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There are drawbacks to freelancing (financial ups and downs, feast-or-famine schedules, condescending credit card companies), but there are many rewards, as well. Perhaps the greatest of those is being able to choose every project I take on, and sometimes being paid to do things I would love to do whether or not money was involved.
For example, I often do small projects for Sounds True, the spiritual and self-help publisher where I’ve once had the privilege of working full-time. Lately, I’ve been transcribing installments of Sounds True’s weekly podcast, Insights from the Edge, for posting on their web site. In these podcasts, Sounds True Founder and CEO Tami Simon interviews great thinkers who’ve created audio programs (lectures and lessons on CD or downloadable mp3) for Sounds True. Three weeks ago, I was particularly excited to find that Tami had interviewed Vicki Robin, who, with the late Joe Dominguez, co-authored Your Money or Your Life. I was being paid to listen to one of the great heroes whose ideas had informed much of my adult life! Check out the interview here.
Tami’s interview celebrates the release of the updated, 10th anniversary edition of the Your Money or Your Life. I remember when the book first came out, when I was a 20-something, deep in college studies and deep in anxiety, wondering if I would ever figure out how to handle my own finances, live free of family support, and take care of myself. I read the book, began tracking my expenses, and have never looked at a job offer or a price tag in the same way since. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this book changed my life, or more accurately, that it did a great deal to shape my adult life.
Vicki Robin and her coauthor, the late Joe Dominguez, taught me to see money as something I (or someone, such as my parents, who have given me many generous gifts over my lifetime) traded hours of my (or my loved one’s) precious, limited life to gain. They also taught me that credit is a form of indentured servitude—a harsh way to put it, but it is signing up to work for many hours, often hundreds or thousands of hours, to pay off a debt—not free money. And best of all, they taught me that true financial independence—defined not as having mountains of money, but as being wholly in control of one’s own financial life—is possible. Creative lifestyles can be fun and freeing, the “American dream” is not a dream for one, and a sustainable world for all is possible.
I was delighted to trade my life energy for money when it came with a chance to listen to Vicki Robin expanding on the ideas from this life-changing book. The interview is a nice introduction to the Your Money or Your Life philosophy, and an interesting listen (or read, if you prefer—just go to the podcast page and click “Read the Transcript” to see my handiwork). I encourage you to check it out.
Since I returned home after a fantastic (and fantastically expensive) summer of theater studies in San Francisco, only to find that my old Chevy Metro was dying and needed to be replaced, I’ve been running a balance on my credit card—a used-car-sized whopper of a balance—and I hate that!
My conservative Protestant parents (my father a Certified Public Accountant) raised me to avoid debt at all costs, and for the most part, that lesson has served me well. Yes, this may be why I so actively avoid signing onto a mortgage or even a lease (which is, after all, a form of debt: a lease is a financial obligation, a set amount of money one has to pay), why, at 35, I’m just starting to consider applying to graduate school (Student loans? Aaargh!), and why the 10-year-old VW Golf I’ve just bought is the most luxurious car I’ve ever owned.
On the other hand, in an age when thousands of people have mortgaged “the most house they can afford” and carried enormous balances on their credit cards, only to find themselves forced into bankruptcy when the economy nosedived and took their jobs with it, I have lived with very little financial worry and very few interest payments—especially for a woman who hasn’t held a “permanent” job for over five years. I have no student loans, no car payments, no mortgage, no rent to pay (and when I do pay rent, it’s a short-term arrangement that I can change if my finances change), and until recently, I’ve had no credit card balances to keep up with. My finances were in the moment, conscious, flexible, and easy to keep track of.
I want to live like that again as soon as possible. I’ve been looking for creative ways to pay off my balance fast, and with as little interest paid as possible. This credit card already has a 9% interest rate, so transferring the balance to another card would only help if the new card offered a heck of a deal—and I last week, I found one that did. The offer was a 3% charge for balance transfers, and 0% interest on that balance for up to 10 months. The math worked out: I knew it would take me more than four months to pay off my balance, so the one-time 3% transfer fee would be less than I’d pay if I left the balance on my old card at 9% per year. I decided to apply for the new card. What did I have to lose?
$12,000 in credit and some of my pride, as it turned out. I filled out the new credit card application online, explaining my financial and work situation: Employer: Self. Years Employed There: Five. Annual Income: (a number far less than a person with rent, mortgage, student loan, or car payments could live on, but a comfortable number for me, thank you very much). Then I hit the “Send” button and waited. “Ah, well,” I thought. “If it doesn’t go through or doesn’t get approved, I’m no worse off. It’s an experiment. I’ll see what happens.”
The next morning, I found a message on my phone from an organization called Credit Card Services, calling on behalf of the bank to ask a few questions about my application. When I called back, a perky-voiced representative asked questions I’d already answered online. “Where do you work?”
“I’m self-employed,” I said.
“In what industry?”
“I’m a freelance copyeditor and writer.” It seemed simpler to stick to the most businesslike of my businesses, rather than trying to explain how I also make a good chunk of my living pretending to murder people at dinner parties, playing tag while dressed as Batgirl, and feeding other people’s cats.
“Do you have any regular clients?”
I thought about what, exactly, she might mean by that. “I have several clients who come back to me again and again, but I work with everyone on a project-by-project basis.”
“Oh.” She paused for a bit, and then: “You know that legally, you don’t have to declare alimony, social security, or child support payments if you don’t want them to be considered in your ability to pay, but you can declare them if you’d like. Are there any other sources of income you’d like to declare?”
“Nope. What I put on the application is all.” It was now clear to me that I wasn’t getting the new card or the balance transfer deal. I was eager to get off the phone and back to my latest proofreading project.
“You’re sure? There’s nothing else?”
“Nothing else.” I wondered if that email had come in with the sound file I wanted to start transcribing …
“Well,” said the rep, now working to sound cheerful. “I’m afraid, with your income and situation, I won’t be able to approve the new card for you.”
“I understand,” I said politely.
“And I see that you have another card we manage.” She mentioned a card I’d kept for years as an emergency backup plan. Since I’d had a running balance on my favorite card, I’d been using that one for purchases where cards were more convenient than cash, so I zip through gas stations and such, but still pay it off monthly, without adding interest to my other balance. I hadn’t known Credit Card Services managed that bank’s cards, too. “That card has a limit of $12,000. Because of your situation, we’re going to take that down to $500.”
I felt like I’d been slapped. “I’ve had that card for over ten years, and I’ve been in this ‘situation’ for five.”
“Yes,” said the now fully artificially perky rep, “and I’m not saying you’re going to, but you could run up the balance to $12,000, and we’re not sure about your ability to pay. And you have just started using that card for the first time in a long while …”
“Yes,” I sighed. “Last month I put $65 on it: two tanks of gas.”
“So, you see …”
“Ah, yes, I understand.” I thought quickly: What is the point of a card with a $500 balance? This card doesn’t offer reward points or any perks. $500 is not an emergency backup plan. Emergencies, in my book, are massive car repairs, dental work, major medical catastrophes … Anything $500 or under is nothing I can’t handle in cash. Besides, I had two other cards … “Just cancel the card.”
“It’s just a routine … wait, what?”
“Cancel that card. Can you do that for me here, or should I call someone else?”
“Well, yes, I can, but you still can charge $500.”
“I know,” I said, artificially cheerful myself. I didn’t want the poor rep to feel bad about doing her job, and she sounded defensive now. “I just don’t need that card. I have an automatic payment set to pay off the balance on Monday. Can I cancel the card now?”
“I can put in a cancellation order now, and it will go through when the outstanding balance is paid. You really want me to do that?”
“Yes, please.” She asked if there was anything else she could help me with, wished me a nice day, and hung up.
I felt pale, shocked, like I did right after I got my navel pierced. Had I just lost $11,500 for asking a question, just for admitting to the reality of my jobless financial life? And another $500 for a split-second, pouty reaction?
No, I hadn’t, on closer examination. I had lost $12,000 in credit, meaning $12,000 in potential debt. To put it in perspective, I checked the remaining available credit on the two cards I still had—the Mastercard with my car balance on it, and the Visa connected to my checking account. (Any overdrafts just go on the Visa, but it is still an actual credit card that I am free to use anywhere.) The remaining credit on my Mastercard plus the full limit of my unused Visa came to just over $20,000! Even at times when I am paying rent, that’s enough for me to live on for one year. It’s enough to buy my current car five times. It’s enough to start any small business I’ve thought about. It’s more debt than I’d ever want except in the form of a mortgage, student loan, or small business loan. It’s enough to pay for any emergency I can imagine except for major medical or dental catastrophes—and those would offer payment plans of their own. $20,000 is more than enough of a credit-card safety net.
Yes, I felt insulted to have my imaginary money taken away, but Credit Card Services was right. I had, and probably still have, more credit available than I need. Most of us (those who haven’t hit financial catastrophes, who still have credit cards) have more credit available than we need or could easily handle. I’d found the thought of all that imaginary money comforting, but on closer thought, it’s terrifying: Imagine being $32,000 in debt on credit cards alone! Imagine years of interest payments at the usual credit card rates—18% or more. Imagine working just to pay the minimums on a slew of credit cards …
My new reality is more comforting. I can handle emergencies. I’ll have to pay off my car purchase slowly, at 9% interest, but that’s not so bad. I love my little ten-year-old car, and my life is running smoothly. Even if Credit Card Services finds my lifestyle frighteningly odd, I like it, I can afford it, and I’ll be just fine.
I came back from my summer adventures in San Francisco all excited about renewing my commitment to my blog, and then I proceeded to not post for two months. My apologies. I have been busy, and scattered and confused, building up my life again back home in Colorado: finding work, finding more work than I expected and gratefully lapping up every opportunity, reconnecting, bouncing from house sit to house sit and remembering why that made me feel flustered and out of sorts … Mainly, though, I’ve been uncertain about the direction of this blog.
I’ve been reading some fantastic popular blogs of late, from The Comics Curmudgeon and Medium Large, to RedheadWriting and SEOmoz, to the Tim Ferriss’ blog and I Will Teach You to Be Rich. Each blog has a specific focus, an overall message and reason for being. Does mine? So far, I’ve felt unfocused, writing on whatever happens to spark my mind. I wonder whether I should stretch for a gimmick, find a way to promise my readers that I will make them rich (as soon as I figure out how to make myself so) …
But the fact is that I already have a focus for my blog. I have a very strange life. I don’t have a job. I don’t have a mortgage, and I don’t have a lease. More unusual: I don’t want any of these things. I make money, I sleep in safe and comfortable places, and I feel wealthy. I also feel creative, excited, and grateful about my life overall. While my lifestyle is far from unique—in fact, the “joyfully jobless” (as author Barbara Winter calls freelancers and entrepreneurs) are far more common than Americans tend to think. I expect that people in creative housing situations—house sitters, eternal travelers, and those who live in non-house, non-apartment homes like RVs, cabins, mini-houses, and such—are also far more common than we tend to think. Still, there’s far too little talk about the alternatives to the standard American dream of “get a job, work all day Monday through Friday for 50 years, then retire completely; while you’re at it, buy the biggest house you can mortgage, as soon as you can.” As the business world shifts, that dream is becoming increasingly impossible, and I’ll argue that it was always impractical. There are many other ways to live, and many that are not only safe, responsible, and relatively comfortable, but also fulfilling and joyful. Simply blogging about my own life experiments, and those of others I learn about, I’ll never run out of things to say.
There is another reason, though, why I’ve been unsure about this blog: It’s out there for anyone to see. I have a feeling all of the ideas that make me interesting and readable are the kinds of things any proper American should be keeping secret. We’re constantly being told to watch what we write on the interwebs, lest we be unemployable for life. Dates, too, can Google and judge, as can potential roommates, landlords, creditors, anybody. The more unorthodox opinions I share (meaning everything that differentiates me and makes me worth reading), the more I mark myself as a freak. Will I ruin my future chances by expressing myself too widely? Telling people about my odd lifestyle, how I turn down “good” “permanent” jobs, how I hop from home to home and work project to work project, has already started an argument that nearly lost me one of my best friends, and is obviously starting to worry another (more on him next post).
After careful consideration (two months of it!), though, I realize that any job, any business partners, any date or friend or roommate I’d ever really want to be with had best be willing to accept me as I am. I am a responsible, intelligent, hard working, sane, and happy person. I also happen to like exploring unusual ways of making a life. I’m willing to tell the world about that.
One of my favorite web comics put it better:
As I settle into my new, rent-paid, call-it-mine, honest to goodness long-term home, I’m reveling in something that most non-nomadic Americans take for granted. In fact, most folks with homes have the opportunity to do this many times every day, and they actively avoid it. We spend thousands of dollars every year trying to avoid it. Advertisements abound, on TV, radio, billboards, and in magazines, promising to eliminate it from our lives. Still, I have to say it now: I love cooking! Cooking is how my favorite past boyfriends won my heart. Cooking is why I love Thanksgiving Day: Growing up, it was the one day of the year when my typical 80s suburban, both-parents-working family cooked a meal from scratch, beginning to end.
This is a luxury I couldn’t have in my pure-nomad, house sitting days. When I knew I’d be changing houses in two weeks or two days, it didn’t make sense to buy a full package of any ingredient. I couldn’t stock up when something was on sale. I simple carried a small box of canned vegetables and soups from house to house, and if I was really settling in, I bought just enough Lean Cuisines to serve as dinner for each night before the next move. The only fresh milk, eggs, or vegetables I had were those that my clients begged me to eat before they spoiled. And while I was saving money on rent, I was spending quite a bit on Noodles & Company and Chipotle.
So now I’m cooking. I love the tightwaddery of making things from scratch. I love the creative process of putting food together. What I love most, though, is the freedom it gives me to make my meals exactly the way I want them. Today I brunched on a fried egg, overcooked so that the whites are all crispy, and sunny side up, which no diner will do these days, for fear I’ll get salmonella poisoning and sue them. With it, I had nearly, but not quite burned whole wheat toast, and 1/3 pound of asparagus, steam/sauteed in the special way my friend Rachel taught me years ago, flavored with a little olive oil and a little lemon juice. All of this was topped off with my beloved, not-available-in-any-restaurant-I’ve-ever-seen, caffiene-free Pepsi. And I ate it all while still wearing my pajamas.
I expect this glorious pleasure at eating exactly what I want, this satisfaction at opening the fridge and cabinets and seeing a wide array of fresh, nutritious foods, this glee at saving vegetable steaming water for making soup later on, will wear off to a degree. On days when I’m rushing to get somewhere, I will just grab a shaker bottle full of water and artificial protein drink powder. Still, I don’t thing I’ll ever fully get over this joy of simply, directly feeding myself.
As I settle into my home, finally completely unpacking after years of dragging unexamined luggage from house to house, I’ve realized something: I have a lot of worn-out socks. There are the socks I’ve been wearing anyway, blissfully ignoring the holes in the heels, and there are many, many more socks that I’ve stored away because the holes were too big for comfort. Why didn’t I just throw them away? I was too busy moving around.
Now I’m pleased that I still have so many worn-through socks around. As I finally started to look at them, I was reminded of a former boyfriend who kept a bucket full of dead socks, cut down the back of the leg and through the sole to the toe, so they would lie flat. He used them as cleaning rags, and so saved money and landfill space, for he was an environmentalist as well as a cheapskate. (Ah, how I adored that boy!) He could dust, scrub, wipe down, and sop up any mess, then toss the rag into the washing machine to become clean and white and ready to use again. If a job was so gross that he couldn’t bear to wash the rag, (Toilet overflow, anyone?) it was no great tragedy to throw away a sock that otherwise would have been tossed months ago.
Remembering him, I was cutting open my holey old socks, dreaming of soft dusters and counter moppers, when I noticed how truly soft and cushy my socks are inside. I wear terry-lined, cotton-blend gym socks most of the time, so my new rag pile is fuzzy, luxuriously soft—just what I want on my face when I’m washing mascara off of my eyes at bedtime. Forget cleaning rags. I now have a stack of incredibly comfortable, though odd-looking, washcloths. I keep them under my kitchen sink (lest my roommate walk by the open bathroom door and decide I’m a freak with a sock fetish) and use one fresh, clean, soft sock every night.
You may be more squeamish than I about rubbing your face with something that once absorbed a workout’s worth of foot sweat. I, for one, trust my washing machine to completely de-gross my socks, so I now see only odd-shaped bits of fabric. Even if the washcloth plan is too much for you, I still recommend socks as household cleaning rags. Rags are beautiful things, things we have far too few of in today’s American culture. They’re even sturdier than Brawny towels and more absorbant, they won’t tear or dissolve mid-cleanup, and best of all, they’re free!
I’ve been a fan of the late, great newsletter-cum reference book The Tightwad Gazette since I was a subscriber in the early 90s. I loved the idea of people across the country sharing simple, creative little tricks for creating a quality, happy life, while spending less money and amassing less unnecessary stuff. In that wonderfully friendly, miserly tradition, I’d like to share any fun ideas I come across that help me use less money, less time, less space for stuff, or all of the above. I think it’s fitting here. My “nomad” lifestyle is all about staying as free as possible from the fetters of unnecessary bills and unnecessary stuff.
Here’s my latest discovery: Since I grew up enough to wash my own hair, I’ve always shampooed my hair every single day. I felt I had to. My genes have blessed me with the charming combination of an oily scalp and baby-fine hair, so that any oil in my hair sticks it flat to my head. To add to the ickiness, my hair is light in color as well as texture (shifting, through my teenage years, from pale blonde to my current light, reddish brown), and any extra oil covers the pale color, making the entire flat mess dull, dark—quite obviously an oil slick. I’ve always felt the need to do a full shampoo at least every 24 hours, and sometimes even more often.
Well, fellow oily folks, check this out: The beauty magazine in a web site, Total Beauty, gives targeted advice for all hair types. After I took a quiz on the site, my hair was diagnosed as “oily” (big surprise), and I was given this advice: “It may sound counterintuitive, but don’t wash your hair every day. Why? Because it dries out your scalp, causing it to produce more oil, which just makes the situation worse.” I’d, um, never thought of that. The site suggested that I wash no more than once every other day, but assured me that I could just rinse my hair with water on off days, for styling and anti-ick purposes. I’d never thought of that, either. It had never occurred to me to just rinse my hair without going through the whole shampoo-and-conditioner-and-styling products routine.
Well, I’ve been following the advice for about two weeks now, and I’m delighted with the results. The oil slick seems to come on a bit more slowly, and just rinsing my hair in the shower on the second day does wonders: My hair gets its color back, and it dries fluffier and cuter than it does on the days I shampoo. I don’t feel the need to add volumizing hairspray (which I do on shampoo days), because my hair already has just the right amount of residual stickiness. Better yet, I use only half as much shampoo and conditioner, and my non-shampoo showers are lightening fast, saving time, water, and heating costs. It’s sad to think how much shampoo, conditioner, time, and natural resources I’ve wasted over the years because I just didn’t know any better. I’m glad someone finally enlightened me.
This is a prime example of the fine example set by The Tightwad Gazette. From it, I learned the power of scientific experimentation in everyday life. Its author, the brilliant and entertaining Amy Dacyczyn, always encouraged her readers to find new uses for old things, new fixes for broken things, and to question how much laundry detergent they really needed, whether the dishwasher or the sink used more water, and so on. Now that I’ve realized that my lifelong hair-washing assumptions were wrong, my scientific tightwad mind has been reawakened. I’ll let you know how my future experiments turn out.