Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Joys of Debt-Free Livin'

Since there is no rhyme or reason to the order of my least not yet. I thought I'd engage in a little self validation today.

I live debt free. I pay off my credit card every month. Sometimes more than once a month. I rent rather than carry a mortgage. No car debt. School loans are paid off. Nothing.

This makes me odd, and in the eyes of our current regime, may well make me unpatriotic. Screw 'em.

I know that if I lose my job I have enough in the bank to live for a year. I have enough to sell to make it a few months beyond that. That would be with NO new job. Nothing. Just sitting on my ass. Of course, that is also because I live simply. No monthly bills other than utilities, cell phone, and netflix (you have to live a little!).

I've noticed that debt free living (which is all part of my approach to voluntary simplicity) makes me something of a freak. I live below my means by mainstream standards. I prefer the term "within my means." I often feel that people are judging me or wondering about me because of this. Recently, my temporary kid had a friend and the friend's father come to pick him up at our city apartment. That family is fairly well-to-do. They live in a fenced, though not gated, development of giant houses with many bathrooms. When they came into my home, I felt self-conscious. I think the father felt disoriented. I have a piece of fabric for a door between the stairwell and the kitchen/dining room (it saves a great deal on the heat bill). The father came into the dining room to give me all the appropriate information for my kid's visit (the address, phone, how to get there to pick him up). My dining table is a card table with a gingham tablecloth and a variety of camp chairs with one office chair that the kid sits in because it's more comfortable for him. I have another folding table for a desk and under that is what appears to be an inverted empty box, but it's actually my vermicomposter. The kitchen is simple and I'm using my camping pots for cookware here. Those were out. There is a jerry-rigged wall made of fabric dividing the dining room so that I can have a bedroom space (with two big working windows and a walk in closet! it's a very good room).

I don't know if the father was judging me, if I was just being overly self-conscious, or if I was seeing my home through mainstream eyes for the first time in a while. Which ever may be the case, it was interesting experience. I really like my apartment and enjoy the low-cost, low-maintenance features (spilled something on the table? who cares. It's a card table with a washable cloth). I like that we got a very comfortable and clean wingback chair from the spot next to the trash cans when the girls downstairs moved out. I like keeping my clothes on a set of shelves we got at the same time and place. I love the ladder I found by the dumpsters which allows me to go up in the multiroom (though unlivable) attic and contemplate the history of the house as well as the stars. I love all the big working windows, some of which lead to the roof where we can barbecue just by leaning out a bit!

I also realized that these things I love about my place are seen by many to be immature or odd or signs of poverty or some other form of "not middle class," not normal.

When I went to pick up the kid, I got to see how the other half lives. Their house has many big windows too. But they don't open. There is an airconditioning system for ventilation instead of relying on the breeze. They had a big foyer (I didn't make it out of the foyer. I had invited the father right into my kitchen...the heart of the home. At their house we stood in front of the door for 10 minutes) with a stairway and upstairs balcony in it. I'm thinking "heat sink" and "waste of space". They were probably thinking what a lovely open welcoming space. They had a double garage and paved driveway (I park on the street). It made me wonder how much food could be grown in the amount of space covered by cement.

They had a big lawn groomed like a putting green. I wondered about the cost of maintaining that and the time spent on it when it wasn't even food but rather the legacy of a feudal past on a different continent (sometimes I may think too much). All in all, their house and neighborhood made me feel disoriented.

Perhaps the whole experience just made me realize how far from the mainstream I've come. I have enough money, by other people's standards, to buy a nice little bungalo, ranch house, or {HORROR} .. a CONDO. But I don't. I live in my lovely apartment. (I almost wrote "little" but it seems like plenty of space to me. maybe I'll measure it up one of these days.) I save my money, and dream of buying an acre or two an building a cob or cordwood house, or maybe an earth sheltered structure, of just a few rooms. Having a composting toilet, a garden and a few animals (chickens, perhaps sheep or a goat) and being self-sufficient and removing myself from the cash economy to the extent possible.

I used to "own" a home (the bank owned something like 90% of it), had school loan payments every month for years, briefly had a car loan, and for years had credit card debt left from struggles in graduate school. I don't miss those days. The debts were a constant source of stress.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Searching for Simplicity

Actually, this may be "searching for a good definition of simplicity."

My efforts at simplicity often seem thwarted by life events. Having temporary custody of a kid has not simplified my life on so many levels. It has added an hour commute each way to and from work, added a second home, made my time and schedule dependent on another human being, and brought me into the family court system. There are many other complicating factors that I won't go into.

On the other hand, perhaps it HAS simplified my life in other ways. I'm learning about prioritizing the needs of other humans over my workaholic tendencies. I'm learning to get work done at work and during regular work hours rather than taking it home and working so many nights and weekends. My job still includes more odd hours and wierd duties than many other jobs, but these have been somewhat reinterpreted as "flexibility" and my boss is OK with that.

I'm learning about living in the moment and connecting with other humans even when it is difficult (see above "family court system"), about communicating with compassion or at least in a dispassionate manner, and about being confident in my own actions and decisions.

Taking on someone else's kid for a while has been a life changing experience and I can see how it has changed the perception of me in my community and among my friends and family. Not all think it is a great thing to be doing, but most do. The community I prefer to live in has many families created through non-birth methods. Kids and adults circulate through households as they need to. It's interesting to see how those who know about my current kid have changed their opinion of me and how it is a point of connection in the community.

So what is simplicity?
I had been searching for material and financial simplicity (deflating my lifestyle, getting rid of things).
I was also working on finding emotional simplicity but much of that was through disengaging with complicated relationships.
Now I'm seeing that engaging in the complicated relationships and processes can eventually lead to disengaging from things that don't matter as much as other humans do.

Monday, April 28, 2008

What more lifestyle can I deflate?

So, where do I go from here?

For the moment, I do need to maintain the 2 homes and commute to work.

But there must be some areas I can still cut back.

I'm thinking of selling or donating my truck. I bought it last year as...well...a midlife crisis purchase. I work outdoors in tough conditions and thought that a 4-wheel drive would save some time getting to field sites in muddy and other rough conditions. It didn't. It's old and crap and it got vapor lock when it was hot, took forever to warm up when it was cold, and was so heavy it sank in the mud anyway. I was still walking about the same number of miles and now I was sitting in a truck more too. So after a few months, I parked it and eventually the battery died. Now it's just sitting there. I don't want to saddle someone else with such a stupid vehicle. I suppose donating will be the way to go. I've procrastinated on this for too long. My excuse is that I can't find the title. The reality is I've barely looked and could have gotten a replacement title many times over in the time this thing has been putting a grease spot in my driveway.
I'm now setting the goal of finding the title or applying for a replacement by the end of May. Then, I will decide to sell or donate.

Eating more vegetarian meals will help too. I'll make a point of at least one fully vegetarian day a week. That will cut my impact on the earth and is a good way to practice for my future life off grid when I will likely be eating a lot of beans! I want to quit working and live off grid doing basic subsistence farming/gardening/gathering. I'll have no choice but to keep it cheap then.

I think those two goals are enough for now. If I set too many, I just end up forgetting or letting them go.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Deflating Lifestyle, pt. 2

On to how my lifestyle has deflated....

I used to be a college professor. Now I'm not. I make more money now, in exchange for working all year rather than 9 months. I've joined the working class (though college professors are working class now according to some very relevant criteria outlined by Joe Bageant in his book Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War (2007, Crown Publishing)).

This made it easier to deflate. In my current position, I am not expected to conform to some ideal of intellectual elitism. As a professor I was expected to live in a place that other professors would like to come to for dinner. I ended up buying a small bungalo. The fact that it was a "fixer upper" bothered some colleagues. These are the colleagues who vote on your tenure. If they find you "odd" they don't vote for you. I was not willing to live above my means so I did my best with the low level home ownership. A condo or apartment in a modern complex would have been more acceptable to them, less so to me. Now I live in a crap rental trailer, people find it odd given my income and the status of my job. Their opinions do not have an effect on my continued employment. Now I'm an amusing eccentric, not a person in peril of losing a job because she is an amusing eccentric.

I'm able to live in one place all year. As a professor I was in the midwest during the school year and off doing research in a remote location (the one where I now live and work) during breaks and summers. This meant keeping a second home for 4 months a year, repeated cross country trips by car or airplane, and keeping connections going in multiple communities. By living in one place (with the short term caveat of my current double housing situation discussed in the previous post), I am more connected to one community. I usually maintain one household that is a "lower level" of housing than my previous housing.

In selling my home and moving out west, I was also able to pay off all of my debt. Being debt free has dramatically simplified my life. The pressure to keep my job has decreased and my reasons for keeping my job have changed.

I am able to travel more due to the increased pay and lack of debt. Now it's travel for pleasure. I've been to Europe for 10days each year for the last 3. I've spent this time traveling with friends and family and improving those relationships. The travel has all be "slow" and not research related. You'll have to trust me that that simplifies the issue! By slow travel I mean I rent one place with a kitchen, bed and bath. Once it was an apartment and twice it has been boats. We stay there and do day trips but get to meet and talk to neighbors, shop keepers, and fellow travelers. By cooking at the place, I save money, reduce my environmental travel impact, while still acknowledging that my travel is an environmental impact no matter what, and connect with the local residents.

I've been able to have a container garden! Hoping to upgrade to an actual garden, maybe next year. When I lived in the midwest September to May, and out west June-August, I couldn't have a gardent. It would be unattended in the midwest, or planted to late and unharvested out west. Growing part of my own food has been very rewarding.

With a "9 to 5" job rather than a professorship I've been able to pursue interests like drying and canning food for preservation, vegetarian cooking, and beadwork. Professoring meant giving up many (maybe most) evenings and weekends to duties the tenured faculty didn't care to take care of. Advising student clubs, running campus events, teaching night classes, grading papers, working on committee duties. My job is still demanding and there are days when I'm on call sun up to sun down, but it is STILL less taxing on my personal time and interests than professoring, especially in an untenured capacity. Last fall I put up over 100 jars of jam of mostly gleaned fruit. I gathered from fruit trees that were not harvested by their owners. My christmas presents were expensive to ship, but very much appreciated. I'm still using the jam at home and giving it as gifts when others do me favors. At my city apartment the downstairs neighbor is in a CSA that sometimes provides her with too much fruit and veg. When she gives me some fresh produce, I return the container with a jar of jam. We're both happy.

I also dried enough produce from my harvest and the farmer's market to know that with the addition of a few pounds of beans, I have enough food to eat for months! There is an emotional security in having enough to eat that I've never experienced before.

By learning to cook more vegetarian meals I'm saving money, becoming more fit, and taking care of the planet. I haven't gone vegetarian yet, but I may in the future.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Deflating Lifestyle, pt. 1

I've been thinking lately about lifestyle deflation.
It's something I've done for a while under phrases like "voluntary simplicity."
Now it's something I'm doing more consciously as an environmentally and socially responsible way of life.

I DO have 2 homes at the moment but that is temporary and due to extenuating circumstances. One is a 1974 trailer in a small town that I rent for 400$/month plus utilities. It's a bit expensive to heat, but other than that is fairly enviornmental and certainly cost effective. It comes with about 1/3 of an acre of lawn and a landlord and lady who do not care what I do as long as I pay rent and don't destroy the place. This is good since I'm not required to water the lawn, can hang my laundry out on a line, grow lots of containers of vegetables, set up a greywater system with the washing machine, and have a vermicompost system in the front bathroom. It also allows me to walk to work, walk to the grocery store, post office, city hall, and the gym if the mood strikes me.

The second home is because I have temporary custody of a kid who needed to stay in school in another town. Unfortunately this means about 1 year of commuting 50 miles each way to work which is NOT environmentally or socially responsible, but taking care of friends and family IS environmentally and socially responsible so maybe it's a wash.
That place is a 1 bedroom apartment (I created a 2nd bedroom for myself out of part of the very large dining room) in the upstairs of an old house that rents for 500$ a month will all utilities but electric included. This ends up being cheaper in the winter than the trailer due to cheaper heat. The environmental/social responsibility aspects are pretty good other than the commute. The apartment itself is "re-used" since there are now 5 units in the formerly single family dwelling. Since it is upstairs and has good attic insulation, it has been easy to heat. There is no air conditioning but the local climate and lack of southern exposure should make it very livable in the summer. There is a shared washer/dryer in the basement and I have a wooden rack for drying clothes. I've moved the vermicompost with me as well. Since it is in a college area, we've been able to furnish it partly from others' perfectly usable castoffs. The busline that runs along the street in front of the house has wifi which we can pick up adequately for our needs and it is public so we're not even stealing! There is a grocery store across the street and 3 buslines within a block so that once I'm home, we rarely need to use the car. There are several ethnic restaurants within easy walking distance and 4 very good thrift stores as well. I'm looking forward to garage sale season and when I move I out I intend to donate or sell or giveaway all of the household items used there.

But why keep 2 homes you ask? The small town I usually live in and still work in has a serious shortage of rental housing and an even more serious shortage of quality landlords. So, rather than move 50 miles away for a year only to find that I can't move back, I'm keeping the trailer and staying there when possible which cuts down on commuting. And it amuses the kid and I to note that much like rich people, we have two homes. But they are both crap!

So, how has my lifestyle deflated? More on that in the next post.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Welcome...I'm new here

I've been reading blogs for a while now and thought of trying my hand so here goes!

In general I plan to comment on my efforts toward a simple, frugal and debt free life (and probably grouse about those who find me annoying or wierd) as well as my philosophies and possibly politics (but let's hope I keep that to a minimum!).

I'm not expecting anyone to read this, but if you do, please feel free to comment and question!