Thursday, December 30, 2010

Project 30: Cutting housing costs or We're moving!

When making plans to move back to America, my parents very generously offered to let us live with them for as long as needed to get on our feet.  Without that support, moving back to the U.S. at this time would have been possible, but extremely difficult and much more expensive.  However, both of my adult younger siblings still live at home, so space is pinched.  Also, some unforeseen setbacks on the parents' basement renovations meant that the room where we were supposed to stay was not ready.  So for my first month back, I was without my husband, without a job, sleeping on a pull-out sofa in a high-traffic part of my parents' very packed and full home.  Talk about stress:  Looking back, it's a miracle there was no murder!

Luckily, my parents, siblings, and I have all grown up enough in our relationships that we not only survived this period, we actually had some fun.  Min Gi and I considered staying there longer to save up some more funds before moving out even after I got a job.  It might have been worth the temporary stress to be able to be on steadier financial ground.

Then I got a job offer about 60 miles one-way (80 minutes with no traffic around the heavy-traffic DC beltway away).  The decision to move out made by the fact that I was unwilling to endure this commute.  This gave us a week to find a house and move before my job began.  Not much time to find the most economic options.

In my investigation of the area, the difference between a live-able 1 bedroom apartment and a 2-bedroom townhouse was about $200/month.  So we went with the townhouse, although the rent was an uncomfortable 30% of my gross income (I hadn't gotten a paycheck yet...there was the mistake).  I figured we could swing it for a few months on just my salary and then Min Gi would find a job and we'd be fine.  We moved in, set up house, and were happy and optimistic about life.

When the paychecks began to come, the sticker shock for couples medical insurance premiums, teacher union fees, mandatory pension contributions, and taxes was overwhelming.  Furthermore, teacher salary is complicated by the fact that we are 10-month employees.  In my district, we have the option of spreading that to 12-month pay (which I took for my first year until we could put our own plan in place to save), but the way my district balances pay is that they don't take into account that the only deductions that will come out in the summer is taxes--so my pay is disproportionately smaller during the school year.

Although rent at the townhouse was 30% of my gross, it was a completely unacceptable 60% of my take-home.  Then, there were utilities.  Sure, we could survive on that (with no fun budget at all), but I want to pay off my debt, save for growing our family and emergencies, fully fund our retirement, and save for my husband's future business.  We didn't even have the wiggle room in the budget to save up for a plane ticket for Min Gi to visit his family in 2011!  I started to get stressed.  Again.  Stress like this is bad.

Back in November, when we realized this wouldn't work, and that just moving to a smaller apartment wouldn't solve the problem since it wouldn't make a big enough impact on our overall housing costs, we talked and decided we could handle a roommate.  We sent out feelers to our friends in the area if any young person was looking for a room in the area so that we could move them into the extra bedroom and split some costs.  No dice.  We posted an ad on craigslist and got a few responses, but the cats were a dealbreaker for many people.  I started to lose hope of getting relief for this situation.

Then, a friend of mine from theater, Dav (that's like Dave, but without the "e"), who lives in the same city as we do with a married couple in a small house, sent out an e-mail that his roommates had gotten jobs in Kansas and were moving out, but that he didn't want to leave the house and so was looking for new roommates.  Min Gi and I met with him last night to check out the space (and then we all went out to a nice Mexican restaurant to chat) and decided we're going to take it.  Our current lease requires 60 days notice and a fee (which is less than the discount we got on the rent when we initially moved in for being such awesome potential tenants, so it all works out), so we will move in mid-late February.

Financially, this is huge.  Our rent will go from $1325/month to $875/month and Dav's share of the house includes all utilities, including internet and basic cable (which is more than what we have now... we currently use free wireless where we can find it).  This is a savings of almost $600/month for us.  The house is about the same size as our townhouse, but all one floor.  It's a single family house with a small backyard (yes we can garden!) and since Dav's lived there for two years already, there are no huge quirky surprises you sometimes get with a new house.  It's in a better location for living (walking distance to a grocery store and some retail areas), though about two miles further from my work.  Even better--most of the furniture in the house belonged to the departing couple, so Dav needs furniture anyway!

On a personal front, I know Dav well and know he's an easy guy to live with and he knows me (he even reads this blog--hey, Dav!) so he knows our situation well.  It's actually a big win for both of us as he finishes school to try for a promotion and we continue to adjust to life in America.  Min Gi is excited to have someone else to practice English with and go drinking with sometimes.

People who are not us (like my parents and some of my friends) think we are crazy.  It's funny actually.  They think we cannot possibly "sacrifice privacy" as a young couple or live in a small space together, but we know this is the right choice for us.  If you're going to get ahead in America, you really can't play by usual American rules.  We have already eschewed many of the consumerist trappings of shopping as a hobby that is typical here.  Now, it's time for bigger changes.  Dave Ramsey likes to say "Live like no one else so later you can live like no one else," and I think this is what he meant.  It's about making unusual cost-saving, counter-cultural choices in the short term so that you are not forever shackled to debt like typical American consumers.

So... I don't think I'll make much progress on the get out of debt goal in January or February with the early moving penalty fee and truck rental costs.  But I would consider this huge decision to be a first step towards meeting my ambitious financial goal in the Project 30.

It's exciting for us.  As Min Gi said, "Moving to a new place is like an adventure!"  Onward and forward...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Project 30: Getting the husband on board.

Min Gi cares deeply about my health.  Sometimes we fight about it because I feel like he's being too controlling (this is a man who does push-ups for fun; sometimes anything he says about health comes off as critical).  Telling me how beneficial exercise is when I've had a cold and cough for the last three days is not helpful.  Telling me not to drink diet coke when it's the only thing keeping me from eating donuts is not helpful.  He's learned to back off telling me what to do nets better results.

Some of his health habits also bug me:  social smoking (he has about 4-12 cigarettes a month, usually while drinking with my brother) and rejecting the medical industry whole hog being the two that cause the most ire.

We have come to a friendly agreement.  In the new year, I will quit diet coke and he will quit smoking.  See?  Supportive!

Yesterday, I prepared a written budget for January.  Not pretty.  We have an equal amount coming in as going out, which means no wiggle room for paying off debt early or building an emergency fund.  I've been stressed about this for months, and it's turned into my nagging Min Gi to get a job* (any job... so long as it pays) or unilaterally vetoing anything that resembles fun (and then feeling guilty about doing so, and so allowing him to go to NYC to visit his friend, even though we don't really have the money).  This is a bad way to deal with scarcity. I do not recommend it.

After carefully tracking income and outgo for the last three months, I've come to the conclusion that this is NOT a problem of frugality.  Except for the dining out budget (which has been halved then halved again), there's really not much left for us to cut--we don't spend exorbitant amounts of money.  The two main sources for this lack of funds are 1) we are paying too much in rent--one two-week check does not cover it--and 2) we are a one-income family in a typically two-income area (DC suburbs).  I've been needing the pressure valve released on one of these two areas or I'm going to blow!

A strange thing happened, though, when I put it in black and white (which I HAVE done before, but apparently this time it clicked).  Min Gi suddenly was open to the idea of moving in with a friend of mine who has a room in his house coming open soon (and would take our kitties!) because it would save over $500/month in rent/utilities.  He suddenly saw how necessary it was for him to get a job; enough so to overcome his fears about working in a foreign country and feeling less than 100% confident in his language abilities.

I think two things were different this time.

1)  Min Gi has his own goal that requires getting our financial house in order.  He has a timeline of five years and a need for a large amount of investment capital.  He knows we can't do that with my student debt hanging over our heads and no savings.
2)  He's ready to act on it and received the communication differently this time.  Somehow, something I said clicked.  He's all in now.

It's been said before by greater minds than mine, but it bears repeating:  You can't force someone else to change.  After nearly a year of marriage, I can tell you that I've learned a LOT about having a partner, especially one as awesome as Min Gi.  Discussing finances with an equally stubborn, independent-minded spouse was not one lesson that had taken particularly well.  However, our conversation yesterday makes me believe that year two will be the one where we learn how to work as partners in the finance aspect of our marriage.  I can't wait!

*I once received an e-mail at this blog suggesting that by mentioning the fact that my husband has no outside-the-house paid work, I am somehow denigrating him.  Um... not my value system.  I don't assign value to people based on their take home pay (if that weren't obvious to you from my chosen profession being high school teacher).  My husband is amazing.  His contributions to our marriage so far are things I simply could not do--bringing calm and patience into tense situations, keeping the house more clean and orderly than I've ever managed on my own, maintaining friendships with others that I would just let fall aside when I got "busy" and stressed making sure we have fun--something I forget to do a lot, just to name a few.  I wonder if said commenter would think I was "denigrating" my spouse by mentioning their jobless state if the genders were reversed.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Goals Blogging: Project 30 Health and Finance

In 2011, I turn 30.

As I stated in my last post, this is a time for growing up and hunkering down on my responsibilities so that I can live the rest of my life unencumbered with past mistakes and be truly remarkable.  I have two main areas of my past bad decisions that haunt me daily and are restricting the freedom I need to live the life I want: health and financial.

In the last 10 years of adulthood I've made general improvements in these areas and I'd like to acknowledge those now.  Health:  1) losing and maintaining a weight loss of 50 lb, 2) becoming vegetarian (now semi-veg as I eat fish) and learning to cook, 3) generally being more active and sports involved, 4) overcoming very serious and life-threatening mental illnesses.  Financial:  1) became self-educated about basic finance, 2) accumulated over $15K in retirement savings, 3) got out of (after unfortunately getting into) consumer debt, 4) managed not to buy a house (yes that's a win for me since I don't want to live in the same place forever) and avoid other major cultural hedonic pressures in the U.S.

However, 2011 is the year I'd like to devote to shedding the last reminders of my bad decisions before moving forward with my life.  These reminders come in the form of debt (3 student loans totaling an impressively overwhelming figure just north of $33,000) and weight (at my weigh-in yesterday, it was 83.5 kgs, or 184 lbs, which is 9.5kgs or 20lbs above healthy for my height and 19.5 kgs or 43 lbs from my target goal of 64 kgs, 141 lbs).

My plan:

Financial:  My Christmas present to myself was to purchase Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover and Financial Peace Revisited.  I have decided that I will follow his program point by point since it agrees with most of my ideas about finances.  What I've lacked before is what Dave calls "gazelle-intensity" to overcome your financial quagmire.  So I will start with baby step one: Save $1000 in an emergency fund and stop using credit cards (Min Gi and stashed them in a drawer--we're not so sold on his plan as to cut them up; maybe when the emergency fund is complete).  I will also need to develop a written household budget with Min Gi and stick to it by using cash only.

I've been tracking my expenses since landing in America and talking to my husband about goals and whatnot.  Is Min Gi 100% on board?  No.  He's great because he's naturally so frugal, but he often abdicates financial responsibility for planning and goals.  He'd rather let life "happen" and work things out along the way.  We want a family and a future, so that's just not going to fly anymore.  However, I need to own the fact that whenever he refuses to participate in our finances, I use it as an excuse to blow money on eating out and other things.  I need to be responsible to me, even if he's not yet fully involved.  And I need to be more patient.  He nearly always gets there (wherever there is I want to be), he just takes a longer time.

Health:  I know how to lose weight and I know what I need to do.  The trouble is, of course, not doing it.  I was doing well last year when I was focused on a few small goals a week.  I think that's what I'll do again this year, but do one a week.  And then keep doing it until it's a habit.  We'll start with the biggest two:  This week I have to start tracking my food in a food journal.  Next week:  Walking for one hour on the treadmill for at least 3 times a week (we'll build up from there).

One of my biggest derailers with both health AND finances is eating out.  It's a great comfort to me in times of stress.  And I am STRESSED.  But honestly?  It's unhealthy and expensive.  I'm going to have to self-veto.  Meaning I cannot propose it or initiate it.  And I can only agree to it with a friend or my husband once a week.  That and giving up soda (I am a diet coke FIEND) are my new year's resolutions.  This final week of 2010, I'm cutting myself a little slack because all of my friends are in town who I haven't seen in four years.

I will blog once a week (and as needed) about my progress.  I might fail at first and make some mistakes.  I'm ok with that.  But I want to resolve these things.  In a small way, they have robbed my 20s of being fully fulfilling.  And I'm mad.  I'm tired of them robbing any more life out of me.  The only reason I might alter these goals during the year is if I get pregnant, and even then, it will only change the order I tackle things (focus on building emergency fund before finishing the debt in financial; and focus on whole-health issues rather than weight loss first in the health area).

I am calling this whole thing Project 30.  In the year I turn 30, I want to lose 30 lbs and drop $30K of debt.  Lofty goals to be sure, but that's the whole point.  Now, let's get on it.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Hi everyone.

Thanks for reading.  My blog is going on hiatus for awhile.  There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that I need to focus on my family right now, and certain family things are going on that I just don't feel like blogging about here.  Beyond that, we don't have a lot of extra money for travel (so that aspect of the blog will be dull for a bit) and my adjustment to the U.S. has been rocky at best (and I really don't enjoy blogging with a heavy heart and angry mind), so the personal nature of this blog would (some would argue has already taken) take a bit of a nosedive.

For those of you just discovering my blog and my Korean journey, enjoy reading the backlog of my adventures.

Will Going Places pick up again in the future?  It's possible.  Even likely.

Right now, as my sister would say, I'm gonna do me.

Peace and love,

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

And just like that...

...Min Gi was struck with inspiration last night.  It came in the form of a business plan.  It's years away, but it's brilliant and he's happier than I've seen him in months.  He has an idea that I fully support and finally seems like he has a purpose in life (you know, other than adore me, of course).  Seems like he's gotten his brother on board already, too.

Now I do have more to look forward to next year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Belated Thankfulness...

Sadly, it's my first real American holiday season in four years, and I skipped my annual Thanksgiving post because I've been stressed out, busy, and a bit depressed.  I should not post at all when I feel like this, but I feel like maybe I owe you guys an update.

Certainly, I am thankful for many, many things this year.  It was a very eventful one:  I got married this year.  I went on an amazing honeymoon to two new countries and a second one for a week to Jeju.  I managed to move our family to America and find a decent job within a month in a horrible economy and establish an independent household.  I did all this while reducing my total debt load by more then $12,000 (and all of those earlier things I mentioned cost a pretty penny).

But 2010 has also been tough.  Not perhaps as tough as 2009 for me (the year my father, mother, and myself all spent prolonged periods hospitalized for various reasons), but I feel as though 2011 holds less promise and that I have comparatively little in the upcoming months to look forward to.  After several years of one big exciting life thing after another, I've hit the point where the life changes to come feel more like assuming responsibilities.  This is the year I turn 30.  Apparently, it's also the year where I have to grow up and accept that there are some things I simply will not do with my life.  For example, I will not go back to grad school full time and become a professor.  It's something I've always kind of thought about... but I realize now that it's not the life for me.

American life feels like a struggle to pull myself out of the financial cesspool of the middle class.  What should be a very nice salary for someone my age is instead a crippling barrage of saying "no, thanks, we can't afford it" to every opportunity that comes along (and in America, opportunity and choice are overwhelming).  My health insurance premiums alone eat up about 8% of my salary--and that's before either of us get any medical care.  Rent is about the same as the take home for one of my two-week paychecks.  So much of U.S. culture is consumerism, that it's really hard to adjust to it when you have no money.


We have family nearby who support us and love us (and let us steal food and use their sailboat...).
Min Gi's family in Korea is healthy and supportive and we can stay in near-daily communication with them thanks to the free wireless internet options in this area.
Although we can't "get ahead" and pay down my student loan and save up for a baby like I want to, we aren't suffering for our basics--something many Americans these days are.
My health has been in steady recovery mode for the last year.  Despite some issues with catching colds after starting my new job and the depression, I'm back to being almost as healthy as I was before I left for Korea, which is amazing when you consider that I now have a pretty serious disease.
We (desperately) miss our friends and support network in Korea (including the best job I ever had and likely will have for some time), but we are so grateful for the good friends we have in this area.
I am thankful to be working at the hotline again.  I think it may be my higher calling.

and... saving the most important for last...

I am thankful that I married Min Gi.  He really is the best husband I could possibly have chosen; I believe that even if I had been allowed to make someone up from scratch to be my partner, I couldn't have come up with something better.  He continues to surprise me with his thoughtfulness and kindness and patience and humor every single day.  In all my life, I've never been as excited to come home at the end of the day as I have in this year we've shared together.

Happy belated Thanksgiving, all.  I had a good one with my family and extended family and am looking forward to Christmas with more of my extended family.


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