Frugal Challenge: Give Up Alcohol

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I gave up alcohol in June of 2017 and it has been one year since I have participated in what many people refer to as social drinking. There were many reasons why I gave it up, but the reason that I was least willing to reveal  was because I thought that social drinking was a drain at the bottom of my wallet. I wasn’t a crazy party goer or alcohol dependent by any means. I was an occasional drinker, perhaps drinking once every week or two. If it was an especially crazy or celebratory week, I would drink two times in the same week, 1-2 drinks at a time. But still, there was something about the habit that made me really unhappy. I challenged myself to stop drinking alcohol, mostly to see if I could do it, and I told everyone about it so that I would be held accountable. When people asked why I gave up drinking, I gave them the partial truth, which was that after every time I drank, I developed a minor skin rash. While health reasons were definitely a motivator, my biggest motivator was the realization that a beer at a bar costs anywhere from $5-8, and that every time I wanted to splurge on a cocktail, it would cost on average $15 for me to drink what was essentially spiked juice. Mimosa brunches were $30, for OJ and a splash of champagne! And don’t even get me started on paying for a 2 oz. shot.

I also realized that every party we threw involved alcohol for the guests, which increased our grocery bills like crazy. Plus, I really didn’t like the feeling of socializing while drinking. Usually, I felt a disconnect in conversations, a discomfort from the possibility that the conversation is simply the alcohol doing the talking and us humans acting as its platform. I didn’t like that drinking was considered a social event, and I had this feeling that relationships built on “going out to drink” and “happy hour date nights” were very superficial. What I found after I accepted the challenge was that I was not too far from the truth. What started out as a frugal challenge ended up being a decision that has stuck with me, for reasons other than monetary.

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Some of you are probably upset at hearing my suggestion of giving up alcohol. You probably are not liking these frugal challenges that I create. They are challenges because they are difficult. Most of them will be ideas shunned by society. But this DOES save you money. Assuming two drinks once a week, an average order of $20, multiplied by fifty-two weeks, the cutting of the habit saves me over $1000 a year. This is with the assumption that I am ordering one cocktail at the most for my 1-2 drinks per occasion, and beers half the time. Also, the calculation does not yet count the bottles of wine I would buy from the grocery store for my “wine nights” or the alcohol we would have purchased for the parties that we threw for our friends and family. I wouldn’t be surprised if it would be closer to $2000 a year. But let’s be conservative and call it $1000 per year, which I can then use for other things that I value more.

The health benefits of giving up alcohol included the avoidance of a minor skin rash as well as that groggy after-party feeling. Entering my early twenties resulted in longer recovery times, and I disliked the feeling of non-productivity that usually followed these “social events”.

The most surprising consequence of quitting alcohol, however, was the revealing qualities of my relationships. It helped me determine which relationships I wanted to keep, and which I did not. Going out to the bars and getting happy hour are activities so ingrained in the millennial culture, that it has essentially replaced ACTUAL hanging out. When I gave up alcohol, I found which friends I was not able to hold relationships with when alcohol was removed from the equation. I found out which friends were interested in still hanging out with us sober, which had similar values, and which ones can carry a decent conversation. I became more conscious of those who lived their lives based solely on comparisons, those who spoke badly of others when they weren’t present, and those who were vastly invested in appearances. I also became aware of the way I had been acting, trying to fit in and to get along with groups of people that I did not really value. I became more selective, because hanging out with unkind people is ten times more unbearable when you are a hundred percent sober. I started turning down invitations to hang out with people at events that are centered around drinking. Interestingly, that got rid of 80% of the events I had been going to. By saying no to these events, I had more time to build stronger relationships with those who were willing to come over for board game nights, or to kick a soccer ball at the park. I became much closer to my family as well. I started seeing family members once a week, which I hadn’t done since I moved out for dental school. Slowly, I was able to create a social circle that was more close knit and in-line with my values. There were no more situations where I felt pressured to go out, even though I did not want to. I started to understand who I was, by deciding who I wanted to be around. Interestingly, the people I used to drink with, I hardly see anymore.

For me, giving up alcohol was VERY easy when I put it from a frugalist’s standpoint. I was vested in funneling as much money as I can into my loans. All I had to do when I was tempted to order “just one” cocktail, was to think about the number of years I have to continue making these payments. That made the decision-making a no brainer. After a few months, it became a habit, and the feeling of wanting to “socialize” by drinking went away.

This isn’t to say I haven’t made any exceptions. I have made a limited few, mostly when it is a special occasion or once-in-a-lifetime type of opportunity. For example, I had one beer when we went to Oktoberfest in Germany. As in, THE Oktoberfest. I also had one cocktail when we dined at our first Top 50 Restaurant in the world in Mexico City. Lastly, when we were in Oregon, I made an exception for the Multnomah Whiskey Library. That last one was a “just because”. These are the exceptions I have made since I quit. I am not completely anti-alcohol or anything puritan like that. I just simply recognize that choosing to drink is keeping me from financial freedom that much longer. Now that one year is up, I wouldn’t want to go back to being a social drinker. Especially after creating the social circle that I have now. My life is so much more valuable surrounded by true relationships, that I am not hankering to go back and add a boozy filter to that part of my life once again.

My advice?

+ You don’t have to go ham all at once like I did. Give yourself a trial run – say one month at a time.

+ If  you slip up, no big deal. Forgive, forget, move on and try again.

+ Have a “why”! A motivator is what will get you there. I just have to think about the years I have to keep paying down debt, and that’s all it takes for me to not feel like drinking anymore.

 

Frugal Challenge: Avoid Shopping for Clothes for an Entire Year & Reap the Benefits

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I love promoting clothing brands that embrace slow fashion, which is to say that they make an effort to create products via ethical ways and/or with sustainable resources. Despite that fact, my closet is actually pretty sparse, according to some people’s standards. That wasn’t always the case. My closet used to be a monstrous mess. So much so, in fact, that there were clothes that I wouldn’t see for months, tucked away under piles of even more clothes, most of which I hardly wore. It took over a year of constant de-cluttering and re-assessing and letting go and organizing before I was able to get to a point of peaceful reconciliation with my never-ending closet. And still, I feel I have too much.

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In the early stages of creating a curated closet, what I found most difficult was that for every hour it took me to de-clutter would be a two minute moment where I would feel the urge to buy something new and add it to the collection. At some point, I realized that this habit of shopping “just because I felt like it” was not only counter-productive, but also extremely wasteful and unnecessary. So along with my purging of excess clothing came this challenge for myself to nix the act of shopping all-together.

In all honesty, it began as a frugal challenged fired by the awareness of how much clothing is being deposited at our landfills. I figured that the benefits of abstaining from the addictive act of buying more clothing are multi-fold. Firstly, I save money. I used to work at a retail store in my late teens and early twenties and I distinctly remember walking out with a handful of clothes every week. I’d consider it good if I was able to limit myself to one item per week, a thought that makes me woozy now. Secondly, I am no longer fueling the industry of fast fashion. And lastly, I am ending the ridiculous cycle of buying and de-cluttering. Eventually, I pared down my closet in such a way that de-cluttering does not have to take up my free time every weekend.

This year alone, I have only made two purchases: A pair of sneakers and overalls, both from Eileen Fisher, both made on the same day. Prior to those purchases, I have not allowed myself an article of clothing for 8 months. Just recently (during Fashion Revolution Week 2018, in fact!), I have made the decision to not shop again for an entire year, in an attempt to model the curbing of the excessive demand for more clothing to be produced. Also, it will continue to help us in our efforts to do just as well this year with student debt as last year. The funny thing is, the more I challenge myself to not buy clothes, the easier it becomes to not buy other things too. The habit has spread to other aspects, and it really teaches one to make do without, and to be completely satisfied and proud of that decision. Plus, the results are undeniable. Next month is my birthday and two weeks after will be Mike’s birthday. Sometime in between, we will exit the $500,000s and enter the $400,000s with the student debt! I definitely wouldn’t trade this feeling for a trendy wardrobe.

 

Frugal Challenge: Become Vegetarian One Week, Every Month!

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I’ve attempted a lot of frugal life hacks in the past year, all with the goal of paying down my student debt of over $550,000 in less than ten years. These include co-housing to reduce rent, travel hacking to jet set around the world for free, and more. It seems I am very much up for these challenges, so I figure, why not start a series detailing some of the frugal hacks we come up with!

This month, we decided to start a new challenge. Become vegetarian for one week, every month. Seems arbitrary, but you can’t really deny that meat and fish are very expensive to buy. Even more so, when you have a determination to never come home from the grocery store with anything packaged in plastic. Because of that, we cannot buy meats and delis from large discount stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club. We also cannot buy them from cheaper sources such as Albertson’s and Ralphs. Pretty much, we have only been buying meats and fish and deli and cheese from Whole Foods, which sells them wrapped in paper. With the change of going zero plastic last year, we have watched with heavy hearts as our grocery bill went up and up and up. The fact that I gave up beef and alcohol more than a year ago hasn’t helped. So we decided that it’s time we wrangle in the grocery expenses, without going back to plastic.

We were talking to our friends about the meat dilemma when we were visiting San Francisco. It’s amazing what everyone else is thinking but not saying. Once the topic was brought up, it seems that we’ve all struggled with the concept of pricey meats at one point or another. One of our friends said that he knew someone who split an entire cow among him and his guy friends to reduce the cost. It requires contacting the farm and ordering the cow at a discounted rate, but, split an entire cow?! That’s SO much meat going into the freezer. It’s a great idea, but I am not sure it’s one I am ready for, especially since I gave up beef and Mikey will have to finish all of that. Also, the minimalist in me shudders at the thought of so much excess in the house. So Mike and I kept on thinking…

Our solution? Vegetarian for one week per month, to test two things. Firstly, if we can get better about eating more greens, and secondly, if it helps the financial aspect. This was week one. The verdict: Our grocery bill was LESS THAN $25! For two people who bring lunches into work every day and dine at home every dinner, that is spectacular!

How did we do it?

We meal planned our way to a lower amount. Mostly, all we bought this week was produce. I cut down the costs as well by baking my own bread, as well as preparing pizza dough from scratch and freezing them, so that they were readily available for the weeknights. Before we even stepped foot into the market, we took inventory of things we had at hand. For example, olive oil allowed for homemade pesto sauce that required just a handful of pine nuts and basil. Since pizza requires just a smear of the stuff, we now have pesto for weeks of pizza, readily available! Additional toppings for a pesto pizza included two mushrooms, one red onion, pepperoncini, and a can of olives. Since we were already getting basil, why not add margherita pizza to the list? This would only require us to buy two more ingredients: tomato sauce ($0.89 per can) and a single tomato ($0.99 per pound). The tomato sauce will also last for weeks upon weeks, or could be used for pasta at a future date. The total cost for 8 pizzas (with extra sauces for the future) was less than $6. Granted, home-made sourdough took half of Saturday to do, but I enjoy the task and it was so worth it.

Our meals this week consist of:

– Egg sandwiches using homemade bread with homemade tomato soup or pasta salad for lunch, a couple days of the week.

– Vegetable pizzas – I prepped enough dough for 8 personal pizzas. To be honest, neither of us can finish one personal pizza per meal. At most, maybe 3/4 of a pizza is eaten, therefore leaving 3/4 of a pizza (each) for lunch the next day given that I cook 3 personal pizzas in the evening. Which is what we do!

– Fried Rice – The most basic of fried rice was taught to me by my dad. It used to be a staple at our house when we were growing up, because it feeds many mouths and costs very little. I carry that tradition, today.

– Vegetable Stir Fry – It was the simplest and easiest thing I could think of, after the fried rice. Plus, more veggies!

– Vegetable laden omelettes. Breakfast for dinner, anyone?

We did cheat a little… but only because there was left-over ramen from last week, which also meant left-over pork belly slices. Mike was happy we were able to eat meat for a day. But no meats were purchased this week, thus resulting in a total of $25 in groceries. So that’s fine by us. Final ruling: roll-over meat from previous weeks does not count. Additionally, no intentional cheating allowed (a.k.a. purposefully buying extra meat the week prior!). We make the rules up as we go.

Let’s see what we come up with next month!

How about you guys? Willing to try going vegetarian for one week? How do you go about cutting the grocery bill, without purchasing plastic?

Frugality: Travel Hacking, An Introduction

From the get-go, when Mike and I were asked to lay down our priorities in terms of lifestyle and life goals, traveling was near the top of our list. It goes without saying that traveling comes with a price that can interfere with our equally important goal of gaining financial independence. It’s hard to commit to a trip across the world when I know I will come back to an ever-growing student loan. So I am so excited to share with you guys a way that allows us to travel the world, without breaking the bank.

We do something called travel hacking.

I first discovered Travel Hacking on Choose FI’s Podcast, Episode 9: Travel Rewards; How to Travel the World for Free (here). In less than an hour, they had me hooked! I remember coming home and re-listening to the entire episode with Mike. We forwarded the podcast episode to our core group of ten friends, in the hopes that they also would like to join us in this adventure, so that we may travel the world together. We continued to study Travel Hacking by taking the free Travel Miles 101 course. We reached out to our financial adviser to ask if it was too good to be true, and were happy to learn that he, too, dabbles in this life hack, and that it would be a very beneficial thing for us to do. I highly recommend anyone interested in traveling the world for (nearly) free to first listen to the podcast episode (in order to get a taste of what this entails), and then to take the free Travel Miles 101 course. I think it would be best to leave all the nuances to the pros and to simply refer you to these two sources, giving all credit where credit is due.

What is travel hacking?

Travel Hacking entails using the benefits of Credit Card Reward Programs in order to gain points that can be used to buy flights, hotel stays, and even car rentals. The idea is to open credit cards and hit the minimum spend criteria in order to attain the massive 40k, 50k, 80k points. These points are incentives for the new cardholder to hit a certain spending within a certain amount of time (usually 3 months) since opening the card. So that is exactly what we do. There are multiple strategies in order to do this, which the sources detail really well, and which I won’t touch on in this post. If you’d like to learn some of these strategies, I refer you to the Travel Miles 101 course.

Keep in mind that while this is extremely useful and beneficial for traveling, it can be destructive if attempted by people who have not achieved disciplined, financial responsibility. The credit card companies win if you open credit cards, purchase products with them, and do not pay off the total amount in full. This leads to high interest rate charges that will lead to more financial harm than good. It also isn’t good if it results in you spending more than you would normally. The card holder needs to be well-restrained. Mike and I treat the credit cards as if they were debit cards. We don’t increase our spending for the sake of gaining more points. In due time, the points will come.

Alternatively, the credit card companies will also win if you fail to hit the minimum spending. You would have opened a credit card for no reason! This requires a very organized person who will keep track of minimum spends, and dates the credit cards were opened, and dates when minimum spending should be reached. So how do you responsibly meet minimum spend when your day-to-day activities do not meet it? There are many ways to ensure you hit your target spending before the time is up. You can use the remaining amount needed to buy grocery or gas gift cards, which could be used in the future. This is a way to guarantee getting the massive point-payout without reckless spending. Another way to meet minimum spend is to prepay bills, such as electrical bills for upcoming months. Having the bills off your mind is a big plus.

Why is this so great?

Imagine this scenario. You open a credit card that requires a $3000 minimum spend in three months. When you spend $3000, you will get a points equivalent to $1000 in flights, which is a 33% rate of return. You can’t get that anywhere! If you were to get that in a taxable investment account, you’d have to pay taxes on your gains. This is 100% tax-free. And may I say that 33% rate of return is not the best rate out there. This should be even more appealing for people who are in higher tax brackets. For people who make six figures, you are sitting in a 25% tax bracket, and if you add to that health insurance, FICA, etc., you may even be approaching closer to 40% marginal tax. For you to take a $5k vacation in a year, you will need to earn $7, 8, 9k to pay for that vacation. With travel hacking, you can do that for free. You can then keep that $7k available to other aspects of your life (aka student loans).

What’s the catch?

Our biggest concern, obviously, was credit rating. Even though we have absolutely no interest in signing up for even more loans right now, mortgages and car loans included, we still don’t want to completely obliterate our really good credit scores. Turns out, there is a very minimal impact on your credit score. Credit scores will go up and down, naturally, within 10 to 30 points within a normal month anyway. That’s just how credit scores work, and it is not a precisely fixed number. Now, if the people attempting travel hacking are financially responsible people, so their credit score would likely be around the 800 range. The maximum that it has dropped for some travel hackers is 25 points, which is irrelevant, because a score of 750 is sufficient to guarantee you most loans. And the funny thing is, these scores jump right back up, because you are constantly paying (in full) multiple credit cards. By spending responsibly, travel hackers can increase their credit score to more than what they started with in the course of a few years. Yes, initially, the hard pull when you apply for the credit card leads to a 2-5 point drop, but it is temporary and it is completely gone within 18 months. Now if you are, for some reason, extremely worried about your credit score or you have a low credit score, or you have plans to take out a mortgage or a loan in the next year, then this strategy is not for you. Do not do travel hacking if for any reason, whether psychologically or financially, you need your credit score to be a certain number.

For Mike and I, we started this journey with decently high credit scores. We decided that, even if our scores dropped as much as 30-50 points, would we be okay. The answer to travel hacking for us was a whole-hearted yes. If the trade-off is $6-7k worth of travel (for free), that would save us $10k (pre-tax) a year, which we can then attribute to other assets or to paying down debt. Since we have no plans to buy a house in the next year, we are not very worried with the short term negative effect it could have on our scores. And our credit scores would still be considered good, if not great! We are more excited about the long-term benefits.

So where has that led us?

We discovered Travel Hacking in October 2017, which is very, very late compared to a whole community of travel hackers who have been doing this for multiple years! It has been almost 5 months.

For 2018, we are able to book the following flights, for free.

Mexico City, Mexico

San Francisco, CA

Portland, Oregon

Calgary, Canada

Sydney, Australia

Melbourne, Australia (from Sydney)

Christchurch, New Zealand (from Melbourne)

Christchurch, to LAX

Pending trips: Costa Rica

The best part?

Slowly, our friends opened up to the idea of travel hacking too! Our trip to SF reunites our group of ten college friends, and the pending Costa Rica trip is being planned among a group of us, as well. It has increased our ability to grow with people we care about, and to spend time with them, and to just see the world.

Travel Hacking is fantastic, but not for everyone. So learn about it, to see if it’s right for you!

Ways to Celebrate Valentine’s Day

Before we get the nay-sayers out there screaming that this is a fake holiday, let me just say that yes, maybe it is.  It doesn’t mean I like celebrating it any less, all the same. Despite the commercialization of this (and every other) holiday, I believe there are ways for us to celebrate, mindfully. And while this may seem like my excuse to be a romantic, if only for a day, I’d like to plead my case and convince you otherwise, that this is in the interest of getting away from the commercialization and coming a step closer to the actual deal, which is to celebrate love. In other words, hopeless romantic on the loose.

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While the advertising companies are spending billions of dollars trying to convince the world of the different ways one needs to show love, I’m over here singing a song of a different tune. I view Valentine’s Day as another opportunity to celebrate without getting carried away with the spending and the accumulating. And while some may bitterly feel a bit left out this holiday, why don’t we just gravitate a little further away from the traditional Couple’s-Only Club, since we’re already uprooting conventional observances of Cupid’s holiday anyway? Here are my ways to spend Valentine’s Day, frugally, and with less waste.

Frugally  – To Do List for the 5 Love Languages

Quality Time – Avoid the crowds and stay in. We all know the cliche of spending “quality time” with your loved ones by going out for a lovely candlelit dinner at a fancy restaurant, or getting some concert tickets to your favorite band, or watching a movie at the theatres, thanks to movies toting these very things. But might I say that all of these require spending? It may be the inner introvert in me, finding every excuse to avoid large congregations of people, but it’s also the super frugal Fran inside of me, dreading dropping hard-earned pay for something so trivial. So instead of dashing out the front door to spending time driving and waiting in long lines, why not just spend real quality time with each other, by substituting with a home-made dinner for two (left-overs abound!), the playing of your favorite records, or Netflix and chill. Likewise, if you must go out, get outdoors and play.

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Acts of Service – Skip the buying of gifts, substitute acts of service. So I know this isn’t for everyone. There are five love languages, gifting being one of them. Some people just really appreciate gifts. This one just happens to be easy for Mike and I, because we both fall under acts of service. Because of that, we have an easier time letting go of the gifts. Last Christmas, in an effort to disconnect from gifting and everything it brings, I substituted some the present of actions rather than things. I went to the local library and borrowed books on coffee so we may learn about it together. I YouTubed a way to pickle red onions, Mike’s favorite condiment for tacos. I stitched new Velcro onto Mike’s 3 years old motorcycle gloves, so that the latches stick again. A $5 cost instead of a $200 cost. My hands were sore from sewing through stiff leather with an easily bendable needle, but he was pretty stoked. For this Valentine’s Day, I asked for a particular gift from Mike. That is, to remove the rust from the bottom of our cast iron pans, simply because I’ve been too lazy to do it myself. If this style of loving just isn’t for you, then read on ahead for the gift list, below.

Words of Affirmation – Memorize a poem, nix the card. I like words, there’s no doubt about that. My clinical notes in the office are jokingly referred to as essays, and birthday cards just never have enough space. But I have a confliction with buying cards in general. It is undoubtedly much more aesthetic to add a store-bought card to any occasion, and I do have an achilles heel for all things presentable. However, the cost of the fancier stuff run north of $5, sometimes even going so far as to cost more than $10! Additionally, layers of paper that pop up from these gorgeous cards are drool-worthy, but also a bit gut wrenching. Drama aside, I’ve tried to avoid buying cards lately, and have substituted either a small handwritten note, or just a verbal  expression of emotions. For the Whitmans out there, why not memorize a poem? For those who just can’t do without a card, try the card alternative below.

Physical touch – Let your imagination run wild. Not much needs to be said with this one. Probably the most frugal of the five, good old fashioned loving is all it takes. Skip the expensive spa dates and learn massage techniques together. Find ways to get in touch throughout the day, by phone, via text, in a game of tag. Its quite obvious which love language I speak the least. Ending all awkwardness here and now. You just be creative.

Receiving Gifts – Welp! This one can’t be helped. If acts of service did not make the cut, then may I suggest a few thoughtful gift ideas, that won’t break the proverbial piggy bank, and would be loving to the planet at the same time?

Less Waste – The Gift List

This is what my Valentine’s Day wishlist would look like if ever I had one. Unfortunately, I used my wish on the de-rusting of an aforementioned Lodge pan. That was enough for me, but if you are in need of other gift ideas, have at it.

A haircut. I actually asked for this for Christmas last year. I hardly get haircuts. As in, once every 2 years, or once every year and a half. I would love to get them more frequently, but honestly, it gets to be too much for me. Hair is one of those things I used to obsess about as a tween, but it’s all been-there, done-that. I chop it off shoulder length, then just let it grow to the small of my back. On repeat, since college. I also attend one of those generic Fantastic Sam’s places where I pay $20 to chop off most of my hair. Although I did find a location in San Diego once that had happy hour, where the haircut only cost $8 between 5 and 6pm. Score!

A tree instead of flowers. In the U.S.A., about $2 billion worth of cut flowers are bought each Valentine’s Day. While flowers are a compostable gift, and not entirely bad for the environment, what if we try gifting plants itself. A plant can stay alive for a really long time, care-taker depending. These can range drastically, from a $5 succulent from Home Depot, to a $200 tree. Pick what works for your price range. For me, I’ve got my beautiful fiddle leaf, pretty as can be.

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A plantable cardSooooo, after my long spiel about my issue with cards, I did come across these plantable versions. You read right. These cards are made from seed paper, which is 100% compostable. Alternatively, when planted in the ground, these cards claim to grow wildflowers (!!). Which conveniently goes in line with my thinking above.

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Self-Care Products. As I grow older, I embrace this concept of self-care a lot more. There are plenty of self-care products out there that are paving the way by being environmentally friendly, cruelty free, and all natural. Ranging from luscious bars of soap, to shampoo, to beard balm, you name it. These are products that we would use on the daily anyway, so why not gift them something they need?

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A collection of Recipes. Better yet, your recipe collection, attached to a tin can of home-made cookies (or bread, what have you).

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Valentine Celebrations with Everyone

Galentines Day –  popularized by single ladies all over the world, this is now being celebrated by besties everywhere, regardless of the relationship status. Ways to celebrate? Do activities together, such as a yoga class in someone’s living room, or a cooking session in one’s kitchen. Just make sure not to fight over who gets clean up duties.

Dudes’ Hangout – pretty standard kick back, commonplace among Mike and his friends. Pizza and video games? Or have everyone bring a six pack of different brews, and do a beer tasting at home. Coffee cupping sesh also an alternative.

Hosting for Friends and Family – I love to host. Gathering twelve people around our table just makes my heart sing. Why not invite the entire family or crew over and use this holiday as an excuse to eat, drink. and be merry? Cheers!

A Little Bit of Self Love

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  • Early morning meditation.
  • A cup of coffee, made the slow way.
  • Find the time to relax in the middle of the work day.
  • Skip work all together, and spend time at home with family.
  • A decluttering session, mid-February.
  • A candle lit bubble bath for one, music optional.
  • Cuddling up with a book and a blanket.
  • Go to bed at an early hour.

Honestly, the self-love category is my favorite list.

Happy heart week!

 

Finance: Tackle Undergrad Loans During A Gap Year (ASAP)

There are a few financial decisions that I made in my early twenties that I am very proud of, and a few that I am not so proud of. For decisions that fall in the latter category, I sincerely wish that someone could just create a time machine so that I could send myself back to my younger self and shake some common sense into her. Or at least allow me to go back in time and have a one-on-one discussion (likely at a cafe somewhere) regarding my retrospectively realized financial mistakes, with the hopes of guiding her towards the right direction. But alas, there is no time machine.

However, knowledge lost to me should not be lost to others. I am fortunate enough to have a little brother, six years younger, who recently shocked everyone we knew by deciding to switch from pursuing a path to physical therapy to becoming a dentist such as myself. At first, I told him not to do it, mostly out of fear that he was entering the profession for the wrong reasons. It’s not exactly the profession for everyone. You have to love being inside people’s mouths, and I sincerely believe that description fits a very small group of people. And in exchange for this privilege of being surrounded by teeth, there is a costly price, which includes not only dedicated time towards earning the degree, but a huge monetary cost as well. I could see a young man entering the profession thinking it’s all fun and games. You can call your own hours, you get a decent pay. But you lose a lot of hours compared to your peers, studying the craft and paying off the debt. Additionally, you don’t see a majority (in my case, any) of your pay if you are dedicated to paying off the loans by the time your 38 years old. And by the time you are free from the debt, your peers would have had a 17 year head start on building their lives over you. I was simply afraid he would become a tooth doctor and then regret the bondage and the responsibility that comes with that. The worst you can do is choose to spend your days doing something you don’t absolutely love.

After a lot of back-and-forth conversations about the whys and the whats and the hows, I could see this is what he decided he wanted to do. And in my family, once we made up our mind about something, there is no change of course. Despite my resistance to the whole thing, I could tell he was going to push through with it, whether I supported him or not. So I did what any big sis would do. I immediately switched to supportive mode, figuring that if he is going to do this thing, then I’m going to give all I’ve got to making sure he loves every moment of it. So now we work together at the same office, me guiding him towards becoming a better dental assistant everyday, and him helpfully suctioning saliva out of my patient’s mouths. Perfect harmony.

I started writing the finance part of my blog to help newly graduated dental students with a massive debt realize that they are not alone, and that there are ways to overcome that debt. Now, I have an even bigger responsibility to walk my little brother, and other newly graduated undergrads towards a path that would minimize that final number, as much as humanly possible. If I can’t send myself back in a time machine to save myself from all the silly mistakes, I can at least try to save my brother. I am not doing this so that he could be rich one day. Such is never my goal. I am writing this so he can be a free man.

So if I could travel back and tell my recently graduated undergrad self what to do while waiting to get into grad school, I would tell them one thing. Use your hard-earned money towards paying down your undergrad loans. This was a very feasible thing for me, since I graduated undergrad in 3.25 years and I had an extra 9 months of freedom between graduation and grad school. It was a year and eight months before I was to start my dental program. During that time, I was living at home, and working three jobs. The first was a job as a dental assistant, averaging thirty hours a week. . The second was a visuals specialist at Banana Republic, averaging ten hours a week. And the last was a tutoring gig in Newport Beach, averaging an additional 10 hours a week. All jobs paid me over minimum wage, which at the time was around $8.5 an hour. The dental assisting and the tutoring paid me $13/hr. The sales job paid me above $9/hr. I wasn’t paying for food or rent, with much gratitude towards my parents. But I was also not paying my student loans down. So where did the money go?

At that age, you work like I did and think to yourself, “I’m rolling in the dough.” I had no concept of the power of money at that time, for I had no one to show me, or to even talk to me about it. Friends were dining out every night, going to concerts and raves, watching movies, and buying everything they ever wanted. What did you think I did?There was no outward consideration towards my far off future. I couldn’t see that these loans would one day become shackles that slow me down from enjoying later joys. There was this concept being fed to young kids, summarized in four capital letters. YOLO.

I was twenty one years old, and I thought I was unstoppable. I had so much energy, I worked like a horse. I never realized that the pace was unsustainable and that I will not want to work like a horse for the rest of my life. And off course, once I clocked out, I went on partying like an animal. (Okay, not animal. I saw REAL animals in college, and animal I was not. Maybe a tame deer. Either way…) I  blew my money on frivolities, living my life under the following motto: “Work hard, party hard.” WHO COMES UP WITH THESE THINGS?!

I  wasn’t fully irresponsible (or so I thought) since I paid the minimum payments towards my loans every month. They told me paying the minimum payments is considered good. No one ever told me paying off the maximum you can possibly pay is ideal. I never even hit my principle balance. I was paying so little that my accrued interest stayed about the same. At the time, I was already dating my future husband, and he was also working hard to pay for his housing. Since I didn’t pay for rent, I thought I had wayyyyy more money than him, and offered to take him out to eat whenever I felt like it. I bought him many gifts, just because. I invited him to concerts and bowling and karaoke and anything I can throw my money at. What I didn’t realize was that he had almost zero debt. He took out a skimpy little loan, which was paid off a few months after he started work as an engineer. And there I was, almost two years graduated, with the same debt I had while I was in school.

I was even so foolish as to plan a trip to Hawaii with Mike. In preparation for this trip, and as a reward for working so hard on my year and a half off, I quit all three jobs pre-emptively at the end of May, three months before dental school was to start. I continued my usual spending, and then allocated a huge chunk of my hard-earned money towards Hawaii. Granted, that trip was our first trip together and ended up being our favorite trip until we went to New Zealand. So yes, YOLO. You never get the time back, and it was a great experience. But the trip cost something close to $5,000. At the time, my student loan was about $16,000. I spent a third of my debt on a vacation, without realizing that it’s all just borrowed money. The crazy part was that I had $5,000 in my bank account, (I actually had close to $10,000 in my bank account) ready to be used for Hawaii. That money should have been placed directly into student loans the minute I was earning it. Not knowing anything at all about the power of compounded interest, that could have saved me a good portion of my current loan amount, probably around $13,000 or so, since it accrued interest over the next 5 years that I was in dental school. That’s the thing about any loan with interest. It continues to add even more debt to your plate, and the longer you wait, the more money you waste. As a young twenty something, time is on your side. Address debt while you are still young.

Now, you may be saying, $13,000 out of $550,000 is not a big difference. It’s such a small sliver of the pie! But it is, because it all adds up. It’s not like you graduate and start paying back the principle on your loans right away. You address the interest that has been growing on it first. For the first five months, we didn’t even touch our principle. Five months of all of the paychecks of a dentist going towards a loan, and not bringing down principle can be a very depressing thing. I think people need to see that. Extrapolate that for 9-10 years, as if you are essentially working for no take home pay for ten years, and then tell me that the $13,000 does not matter. Every single penny matters. That should be the mind set newly graduated undergrads should have. That every financial decision they make will shape their future. Especially so if they are going to pursue further education. It’s not a matter of “YOLO, my future self can worry about that.” Your future self is still you.

If I could do it all over again, I would continue to live at my parents, like I was doing. That was definitely a decision I was proud of. I would put as much of my income as possible (which would have probably been 90% of it) towards paying down my undergrad loans prior to grad school. I would have worked harder while I had a lot of energy. I would have saved more by saying no to all the pressures to conform to this image of a successful, newly  graduated student. I would have worked until the very end of my “time off”. I would have probably skipped the Hawaii trip, or traded it in for a more financially friendly local trip to a national park. If I had done all of this, I would have been able to pay off all of my undergrad loans easily, while still living a fairly decent lifestyle, and possibly saving money along the way for my future graduate loans. Heck, I might have even been able to go to Hawaii and do that. Don’t believe me? Here’s the math.

Dental assisting: $13/hr x 30 hrs/week x 78 weeks = $30,420

Banana Republic: $9/hr x 10 hrs/week x 78 weeks = $7,020

Tutoring: $13/hr x 10 hrs/week x 78 weeks = $10,140

Total income: $47,580

Student Loans Total when I started dental school = approximately $16,000

Conclusion: I didn’t know anything about money at the age of twenty one.

Currently, my brother is gallivanting around Costa Rican terrain with a college friend. Before he left, I went over finances with him, grilling him on what he was planning to do while there, how much he was planning to spend, and pointing out tips to save money while traveling. The bottom line is that I can’t stop him from enjoying his life. I’m not even saying his trip is a life mistake. The Hawaii trip was a financial mistake, but it was also an experience that led us to realize how important traveling was to us. Ironically, the debt limits the extent with which we can travel. You win some, you lose some. He will likely learn something very valuable about himself on his travels. But I want him to at least hear from somebody that this decision will affect his future from a financial standpoint. I think every newly graduated kid deserves to hear that. If I could talk to my twenty year old self, I can’t guarantee she would have listened, or even fully understood. I mean, I would continue to make this mistake throughout all of dental school, again and again. But there is a chance that she would have changed her course, ever so slightly. And that makes a difference.

 

Quinoa Enchilada Casserole

As temperatures cool, I find myself wanting to envelope myself in the warm comforts of my bed (or the couch) more and more. The urge to jump up and start my day becomes subdued, replaced by the need to hunker down and cozy up. I find myself choosing yoga videos with titles such as “Salve” and “Soften”. My movements are slower, my joints and muscles a bit tighter. It’s a time for self-love, a time to take everything at a steadier pace than usual. I would say that wintry times call for easy-to-make recipes that allow me to enjoy more of, well, me-time. In particular, I am drawn to comfort foods, ones that would come out of my mom’s kitchen. Something warm to my belly, as well as my heart. I draw upon recipes for soups, pastas, and casseroles for the additional comfort that I’m looking for. I like to think that this is also the grub yearned for by our friends and family who gather indoors with us during this cooler season. Possibly only because it’s what I want to serve.

When feeding a large group of people, the easiest way to prepare is hours beforehand. It’s never any fun trying to entertain while also stirring a pot of boiling soup that may overflow at a moment’s notice. I don’t enjoy the rush of moving about the kitchen and adding ingredients last minute in an effort to make the salad taste fresh. I like the kitchen to already be clean as my guests arrive, and I like to have a calm mindset. I much rather prefer an atmosphere where I could place 100% of my focus on the entertaining rather than the cooking. So when board game night came around this past week, and I was looking to feed a group of seven, I pulled out my recipe for Slow-cooker Quinoa Enchilada Casserole, placed all ingredients in a pot, and let my friend, the slow-cooker, do all the work. Made with ground turkey, quinoa, black beans, and other veggies, it’s a much healthier option than ordering pizza. Served in a bowl right when the guests are ready to eat, and topped with an avocado slice (or three), this is the perfect meal to sit down with over a board game. Guests can opt to eat it like a soup, or as a dip for tortilla chips. Let them choose! I keep the slow-cooker on warm all night long, so guests can go back for seconds. And after the last friend has left in the wee hours of the night, the slow-cooker’s ceramic pot is an easy clean up after a good soak overnight. Let that be tomorrow’s problem. We’re taking it slow over here.

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Ingredients:

  • 1 pound ground turkey
  • 1 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed
  • 1 can (15-ounce) black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 cup corn
  • 1 can (15-ounce) diced fire roasted tomatoes
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 can (10-ounces) enchilada sauce
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1 cup shredded Mexican blend cheese
  • 3 green onions, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 jalapeno pepper (optional)
  • Tortilla Chips

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The Process:

  1. Cook the ground turkey in a skillet prior to placing in the slow-cooker.
  2. Add all ingredients until the optional jalapeno pepper in the slow-cooker. Stir to combine. Cover and allow the pot to do the work on high for 3 hours or until the liquid is all absorbed into the mixture.
  3. Remove the lid and stir everything again. Taste and add salt and pepper to your liking. Stir in the half the cheese and sprinkle the other half on top. Replace the lid and let the cheese melt. Top with the chopped green onions, avocado, and cilantro.
  4. Serve with the chips at the center of the table. Enjoy!

 

 

The Ever Growing List of Things I’ve Given Up in the Name of Frugality

My ultimate goal is to pay down my student debt of $550k as fast as possible. I turned to frugality as a way to do that. I’ve given up some excesses in my day to day life in order to reach my goal quicker. I find that it’s not a shame to be more selective, but rather a source of pride. Plus one if the decision ends up being eco-friendly. And the list goes on…

  • Gym memberships, specifically yoga-related. Substitute yoga at home, swimming laps at the community pool, and biking everywhere.
  • Weekly Sunday brunches. Learned how to make equally as good breakfast dishes at home.
  • The thought of a new car. Still driving my high-school ride.
  • Happy Hour Thursdays. Weekly football viewing now occurs at home.
  • Regularly dining out at trendy, fancy restaurants. Once a month Ramen date, still a likely occurrence.
  • Shopping, in general.
  • Cable TV at home. Thought about nixing the internet too, only for a moment.
  • Buying books. Exchanged my habit for public libraries instead.
  • Alcohol. Initially, paying money for it was a main factor. Additionally, positive health outcomes.
  • Outsourcing house-cleaning and maintenance jobs. Learned how to fix a continually running toilet, efflorescent cement floors, and clogged drains to name a few. Also a fan of touch up painting as a “hobby”.
  • Paying $15 to watch movies at the theatres.
  • Drinking anything but water at restaurants.
  • Buying music.
  • Paper Towels. Substitute washable dish rags instead. Also eco-friendly.
  • The idea of buying things new. Became a big fan of buying things used. Even bigger fan of hand-me-downs and borrowing.
  • Driving everywhere. Biking to local errands becoming more common.
  • Paying for parking spots. Will walk reasonably extensive distances to avoid paying for parking.
  • Personal space, specifically, an entire floor in our loft. Got a roommate in order to decrease monthly rent, a not-so-traditional way to reduce spending, in order to live in the house of our dreams.
  • Buying bottled water. Opting for filter water not only saves the environment but also saves money. I carry a water bottle around everywhere and fill up at public water fountains.
  • Buying lattes every week. I learned how to make them myself at home, latte art included! Also applies to $8 avocado toast.
  • Buying bread. I bake my own bread, and feed my own yeast. Also, started selling my extra loaves to people as well.
  • House decorations. I really embraced the minimalist esthetics, and it’s a plus for me because there are less things to clean and organize, and the space always looks neat.
  • Frequent haircuts. I cut my hair once every 2 years, which people say is sooo unhealthy, but is it really when my hair continues to grow faster than most people I know? I don’t have split ends and I still consider my hair pretty thick. Then again, I don’t shower in hot water and I don’t blow dry, curl, or dye my hair, barring twice a year exceptions.
  • Make-up and beauty products. I no longer wear make-up on my days off, and I only wear a dash of eyeliner and mascara on the days I go to work. I wash my face with regular soap, and avoid moisturizers and other unnecessary (and at times, harmful?) products. I used to have a habit of painting my nails every week, but I am haven’t painted them in over a year. They’re healthier than before, always trimmed, and match every outfit.
  • Snacks. When I was still in college, I realized that I was being unhealthy by reaching into the pantry for chips or the freezer for ice cream. I challenged myself to stop buying snacks to prevent myself from eating bad foods, but also to cut my grocery bill. It’s worked and I stick to the habit of cutting out snacks from the grocery list to this day.
  • Going to theme parks and concerts and festivals. This kind of goes in line with the movie theatres thing, but I substituted all of these hyped and commercialized experiences for explorations and hikes with friends.
  • Speaking of friends, I gave up the relationships that were centered around spending. I realized that we unfortunately had different visions as to how we want our lives to be, and it comes down to our core values being different. For those that were willing to hang out with us without the instagrammable scenery, we remained friends. Some of these things were harder to give up than others.
  • Going to Target, “just because”. This is the worst, am I right? (See also: Trader Joe’s.) I will have a mission and a list when I go into stores and groceries, and I stay focused on my goals.
  • Fast food. We originally stopped getting fast food because we didn’t want things that involved plastic and single use containers. However, getting rid of fast food is also amazing since it reduced our spending. It is so easy to think, “Oh, it’s just cheap fast food, so no big deal.” But the pennies do add up. And it is important to remember that fast food is not entirely healthy, so the cost of treating things such as high cholesterol and diabetes down the road will be increased if eating fast food is a common occurrence. Don’t get me started on our college days…
  • Buying pre-made meals and sauces. Cooking most things from scratch was initially started to reduce plastic, but it also prevented me from buying things that are wayyyy too overpriced for what you are getting.

More to come…