Thursday, February 20, 2014

Alive and Well

 // Sunrise from our hotel room. No complaints. // A section of city. // The Dude jumped off our tour jeep while we were stuck in traffic to grab some hydration. He's the bestest. // A view from a friend's hotel room. Pools ran into ocean. //

Gosh, guys. It's been a while. You see, I'm a person that needs time. Time to adjust post-trip. Post anything but the usual, if I'm honest. We arrived back home in the wee hours of Sunday morning. The daylight hours of Sunday were spent in a couch coma. Monday I scarcely resembled a human being. Tuesday brought a bit of normality and by today I'm back to my old self. Turns out I needed a vacation from our vacation, which never happens. Life as usual the second you walk through the door. Because this is real life, after all. I feel strongly that we should begin tripling our 401K contribution so we can one day be those people who take vacations from their vacations.

I had an I'm off to Brazil and will therefore be out of the office for nine whole days post, complete with a clouds-framed-by-airplane-window photo, but even that didn't get a sendoff. Then we found ourselves without cell service, data and all, and internet access only in our hotel room. Which we spent little time in. Because we were in Rio de Janeiro, duh.

// City life at night. // A shady palm. // The graffiti around the city was bad, but they've been transforming it into art. There were some amazing works. // Scenery. //

Would you believe I have yet to download the five million photos I took on our trip? I think of them, get all pitter-pattery, then forget. Gosh, this post-trip funk may be worse than I thought. In truth, that trip was just what we needed. After the tunnel vision of college ended, I needed some separation from the humdrum of our everyday life. Time with my husband sans kiddo. Radical departures from life can sure deliver a new perspective. I returned tired, but ready to embrace impending changes. I'm excited to start Act 2; turn the page; start a new chapter... and every other literature metaphor. This New England winter has been a doozy, but it's easier knowing it will be my last.

There are several Rio posts in the wings, but for now I have a glimpse into the last two weeks. Because my iPhone never takes a vacation.


// Our first full day brought a sunrise tour of the Christ the Redeemer statue, which sits atop Corcovado mountain, and is now officially one of the Wonders of the World. // The views of the ocean and city from its base are incredible. // On the bus ride to the airport on our last evening, I snapped one last photo at sunset. It seemed like the perfect goodbye. //


// The food overall wasn't my favorite, but not terrible, though there were some delicious moments. Stews seem to be the specialty, which seems odd given the balmy climate. The two shown were pretty darn good. Especially the shrimp stew served in a pumpkin. It took everything I had not to dive in face first. // There were also curiously addicting donut-shaped snacks, fruity gelato, and some Chilean wine I couldn't get enough of (nor ibuprofen the next morning, if you get my drift). // The coffee was served one way: strong. // I sipped the contents of too many coconuts to count. They get a big machete, chop a wedge out of the top, and plop in a straw. This is one of those things I've clearly missed out on being a native North American. (Continental U.S., anyway.) //

// After much deliberation, three trips to H. Stern, and a consumer hangover, these beauties now adorn my lobes. I may never take them off. // A Starbucks in Ipanema made the best latte I've ever had. Hands down. // A blurry sunset photo taken from a tour bus. I kind of love it. // Gosh this dude's handsomeness never quits. //


// I frequented O'Hare 4 times in 9 days. We got to be quite familiar. (I had an extra leg on both ends of my trip to drop off and pick up Kiddo in Wisconsin where he stayed with relatives.) // When in Chicago... eat a Chicago dog. // Aforementioned obligatory cloud photo from aircraft. // Customs line upon landing in Houston. Between it and the non-moving immigration line, I almost missed my flight to where else? Chicago. // In case of an emergency landing, this stud will save us all. Seriously. // When in Chicago... also munch on Garrett's popcorn. I favor the Chicago mix: cheddar and caramel. // Thank goodness for Dr. Who. This new tome saved us during a 5 hour layover after two cancelled flights. //

// After sorting through a mountain of mail, I unearthed this beauty. It's official! // This sweet fella developed a total urinary blockage within a day of Mario getting home. Sunday morning he was admitted to the on-call vet and Monday afternoon was transferred to our regular vet for surgery. Hopefully the procedure will prevent these blockages in the future. We are so fortunate it didn't happen while were gone, as he likely wouldn't have made it. He's on the mend, but the poor guy is a bit miserable. A stressful homecoming event, for sure. // Don't be fooled by this lovely frosty sunrise photo. Yesterday my car got stuck no less than four times on unplowed surfaces. Thank goodness I'm an experience winter driver. Two hours of cleanup later... it began snowing again. Oy. New England is making our decision to move very easy. // In the midst of sleep deprivation, excessive flying, and a touch of jet lag, I decided I needed to quit a certain caffeinated brew. Own worst enemy, right here. I felt like I'd become overly dependent, often gulping it down even if I didn't want it. It was time for a breakup. This morning, for the sake of the greater good, I had a small latte. Because I was like a grouchy feral animal. Tea is helping with the transition. A little. //

That's all she wrote (for now). I hope to get back in the groove next week and will be writing more regularly. And sifting through hundreds of photos. And hopefully finding some freelance writing work. So much to do, so much to do. (Which is a good thing.)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Budgeting our way through the holidays...


This is one of those posts I've been reflecting on for a month but never seemed to will into existence. I've written and rewritten it in my head at this point... some of my best lines were created and forgotten while loading the dishwasher. Oh, well. Anyway, here goes. 

Last September Mario and I committed to a budget for the first time since we began sharing our finances 10+ years ago. I've long since come to realize we were not good financial planners. There. I said it. It is what it is. Although we were doing just fine, we didn't have an adequate emergency fund (at least 3 months worth of expenses, right?) and often failed to anticipate costs, which frequently led to us tapping into our savings. Some months we spent more than we earned but had little insight into how or why. If we wanted something, we got it. Saving for it seldom crossed our minds. It's not that we were financially irresponsible, we weren't, but delayed gratification was something we desperately needed to work on. And while I'd given up my penchant for Target clearance endcap shopping years before, and we'd already begun living with less, we had a long way to go in this department. Mario has done well and we live a comfortable existence, yet I felt like we were floundering in this one area of our lives. I was ashamed that so much money was slipping through our fingers. We are smart people... why didn't our finances reflect that? I was also stressed about money on a regular basis. Who wants to live paycheck to paycheck if they don't have to? With my student loans coming due, a major move in the works, and the possibility of private school tuition for Kiddo, I decided it was time to take the bull by the horns.
 
Sticking to a budget has been easier than I anticipated, though I have definitely had pouty moments here and there. I've learned so much about myself in the last few months, and also come to really appreciate how well Mario and I work together when we set our minds to something. We sit down and go over our expenses every two weeks. For those few minutes, we have each others undivided attention. We plan ahead. We rejoice every time something is paid off or we have extra. All of our debts and monthly bills are written down and prioritized. We now talk about money with intention... and not because we are stretched too thin. In just a few short months we've paid off thousands of dollars in debt while maintaining our savings. (Which means the money was there all along.) We know where our money goes, pay for everyday expenses with cash, and put a lot of thought into our purchases. Most importantly, I have connected the dots between money, stuff, and the whole idea of living (more) simply in a meaningful, life-changing way. Is it a pain to go into the bank and withdraw cash twice a month? It can be. Do I enjoy paying for gas with cash rather than swiping my card, filling up, and driving away? Nope. Especially in the winter. But something had to give and I can't imagine not living this way anymore. These are minor things compared to the stress that comes with a lack of money management.

Aside from changing our habits and tweaking our spending, which quickly became second nature, there has only been one major hurdle to overcome since starting this journey: How would we navigate Christmastime on a budget when we'd never set limits before?

I had a bit of a tantrum about the commercialism of Christmas in our country.  Then I decided that while exposure to what has become an American tradition is unavoidable, it didn't have to invade my life. I could simply walk away from the lunacy. So I did. Selling it to Husband was the tough part. Which led to another revelation: Gift giving is an emotional issue and involves much more than money. We had to dig deep and get a bit uncomfortable, otherwise our behavior would go unchanged.

Mario's love language is gift giving. He shows me he loves me in so many ways, but he still feels an overwhelming need to give, give, give. More presents equals more proof of his appreciation for me. And while I am touched, many years it felt like we were one-upping each other. No, I love yoooou more. Sometimes quantity trumped quality. If I had more gifts to unwrap than he did, I felt bad. Although the issue of giving as a way of loving is a lot less ingrained in me, I fell prey to it, too. This last year we set out to change all that. We show how much the other means to us all year round, so it was unnecessary to put ourselves through the emotionally exhausting habit of proving our love through material objects. Plus, it inevitably led to a money hangover come January.

The first step was to begin saving for a cash Christmas ASAP. We devoted an envelope to our Christmas fund and put money aside for it every paycheck. We started in September, so we were a little late in the game. This year will be better. Then we decided on a set amount of money that would put us on equal footing: $100 for gifts and $20 for stockings. Kiddo got more for obvious reasons. Then it was up to us to make it work individually. If it meant one great present, then so be it. But this is where it got challenging for us. You see, we are fortunate in that Mario's company takes great care of him. His travel expenses, computer, printer, car, office supplies, etc. are all paid for. If something breaks, he gets it replaced. In my case, expenses come from the family budget. And that's where a fundamental imbalance comes into play. 
 The expensive things in his life are already covered, so I was free to buy more. He, however, ran into budget roadblocks because a new laptop, knitting classes, and camera lenses come in at a much higher price point. He felt restricted by the budget; I felt freed. But like everything else in life we made it work, and even had room left in the budget for a trip to NYC.

The other aspect to this involved family. We approached them with the idea of a gift exchange as opposed buying gifts for everyone. Draw names out of a hat and buy for one person instead of ten. Despite our assertion that we wanted to change the way we handle the holidays, a gift still showed up on our doorstep. It was a kind gesture, but I found myself wishing they could respect our desire to change our lifestyle. Our desire to find financial freedom and a way to live with less. We can't control other people, and I think of the whole experience as another life lesson. Most people were on board, so perhaps we motivated others to change their own financial future. One can hope, anyway. I expect this whole thing will get easier with time... and our new found lifestyle will seem less radical to those around us. (Most of our friends think what we are doing is great. When I whip out my "eating out" envelope at lunch it initiates a conversation about how fun budgeting can be.) Among some, I think the perception is that we must be broke, when quite the opposite is true. Why do this if you don't have to? seems to be the feeling. I imagine they are grappling with their own financial identity in some way.

In the end, this was a great adventure. I can see a future where my student loans are paid off in years, not decades. Where we take great trips and don't worry about how to fund them. Maybe one day Mario and I can take a break from work and the hustle and bustle of daily life and just live for a few months. On the ocean. In a bungalow. Drive an RV around the country. Backpack through Europe. Live in a hobbit hole in New Zealand. They feel a little less like pipe dreams these days.

More to come as insights are made and bills are paid. (Hey! That rhymes!)