The Land Of The Rising Sun

ImageIt has been a dream to live in Japan. When we were given the chance to get orders to Sasebo, we jumped on it.  Life here is so different from the United States.  For one, 7-11 is very misleading.  There are no Slurpees in sight.  However, if I were interested in some boiled octopus on a stick, I would be in heaven!  

The people here are very sweet, kind, helpful, and love children.  My kids are still getting used to people walking up to touch their hair and skin and call them “kawaii,” which means “cute” in Japanese.  Normally I would wrestle a stranger to the ground for offering food to my children, but here it’s a common occurrence and done in the best of intentions.  They have learned to accept the dried shrimp snacks and say thank you.  

My backyard mini-farm

Our backyard “mini-farm” is thriving again in the warm weather.  Last year we put in above-ground garden beds to house our mini-farm, and it didn’t take long before it paid off big time.  Last summer we had a steady supply of tomatoes, strawberries, beans, red and green bell peppers, and more cucumbers than we could handle!  And, it turns out that making pickles really isn’t all that difficult. 

The fall/winter plants were a little bit slower, but we did enjoy a nice supply of peas and broccoli.  Being a San Diego native, I’m not too familiar with the idea of having to grow in “seasons” given that there are really only two seasons there: really awesome, and “oh man, it’s 60 out…better grab a sweater!”

The garden seems to have really taken notice that the weather is warming up nicely.  The strawberry plants are already full of berries ready to ripen, the tomatoes have yellow flowers ready to give us tomatoes, the jalapeno is thriving, the watermelon has already sprung up from last year, and the cucumbers are threatening to overwhelm us again.

Once we have finished the last of the broccoli, we will be combining that bed with the strawberry bed to give them a little more room.

Backyard farming really isn’t that hard to do.  Because we are in a house where we can’t really mess with the backyard too much, we opted for above ground wooden beds that are easily assembled/disassembled for when we move.  We ordered them from a company in Oregon that gave us a major discount for getting the “unattractive” wood (the kind with knots, and natural discoloration), and an additional discount for my husband’s active duty service.   Anyway, we grow everything from organic seeds, used organic soil, and then we routinely feed them from our compost bin.   Our herbs stay indoors most of the time, but I set them outside every few days for some extra sunshine, which has proven to have worked well considering we had basil, cilantro, and parsley all year long.

I think the best part of it all is that my kids get to see science in action.  They help germinate the seeds, plant them outside, pick the weeds, and then they get to enjoy their work when we go out to pick what’s ready.  They are also learning about the “natural order” of bugs too.  When our flowers were being taken over by aphids, we learned that by planting marigolds near the flowers in need, the marigolds would attract bugs that love to eat the aphids…and it worked!  My squirmy girly girl is also learning to be more tolerant of the bugs, knowing that they are “good bugs” that eat the “bad bugs” that try to eat our plants.  It’s slow coming, but she’s learning to shriek less at the bugs.

Waffles & Karate

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Okay, so here we are tootin’ down the LA 55 on our way back from the kids’ karate tournament in Baton Rouge.  The kids did exceptionally well, and the big surprise was our five year old bringing in two medals his first time up as a Junior white belt, and a fresh Tiger Cub grad.  He took third in sparring, and first in form!  I’m obviously a very proud mom.

It’s been a good weekend.  We stayed at the La Quinta in Walker, LA, Friday and Saturday night.  Free of course because we cashed in our La Quinta points (that my husband racks up on work trips…work foots the bill, we collect the points….muahahahaha!) 

Anywhoozit, the hotel was such a pleasant stay. Super clean, great staff, nice pool, good breakfast (fresh waffles are the kids’ favorite second to the swimming pool) and our favorite is that Albert (our 7 lb guard dog) is always free and welcome.  
I’m beginning to feel like we travel enough that I’m becoming a bit of a good v. bad hotel expert. 

You want to know about bad?  Ask me about our stay last year in Jackson, MS…

So that was our weekend. It’s always fun to do something as a family when our weeks are so crazy, especially in support of the kids.

We started taking the kids to karate on a whim to break the cabin fever when we first got to NOLA in January ’10…we had no idea they would end up doing so well!

My thrifty closet

There is this belief out there that thrift store shopping is sketchy, dirty, or unfashionable.  Well I guess it could be, but when done correctly you can find some real sweet pieces to hang in your closet.

Most of my favorite items in my closet have come from thrift stores.  I have a serious cashmere sweater collection, all of which were purchased second hand (including a brand spankin’ new Banana Republic sweater that STILL had the tags on for $3!)

So here are my secrets to success…just don’t go telling every Tom, Dick, and Harry, or there won’t be any good stuff left for us!

1.) Hit up the second hand stores in or around “nicer” neighborhoods.  People with higher incomes with the corresponding wardrobes are most likely going to be donating to their local stores.

2.)  For the best selection, visit on a Monday or the next day after a long weekend.  Most people are going to wait until the weekend to clean our their closets and garages, which means newly donated items will be made available shortlyafter.

3.) Find out what days certain items are on sale.  The store I frequent offers discounts based on the color tag on the item.  Some days red tags are 50%, yellow 25%, etc.  The sale is constantly changing, so I like to plan ahead if I need certain items (sweaters, kids clothes, pants).

Last year before my son was born, I cleaned out my favorite store’s collection of baby boy clothes of sizes 0-9 months.  I went on a day when the baby clothes were on sale, so most of the items I paid cost me between .46-$1.00!  Oh, I did buy one really cute outfit that included overalls and a shirt with the tags still attached for a whopping $3.  I made it out of there with an entire baby wardrobe for the first 9 months of his life for less than $20. 

As for our 4 year old Princess-Fashionista?  She loves to dress up and will wear her outfits to the library, store, doctor’s appointments, the park, bike riding, you name it.  If she is awake, she wants to look her personal best.  So in that spirit, we let her pick out the fanciest, poofiest, dresses her little heart desires when we go to the thrift stores. 

Why?  If I were to spend $24.99 on a new foofy dress-up outfit at the store, I would probably cringe at the idea of her wearing it and getting it dirty.  But what’s the point of not letting her play in her favorite dresses?  If I only spent $3 on it, I don’t mind letting her wear it anywhere and everywhere because I didn’t break the bank for it.  And when it does get worn out, I will sew it up until it either doesn’t fit her anymore, or mending it is no longer practical.  It’s less stress on me to let her dress the way she wants and not having to worry about the cost of replacing it. 

And oh man, did we have some fun when my mom helped us move here last year!  We went to check out the thrift stores around our new neighborhood and we had a blast with each of us finding the most ridiculous outfits we could put together!  I have some awesome photographic evidence of our fun in the hat & sunglass section,  but I’m not sure my mom wants them blasted all over the internet ; )

Ahhhh, good times…

So go forth, brave the thrift stores, and see what awesome finds you can bring home without busting the bank!

Part 2…Finally, the light at the end of our wallets

Part two concludes a three year long struggle to dig ourselves out of the hole.  The best way to describe credit card debt is like digging a hole in the sand.  The minimum payments allow you to sloooooowly dig yourself out, but all the while new charges, late fees, over-balance fees, and interest fees are like the sand on the sides that are continually sliding down into the hole.  And before you know it, you are barely able to keep from choking on the debt that is burying you.

Credit card companies love the impulsive shoppers, and those that spend more than they can pay off at the end of the month.  No credit lender ever made their big bucks by you making more than your minimum payment on time.  They rely on offering easy credit at high interest rates in hopes that you will race out and buy a new T.V. and only ever pay the minimum.  The deal you get on it is never that great after you add up all the interest you’ll be paying over the next 12 months anyway.  Oh, and “12 months same as cash” or  “____ months zero financing” only works if you pay it off in full before the time alloted.  Otherwise, they dump ALL the interest and various fees on you from the date of purchase. 

Okay, so back to our story here…So I made a budget and stuck to it.  Over the last 36 months, we have taken all the extra pennies we have saved and put them down on our debt owed.  Each year we recieved our tax return, we paid off more.  We did still save each year to take the kids on vacation.  Nothing crazy, we spent one year at the Oregon Coast, and last year we spent some time in Florida. 

Finally, we are down to the last remaining month until we are done.  Completely done.  In one more month, we will have the last of our debt paid off in time to take a suh-weeeeeet vacation.

All the while we were paying off bills, we were still sacking a away a little for our vacation fund, and a little for our emergency fund.

I won’t lie…my husband especially will tell you that it’s been a very looooong 3 years.  But now that we can see the light and are starting to feel the warmth of freedom, it doesn’t seem that long or that bad.  Our hard work means that we can take our family on the vacation of a lifetime (paid for with cash, not credit cards thank you) and we are no longer at the mercy of a mega-bank’s high interest rates.

Just like quiting smoking, or kicking another dirty habit, no one can force you to kick your credit habits.  You have to want it.  You have to want to take control of your spending habits, your saving habits and your financial health.  Do you want to bust your butt to give it all to someone else?  Or do you want to be able to sleep better knowing that the money you earn is yours, not Target’s, Kohl’s, Bank of America’s, Old Navy’s or any other store that hawks their credit cards to shoppers? 

Take it from someone that has come from the darker side, the grass (and the sleep) really is better on this side.  Because it’s mine.  Not Chase Bank’s.

Debtor’s Prison: Part 1…run, ruuuuuuunnnnnn!

This is the chronicle of three years of trying to escape debtor’s prison…

Part 1 begins with stupidity, denial and education.

Part 2 continues with our belt-tightening, and finally the end…the glorious light at the end of our wallet. 

Part 1: 

It was January ’08…

We had two small children at the time and we were living paycheck-to-paycheck.  We had two car payments, 5 credit cards and a loan payment.  What the h.e.double hockey sticks were we thinking?  **smacks head into desk**

So one day, while I was browsing the local library, I came across some finance books.  No, silly…not textbooks, I wasn’t that bored.  These were the books where the been-there-done-that-ers explain to us common folk how to stop spending every dime on junk and how to get out of debt.  Sign me up!

I don’t really know why I never thought the term “debt” applied to us…maybe it was De-Nile?  No, no, that couldn’t be it…that was a river in Egypt…

I am even a product of parents that racked up a lot of debt trying to start a business, and then they struggled for years before eventually paying it all off.  Maybe it was because our debt wasn’t that much compared to the $100k that other people were struggling to get rid of, or maybe because we were so young?  Let me tell ya, it wasn’t just denial, we were swimming upstream in it with blindfolds on! 

Looking back, I don’t think the reason matters much other than that it was just plain irresponsible and stoooooopid to live paycheck-to-paycheck with two small children.  Period.  End of story, there is no “but” to it.

So anywho, I ate the books up in one afternoon during nap time.  I knew I could make this work, I just had to work out the plan ahead of time to present it to my husband.  I photo-copied the budget and repayment forms in the books and got to work.  When hubby came home, I explained the process and showed him all of my work.  He was definitely on board if it meant making life easier. 

“All I need is three years!”  I exclaim with glee.  **Insert music coming to a screeching halt here**  “Three years?!?  Are you sure this is going to work?”  I’ll admit I was a little worried about having to eat carpet fuzzies to make it work, but to date, there have been no carpet fuzzies served. 

Here is a great how-to article on creating a realistic budget, courtesy of Gail Vaz-Oxlade:

(http://www.gailvazoxlade.com/resources/guide_to_building_budget.html

Here’s a repayment worksheet similar to one in the books (and the plan we chose to use):

http://www.getrichslowly.org/blog/2008/08/26/free-debt-snowball-spreadsheet/

So on to part two another day, and I’ll share some advice on how to start digging yourself out of the red debt hole.  Until then, check out the links…

Tightwad results for 2010

Yikes!  I just ran our year-end expense report on Quicken.  No, we don’t run a business, and yes, we track our personal account like a cat-4 hurricane. 

Anywhoozit, at the end of every year, I use Quicken to run an expense report by category to see where we spent our money.  It’s also pretty neat-o (or terrifying) to compare it to the previous year. 

You think you don’t spend much on groceries or eating out each week or month, but add that up over a year my friend!  Yoowzer!  Maybe it’s because we started 2010 with a pay raise when my honey was promoted to First Class?  Whatever the reason, it is definitely a hard pill to swallow to admit to spending more in 2010 on groceries than we did in 2009.  But the upside is that we spent nearly 10% less on dining out.

My husband’s response to the information that we spent more on groceries?   “Whoa, maybe you’re not as cheap as you think you are.”  Ouch.  To get a better idea as to how much more was spent…it’s roughly 40% more…and I know that the price of food didn’t go up that much.  Some of it is to blame on sales tax; yes, I’m going there.  OR has no sales tax, and LA carries nearly 8%.  So I’m blaming a very small portion of that increase on sales tax. 

The rest of that though?  Who knows… 

To really figure out how much less we will need to spend in the dining out and grocery categories, I had to figure out our monthly average.  After the nausea resides, and I am able to stomach looking at the numbers again, I can figure out some realistic cutbacks.  Dining out is simple.  But I’ll get back to you once I figure out how to realistically cut back on groceries for this family.  I swear my two oldest have hollow legs that they are currently filling with food…

Grocery cutbacks (without cutting back on food quality and having enough) will take some trial and error.  I know for sure that I will be fishing more local sale ads to ensure my local store will honor the competitor prices.

Now that the year of wild food spending is coming to a close, I am excited to try new ways to save a buck.  Our vacation savings goal has almost been met, which means it is about time to focus our efforts on saving for a down payment on a car for my husband.  Thankfully, his champagne taste works well with my tap water budget.

So the lesson/reminder here?  Just because we make more, does not mean it’s time to spend more.  So laugh on husband…laugh on…I’ll show you who’s wallet can be clamped shut tighter than a bad clam!

Until next year…