obamacare (My contribution was ~$80/month) and maxed out my Roth IRA contribution again that year. I was living with my parents rent-free.

Moving to France: 2015-16

For the previous five years I’d been dabbling in French, and when 2015 came around I decided that was the year I was going to really learn it. Using money earned in Korea, I booked myself six weeks at a private French school in Montpellier, France. I rented an AirBnb for two months at $500/month and was able to reduce my work hours to 20/week (for maximum French time). I started dating Damien (a French guy) near the end of my time there, and we decided I should try for a year-long visa to live in France.

I returned to Wisconsin in July and began applying for the year-long tourist visa. (<<The breakdown of what the visa cost is in the previous link, but the total comes out to ~$1,200.) Basically I had to prove that I would have enough money to sustain myself, which my virtual job made possible. I moved to France in October of 2015.

I continued working from home full-time for the language-learning startup. Since I split rent with Damien, my half was about 150 euros/month. My phone service was actually free, as it came with a deal through our internet. I broke up with him in March and found a place to live in Montpellier for 300 euros/month, staying until my visa expired at the end of September. Per my usual, since I live without a car (and many other things), my main expense after rent was simply groceries.

Personal Sabbatical (aka Intentional Unemployment): 2017

It was that summer (2016) that I decided to leave my job. After 2.5 years working virtually, I was ready to spend more time away from the screen, interacting with people and the outdoors face-to-face, and to pursue other interests. I stopped working full-time in September, but worked minimal hours (10/week) through December 2016 until I left for good. I was living at my parents’ home when I came back from France, again rent-free. When I received my final paycheck in December I had around $16,700 in my savings account.

My flight home from France (I actually flew from Madrid to Chicago) had been cheaper to buy round trip (~600 euros), so I had a return flight (Chicago to Madrid) booked for January 2017. I took the flight and a backpack and spent three months slow traveling Italy, returning to Madrid/Montpellier, and visiting a friend in Munich. I stayed at hostels, did a work exchange, and stayed with friends for the duration.

When I returned to the states in April I lived with my parents again. I got a U.S. phone number and a month-to-month plan for $30/month with Cricket. I started a garden in the backyard, participated in a local art project, and read lots of books from the library. Again, my only expense was food, as I had no rent or car expenses. My mom is amazing and let me use her car if I needed to get anywhere in the evenings, so from time to time I’d fill up the tank—but I wasn’t driving much.

I volunteered as a camp counselor in July (took the bus to Minnesota) and visited my younger brother for a week, taking the bus back). I was on the state health plan (Badgercare) during this time of unemployment.

Then in August I applied for an AmeriCorps position with American Conservation Experience (ACE) in Flagstaff, Arizona—where I’ve been based since the end of August. At the bottom of this post is a breakdown of how much I spent to get there (~$700). ACE provides group housing (I live with 16 people in a 4-bedroom apartment), food on work days (hitch), and a biweekly stipend of $512 before taxes (it’s around $470 after taxes).

I’ve been on food stamps in Arizona since arriving, receiving $190/month for groceries. It’s more than enough and for the first time in my life I shop at Whole Foods, as it’s the closest grocery store to me. Twenty-seventeen was the first year since opening my Roth IRA that I did not contribute, since I hardly made anything. By the end of the year I had around $14,500 in my savings account—so I only went down about 2K during those twelve months of personal sabbatical.

Currently: February 2018

I’ll turn 29 in April and here’s where I stand: I have no debt, my savings account has been hovering around $14K over these past couple of months, and I have a couple hundred dollars in two different checking accounts (Charles Schwab Investor Checking—no foreign transaction fees and Capital One 360). I have a Capital One Venture credit card where I make nearly all purchases (no foreign transaction fees), and which I treat like a debit card.

My AmeriCorps term is coming to an end next month and I don’t have any idea what I’ll do next. (I’m not worried; this is normal for me.) But based on my lifestyle and the opportunities I know exist (i.e. HelpX—volunteer in exchange for food and accommodation, WWOOFing—work on organic farms in exchange for food and accommodation, Couchsurfing—free lodging for travelers with open-minded community members, AmeriCorps, volunteering to live at intentional communities like Ratna Ling, seasonal work via CoolWorks, etc.), the money I currently have in the bank can last me a looong time. My food stamps are scheduled to last until August, unless my income rises above $1010/month.

I know my money perspective is quite skewed (and that it will likely change with time), but to me at this point in my life, anything over $50K seems like a huuuge amount of money to make in a year. If I were to ever make 40K a year, for example, that also seems like so much.

Everyone has situations that give them an advantage in some way. In my case, I have parents who live in a house which they’re happy to share with me rent-free when I’m in the country. I had the privilege to choose not to own a vehicle, which definitely limits what I can do in certain ways, but also allows me more freedom in other ways. I also had the privilege to choose to not buy a house or to not go in debt after paying off my student loans. (Among many other privileges I was born with…)

I take my time to search for the lowest rent possible (with roommates) when moving somewhere new and have also been willing to live with my parents in a town of 12,000 people for different periods of time in my upper 20s. I prefer experiences over things, and always shop secondhand when I want new clothes. I’m still single and don’t have any kids yet. My unconventional life has evolved such that I spend my time doing things I enjoy; it doesn’t feel like I’m living with monetary restraints. This lifestyle feels most natural and joyful to me, which I know is definitely not the case for everyone (nor even for a majority of others).

All right, that all said, what questions do you have about my money? Did anything surprise you? Want to know more about a certain topic?

u-conserve sandwich wrap

Zero-Waste Lifestyle: The Beginning

As you’ve read in my 2018 resolutions, this year I want to put more of my attention towards the zero-waste lifestyle. This means learning about ways to reduce the amount of waste I produce and making gradual changes as I’m able.

To document this journey, I’m taking a snapshot of what my practices look like today. (I also have a Zero-Waste Bit-by-Bit page with a more detailed record.)

 

My Current Zero-Waste Practices

Reusable Shopping Bags

I’ve been using cloth/reusable grocery shopping bags since I first moved to Madrid in 2009. There, you had to pay a few cents for each plastic bag you used—all the more incentive to simply buy and use the durable reusable bags that were available in every grocery store. I quickly got in the habit of bringing my own bags when grocery shopping, and this has continued everywhere I’ve lived since.

When making smaller purchases without a bag on hand, I simply tell the cashier “I don’t need a bag” when I check out, and carry them in my arms.

Reusable Produce Bags

life without plastic produce bag

This fall I bought some reusable produce bags from Whole Foods after moving to Flagstaff, to use instead of those thin plastic bags. When I told my mom about it, she bought these organic cotton bags for herself—and they were excellent to use when I was home over the holidays.

Tupperware at Restaurants

My parents go out to eat on Fridays, so while I was living with them for a greater chunk of last year, that meant I got to come along, too. Together we got in the habit of bringing tupperware along for our leftovers, so we weren’t taking any single-use styrofoam take-away containers. Sometimes we would still forget, but what worked best was keeping a clean container or two in my mom’s car for this very purpose.

Tupperware/Sandwich Wraps on Hitch

u-conserve sandwich wrap

During these past five months working on the conservation corps, I always bring tupperware and my two reusable food wraps in my lunchbox. I’ll use one wrap for a sandwich and the other for snacks. I use the tupperware when there are leftovers at dinner, saving both on food waste and ziplock bags. (Our corps sends along ziplock bags with each crew, which mainly get used for lunches and leftovers. I try to avoid using any, but usually use one for the whole hitch, for salty snacks.)

Washing/Reusing Ziplocks

I’m trying to remember who I first saw washing ziplocks—either my grandma or my friend Cathleen—but the idea hadn’t occurred to me before I saw someone else do it. While I eventually want to stop using ziplocks altogether, this is a simple way to reduce my plastic waste production.

Water Bottles

I typically don’t buy plastic disposable water bottles, and currently use my Vapur water bottle and 4L DromLite bag both on hitch and on off days.

Bamboo Toothbrush

This past fall I switched to a bamboo toothbrush (from Mother’s Vault).

Bamboo Silverware Set

bamboo travel utensils

I bought this set of bamboo travel utensils this winter and have been using them a lot! I could have just as easily made my own travel set with metal silverware from home or from St. Vinny’s/Goodwill/Savers, too.

This month I’m in Texas working on a monthlong conservation project, and we’ve been staying in many hotels. The breakfasts at all of them only have single-use styrofoam dishes and single-use plastic silverware. Ah! I’ve been using either my bamboo utensils + tupperware or silverware and dishes from our camping cook set instead.

Recycling

I’m quickly learning that recycling should be thought of as a last-resort rather than the green goodness I was taught it was in elementary school. But if it’s recyclable, my top priority is to get it to recycling rather than a landfill.

That said, we haven’t seen any recycling yet here in Texas! When I asked at our hotel the first night, the woman had to ask me a second time what I was looking for. Recycling? No, we don’t have that here. So my precious little bubble has been popped as I’ve seen more recyclables going to a landfill than ever before. We have a hodgepodge collection of recyclables going in the back of our trailer, but we haven’t been able to save everything. I do have a new curiosity to investigate, though: Why haven’t we been seeing recycling in Texas?

Composting

When I was at home with my parents, I’d save food scraps for our compost bin in the backyard. We’re not allowed to compost at ACE housing, so I try to minimize what food waste ends up in the garbage. (I’m also learning that it’s harmful to the environment for food to end up in a landfill.)

Lunette Cup

lunette cup

I bought this reusable lunette cup in 2016 and haven’t used tampons since. I love it!

Daily Panty Liners

cloth panty liners

I’ve been wearing these cloth panty liners since 2015, as well as a set I bought on Etsy. Although the ones from Amazon are super comfy and work well, I do recall that they were shipped a long distance (from China?) and were packaged in plastic—so this particular set is not necessarily the greenest solution I would recommend today. I have, however, to date prevented three years worth of disposable panty liners from landfills by switching to cloth! (And would never go back!)

 

Zero-Waste Resources

Here are some of the zero-waste resources I have my eye on.

Books:

Websites/Blogs:

Instagram:

 

Do you know of any resources I should check out? Zero-waste documentaries? Books? Websites? I’d love any recommendations!

Hitch #8: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

This past hitch I was working at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, five miles north of the Mexican border. Above is a picture of an Organ Pipe Cactus, aptly named.

We were removing invasive Buffelgrass, which grows densely and often pushes out native plants, not to mention it’s a fire hazard.

I removed Buffelgrass on a hitch in October with herbicide, but this time we were hand-removing with picks.

After removing each bush of Buffelgrass, we’d fold it in half and then put a rock on top to hold it down.

Here’s a before and after of one of the patches we worked on:

Buffelgrass: Before
Buffelgrass: After

Being so close to the Arizona/Mexico border, Border Patrol had a heavy presence and there were signs about drug smugglers and illegal immigrants.

We had an hour and a half hike out to our work site each day, and we’d always pass a few traces of human life—like black water jugs (which don’t reflect light) and some old items of clothing.

water bottle

We got to wear ACE sun hats under our hard hats while working out in the sun.

The weather was fantastic all week, and we had an excellent crew. Tomorrow I’m headed to Texas for a monthlong hitch. Happy trails!