Sunday, September 26, 2010

Hurtling through the air toward certain death

Oh, man. Crazy weekend. Where to begin?

Wait, not here! Gotta back up first.

I went skydiving with my brother, Brandon, and my mom's boyfriend, Don, on Saturday evening. We had originally scheduled to skydive last Sunday, but the weather was horrible and erratic — dumping rain one minute, kind of clearing up the next, then dumping rain again.

Luckily, Saturday's weather was perfect. The sky was completely clear and the temp was in the mid-70s. It felt like an awesome July day.

I spent the morning touring Woodinville wineries with my recently engaged friends who are searching for a wedding venue, so that took my mind off of being nervous for the skydive. Then I took a nap, which I attribute directly to the flu shot I had gotten on Friday. Right when I woke up, it was time to head to Snohomish. No time to be nervous!

The atmosphere at Skydive Snohomish is very relaxed, which I think is crucial for jumpy people like me. Music and skydiving videos were playing while we paid and signed our lives away — pages and pages of initialing statements like, "I acknowledge that skydiving is DANGEROUS and EXPERIMENTAL and that I may be SEVERELY INJURED or KILLED."

I'm not kidding — they were very generous with the caps-lock key.

Then we watched a brief video, which walked us through what we would be doing. I was all good until it got to the part where you actually jump out of the plane — it turns out that you and your tandem instructor scoot on your butts over to the open door, and then you have to hook your legs under the plane and wait for your instructor to go "one, two, three!" before he shoves you both out.

I'm sorry... HOOK my LEGS under the PLANE? I'm not sure why that really freaked me out, but it did.

We went outside and did a little practice arching our bodies, which is apparently the optimum position for hurtling through the air toward certain death.

Then it was time to put on our sweet jumpsuits and get harnessed up.

My instructor was a jolly fellow from England named Spotty. Yes, Spotty. That's not his real name, but that's how he introduced himself, so I was hoping that it wasn't his skydiving skills that were spotty. He was a cool guy and kept me relaxed and informed of what we would be doing at all times, which I really appreciated.

He also encouraged me to do jazz hands during freefall, which I totally did!

Once we were ready to go, it was right out to the little plane. The sun was about to set and we had to be back on the ground by the time it went down. Again, no time to be nervous, thank goodness!

We all sat on the floor of the plane — no seats, obviously — in between each other's legs. The flight was beautiful — about 10 or 15 minutes of flying up to 13,500 feet, with awesome views of the mountains and Puget Sound. This part wasn't very scary, either, since Spotty kept chatting me up about wineries and other random stuff.

When we were almost to the right elevation, Spotty strapped me to him really tightly and put my little hat and goggles on. It felt really safe and secure. Then the door opened and I watched two groups jump before me — Don with his instructor first, then another guy with his instructor.

It's really, really weird to watch people fall out of the plane you're in.

Suddenly it was our turn. We scooted to the door and I instinctively grabbed the right side of the opening, which was immediately nixed by Spotty. I was supposed to hold onto my harness, which I did, as I HOOKED my LEGS under the PLANE — my first "HOLY S#!T!" moment, but not as scary as I thought it would be. Then it was "one, two, three!" and out we went.

At first we were not level. We were freakin' headfirst, sideways, all over the place. I was screaming and freaking out, but having a lot of fun, and did I mention freaking out? Once we got into the correct position (see above, on the grass) the freefall felt much more controlled. And it didn't even feel like falling because it didn't seem like the ground was getting all that closer.

Spotty was making swimming motions with his hands and laughing, and I was doing jazz hands and realizing that I should keep my mouth shut (i.e. stop screaming) so that I could actually breathe and not have tons of air rushing into my throat.

I was also trying to look at the horizon and not just stare at the ground, but it was hard to hold my head up since it felt like Spotty's chest was right above my head. Apparently we were in freefall for about a minute, but it felt like it went by so much faster.

I was really, really glad when the parachute opened (for many reasons!), since I got to relax a little and stop completely freaking out. I was able to take my goggles off and look around more, and Spotty had me hold on to the handles that controlled the parachute. He showed me how to pull on them to go left or right, and he did some pretty scary, fast turns. I was happy to hang and chill and look around without the deathly whipping around that some of the other skydivers were doing.

I was shaking and in awe the entire time. I kept saying, "Holy s#!t!" and "Wow, this is crazy!" because it really, really was. Who jumps out of planes?! Who does this every day?!

The landing was the last semi-scary part, but Spotty really knew what he was doing and told me exactly when to lift my legs up to avoid viciously breaking them. We slid to the ground harmlessly on our bottoms, and I couldn't stop laughing. Spotty captured the moment perfectly when he said: "Welcome to skydiving — the sky is now your playground."

I've perused many lists of people's lifelong goals around the Internets, and skydiving pops up on most of them. If you're thinking of going, do it! If you live near a reputable skydiving facility, the only obstacles to overcome are lack of money, lack of time and lack of will.

I've decided to make new experiences and adventures a priority in my life, so the decision to dedicate some money and time to skydiving was really easy. As for will, I was much more scared to jump off a bridge last summer than I was to jump out of a plane last night. I've come a long way, baby.

Life is crazy like that.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The view from here

I've become obsessed with the sky.

Maybe it's just this time of year, but I've been noticing how beautiful it is lately — whenever it's not completely gray and cloudy.

I love me some sunshine, but I'd take interesting clouds over clear, blue skies most days.

Take Wednesday, for example. Here's what I saw on my bus ride home (click photo for larger version):

Then I ran a few errands in Woodinville, and stopped dead in my tracks in a parking lot to snap this:

And when I walked out of the store, I stopped and stared at this for a while:

I sat in my minivan watching the sunset and thought about... nothing. The sky looked unreal. It's been a while since a sight like this has knocked me over and made me be still. I'm always moving toward something, keeping my eyes on the path ahead, and not taking much time to look around at where I am at any given moment.

My life is not perfect, and there are a lot of things I'd like to change and a lot of things I'd like to accomplish in the future. But it's also nice to stop every once in a while, take a quiet moment, and enjoy the view from here.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Three life-changing things I've learned in the past 30 days (Part 3)

The third life-changing thing I've learned in the past 30 days is, once again, something I've stolen borrowed adopted from the fantastic Chris Guillebeau of the Art of Non-Conformity:

3. We regret the things we don’t do much more than the things we do.

I made some of those words extra-big and funky-looking because it's a big idea for me. As I've mentioned, I am naturally cautious and not the most adventurous person. I am a compulsive rule-follower. I am a stay-at-homer, a curl-up-and-reader, a call-me-when-you're-done-and-tell-me-how-it-was... er.

The problem is that I am inert.

Last summer, I spent a great day floating down the Snoqualmie River with a guy I was dating at the time. We eventually reached a placid area of the river, where the water flowed gently around a corner and under a bridge. Several people were jumping off the bridge, guys egging girls on and trying to outdo one another by climbing higher and higher up the trusses before jumping.

My then-boyfriend said his friend broke his collarbone jumping off of that bridge. Twice.

Maybe it was the later-discovered leech on my leg that sucked all the sense out of me, but I jumped off the bridge that day. This was, and is, completely out of character for me, but I decided to do something a little crazy for once. After I climbed over the guardrail — which was just one of many indications that this was Not A Good Idea — I spent about 10 minutes staring down at the water before I finally leapt.

I don't regret jumping. I do regret the resulting wedgie.

I decided that day that I didn't want to be the girl sitting on the beach watching all the other kids have fun. I wanted the view from the top, the excitement of breaking the rules. I wanted to see what was on the other side of my hesitation.

Just recently, on the morning of September 11th, I read this on Wise Bread:
"You'll never know what you like if you don't venture out of your bubble and expose yourself to the world. Try different things and keep an eye on yourself. What did you enjoy? Was there something you were skeptical about or something that made you nervous? What made your eyes sparkle or what makes you look back and smile? Explore the world. You'll be surprised at what you discover in the process."
I look back and smile when I think about jumping off of that bridge, and then I think about all of the other opportunities for adventure that I've opted out of in my life. What was holding me back? Fear, of course — of getting hurt, of getting in trouble, of being uncomfortable, of regretting having made the wrong decision. Fear of being afraid. How sad is that?

From the same article, I read:
"Don't live in fear. Don't be like the bird who never risked flapping her wings but longed every minute of her life to touch the sky."
So this weekend, I will touch the sky. I'm going skydiving with my brother. We're going to have a hell of a time.

Skydiving is one of those things that I've always wanted to do someday, but someday just turned into Sunday.

Chris Guillebeau writes, "If you’re on the fence about something, 'go for it and take action' is almost always better advice than 'think about it without doing anything.'" I've done a lot of thinking in my twenty-three years, and I have a lot of doing ahead of me to make up for it.

So I'm doing a 5K run next weekend. I'm doing a trip to the Gorge in October, which will probably be freezing-cold, but I'll love it anyway because I love Jack Johnson. I have a one-way plane ticket to the other side of the country for vacation plans that may or may not work out. If they don't, my friends and I will find something to do wherever we end up.

We regret the things we don’t do much more than the things we do.

I don't want to spend the rest of my life standing still.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Three life-changing things I've learned in the past 30 days (Part 2)

I've always had a vague idea of the way I wanted my life to be someday. I'd like a house near a major city. I'd like a Jack Russell terrier. I'd like a husband — tall, dark hair, a bit of charming geekiness about him. I'd like a couple of spunky kids who make me laugh every day. I'd like a window seat so I can sit and read and listen to the rain.

This scene comes with that fuzzy filter that's used in movies and TV shows to designate flashbacks and flash-forwards. "Someday" is an amorphous time in life, one that I hope to reach, well, someday. But I have a feeling that no matter how much time passes, "someday" will always be in the future, lingering just out of arm's reach. "Someday" is a mirage.

Think about it. Do you think life is rough now, but you'll be happier someday? Do you think someday you'll have that corner office, that car, that house, that husband or wife, and then you'll be happy? Are you living paycheck-to-paycheck but thinking that someday you'll be making $50,000 or $70,000 or $100,000 a year (choose your own magic number) and you'll finally have everything you need to be happy?

The second life-changing thing I've learned in the past 30 days is this:

2. You will achieve happiness and wealth only when you decide that what you have is enough.

This is an idea I've picked up from the book Your Money or Your Life, the blog Life After College and several other blogs in the personal finance/simple living realm. The idea is simple: If you're not content with what you have and you're always wanting something more, something different or something better, you'll never be satisfied.

Sometime in high school, I decided that I would die if I didn't go to New York University. I believed that I could only be happy there, and that NYU was the key that would unlock all of my hopes and dreams. I'm not sure why I believed this since I had never even visited NYU (no money), but I was determined to go there. My fallback schools were other colleges in New York, and my last-choice safety school was — can you guess? — the University of Washington.

I got into NYU. I was awarded tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships, but not nearly a full ride. Obviously, my parents couldn't afford to pay the remaining tuition, and my mom convinced me that I really, really didn't want to graduate with a boatload of student-loan debt. Did I mention that she is a very smart lady?

I was crushed. I have a whole journal from 2005 full of emo entries about how disappointed I was and about how much UW was going to suck. I was freakin' miserable.

But guess what? I had a blast at UW and can't imagine having gone anywhere else. I wasted a bunch of my 18th year of life being miserable for no reason. I should have been content with the amazing opportunity I was given — to attend UW with the help of an insanely generous four-year endowed scholarship — but I had pinned my hopes and my happiness on something more, something different, something better.

Your Money or Your Life illustrates the idea that "more, different, better" will always be unsatisfying:
"Our expectation is to make more money as the years go on. We will get more responsibility and more perks as we move up in our field. Eventually, we hope we will have more possessions, more prestige and more respect from our community. We become habituated to expecting ever more out of ourselves and ever more from the world, but rather than satisfaction, our experience is that the more we have, the more we want — and the less content we are with the status quo."
A great example of this idea comes from my close friend Diddy, who recently addressed rumors that he might replace Simon Cowell on American Idol. He said, "At first when people were asking me if I was interested in the job, I was like, no… that’s not my style, but once I heard what Simon makes… I would love the job. I’ve got six kids. If I would get the same check Simon gets… we would have a ball.”

Diddy is a special kind of person I like to call Insanely Rich. He gave his son a car worth more than $300,000 for his 16th birthday. But even he wants a bigger paycheck! To most people, Diddy is wealthy. To Diddy, Simon Cowell is wealthy. Simon Cowell is probably hustling for Oprah-caliber money right now. When will any of them think they have enough?

To me, wealth doesn't mean having $500,000 or $5 million. I'd say having $5 million doesn't mean sh!% if you're unhappy or always wanting more. My idea of wealth is having enough money to pay your expenses, save for retirement and spend on things you enjoy without having to worry that a life-changing event (job loss, car accident) will cause you to go bankrupt. If are in that position and are happy with what you have, no matter what the balance is in your bank account, you're wealthy in my book.

If "more" won't make us happy, then what will? Your Money or Your Life says the peak of fulfillment is recognizing that you have enough. In terms of money and possessions, this means:
"Enough for our survival. Enough comforts. And even enough little 'luxuries.' We have everything we need; there's nothing extra to weigh us down, distract us or distress us, nothing we've bought on [borrowed] time, have never used and are slaving to pay off. Enough is a fearless place. A trusting place. An honest and self-observing place."
I've been successful with this mindset of having enough in terms of my minivan. Yeah, it's not cool. Yeah, it's falling apart. Yeah, I could probably buy a nicer used car with the money I have at this point. But the minivan runs. It gets me where I need to go. I always have been and always will be grateful just to have it. It's enough.

I think contentment really is a fearless place because it means that you're fine with what you have regardless of what other people think. Judgment and comparison are big threats to "enough."

I'm becoming content with things I used to worry more about, like the fact that I already have more than enough clothes. Yeah, they're not the newest or most fashionable clothes, and I wear them over and over again — my typical boring-but-comfortable outfit consists of jeans and a solid-colored, v-neck tee — but they are enough for me.

My salary isn't very high, but I can cover my expenses and still sock away some money in savings, and it's enough for me. I don't even have an actual bedroom right now — long story — but I have a comfortable bed and all the privacy I need, and it's enough for me. I don't have a boyfriend right now, but I'm enjoying my time alone and with my best friends, and it's enough for me.

Maybe all any of us needs to do is take a good, long look at any aspect of our lives that we feel is lacking. Ask yourself, "Do I really need more this, different that, or a better something-or-other?" You may realize that you already have enough, and then you can can just stop worrying so much.

This is not to say that one shouldn't have goals or not strive for better things in life — I am huge on having goals. But don't pin your happiness on that goal. Be happy now. You may never reach the brass ring, but you sure as hell can have a good time on the carousel while you try.

Jenny Blake wrote a whole blog post about "enough." I'll quote it liberally here because it's pretty great:
"Stop delaying your dreams or your happiness until some future state of perfection — you already have all of the skills, resources and talent you need.
"If you are constantly longing for the past or waiting for the future, your entire life will be spent — well, longing or waiting. Joy is fleeting if we don't stop to appreciate where we are now, and remember that who we are and where we are is enough.

"So instead of waiting for the future — for some future state where you suddenly have enough or are enough — be the future. Live and embody it; act as though it were here. It is. There is no there, or better state. Make the most of this one — it is right where you should be — and the only place that's real."

Three life-changing things I've learned in the past 30 days (Part 3) will be about... actually, I'm not sure yet. I had something in mind but now I'll have to choose between a couple of great things. Or I could just change it to four or five things. Decisions!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Three life-changing things I've learned in the past 30 days (Part 1)

I've been doing a lot reading recently. A lot of reading, thinking, reflecting, stewing, dreaming. Here is the first of three life-changing things I've learned in the past 30 days:

1. You don't have to live your life the way other people expect you to.

This idea comes straight (literally, verbatim) from Chris Guillebeau, whose blog (and now book), The Art of Non-Conformity, is a wake-up call, a revolution and a tall glass of awesomeness all in one.

Chris — a UW grad! — is 125 countries deep into his five-year quest to visit all the countries in the world. He has never had a "real job," but has worked successfully as an entrepreneur in everything from importing coffee to blogging to writing "unconventional guides," which he sells on his Web site.

The point is that Chris's life is the opposite of what I've always thought my life would and should be. I grew up thinking that I needed to work hard in school (I did) so I could get a scholarship to go to college (I did) so I could graduate (I did) and get a good job (I did) so I could make good money (I am) to live happily (am I?).

I've always believed that travelling was never in the cards for me. My family couldn't afford vacations, so why would I expect to be able to roam the world?

In college, I considered the idea of studying abroad for maybe a moment — I wouldn't let myself entertain the idea any further and get my hopes up. I never thought it would be possible for me to take a year off after graduation to backpack through Europe or road trip across the U.S., like many of my peers did. In fact, I considered it irresponsible for kids to travel after graduation, as if they were attempting to avoid the "real world."

But what world is more real than this big, bad Earth of ours? The real world is not confined to a high-rise. Real life is not lived in a cubicle.

Chris's unconventional approach to work and travel has made me realize that I don't need to live my life the way I expected to. The things I've thought were "never in the cards" for me are now up for grabs. I've freed myself from things that were holding me hostage (debt, self-doubt) and I'm dealing my own cards now. Why not shuffle the deck a bit?

Besides, look what came in the mail today:

My very first passport. I can has adventures!

I'm not quitting my job. I like my job! But realizing that I have all the freedom in the world to go wherever I want is quite a revolution for me. I'm ready and able to visit places I've only dreamt about (and seen on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations) before. And paid time off is a beautiful thing.

But I may be like Chris someday and buck the 8-to-5 workday. Skip town. See the world because I can, and should. For now, I'll just be plotting little adventures because I can, and should. And because I wasted the first 23-and-a-half years of my life never believing I could.

Three life-changing things I've learned in the past 30 days (Part 2) will be about achieving happiness and wealth. I totally figured out how to do it! OK, not really, but kind of. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Square pegs and round holes (Or: My new, random theory about dating)

I am a perfectionist. As a proofreader, I'm paid to scour copy all day long for errors, then circle them with harsh red ink. I kind of love my job.

But most perfectionists are hardest on themselves, and I'm no exception. I try and try and try to get things right. I try not to make mistakes. After all, I know that I'm right there waiting, poised to circle my own flaws with the harshest red ink there is.

I've enjoyed a lot of success because of my perfectionism. I've gotten good grades, earned scholarships, won awards, gotten raises at work. Where there is a box to check off or a gold star to earn, I can be found eagerly scurrying to achieve.

I've been much less successful with intangible achievements — namely, with relationships. They really, really frustrate me. Every time a relationship ends, I get that awful feeling, the one that perfectionists fear most: the sucker punch of failure.

Today I realized that my gut-wrenching fear of failure is what causes me to stick with relationships that I know, deep down, have gone long past their expiration dates. I've had several relationships, short and long, during which I remember having strong reservations throughout, yet I stayed in them. I've tried to change my expectations, tried to change myself and tried to change the other person all in the name of making it work, only to be frustrated and miserable the entire time.

Why do I do this to myself? Because I don't want to admit that the relationship is a failure — that I'm a failure.

If you'll indulge the extended metaphor, I've been trying to fit a square peg into a round hole purely for the sake of achievement. Logically, I know the incongruous peg will never fit, but I've falsely believed that I can make anything work if only I try hard enough.

If things don't work out in a relationship, my go-to thought process is: What's wrong with me? What's wrong with him? How can one or the other or both of us change to make things right?

But it's time for me to realize that there is nothing wrong with the hole. By its nature, it is round. And likewise, the peg's square shape is no fault of its own.

The fact that the square peg and the round hole will never fit together can't be changed unless one of them radically alters itself, thereby sacrificing its original shape. It might work for a year or twenty, but the mutilated peg will eventually suffer an identity crisis, cite irreconcilable differences and engage in a bitter custody battle with the hole.

Maybe I'm reaching here, but you know what I mean.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm usually the square peg. I tend to be less adventurous, more cautious and have higher expectations for the relationship than the other person. Many have tried to get me to relax, stop worrying so much, soften my edges. But I'll never be round. At best, I'll someday be squoval.

I've made the mistake of trying to change others, too, on top of plenty of other mistakes too numerous to list here. My goal now will be to recognize that things just won't work with certain people, and no amount of hoping or trying will make it right.

Furthermore, I've got a bit of work to do on myself. Even if I were to find an awesome square hole right now, I'm certain we wouldn't fit. Past hurts have left me with rough edges, a few pieces chipped away here and there, some scars that are still fresh enough to be raised from the surface. My shape is imperfect.

But I have hope that I will mend. Time will smooth my scars. Compassion will fill in my missing pieces. Trust will rebuild my chipped edges. And being OK with myself, giving myself permission to fail, will help me relax those sharp corners.

Someday, maybe, I'll find my perfect fit.

P.S. This may or may not replace my previous theory about Legos.
P.P.S. I played with a lot of children's toys when I was a nanny. Can you tell?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The reasons

I've written quite a bit about my quest to get out of debt and build up my savings before I move out on my own, but I haven't written very much about why it's so important to me.

I don't want to save a bunch of money so I can be rich and buy whatever I want. I don't want to live in a mansion, drive a Maserati and have a lot of expensive toys someday. Taking control of my money is not about putting myself in a position to buy more "stuff." It's about putting myself in a position where I can be free.

The classic, bestselling book Your Money or Your Life (which I'm currently reading) puts it best:
"To have savings is to be free. Savings means freedom from debt. Money in the bank means the freedom to leave your job if the boss is intolerable or the benefits have just been yanked. And if you lose your job, having savings is the freedom to keep your house and car because you can cover your payments — if you have any to make in the first place."
Having savings also gives you the freedom to do work you love for less pay. It gives you the freedom to live your life without constantly worrying about making ends meet. It gives you the freedom to retire at age 65, or earlier, knowing that you'll be able to cover basic expenses for the remainder of your life. And yes, it gives you the freedom to buy toys, to travel, to give fantastic gifts, to donate, to do whatever you want. Freedom.

My family didn't have this type of freedom while I was growing up. My dad lost his job when I was in the third grade, and from then on, I can't remember feeling very financially secure.

We always had a roof over our heads, food on the table and clothes on our backs, but I was always very aware that my family had much less than other kids' families. I was very aware that my parents sacrificed big-time so that my brother and I could stay in the same school district with all of our friends. In a few years, and in the same city, we moved from a house to a rental house to a too-small apartment with too-few bedrooms. My parents got divorced.

I'm not saying life would have been perfectly rosy if we had just had more money; it's fruitless to look back on life and say, "If only...". But I do know that I can change my life in ways that will ensure that my future family will never have to go through the same types of moves, and that my future kids won't have to have the same types of worries and fears about money that I had growing up.

Of course, every generation hopes to do better than their parents. Rebekah Monson wrote a fantastic article about how twentysomethings are dealing with the crappy hand we've been dealt by the floundering economy, and about how our observations of previous generations have informed our values and goals:
"We are working and waiting for a chance to change the establishment to reflect our values. No, we don’t want what you have, just as you didn’t want what your parents had. We don’t want to spend our lives as perpetually burned-out slaves to a company that does not value us. We don’t want to be in bad marriages and isolate ourselves in McMansions. Neither did you when you were our age. Of course those things will happen to some of us, or perhaps most of us. But, right now, we’d rather hope they won’t."
I can't guarantee that I'll have a happy marriage or satisfying work life in the future, but I can arm myself with the knowledge and tools I'll need to help me do my very best to achieve those goals. About half of all marriages fail, and Dave Ramsey says that money problems are the biggest causes of divorce. I'm doing what I can now to, as Kanye says, "get my money right" so I can have a better shot at success.

As a currently single gal, I also agree 100% with Jenny Blake's "money manifesto" on Life After College about funding her own independence. She writes (emphasis hers):
"I made a promise to myself a long time ago — before I ever started collecting paychecks — to never stay in a job or a relationship because I can't afford to leave.

"When I was in college my mom told me that even if I get married someday, I should always know how to support myself. I should always know where my money is going, how to bring home a steady paycheck, and how to pay the bills if anything ever happened (like death or divorce)."
Right on, sister. My mom told me the very same thing. To feel trapped, whether it's in a terrible job, living situation or relationship, is one of my biggest fears.

So the reasons for my newfound obsession with personal finance are numerous, but they can all be summarized by these two: my desire to be free in every aspect of life, and my hope that I can do a little bit better as a worker, a daughter, a friend, a someday-wife and a someday-mother than I would have been able to before I got my money right.

Or maybe a lot bit better. Dream big.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

G.O.O.D. Tip #3: Get thee to an ATM — start paying with cash

I can't tell you how many people have completely freaked out on me when I say that I always carry and pay with cash.

Remember cash? Those green, paper bills you see sometimes? You're still allowed to exchange them for goods and services!

"But aren't you afraid of being robbed?" people ask. Yes, I am afraid of being robbed, whether I carry cash or not. That's why I have pepper spray in my bag and a baseball bat in my car.

Just give me a reason.

And let's face it: I'm not Diddy. We're talking about Hamiltons here, not Benjamins.

The fact is, I've never been robbed (and I'm probably jinxing myself, but, again — baseball bat), but I have gotten into trouble by using my debit card and credit card. It's so easy to overspend when all you have to do is slide that little piece of plastic. It's so difficult to mentally stick to a budget while you're out grocery shopping or bar-hopping.

I use cash to make things easy on myself. Prior to each paycheck (twice a month), I sit down to create my next budget. I list all the regular payments I'll need to make during that period; determine how much money I'll immediately transfer from my paycheck to my savings account; and designate a small amount of money to take out in cash to spend for two purposes: groceries/toiletries and going out/having fun.

Usually I divide the amount equally between these two purposes, but if there are birthdays or other events approaching, I'll lump more money into the fun category.

Once I have this predetermined amount nailed down, I hit the bank after I get paid and withdraw the cash. I divide it up into its two purposes, make note of the starting amounts on a couple of post-its, and keep track of my spending on those post-its throughout those few weeks. When I run out of cash, I run out of cash. That's it.

This method has helped curb my spending for a few different reasons:

  • It's much more difficult to part with tangible money. I tend to think twice about handing over a bunch of cash when I can physically see how much I'm spending. With a debit or credit card, the swipe is equally painless whether you're spending $7 or $70.
  • Having a predetermined "allowance" in cash encourages more frugal decisions. If I have $50 designated for fun stuff that needs to last me two weeks, do I want to blow it all on one dinner? Or would I rather have one beer on Friday night, go out to lunch on Tuesday, buy an inexpensive shirt on Thursday and see a movie on Saturday? With a debit card, I might have spent the $50 on dinner without thinking, then spent more money later on a beer, lunch, a shirt, etc. Cue me at the end of the month asking: "How did I overspend? Where did all my money go?"
  • It's easier to accept or reject social invitations when you know that you have X amount of money to spend (before you get into a situation where you're forced to spend money anyway). If my friend asks me to go get mani/pedis with her and I have $10 left in fun money, I may politely decline the invitation and suggest a less-expensive alternative. Or, I may pull $40 that I have left for groceries/toiletries and cobble together enough cash to accept. Either way, I'm able to think ahead of time about the money required for this particular activity, and whether I'm willing or able to spend it. (If your friends make fun of you for this, work on getting some better friends.)
Above all, using cash puts me back in touch with reality and makes me feel more in control of my spending. I'm a bit of a control freak — hello, I'm a proofreader — so I love the fact that I can look back at any one of my budgets from this year and find those little post-it notes stapled to the page, along with receipts, detailing exactly how I spent my cash.

Dave Ramsey likes to say that rich people tell their money where to go; poor people wonder where it went. Try using cash to help you stick to your budget, and you just might like how it works out.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A sense of possibilities

Today is my one-year anniversary.

On September 1, 2009, I started my first "grown-up" job as a proofreader at a downtown ad agency. I remember exactly what I wore: J. Crew trouser-leg jeans, a J. Crew tank and a J. Crew cardigan. I shuffled in wearing J. Crew ballet flats, bursting with three years' worth of sweater-folding knowledge from my college retail job, but boasting zero years' worth of proofreading experience.

The job required 2+ years. God only knows why they hired me.

But here I am, one year later, having more than succeeded in my first year of full-time employment. Only 42 more years to go.

I also moved back home exactly one year ago. I remember frantically cleaning my college apartment the night of August 31, desperately wishing the landlord would do his final walk-through so I could go home and get some sleep before my first day of work. His already-grubby finger found dust on my roommate's windowsill. She had cleared out of town hours earlier. I cried.

I've thought a lot this past year about what it means to be a grown-up. Part of me hopes that grown-ups are a myth, like Santa Claus, invented by alleged "grown-ups" to manipulate children into behaving or just plain shutting up. "Only grown-ups are allowed to do this," we tell them, or, "You'll find out when you're a grown-up." When exactly is this, I ask?

I considered that graduating from college means you're a grown-up, but then I realized I knew way too many people with degrees that still had a lot of growing up to do. My first day of work felt very grown-up to me, as did choosing my own health insurance for the first time and realizing that I now had paid time off.

But I've decided that reaching these arbitrary milestones does not necessarily make one a grown-up. I believe now that being a grown-up has much more to do with one's attitude, priorities and methods of decision-making.

A recent article in The New York Times Magazine called What Is It About 20-Somethings? explored the phenomenon of my age group taking much longer to "grow up" than previous generations. It details the idea of a phase of life that follows adolescence called "emerging adulthood," championed by psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, that I strongly identify with:

Arnett says that young men and women are more self-focused than at any other time of life, less certain about the future and yet also more optimistic, no matter what their economic background. This is where the “sense of possibilities” comes in, he says; they have not yet tempered their ideal­istic visions of what awaits.
But despite elements that are exciting, even exhilarating, about being this age, there is a downside, too: dread, frustration, uncertainty, a sense of not quite understanding the rules of the game. More than positive or negative feelings, what Arnett heard most often was ambivalence — beginning with his finding that 60 percent of his subjects told him they felt like both grown-ups and not-quite-grown-ups.
I do have a sense of possibilities, and I'm saddened to know that one day this sense may disappear. I'd like to retain that, if I can, from this odd and mixed-up time in my life.

And I've definitely grown to feel more like an adult since I've lived at home this past year. I thought it would make me feel more like a kid again, living under the watchful eye of my mom and all, but I've found that I've learned much from her about being a responsible adult. She's shown me how to clean up some messes in my life, like my debt, of course, and helped me deal with new conflicts, like those that have emerged at work. Rather than acting as a capital-M Mom, telling me what to do, she's been a role model and a peer, helping me learn how to navigate the adult world.

As a college student, I often stayed up all night, whether I was studying, writing or partying. I ate horribly. I got sick often, and relied on coffee and Red Bull and adrenaline to get me through classes, my retail job and my internships (at one point, I was doing two simultaneously, on top of everything else). But I also excelled in most of my classes. I had a fantastic four years packed with tons of fun. I look back on it all very fondly.

But after graduation, I came down from that frenzied lifestyle with a thud. I was exhausted. I clutched my degree, happy to have walked to victory in my cap and gown, but unsure of what to do next. I needed to take a breather. I needed to move home, calm down, get some rest and gear up for the next stage of life.

My priorities have shifted this past year. I make sleep a priority. I make eating well a priority. I've made taking control of my finances a priority. I've been trying to identify the things that make me really happy — like spending time with close friends, writing, taking photos, reading for fun and learning new things — and make those priorities. I'm also learning how to cut things out of my life that make me unhappy.

Financially, I've learned how to delay pleasure in order to reap greater rewards in the future. I've put a bunch of money that I could certainly use today into a retirement fund, and I get pleasure from knowing that it will be way more useful down the line. Only 42 more years to go.

Whether or not I'm officially a grown-up doesn't matter that much to me. What matters is that I'm owning my life, making decisions that are far more mature and responsible than many I would have made four years ago (but still some stupid ones, too), and, yes, enjoying this sense of possibilities. I believe I can do anything. Perhaps that is the highlight of this in-between phase, and if I must lose this sense in order to fully become an adult, then I don't ever wanna grow up.
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