This is my second tax nightmare in 18 years. Why they choose me, I don't know.
The first time, someone else's income was reported under my social security number, and I got a tax bill representing about half my annual income. I only found out about it after my ex-husband intercepted and opened the letter and withheld it from me until after the deadline for dispute had passed. The IRS agent who helped me was warm and friendly. Although this was someone else's mistake, it fell upon me to do the research and resolve the problem. File under: NOT MY FAULT, STILL MY PROBLEM. This involved tracking down the other person, a coworker, and convincing her to give me a copy of her W-2. It seems obvious that someone involved in the payroll process at my office had made the mistake; otherwise, we would be looking at one of the most outrageous coincidences of all time. Could someone somewhere just vaguely, passively say that A Mistake Had Been Made and apologize to me for my inconvenience? Heavens no.
There are two things we can never expect in this life: gratitude for the good we've done, and apologies for the mistakes that other people have made.
Now I'm sitting in the City of Los Angeles Office of Finance. They've summoned me to a hearing for supposedly not paying municipal business taxes. This despite the fact that I have not lived within a City of Los Angeles zip code since 2015. The summons was even addressed to me at my previous non-LA address.
This is the fourth calendar year that we have been having this dispute. I tried everything. I sent letters. I spoke to an agent on the phone. I sent copies of our tax return. I have told them over and over again that 1. The income they were after is actually my husband's salary, not business income and 2. We don't live in LA.
Their response was to send a tax bill for slightly over $8000. Weirdly, it's almost the exact same amount I was mistakenly assessed by the federal government back in 1999. I got that cleared up, or so I thought, and then several months later I get this summons.
I guess it's my karma that maybe I robbed someone of $8000 in a past life? Or maybe I was a cruel tax collector? Who knows.
What I WANT from this transaction is:
For someone to take accountability and say, "This was our fault, not yours."
Compensation for my time
A letter absolving me from further bureaucratic transactions with this department
Some kind of goodie like a free bus pass
What I NEED from this transaction is:
Resolution of the issue
Some kind of notation in my account or in whatever database or mailing list
Knowledge of what to do if anything like this happens again
My INSTINCT is to:
Yell at someone
Tell the entire saga from start to finish
Call my mayor
Alert the media
Cry (actually I did that the day after I got the letter)
What I actually do is to use my carefully honed skills in navigating bureaucratic red tape. I use tact and civility. Guess what? My case is resolved half an hour after I walk in the door. I didn't get an apology or compensation or any of those feeble fantasies. What I did get was the most genial, easy-going guy on the staff, who listened carefully, closed my account, and gave me photocopies of his stamped paperwork for my file.
How is this done?
There's an art to doing these things smoothly, and as far as I can tell, not everyone is aware of it. I have seen people shouting so loudly that they could clearly be heard through the entire building, or pounding their fist on the counter. The only thing you get when you act that way is a conversation with a security guard. Threats, intimidation, swearing, scowling, glaring, sarcasm, rudeness, cutting in line, interrupting, and gesticulating are tools for fools. They're only going to make things harder. You never know when you'll find yourself in the same office again, or facing the exact same person in a different job.
The person I'm talking to is almost certainly not the person who made the mistake on my account. This person is my ally. We want the same thing. We both want a simple transaction in which I go away quickly with a smile on my face. His goal is to do his job and make it to the end of the day without someone shouting at him. My goal is to be the friendliest transaction of his week. This person, whoever it is, is much more likely to listen to me and believe me if I am rational, respectful, and deferential. I walk up smiling, dressed professionally, and I make sure to wait my turn before speaking.
Always start with the assumption that the miscommunication has been on your end. Maybe I walked in the wrong door, didn't read a sign, or unknowingly shuffled a vital piece of correspondence into a wad of coupons that I then recycled. I start from the position of empathy, imagining that I am on the other side of the desk, forced to deal with this uptight, nervous wreck of a middle-aged crazy birdwatcher lady before lunch. I've been a civil servant and I've worked in customer service, so this trick of empathy is easy. I want to be my own ideal customer or client, the person I wouldn't mind helping.
The truth is that there is nothing complicated about my situation. It's routine on both sides. Any weeping or gnashing of teeth I have done has arisen from 1. My own anxiety 2. Projecting 3. Mind-reading (which doesn't work) and 4. Predicting the future (badly). I got all wound around the axle. I felt like THIS ALWAYS HAPPENS TO ME and WHAT WILL I DO NOW? and WHYYYYY MEEEEEE? I also felt that IT'S NOT FAIR and I WANT CAAAAAAAKE. It actually crossed my mind that I would have to see a judge or that someone would demand some kind of payment from me. I thought I would have to camp out in the office the entire day and come back again the following day, possibly through the entire week. Not a single thing that worried me came true. If I really want compensation, it should be for the time I spent flagellating myself and the sleep I lost tormenting myself with weird imaginary scenarios that never happened.
Gracious behavior always helps. When I listen courteously, I hear more details and everything makes more sense. When I wait patiently, I get better treatment. Everything goes faster when people wait their turn, including me. Most importantly, the self-discipline of controlling my irrational responses and NOT doing what comes naturally helps me to realize how rarely I ever need to escalate. Life is easier than we think it is, especially when we're not having a conniption.
PS On the way home, I found a dollar coin. So that's something.
It's a mystery to me why some people like to shop. I hate it. It's not just the odious clouds of perfumes or the bad lighting or the "music" or the people accosting you from kiosks. It's not just that I'm alienated by almost all patterns and most fashion colors, or that I'm more utterly befuddled by cuts and styles with every passing season. I just hate spending money. It makes me break out in hives sometimes. All of these reasons combine to make me an under-buyer. That's why my only bag threatened to disintegrate before I deigned to replace it.
The irony here is that in my work with compulsive accumulators and chronic disorganization, all of my clients, universally, have uncountable numbers of bags. Shopping bags, gift bags, plastic bags, paper sacks, tote bags, purses and messenger bags, bags of every description. The reason is that they always have piles of unsorted stuff skewed everywhere, and bags are irresistible "temporary" sorting depositories. Some of my people will cast off previous handbags, like a snake shedding its skin, when they get too full of receipts and other detritus to use anymore. The more I see this in my work, the more I respond by swinging to the other extreme and avoiding bags in general.
The lining of one section of my particular bag had been ripped out for at least a year. This regularly resulted in stuff migrating from one section to another. I put a new bag on my wish list last year. This is a convenient custom in my family; you make a wish list of stuff you want in various price ranges, and if someone is assigned to get you a gift for some reason, they can choose something off your wish list and still surprise you. My husband is relieved by this tradition and finds it useful. It wasn't so useful when the bag I had chosen, after looking at dozens, turned out to be back-ordered. Then the back-order was canceled and the price was refunded. But! THAT was my bag! What am I supposed to do, pick a different bag? I remembered this as Christmastime, but it was really my birthday, which means I already knew my work bag was falling apart nearly a year ago.
Then I noticed that one end of the strap was tearing loose.
Here is where I confess that I bought the darn thing at the Hollywood Goodwill for $7 in the first place. In my defense, it still had the original tags on it...
I'm not a purse person. What baffles me the most is the appeal of all these brown-and-tan bags with logos on them that don't match anything else in the known universe. Unless it's bags that cost more than a car. I went a long stretch without carrying any kind of handbag; I could just put my wallet and keys in my pocket. Then the stuff started to catch up to me. Wallet, keys, phone, sunglasses. If I wanted one single additional item, like lip balm or tissues, it started to get more complicated not to carry a bag. Then I got my iPad and started writing anywhere and everywhere, and I had to carry that, too.
Where it really starts to get complicated is when you don't have a car. Long hours on public transportation tend to attract additional stuff. Consolidating errands tends to mean there's always at least one small extra item to carry. Today it was business envelopes, as shown in the embarrassing photo above. I realized how frustrating it would be if this strap finally came loose while I was still two hours from home. As much as I hate carrying a bag that crosses the line from 'purse' into 'luggage,' it was time. My purse is my car now. I went into Ross and came out with a $20 commuter bag that has lots of inner pockets. I transferred my stuff into it and threw the old bag in the trash, right outside the store.
I walked in the door with the new bag, and my husband looked right at me and didn't notice. I did a little curtsy and moved my arm to draw attention to it. Still didn't notice. That's a sign that you've picked a sufficiently utilitarian bag, when your pet engineer is unable to detect it.
The first thing I did was to sit down and pull some things out of the bag. That's because I need them. The envelopes went with the other office supplies. I took out my charger and plugged it in. There's a daily homecoming ritual of pulling out the flotsam and jetsam of the day, the receipts and paper napkins and earrings and whatever other stray items find their way inside. It only takes a minute - literally like 60 seconds. The absence of that homecoming clear-out ritual is what leads to Bags Everywhere.
Bags Everywhere. We've got the shopping bags with items still in them, tags still on, receipt still inside. We've got the donation bags that are now mixed in with the keepers again. We've got the plastic bags filled with random stuff, usually car clutter that got scooped up and carried in, mostly including junk mail and coupons. We've got the purses, each partially filled with a combination of receipts, mail, hair ties, coins, and useful stuff we can't find. We've got the gift bags from various occasions with the gifts still inside. Then we have the boxes with a couple of bags inside, like Russian nesting dolls. Then there are the piles, usually laundry, with bags on top. That's the nature of my work. We gradually go through the bags, one by one, recycling all the junk mail and the excess bags, realizing that there really isn't all that much in these bags after all. I guess bags are just so friendly that they like being surrounded by others of their kind.
I can accept that it's useful to have a bag. I can even accept that I'm allowed to have more than one bag, or to buy one before the previous one turns into shreds and scraps. In the same way, my clients can accept that their lives would be easier if they had fewer bags to manage. Every day is simpler when you know where all your most important daily stuff is. Streamlining your daily bag, whether you're an accumulator or an under-buyer, is one of those small projects that can have disproportionately awesome effects.
My clients have weird things in common. I've worked with single people and with families, with pre-kindergarten kids and retirees, with bachelors and parents, PhDs and people with various mental health conditions. What they all tend to have in common are the tendency to put fruit stickers on their fridge, collections of old magazines, scattered coins... and the belief that they will die prematurely. They all think that. (Well, except the little kids). They're pessimists, and they think that dying young is the saddest thing that can happen to them. The real pessimism, though, is that they'll live to a ripe old age and that they will outlive their savings.
How long are you going to live?
No, I'm serious. What's your best guess as to the age you will be when you die? You knew this post was going to be dark when you started reading, so stay with me, here. Write down your number.
Mine is 96, but I'm pretty sure that if I get that far, I'll keep on keepin' on and shoot for centenarian. Why not?
Understand that this is not an optimistic thought for me. I know something you do not know. I know the balance in my retirement account. Right now I think I have enough to retire for... one year. Maybe two if I can spend part of it hiding in my brother's garage while he's at work. I hope he's not reading this or he'll change the code on his security alarm. Dang it. I hope my backpacking tent lasts that long. Sorry, I got distracted there. Back to planning for old age.
Well, my first plan is not to be old.
If that doesn't work, well, then, I'll just keep working. Never mind the fact that almost nobody actually pulls this off. Usually, our health fails us and we just can't hold down a job anymore. There's also no guarantee that we'll be able to get and keep jobs that pay enough to make our nut. My grandmother worked until she was 75, because her company loved her and she enjoyed her job. But then she got Alzheimer's. The gap between 75 and 86 was something I won't discuss here. Just say that I know it can happen to me and I know it's expensive. An expensive eleven years of being unable to operate a microwave safely, much less drive to work, much less actually work. Don't plan on it.
How's that for pessimism?
Unfortunately, I'm a health nut. I had the lack of foresight to never start smoking. I don't drink, either; it just gives me the spins and makes my mouth sour. Oh, and also I don't drink coffee. I ran a marathon two years ago. I'm at the healthy weight for my height. I eat more than the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables every day. I drink green juice because (shh) I actually like it. Do you have any idea how dumb all this is? My great-grandmother lived to be 75, and she smoked until her last day. Just imagine how much she would have had to save if she never smoked! My family tree on both sides is almost entirely made up of people who lived to a ripe old age, people who ate red meat and smoked cigars and drank hard liquor and didn't have seat belts and inhaled asbestos and all that fun stuff.
When my grandmother was born, life expectancy for women was 56. Her mother lived longer than that, so she probably assumed that she would also make it into her early 60s. My grandparents were frugal savers and they had multiple streams of retirement income set up. I am positive it never once crossed their minds that Nana would live to be 86. THIRTY YEARS longer than the average life expectancy at the time of her birth. We don't think it's possible.
We just don't think we'll live to be that old. We have no connection to Future Self. Old Me is a complete stranger to whom I will bequeath dirty dishes, bills, and wads of crumpled receipts. You're welcome. Now, I have two neighbors within fifty yards who are over 90 years old. My grandmother-in-law lived to be 96. It's just not that uncommon anymore. It would be nice to think of it in a cool way, that we'll be here to see so many amazing technological advances, to read more books by our favorite authors and hear new albums by our favorite musicians. Ah, but pessimistically, what will really happen is that we'll spend all our time grumbling about our aches and pains and trying to remember whether we took our pills.
Seriously, I hope everyone reading this lives a long and full life. If you have the misfortune for that to happen to you, I hope you had the good sense to save money and make sure you can take care of yourself. Remember that number I asked you to write down at the beginning of this post, which you absolutely did not do even though I made a big fuss over it? Take that non-existent number you refused to imagine. Now add fifteen years to it.
There's the real pessimism for you. I think I'll live 31 years past what I think of as retirement age, and I'll need to save enough money for that, but in reality, it might be 46 years. I'm only 41 now, so that's completely unimaginable. To try to sum it up, all I can do is to imagine my scariest and saddest day of being young and broke, but then try to add in my most tired feeling on top of it. This is why I prefer optimism. I prefer the idea that I'll be a lively old spitfire, writing my memoirs on safari somewhere. I'll pull out my gold Future Phone and call Present Me all the time, demanding that I save more money.
A lot of things go when you realize you don't need or want a car anymore. The car itself. The car payments. The garage. The insurance policy. The roadside assistance account. The automotive tools and various bottles of chemicals. The shop rags. The extra shopping bags. The special electronics and adapters for riding in the car. Then you start to realize, more and more, how much of your stuff and your lifestyle is built around access to your own personal car. One of these things for us is our Costco membership, which we decided to keep.
The thing about big box stores is that they normalize massive volumes of stuff. "Family-size" looks like normal size. This is like that point in the mid-Eighties when 64-oz drink cups came out, and what used to be a "large" cup was suddenly a "small," while "small" was "child size." That's back in the day when a can of soda was supposedly 2.5 servings, and my two brothers and I would share one on road trips. Stuff used to be smaller.
Buy large packages of stuff when you shop, and you need a bigger vehicle. Buy large packages of stuff and drive a large vehicle, and you need a bigger house and garage. I don't know of any single person who parks in the garage. Even though our vehicles are our most valuable possessions aside from the house itself, we will leave them out in the elements while we fill our garages with stuff. A lot of that stuff originally came from the big box store.
It's not mandatory, though. It's not required any more than we're forced to buy the $10 butter at Whole Foods Market. It's not where you shop, it's how you shop, what you buy, and how you store it once you get home.
We just moved into a tiny apartment. It comes with an itty-bitty kitchen with a small fridge that has a tiny freezer. As a result, we don't buy bulk groceries anymore. Have you ever brought one of those sleeping bag-sized bags of tortilla chips to a party? No amount of people can ever finish one of those off. A lot of super-ultra-plus-sized groceries wind up getting thrown away when they go bad. The only reason we buy this stuff in the first place is that it looks normal now. We still think we're saving money even when we're throwing away as much as 40% of the food we buy.
Beyond the sheer waste, a lot of people fill their kitchens up with so much food that the kitchen itself is barely usable. Every cabinet full to bursting. Countertops covered with food packages and collectible canisters. Boxes of cereal on top of the fridge. Cases of soda stacked on the floor. Second fridges with accompanying chest freezer. I've even known of people who store food inside the oven for lack of space. Houses were not built with the infrastructure to handle this kind of volume.
The last time we had a Costco trip, my husband went on the bus on his way home from work. He bought: shampoo, conditioner, a quart of minced garlic, and a bag of dried blueberries. He put them in his backpack and got back on the bus.
This is going to sound absurd, and it is, but our minced garlic consumption pays for our membership. I go through that stuff in greater volume than we do ice cream, breakfast cereal, booze, or coffee (none of which we buy). It comes in tiny containers at the grocery store for $2.99, or we can buy it in big ol' garlicky tubs and I can ladle it out with an ice cream scoop, which, now that I think about it, is a great use for our ice cream scoop.
We also buy fresh fruit and vegetables at Costco from time to time. This works for us because we're into juicing, and in fact we bought our Vitamix blender at Costco. We also eat massive amounts of vegetables, and we rotate through them quickly. In fact, the only vegetable in my fridge right now is a head of cauliflower, which is basically emergency rations and means I have to go to the store.
Sometimes we buy stuff at Costco from the fridge or freezer, although this tends to get us into trouble. We can't be trusted near that much hummus.
I don't buy clothes there, because they start at a size 8 for women, and I haven't been an 8 since 25 pounds ago. I can't even buy my underwear there. My husband will buy stacks of slacks and work shirts. This is crazy-making for me. Imagine a world where women can flip through a stack of pants, pull out our size, and know they will fit without having to try them on!
What we will continue to buy in addition to shampoo and garlic are dog cookies, software, and the occasional vitamin or pharmaceutical. We'll probably buy sheets and towels like we have before. We might buy electronics or patio furniture, although now that we don't have a car this will involve a Lyft. Mostly, our trips to Costco are going to be a thin disguise for my husband's desire to get more blueberries.
What I like best about box stores is that purchasing decisions are simplified. They're only going to buy something if it's widely satisfactory. I haven't had any bad experiences that led to buyer's remorse, other than perhaps the five-pound sack of baking soda I'm still trying to use.
Okay, full disclosure, I own some Costco stock, and also some Whole Foods. I figure if I shop somewhere, I know enough about it to have a reasonable sense of how the company is doing. I like Costco because of how they treat their employees, and I have friends and family members who have worked there, or still do. Just because I don't buy King Kong portions of crackers, cake-sized muffins, or barrels of mixed nuts doesn't mean I don't appreciate them as an entity.
The thing about minimalism is that we try to be as intentional as possible about daily life. We want to choose what we want for ourselves. We want to spend our money consciously and create a living environment that we find enjoyable, relaxing, and inspiring. This can include visiting the monuments of hyperconsumerism, consuming them rather than finding that they've consumed us.
We're car-free now. Everything got so coincidentally hectic around that time that I haven't written about it in any depth. It just gets dropped in casually, like, "Yeah, we're middle-aged suburbanites and by the way, WE HAVE NO CAR." I'm trying and failing to think of anything else that makes a good analogy for this. Maybe the fact that neither of us drink coffee? Cars are so central to our culture that the idea is unimaginable to many people. When it becomes imaginable and practical for people like my husband and me, listen up, because the world is changing fast.
I didn't learn to drive until I was 29. I couldn't have afforded a car in my teens or twenties any more than I could have afforded a horse. It made no sense to me to work just to pay for my car so I could get to work to pay for my car. I lived in a city where I could take the bus to work, and that's what I did. I think I also walked at least three miles a day, and sometimes more like seven to ten. A few years later, I bought a commuter bicycle. People would sometimes ask me what kind of car I drove. When I replied, "I don't have a car," they would invariably laugh and say, "Ha, that's a good one! No, seriously." The conversation would go downhill from there, as in California in the Nineties, saying you didn't have a car was tantamount to saying you were in a weird cult. Probably weirder.
I can't socialize with you. You don't have a car. I mean, how are we supposed to do anything together? How will we get there? How do I categorize your personality and demographics and socioeconomic pigeonhole if I don't know what brand of vehicle you are?
That was then. Now, it's not such a big deal, partly because apparently a lot of Millennials don't own cars either.
What led us to get rid of our car was a casual interest that intersected with a coincidence. My husband's old truck finally died sometime after 200,000 miles. He took it to the shop and found that it was going to be a continual money pit. Time to let it go. We had a long discussion about how trucks can represent masculinity and potential, and how much our lifestyle had changed since he bought it. We talked about what we would do if we needed a truck for something, like buying bags of potting soil for the garden. Then we bought a Volkswagen Jetta TDI, a little sedan. Then there was a major international scandal, and VW instituted a buyback program.
We had that car for a little over two years. Between March 2016 and March 2017, we drove it 2000 miles. That included two road trips.
We drove so little that the car insurance company disputed our estimate and made us send photos of the odometer.
What happened was that we decided to build our lifestyle around not having a commute. Commuting is the least pleasant activity in most people's day. We figured we'd rather live in a tiny house or a sketchy neighborhood than have him on the freeway up to two hours a day. Every time there was a collision and he sat broiling in traffic, it brought home the idea even more. Driving is for people who actually like being in a car, and neither of us do.
We decided to move. We spent a few months looking in the neighborhood within walking distance of my husband's work. I work at home, so it doesn't really matter to me. We started finding places, and finding that they had been rented out before we managed to call. We developed our criteria and a sense of what we both wanted in a house. I got an email alert about a new listing while the phone happened to be in my hand, forwarded it to him, and he called within five minutes. We were the first of 83 people that day. Apparently a lot of people are willing to live in a tiny house so they don't have to commute! I happened to be out of town, so he took pictures of all the rooms and texted them to me, and I agreed, technically sight-unseen.
My husband started walking to and from work most days. He might drive if it rained, but sometimes he walked anyway, and wore a hat. One morning he found a wad of $84 on the ground. I did most of the grocery shopping on the way home from my various walking errands. I think of myself as my own car. If I want to go to the library, or the post office, or a club meeting, or the movie theater, I walk there, and I plan my route to swing by the store on the way home. We lived in a small, walkable community, and we walked.
After three years at that job, my husband got an offer on his dream job, working in the space industry. We decided to move again. We left our 728-square-foot house and moved into a 680-square-foot apartment. Coincidentally, the car buyback appointment with VW happened the week before our move. We were so busy moving that we barely noticed.
The best thing about being car-free was during the move. We both rode in the moving van. I was really stressed about the idea of driving the car and trying to follow the van, because I hate having to organize a caravan. It turned out it also would have been really hard for us to park next to each other at the Airbnb or during the moving process. Maybe I'm weird, but to me it was a relief.
Actually, I'm forgetting myself. The best thing about being car-free was when we got the buyback check! Now we have no car payment, no car insurance payment, and we're not spending money on gas or oil changes or car washes or parking or bridge tolls. I knew to expect this, because I got rid of my first car when I finally realized it was costing me a quarter of my (unimpressive) income. We used the buyback money for our IRAs. Future Us will appreciate this long after that car would have been a rusted-out clunker.
As a practical matter, there are three things we do with a personal vehicle, besides using it for storage. 1. Commuting to work, 2. Errands, and 3. Recreation. These can have separate solutions.
My husband decided to try riding the bus to work. His work reimburses him for his bus pass, so instead of a car payment, his commute is now free. He bought a folding scooter to use between bus stops. This has turned into a major source of fun, as he's been tying Spike's leash to it and having the dog pull him around. It's like they're puppies again.
Errands are no big deal, because our apartment complex is 4/10 of a mile from a shopping center. It has: a Whole Foods, a pharmacy, a dry cleaner, a UPS store, a pet supply, a barber, and the all-important taco shop. Across the street is the public library and the post office. Last weekend, we took the bus together to buy a large and awkward item from Office Depot. It turned into an outing where we both got some stuff resolved at the Apple Store and then went out to dinner. Most stuff, we order online and have delivered, as we've been doing for several years.
Recreation is sort of the point of the whole thing. We moved to avoid having a commute so we could free up time to be together at home. More time to take naps with the dog. More time for gardening. More time to sit around reading. More time to cook awesome stuff. We plan our vacations around not using a car, because most of the places we like to visit don't even allow cars. Historic districts, wilderness, archaeological sites, urban areas that are more advanced than most places in the US. The Las Vegas Strip, which I find exemplary for many reasons. Now we've moved again, and we live at the beach. Not just at the beach, but directly on the waterfront. We can hear sea lions when we walk the dog. We can kinda see a little bit of ocean from our balcony!
Going car-free is an urban choice. It really doesn't work for people in rural areas. Whether someone prefers one or the other is purely personal. It's a full-on lifestyle design decision. Both of us have lived in rural areas, near forests, near agriculture, in the suburbs, and in the city, although my husband hasn't lived downtown in quite as large an urban metropolis as I have. We've tried it all, and we're coming to find that trying it all is part of the fun. Owning a car nails down your finances in a similar way to a mortgage. Paradoxically, not owning a vehicle or house frees up so much cash flow that it's liberating, even though most people would regard not having a car as a net loss of freedom.
We're lucky in many ways. In other ways, we've made conscious choices, plans, and decisions to live one way instead of another. We're willing to pay higher rents per square foot in order to live in certain overpriced neighborhoods, and the tradeoff is that we get a living space that is half or one-third the size of what most Americans have. (Maybe less). We plan to have more experiences and less stuff. That's why we can now walk on the beach together during the time that other couples our age would be at the mall or watching cable TV. Less stuff, less screen time, and less time in a car translates to more time doing more fun things. What used to be fairly routine for most people, like living close to nature and having long conversations, has become special occasion date-night activities. We're enjoying flipping that and having special occasions every day.
This book is now going on my list of top three book recommendations of all time. It can change your life. Stuart Diamond is going to teach you all about Getting More, only not quite in the way that you might think. While the title may have been designed to attract readers for somewhat selfish reasons, the hidden secret is that using negotiation techniques allows everyone involved to get more.
Getting More is full of hundreds of stories from Diamond's students who had varying rates of success in negotiating anything from kids' bedtimes to apartment repair to discounts on high-end jewelry. It is eye-popping. Reading through all of these anecdotes from other people's daily lives is like discovering an entire new universe. It explains so much about why some people are "lucky" or get everything, while "this always happens" to others.
Most people who have worked in customer service or retail for even a single day will have vivid recollections of how pointlessly nasty and unreasonable customers can be. This will either make us unusually patient and cheerful in business transactions, or more critical. I would present the position that being friendly and kind to people gets more. In fact, it wasn't really until I read Getting More that I started to understand why I get freebies so often.
I have had planes held for me. I have gotten free drinks and appetizers. I have had double room upgrades. I have had charges waived. I have gotten free merchandise. I have gotten major discounts. None of this stuff did I ever think to ask for! As I read this book, I started to see that I had done the right thing over and over again, just by being easy to please and complimenting people on their work. There really is something to be said for possibly being the only pleasant customer interaction of someone's hour, day, week, or career.
If only everyone would read Getting More. Then more people would begin interactions from a place of mutual regard, rather than defensiveness, hostility, belligerence, or rudeness. Negotiating from a place of respect and trust will get better results from everyone, for everyone.
The check just came. Not only did we get our deposit from our last house back in full, but we also got a discount of six days' rent. We moved out so fast and did such a thorough job of cleaning that the landlord was able to get a new tenant in almost immediately. You can't put a price on a sterling reference, but you can certainly put a price on rent per diem, and another price on your cleaning deposit. If you'd rather spend your money on cool stuff than fines and fees, read on.
I've been living on my own since 1993. Even at the tender age of 18, I always got my cleaning deposit back. I've moved... starting to lose track here... 28? times as an adult, so this represents literally thousands of dollars by this point. I don't know about you, but the only thing I like better than thousands of dollars is tens of thousands of dollars. Whether I like cleaning my house is a moot point. Frame the question like this: "Would I clean my house top to bottom for several hundred dollars?" Really, it's the one and only time you're likely to be paid for such an annoying task, so you might as well make the most of it.
The first consideration is: consideration. Think cheerful thoughts about the tenant who will come after you. This really helps to make the drudgery and scutwork feel like a gift. Having moved so many times, I can tell some pretty appalling stories about grotesque surprises that previous tenants have left for me. Drain-clogging wads of long soapy hair the size of an SOS pad. A piece of bubble gum soaked with kitchen grease. Soap scum on a shower door so thick I had to use a paint scraper. Shelves covered with grease, crumbs, sunflower seeds, and flour. Rusty toilet bowls. Window tracks filled with dead flies. Red splatters on the ceiling: blood? Ketchup? Salsa? BBQ sauce? If you lived here before me, and I had to gouge your filth off a floor or countertop, I am cursing your name.
No paid cleaning service will ever do as thorough a job as someone who actually lives there. That's because it's an act of love and it's hard to put a fair market value on it. In a tight housing market like most of the places I have lived, the owner, landlord, or property management company simply doesn't have to care.
Case in point. The place we rented in 2014 was really gross when we moved in. We wouldn't have taken it except that we were out of time and all the other places we had called on had been rented within a few hours of listing. It took two months to finish cleaning it up and doing minor repairs. When we moved out, I spent three days cleaning it from top to bottom. The property management company tried to charge us a cleaning fee of $150. I sent them an email detailing the work I had done and attaching half a dozen photos of the dirtiest areas left by the previous tenant. They cut me a check the very next day. They should BE so lucky as to have tenants as clean as me. One of my landlords told me, during our exit walk-through: "Jessica, you are a clean machine!"
Okay, so what's the secret? The secret is to have the interior design sensibility of what clean looks like. It's like having good dental hygiene - if anyone notices anything about your teeth, such as a piece of spinach, there's a problem. The cleaner a house, the more a single speck is going to stand out, especially when all the rooms are empty. This probably sounds terrifying, but it's really not difficult to clean a modestly sized, empty house. What makes cleaning so difficult is 1. Clutter 2. Excessive square footage and 3. Never having been taught how to clean quickly and efficiently.
Most people don't give a darn about housework. That's totally fine. Your house, your rules. Live however you want. Personally, I am extremely uptight about unpleasant smells, and due to my parasomnia disorder I need a clear pathway through the house, so I run a pretty tight ship. Routine housework definitely helps make the exit cleaning easier, but it's not necessary. Animal House could still have clean surfaces by the end of June. Remember, this isn't about social standards or impressing whomever, it's about COLD HARD CASH. We're getting paid for this.
Get a broom and knock down all cobwebs from the ceiling. A lot of people miss these because their vision isn't so great, and the lighting may have been dim. It's fair to ask for help, or pay a young person if you have trouble holding a broom over your head. I use a dust mop on an extendable rod. Should take 10 minutes to do the whole house. If you have blinds, dust them, too, while you're at it. I also do any vents in the ceiling and walls, and anything ornate on the doors.
Use a squeegee to clean windows, mirrors, mirrored closet doors, shower doors, and shower stalls. Vinegar does a magical job of removing soap scum. I can do a glass panel (mirror or window) in under a minute.
Get a Magic Sponge and go after any stains on the walls. Also, don't squish bugs and spiders on the wall. If you're good at finding spots, each should only take a few seconds.
Wipe down the shelves and the insides of cabinets. This can involve some climbing for the higher areas in the kitchen, so I label this a "tall person job," although usually I do it myself. Should only take a couple of swipes with a damp paper towel per surface.
Vacuum out the drawers. Our last house had 14 built-in drawers, and it took me about five minutes to clean them all with a hand vac.
Clean the bathrooms. For an exit cleaning, this will probably take 40-60 minutes per bathroom. It helps to quit using all but one in the days before the move so you don't have to do them all in one day. I use a $15 battery-powered scrubber.
Deep-clean the kitchen. This always takes more time and effort than the rest of the house put together. It means defrosting the freezer and wiping down every surface of the fridge, inside and out. Same with the microwave. Same with the oven, alas, and I've never managed to clean an oven in under an hour. Often I buy new burner pans because I can't get the old ones clean enough. Wipe down the cabinets and appliances. Scrub the sink and countertops until they're shiny. Notice how very much jam tends to drip down things, unless your dog is taller than mine.
Spot-check the floors. If you have carpet, I'm sorry. Some leases require that you have a professional service come and steam clean when you move out. If you have bare floors, there may be sticky spots that regular mopping didn't get up. I use the plastic tags off of bread bags for jobs like this. Of course, it helps if you have a dog whose main job is Backup Roomba. Then sweep and mop as thoroughly as necessary.
Deep-cleaning a house top to bottom takes at least a full day. It depends on how grody it is. When we moved out of our last house, we loaded the van and did the final cleaning on the same day, and it took us 13 hours from start to finish. That's for a 728-square-foot house and a 20-foot van. Our previous house was about 1400 square feet, and it took significantly longer. That's why we have podcasts.
Cleaning sucks. We don't do it for the process, we do it for the outcome. I believe it's good karma. Deep cleaning can help you find lost objects, such as earrings that flew into a back crevice of a closet. It burns calories. It's good self-discipline, making other hard and annoying things seem relatively easy. It allows us to claim an uninterrupted 24-year streak of always getting our cleaning deposit back. Most of all, it allows us to claim our nice fat deposit checks and spend them on things we want, rather than just paying an unnecessary fee.
As we were going through the TWENTY-SIX PAGE LEASE for our new apartment, we discovered that we were required to show proof of renters insurance before we could have the keys. We already had renters insurance, but figured we'd change to their suggested provider, since we were radically downsizing as well as relocating. The main purpose was to insure against potential damage that we might cause to the apartment, since we are such party animals. Secondary was a worksheet estimating the value of our possessions, and this is where it gets interesting. We had until the end of the week to put a price on everything we owned.
We did it in twelve minutes.
We've had numerous conversations over the years about what we would keep and what we would downsize in various situations. We've also had the conversation about how much insurance to get on our stuff. In the world of insurance, there is a lot of fine print, such as whether the policy includes earthquake coverage. (Assume that whatever is the most likely threat of natural disaster in your area, your insurance specifically excludes it, whether that's tornados, UFOs, giant ants, or what-have-you). Our concern was the concept of "replacement value." If our place really was completely destroyed by one of the many hazards of our fair state, not limited to flash floods, landslides, wildfire, typhoon, or earthquake, what would it cost to start from scratch? What would we actually replace and what would we shrug off?
Obviously we would replace our bed, couch, dining table, computers and desks. We would need replacement sheets and towels - but would we buy as many as we currently had? We would need to completely outfit a new kitchen - but again, would we buy as much kitchen gear as we had in our real kitchen? How do you insure food? We would need to replace our clothes and bathroom stuff. Predictably, if we started from zero, with nothing but a blank spot for a house and a big insurance payout, would we really buy the hundreds of items we had in our bedroom and bathroom again?
The shock and horror of losing everything you own must be truly devastating. It wouldn't do to be flippant about such a thought. However. My husband rode out the Northridge Earthquake, a topic that I find endlessly fascinating. We know that disaster is real. For us, a little black comedy helps when contemplating serious crisis. As long as nobody dies, if one of the many temporary homes we've rented were to be destroyed, well, we're insured and so are our landlords. The idea of starting over again, with nothing but a check, can be a cute little fantasy. If we went on a mandatory shopping spree, with hardly a sock to our name, what would we buy?
Lids without matching containers! Junk mail! Dried-up pens! Rusty paperclips! Sheets that don't match any of the mattresses in the house! Shopping extravaganza!
The sad yet liberating truth is that most of our stuff is relatively worthless. We can't calculate a replacement cost for photographs, because we can't go out and buy them again. We can't put a price on souvenirs, mementos, or memorabilia for the same reason. We can't assess the market value of his engineering drawings or software, or my manuscripts, because money wouldn't reproduce them. The only stuff we can buy with money is generic housewares.
That's exactly what insurance money would cover: generic housewares. It's not like we would suddenly be able to level up and hire an interior designer. Also note that when we pay for insurance, the more we buy, the higher the premiums. Insurance is like a fire extinguisher or a first aid kit: you hope you never need them. If we're lucky, we'll have paid hundreds or thousands of dollars over the years for insurance we never need. That would be awesome; let's pick that one.
When we learned that we would need to estimate the replacement value of everything we owned, we were undaunted. Most of what we had, we'd bought together during the past eight years of our marriage. We both attend to the value of a dollar. We had a solid memory of how much the bigger-ticket items cost, and if we didn't, we could check our digital financial records. We were ready.
There was a "Property Worksheet." It had a field for each room, and as I entered numbers, it kept a running total at the bottom. Bedroom 1. Bedroom 2. Office. Den. Kitchen. Bathroom. Living Room. Dining Room. Other/Misc. Additional living expenses.
Well, let's see. We only have one bedroom. We no longer have an office. We've never had a "den" and I have no idea what would go in one. We no longer have a separate dining room, but what the heck, let's put the price of the table and chairs there. We were chatting back and forth over text message, a conversation that included a couple of 'crying laughing' emojis. We did our own independent estimates, and got within $400 of the same amount. Then my husband recalled that none of the rooms listed included the garage, and had to come up with an estimate for his tools. Wow, that's a pretty big number, we thought. I input it in the insurance company's website.
The total price we had estimated for all our worldly goods was barely over half the lowest amount offered.
We fell about laughing, and laughed even harder when I tried changing the optional jewelry coverage. I could replace most of my wardrobe with the default option! Never spend a lot of money on anything that will fit down a drain, that's my advice.
We wound up with the lowest coverage and the highest deductible we could get. After tacking on earthquake coverage, it's still less than a dollar a day. I'd have to check, but it's almost identical to what we were paying before. Now, if our upstairs neighbor leaves the bathtub running or the sprinkler system malfunctions, we'll be financially fine.
The most important consideration, whenever our attention wanders to crisis and disaster, is to think of the living. We plan escape routes. We check our go bags. We rehearse what we'll do if we need to evacuate and get our animals to safety. We bolster our finances, maybe tuck a few more small bills in our go bags just in case. We insist on discussing emergency preparedness with our friends, who usually don't even have a jug of water set aside. We do what we can to try to make sure we'll be on the emergency response team, helping our neighbors.
It also helps to think about the priceless things. Are our work products and tools backed up? If even a single irreplaceable file exists only on one computer or one storage medium, that's asking for trouble. BACK UP YOUR DATA! If we have legacy or heirloom items, have we recorded them in some way in case the original is damaged? Photographs, letters, documents, vital records, family trees, and anything else flat can be scanned. I like to see these things distributed across a family, so everyone has a copy. Pictures can also be taken of the 3D stuff, like furniture or textiles, so that at least some visual record will survive.
Ultimately, it's all just stuff. What's important has a heartbeat. What really makes a legacy is the rich tapestry of stories, relationships, recipes, shared experiences, inside jokes and alternative song lyrics, and little mannerisms that make us family. No physical object of any description is worth a plug nickel in comparison to a strong bond of affection. Maybe we'd do better to make worksheets of our love and loyalty.
We got a storage unit. I broke my own rule. If I keep this up, next I'll be getting cable TV and running up credit card debt on professional manicures and iced coffees. Then we'll never be able to afford a vacation again! Okay, who am I fooling? None of those things will ever happen. I like money way too much. We got a storage unit because there was actually a sound business case for it.
When we went to the storage facility, I interviewed the manager. I am helpless against my fascination with the curious American phenomenon of storage units. About ten percent of Americans rent a storage unit. To me, that is huge, especially because a lot of those units are shared by couples or families. It would be really interesting to know the number of individual adults who rely on storage outside their main living space. Go ahead and add in all the adults who store stuff at their parents' house, why don't you?
Some people use their storage units as part of their workday. The facility we used apparently had a few contractors, painters, and landscapers who stored their tools and materials. That makes a lot of sense for security reasons alone. Access for a truck is probably easier than at most homes. Someone could rent a cheap, small apartment and still run an equipment-intensive business. This all came as a surprise to me, because in my professional work, I had never before known of a storage unit that actually earned its keep. What a truly novel concept.
Our storage unit didn't pay for itself. At least, I assume it didn't. The purpose was to enable us to move as quickly as possible when my husband got a great job in a new city. We had only twelve days to make the move. We decided to store our stuff and stay in an Airbnb while we looked for a place. This was a matter of convenience that cost us about $300. The breakdown was two van rentals instead of one, and the price of a month's rent on the storage unit. It would be nice if we had gotten prorated rent, but there wasn't any margin in that for the storage facility. Why not rent out our nicely broom-swept unit twice in the same month?
Is it possible that we broke even on this deal? Maybe. It's hard to know, but maybe.
With our backs to the wall, desiring to move our stuff directly from our old home to a new home, we might have made an expensive choice. We might have grabbed the first option we saw. In our experience, the rental market in our region is very tight, and even calling within three hours of an ad posting is no guarantee that the place is still available. We got our last place because we were the first of 83 callers; I saw the listing within five minutes of posting, and my husband arranged to drive over to look at it moments later. We definitely would have made an offer on the very first place that remotely met our criteria and took parrots. There are three options in this scenario: pay the same, pay more, or pay less. This city being what it is, you get less for more money, like tapas or sushi.
Paying less is usually not paying less. There are plenty of run-down properties on the rental market here, many evidently in such bad shape that the ads don't even include photos. What you get in a shabby, older rental house is the worst of everything. Poorly weatherized with old, inefficient appliances, running up your utility bills, usually adding insult to injury by having slower internet, too.
The $300 we spent on double moving vans and a month of storage works out to $25 a month for a year. That could go up like a flash in the pan. In the context of rent or energy inefficiency, it's barely noticeable. There's no way to know, but it's entirely possible that this finagling of the storage unit actually did pay for itself. More likely I am just trying to make up a nice little story to assuage my guilt over "wasting" money.
We sold our car back to the dealership this month. This is salient. We knew when we planned this move that we had a large windfall check coming our way (two cheers for Volkswagen) and also that our monthly expenses would be dropping. We could afford to do something ridiculous like move all our worldly goods twice in eight days, knowing that this would be a one-time expense.
This story has a happy ending. We found a great apartment right on the waterfront. It's super tiny, even smaller than the tiny house we just vacated, but the location really can't be beat. We can walk to the library, grocery store, dry cleaner, hair salon, post office, pharmacy, and pet supply in less than half a mile. Having that buffer of time to look at rental listings and visit the neighborhood in person made all the difference. It was worth the extra two days of schlepping and hauling. It also gave us time to do another round of culling on our stuff after we had seen our tiny new space.
The sad ending with most storage units is that people get them without an exit strategy. Nobody ever chooses an end date. There are people in my life who have spent over $10,000 on storage units over the years, and people who have lost the contents to auction, and people who have done that multiple times. For such a unique part of our culture, we haven't yet figured out how to have storage units make sense in our lives. I'll never stop wondering why so many people make such an expensive choice, a very costly way to postpone decisions. Think of all the other ways that money could be spent!
We're just visiting. Staying in a stranger's home is by turns convenient, titillating, creepy, funny, and surprising. I feel really naughty writing about it, but if I swear not to include any identifying details... is it too much like reading pages torn from someone's diary without knowing who it was? Ah, what the heck, I'm going in.
The first thing we noticed was that the owner mentioned the supposed property value in the Airbnb ad. Not just in the ad copy, but in the heading! Not sure how common this is, but it reminded me of the time I went on a blind date with a (short) guy who mentioned his height three separate times in his ad. I thought it was funny to care so much about how tall you are, since I'm not tall either, and it's even funnier to care about the street value of a house you aren't planning to sell. I thought it was so funny that I looked up the property tax records online and saw that they were overstating the case by about ten percent, just like the short guy.
While I was snooping around in the public records database, I looked at the square footage and the number of rooms. Well over three thousand square feet. Also FIVE TIMES LARGER than the apartment we're moving into! The number of bedrooms was a bit of a mystery. I was guessing six, but apparently it's four. That doesn't count the parlor with the curtain that has been converted into an extra bedroom.
Almost every square inch of this house is covered with decorations or objects of some kind. There were seven pillows on our bed. The dresser in our room has: a large picture in a frame; a large mirror; a fake plant in a pot with a ribbon on it; a coffee pot; a word sculpture. Every single piece of fabric in the house has a pattern on it, no two alike. The wastebasket in the bathroom still has a sticker on the front that says GENUINE MARBLE. On a trash can!
The kitchen is so full of high-end groceries, appliances, and decorations that it's almost unusable. There are at least three separate coffee contraptions. One of them has a sticky note saying not to use it because it's broken. ...? It's one of the biggest kitchens I've ever seen, with the most pantry cupboards, and yet the counters are covered with food, and there's more tucked into the bookshelves. One such item is a gallon can of tomatoes.
I can smell clutter. I mean that I can physically smell it. This home is magnificently abundant, although on the absolute opposite end of the style spectrum from my own minimalist tastes. It's rococo, it's baroque, it's shabby chic, it's Victorian, it's country cute, it somehow manages to be all of those things at once. Mirrors and marble and beads and velvet and gilt and plastic fruit and brass and tassels extraordinaire! It would be possible to separate out at least three distinct style statements and decorate at least three large homes with them, and in fact that would make a great show on HGTV. Much of a muchness of a multifarious many. Is it clutter, is it just bounteous overflow? That's a matter of purely personal taste. What I was seeing wasn't what I was smelling, though. Where was it?
As a side note, the clutter smell is to be distinguished from the wide variety of odors that come with squalor. I have worked in squalid homes that contained virtually no physical possessions. That's more common than one would guess. This house falls in a different sector of the Venn diagram, the house that is full of stuff but is physically clean. I bumped into the maid in the hallway. If there was a real hoard here, it wasn't visible from public areas.
My husband spotted it. He's almost a foot taller than me (sorry, Blind Date Guy) and we notice different things. The three-car garage has clear glass windows. He glanced that way as we were walking down the driveway, and he gasped. Later, he told me that it was completely hoarded. Well, it's a garage, what do you expect? Just because someone has a three-car garage does not mean that one or two garages' worth of space will be kept clear for cars. Why not keep your high-end luxury automobiles in the driveway and use the garage space to store heaps of stuff?
There is some sadness here. We've been around nearly a week, keeping to ourselves because we've been spending our days hauling heavy objects and resolving the myriad administrative details of moving house. All we want to do is sleep. What we've noticed is that there are, we think, eight people including us under the roof. All the doors are constantly closed. Nobody seems to be eating meals together; tonight we made dinner in the microwave and there was a lonely plate of food sitting out on the counter, waiting for someone. It's really hard to tell, but in addition to the two Airbnb rooms there seems to be at least one full-time extra tenant living here. Possibly there are adult siblings. For such a large house, a house with two living rooms, a formal dining room, and a seventy-inch TV, nobody is spending time with anyone else. It suggests the possibility that the rooms are being rented out like a boarding house, to help make ends meet.
The obvious question to me is: why not simply downsize to something affordable? Something happier? Something easier to maintain?
Granted, not everyone can bear to live in a small space. Our new apartment, the one whose keys we await in a few days, is almost exactly the same size as the three-car garage at this very maximalist house. It's funny to think that this house is still more than twice as big as the three bedroom, two bath house my husband and I lived in as newlyweds. We thought that place was cavernously large and that we had packed it full of as much stuff as possible! De gustibus non est disputandum.
We are very lucky to have the option to rent this room, the room in the very maximalist house. The linens smell fresh. Nobody interferes with us in any way. The neighborhood is so quiet at night that you can hear a leaf falling on the lawn. We've never been able to offer anything like this to our Couchsurfing guests; a foam pad crammed next to our desks and a bunch of racket from our pets is what you get at our house. Where there's plenty, there's always plenty more. While I won't be adopting these interior design strategies in our new place, we'll remember staying here with fondness and a certain amount of humor.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.