We’re thinking about saving up for a house. This is more interesting than it probably sounds, because where we live, even a very ordinary house is stupidly expensive.
How ordinary? How expensive?
Picture a 1200-square-foot house with a tiny yard and no garage. This modest house has not been remodeled in at least a decade, has a tiny kitchen and a tiny bathroom, has almost no storage, and can best be described as “funky.”
If you’re lucky enough to find a house like this in our zip code, it’s going to cost significantly more than our entire retirement portfolio.
We can actually qualify for a mortgage in our area, because we’re middle-aged and we have great credit. But that mortgage would get us a condo or townhouse, not a house-house. Not something with its own yard.
We did it to ourselves. We chose to live in an area where even our boss’s boss can’t afford to own a house. Our colleagues either live in tiny apartments just like ours, or they commute, in many cases over 90 minutes each way. We know more than one person who lives in an entire different region over four hours’ drive away and only goes “home” on weekends and holidays. There are multiple van pools.
It’s a California problem, to face paying quadruple for the same house almost anywhere else. It’s a beach community problem, to face a real estate base that is shabby and crumbling because it’s been a seller’s market for over a hundred years.
We’ll be on a walk, see a house for sale, and check the listings just out of curiosity. Then we will stand there with our mouths hanging open because of the sheer temerity of asking two million dollars for a heap like that.
I can see the future, and it’s a future with a lot of plaster dust and mallets. I come from a family that is constantly remodeling something, anything, somewhere, somehow. At least one of us has had a project underway since 1990 and it’s never stopped. I’m quite good with tools for someone who usually has a book in my hand.
Then I went and married a tool man who loves gardening.
This is what’s going to happen. We’re going to wind up remodeling a house together, because it’s our destiny and there is no escape. Then we’re going to drive each other crazy with it, because remodeling is hell. Then, as soon as we “finish,” we’re going to have another project in mind. Once it’s started, it’s like a tractor beam, dragging you towards it with galactic force.
This is where strategy comes in.
There are only a few ways for someone to buy a house in our area.
It’s like this. If I sold a screenplay for two million dollars, after taxes, I could put down what was left on a house here. And *then* we could qualify for a mortgage on the balance.
That’s the bar.
Where we are right now, our entire combined annual gross income wouldn’t be enough for the down payment on the kind of house we would like to buy.
Oh, wait. There actually is another strategy we could use. That would be to give up on the impossible dream of buying a fancy-pants beach house in a foo-foo beach community. If we just let it go, we could save toward a realistic, modest house almost anywhere else in the world and then retire there quite comfortably.
Where’s the fun in that, though?
What we’ve learned from downsizing over the past several years is that we can do it, yes, and we have enjoyed the results in most ways. Taking the financial pressure out of our marriage has been wonderful. We’ve also eliminated entirely the stresses that most families face - almost all of them - including commuting, yard maintenance, and most housework. We don’t even have carpet to clean. Where we are right now, we’re on track to be able to retire.
(Although neither of us really believes in traditional retirement, because sitting around with nothing to do seems boring beyond compare).
Working at home together, though, has revealed some shortcomings in our lifestyle. We’d be enjoying ourselves more if we had an office - or two - like we did for the first half of our marriage. It would be so helpful to have our own washer and dryer again. We miss having two bathrooms. We’d also really love to have at least one more closet.
Each of these desirements adds another notch to the expense of our “dream house” and takes away another notch of our current daily satisfaction. It’s better, so much better, to find ways to be content where we are. Better, cheaper, and easier.
Yet there’s that itch to be scratched. If we’re going to continue living and working here, do we really have to do it in a tiny apartment where we carry our laundry up and down three floors every week? Do we really have to sit twelve feet apart while we take calls, with nowhere to go to isolate each other from our background noise?
We accepted long ago that we are both ambitious, restless people who aren’t all that good at sitting around and adjusting to the status quo. Might as well acknowledge that we’re ready to un-downsize and give each other another door to shut, a little more privacy. If our future is going to include both of us working from home, then that’s the new baseline.
The question is, if we are to buy a house of our own here, a dream house, how are we going to do it?
Another question would be, how would you do it where you live? What are all the different ways that you could make that happen?
I love knives, so it made sense to me that a knife would be the symbol of becoming completely debt-free. Not sure if anyone else in the world has ever done this, so I am sharing my idea of the debt knife.
An inkling of the idea of the debt knife probably came from something I read years ago. It was the foreword to a cookbook written by two friends who signed a three-book deal. They did really well off their first book. In the second book, they mentioned that they used some of their money to buy a set of really high-end kitchen knives.
?? I thought.
I started my adult life with a bunch of hand-me-downs from various family members and whatever my roommates brought in. I had pots with missing handles, wobbly dull knives, mismatched plates, cracked cutting boards, and melted Tupperware. Nobody was going to offer me a publishing deal on a cookbook because my cooking was terrible. If I wanted to make a recipe and I didn’t have all the ingredients, I would just... skip them.
It wasn’t until I’d been married a few years before I discovered that my measuring spoons were inaccurate as well. That explained a lot.
It hadn’t really occurred to me, when I read this cookbook by the successful cooking friends, that one would... upgrade one’s gear. Was that... allowed?? Could one simply go out and... buy brand-new stuff?
When we got married, my husband’s uncle bought us a really, really excellent soup pot. I love that thing. We have cooked, oh, I’m sure hundreds of gallons of soup in that pot. I think warm thoughts toward that uncle all the time. A close family friend got us a set of salad tongs and likewise, we think about her and her terrific cooking every time we use them.
On the other hand, I didn’t think good thoughts about anyone the last time I used our cheap plastic pancake flipper and part of it crumbled off into the pan. Eww.
It’s my considered opinion that splurging on small items of daily use is better than other extravagances. For instance, if I buy a very fancy bar of soap, it might cost triple what I’d pay for regular supermarket bar soap, but it’s still under $10 and it will last for months. I’ll enjoy it more than I would an expensive pair of shoes that I would only wear to special occasions - that would then make my feet bleed anyway.
This is part of how I’ve gradually developed an appreciation for well-made kitchen gear. This is also part of how I arrived at my debt knife as a symbol of financial freedom.
This is how you can tell what a nice knife it is. It came in its own special box and it has a sheath.
That’s not how you can tell. You can tell what a nice knife it is because when I showed it to my husband he went “OoooOOOOooo.” Then he wanted to hold it and angle it back and forth.
Lolololol men crack me up, all you have to say is “Damascus steel” or “carbon fiber” and you have their full attention. Try it sometime.
What we had been using for the entirety of our marriage were a couple of IKEA knives that I think cost $7 apiece. They were adequate, except that after some time the handles started to dissolve and ooze black goo. Something happened to them after they got cooking oil on them enough times. You’d make dinner and then your hands would turn black. Gross and very annoying.
We kept using them, though, because nothing is easier than getting used to small miseries when you’re busy.
I though about it and I thought, if I buy one very nice santoku knife, that is all we’ll need. We can chop vegetables with it, then wash it and dry it and put it in its special sheath and put it right back in the drawer.
Indeed, that’s exactly what happened. We both like knives and this knife has its own gravitas.
The first thing I cut up with the debt knife was...
(what would you cut if you had one...?)
...a bunch of kale. I liked the idea of chopping up something that symbolically is flat and rectangular and green, like dollars. I also liked the idea of associating it with a healthy habit like cooking at home.
Another thing I like is exploring holiday traditions. For many years now, I’ve been making Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day. I can’t argue against its claims to bring good luck and financial fortune, because we have gradually done better with money every year since I started making it. Also, at this point I’ve gotten my recipe down to the point of perfection, and sometimes we eat it just because it’s so good with cornbread.
Money used to be a painful topic that made me cry. It was like that for many years. In fact, when I met my husband, I was still at the point when I would make a payment on my student loan and the balance would actually be higher because the interest was front-loaded. Many a bitter tear over that. I was so poor I slept on an air mattress that I kept having to patch because I’d wake up on the floor.
I haven’t forgotten.
Becoming debt-free was a victory that took many years of focus and hard work. It’s something worth celebrating. When you’re still in the trenches, it can feel like it will never happen. It’s so easy to slip into a sense of futility. Don’t give up!
Every time I use my debt knife, I think, I did it. I made it through. I will never be in debt again.
Every time I use my debt knife, I think, others can do this too. I believe it. Cut yourself free and imagine what symbol you will choose to represent your freedom.
Early in lockdown, I almost bought $300 worth of shoes. They were seriously on sale!
I never buy stuff right away, though. I put together a shopping cart, and then I go through it again the next day. Most of the time I scrap the whole thing. I’m an under-buyer and I usually feel major buyer’s remorse when the physical item shows up.
This time was different. I had these shoes in the cart, and then I thought, where would I wear them??
Months later, this feels prescient. Indeed, where would I wear a variety of new shoes?
I actually hate wearing shoes, at all, at any time. I am obviously barefoot as I write this. I only wear shoes because I don’t want to cut up my feet when I go outside. (Although I did once step on a nail that went right through my shoe, fat lot of good that it did me).
Purses are in the same category of Stuff I Only Use Outside. I put my work bag in my closet a few months ago, and it’s only come out a few times. I don’t miss it at all. I used to hang it on my desk chair, but it won’t stay on my new office chair, and it would annoy me while I work all day for no reason.
Not only am I not contemplating buying any purses or shoes, I’ve been thinking of getting rid of more of what I already have.
I have a donation box going right now. I have yet to drop it off because I rarely cross the threshold of our apartment for any reason. I don’t want to carry it off only to realize I need to make a second trip. There is a pair of shoes in that basket right now. I liked how they looked, but they gave me blisters. I would wear them on vacation and get mad at them. Then I would unpack them and forget that these were Hurty Shoes. Then I would pack them the next time we went on vacation, and the cycle would repeat. Finally, as I was doing the classic self-isolation closet re-org, I pulled out the Hurty Shoes and said, “Never again!”
The next time we go on vacation, it’s going to be so exciting, the last thing I will want to do is to mess it up by giving myself blisters.
There are a couple other pairs in my closet that are a little tight. Why do I still have them?
I instituted a practice in my life over 20 years ago. That was the concept of the “cost per wear” that I picked up from Your Money Or Your Life. (If you buy something for $20 and you wear it 20 times, it costs $1 per wear). In my mind, I still aim for a $1 cost per wear even though inflation has gone up significantly since then. Therefore, I tend to punish myself by continuing to wear things I don’t like all that much until I feel like I’ve run out the dollar-meter on them.
The other reason is that my feet got a half-size bigger after the year I trained for my marathon. It took me a while to realize that this was not just a fluke of individual item sizing. Also, vanity.
I work from home. This is almost certain to continue through the calendar year. In fact, it may be forever. It turns out a lot of people at my company were commuting over 3 hours a day, and a few live so far away that they only go home on weekends! WFH has meant all these people can sleep in an extra hour and *still* be significantly more productive.
Also, they can work barefoot. Or who knows what else. We’re only on camera maybe an hour every couple months.
Right now, nobody is looking at anyone’s feet. If anything we’re checking each other for proper mask fit.
I was on camera last week with a guy in an office in another city, and he clearly hadn’t had his hair cut since before lockdown. This guy has a PhD and while I am sure nobody cares about his coiffure, I also wonder if anyone besides me even noticed.
Are we all going to have a permanent reset in our expectations about street clothes and business dress?
I wonder. I think it will polarize.
I suspect a lot of people are dressing up far more than they normally would because they are bored and lonely. Being on camera all the time and seeing yourself tends to lead to self-conscious fixations. (Personally, I find seeing myself on Zoom all the time to be extremely exhausting and demoralizing, which is why I accessorize with my enchanting little parrot. They’re not looking at me, they’re looking at her).
This is probably going to continue “when all this is over.” There will be a sense of ceremony, and a lot of people are going to want to rise to the occasion by going out and getting a haircut and then dressing up.
But then a lot of us are going to realize that our pre-lockdown clothes don’t fit quite the same way...
I really need to buy some pants right now - the weather is cooling and I only have like three pair that fit - but there is probably going to be a lot of shipping back and forth. Pants have never been an easy fit on me. I remember one trip when I tried on 38 pairs before I found a single one that fit. Either I have short legs, big thighs, wide hips, and a long waist, or pants are too long and too wide?
Or maybe it’s time to bring back the toga after all.
Whatever happens, when we finally start going out again, it will have been a long time since the last time a lot of us tried on new clothes. It’s going to feel weird. It’s probably also going to look weird.
Might as well reexamine what we have right now. Is this really what we think we’re going to celebrate in? If it isn’t comfortable enough to wear and use around the house, does it pass that test for the outer world either?
It finally happened. Someone stole one of our packages before we could go get it.
This is a chronic problem in our area. People have been complaining about it on a daily basis the entire time we’ve lived here. It’s not like we didn’t know it was a thing. It’s even happened in our building before, in a pretty dramatic way.
Earlier this year, pre-COVID, there was a group of young people squatting in the clubhouse of our building. The locks were finally changed in that room and we haven’t seen them around. This may or may not have had something to do with what has happened more recently. A young couple used a key to get into the lobby of our building, stole all the packages, then took the elevator down to the garage, broke into a bunch of cars and stole more stuff, and then finally drove away in a stolen vehicle.
That was a few weeks ago. This is a condo building, and the Board had arranged to have the locks changed, but they were waiting on materials - and last night, it happened again. The only differences are that this time they didn’t steal a car, but they did force open one of the mailboxes, which is a federal crime.
Among the stolen packages was something for me, an anniversary gift: a cardigan sweater for a middle-aged COVID survivor who keeps getting the chills, even in high summer.
Okay, work with me here. Who would even want my frumpy old $34 sweater besides me?
It’s out of stock, too.
This is a minor annoyance for us. It’s not like they stole my antibiotics. That’s not the point.
The point is that package theft is interesting for a lot of reasons.
For people of our social class, petty crime is worse than stupid. There is no object you could steal that could possibly be as valuable as your professional reputation and clean background check. Go to prison and it’s all over - your career, your social network, probably your marriage and your relationship with your kids, and thus your house, retirement, savings, and credit score. You’re done.
For what, though? What could possibly be in these seductive packages?
This is the huge mystery to me. I know from our own orders that these little brown cardboard boxes are full of a lot of inexpensive, random stuff. Volume 5 in a fantasy paperback series. Men’s socks. A parrot toy. A power strip. A case of instant oatmeal. After all these years, surely it’s common knowledge that most deliveries are mundane.
What is the resale value of this stuff? What are the chances that a thief would pick up something they personally found relevant?
I highly doubt the 20-something girl with the glossy waist-length hair from the security video is going to be excited when she opens the package with my missing sweater. Maybe her boyfriend will want to wear it.
Where does it all go?
My husband says they probably throw it all out. Package thieves must spend a lot of energy tearing open boxes and pouches full of stuff they don’t want, hoping for a few categories that they can sell. We can only guess what those might be. Electronics? Prescription narcotics? (Do they even send those through the mail?) Jewelry?
I think he’s wrong. This has been going on in so many cities for so long, there must be an adjacent opportunity.
I’m willing to bet that someone takes all the random junk to... the flea market.
Where else would people go to dig through a weird assortment of towels and dog toys and clothes and housewares?
If I were running that kind of operation, I’d have various kids and elderly relatives opening the packages and sorting and repackaging everything every week.
The thing about package theft is that it’s stochastic. Guaranteed, there are a lot of people who have stolen a package once, when the opportunity struck, only to realize it was a waste of time. The crews who do it regularly only have to change neighborhoods every night and they’re nearly impossible to catch.
Packages on so many doorsteps, day and night, are creating this externality of the appealing opportunity. There are probably dozens or hundreds of people who never would have engaged in petty theft if they hadn’t been walking by at the wrong time. Then there are the organized forces, like the young couple that has hit our building at least twice, hopefully in something other than a Requiem for a Dream scenario. If it weren’t for this widespread availability of doorstep deliveries that they’ve been seeing since they were in grade school, maybe they’d be doing something else.
There is no way this continues for another decade.
Or, will it? My husband has had two bikes stolen since we moved to this area, both from supposedly secure parking garages. Bike theft has probably been a chronic problem since the very invention of the bicycle, which would be over two hundred years. The circle of Hell that is dedicated to bike thieves (the 12th, since you ask) must be pretty full by now.
As a futurist, I often wonder what kind of phase change or technological development would put an end to something that is currently an ordinary part of daily life.
There are a bunch of different things that could happen to put an end to package theft.
The most obvious would be some kind of personalized, secure aspect to the delivery cycle. Either an autonomous delivery bot goes around on a circuit, and the user needs a complicated security key to get the package, or packages are delivered to some kind of coded lockbox. Possibly both. It would be easy to imagine one robot bringing the package to a building, and another taking it inside. Or a drone could drop it off on the roof, which I think is less likely, not that that would stop someone from pitching it to a lot of VCs.
Another obvious way this problem could come to an end would be the advent of inexpensive, reliable 3D printers around the price of a television. People could make their own stuff and the only deliveries would be whatever medium goes into the replicator.
The most likely way would be for package delivery to become prohibitively expensive. Either the fuel costs get too high, or inflation drives up the price of most consumer goods, or fewer people are willing to work in the warehouses and delivery trucks because some other kinds of competing job opportunities become available. Or it simply becomes impossible for consumers to trust that they can ever get their stuff before someone comes along and steals it. The seagull/lobster roll problem.
Another model that might make sense would be to have neighborhood distribution centers around the size and availability of corner stores. In fact that’s almost guaranteed to happen, that wherever the package center was, snacks and drinks would be sold too. These would be like any other convenience store, except that the contents would be more highly personalized.
I remember back to when Amazon only sold books. I also remember thinking it was stupid when they began to branch out and sell other consumer products, like shampoo. And I remember debating whether to buy AMZN at around $600/share - too rich for my blood; I bought AAPL and TSLA instead. Back in the early Nineties, routine package theft was not a problem we thought of, just like social media trolls and cracked phone screens were not problems we thought of.
The interesting thing about futurism is that, while we’ll surely be wrong whenever we try to imagine one specific thing about the future, we’ll also be wrong if we assume that the future will look like today. Package theft is going to quit being a problem one day, but why exactly?
And when? I sure wish I had that sweater.
It’s easy to panic when the money is gone. Financial transitions are one of the scariest ways to enter the Place of Uncertainty. Looking backward years later, a few months may seem like more of a blip or a speed bump. At the time, though, there’s no way to know how long they’ll last or how exactly they’ll end.
I know whereof I speak. I’ve had to do this a few times in my life for various reasons. I started wandering down Memory Lane a bit, thinking what I would do if I were out of work, single, in debt, food insecure, with no way to pay the rent.
What I did that worked for me was, essentially, to find a sponsor. I wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but that’s what I was doing. This strategy may work for others.
Getting a sponsor when you’re desperate and broke is something that plenty of people do. Usually this sponsor answers to ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad.’ This isn’t always an option. Not everyone has parents. Not all parents are in a financial position to help out. Sometimes there is another kid there already. Maybe the parent is sort of looking for a sponsor too.
I lay all this out because some who are reading this may be in more of a position to be the sponsor, rather than hunt for one, and it helps to have that extra bit of understanding and compassion.
I didn’t necessarily go to someone looking for a place to stay. It was more like I had nothing else to talk about, and because I shared my pitiful situation far and wide, someone would pop up and offer to help out. Once it was a former roommate, but other times it would be someone I barely knew.
This is important because we don’t always realize that the world is so full of giving, caring people who are willing to take a chance on someone.
Usually the person who is willing to help out isn’t in a great financial situation either. This is why the situation usually works like this:
You can sleep there, and bring some of your stuff, but there isn’t room for all of it, and probably not for any of your pets. You feed yourself and you can have a little room on one shelf in the fridge. And you pitch in for utilities and/or part of the rent.
For a lot of families, even $200 a month can make the difference while they’re trying to keep it together.
This is where you can start to reframe yourself as an asset, not a pauper or a beggar. You have value! You are bringing something to the table! This can be a situation of mutual benefit!
I was generally welcome as a couch-surfer or fringe semi-roommate because I didn’t have a lot of negatives. Sure, I was flat broke and I didn’t have a car or even know how to drive. But I didn’t smoke or drink or have awkward substance use moments. I didn’t steal. I didn’t have a criminal record. I didn’t raise my voice at anyone, slam doors, punch walls, throw things, etc. I was (and am) generally a quiet, clean, safe person.
I’m not going to claim that I was Mary Poppins. During the situations when I needed a sponsor, and there were a few, my life was shambolic in many ways. I had what I now recognize as Drama. While I did have a plan for my situation, I did not have a plan for avoiding that Drama yet, because I didn’t understand that I could build my life in a way that would largely avoid it.
I did, though, clean up after myself. I didn’t leave trash or dishes lying around. I could use the kitchen or the shower without it looking like a bomb went off. It is impossible to overstate the importance of being clean and tidy when living on the good graces of another household. You simply can’t be as casual about your shoes, bag, clothes, bedding, dishes, food wrappers, electronics, books, notebooks, pens, etc as the people who are on the lease.
I was able to get a sponsor when I needed one because I had a plan. I always feel frantic when I have no income, and bored and restless when I have nothing to do during the day. I was always looking for some way that I could level up and earn my way out of the situation.
The first time, I had a job but not enough savings to pay a deposit on the room. It was fine - I always paid my rent on time.
The second time, I had a pending legal case and a check coming in.
The next time, I was applying for school and I needed somewhere to be until the dorms opened.
The next time, there I was again, able to pay a deposit this time but technically unemployed until Tuesday.
(There are a couple of spots in there that I’m eliding to streamline the narrative).
The thing is, I started my adult life with a part-time minimum wage job at a convenience store. When I got a job as an office temp it felt like I had won the lottery. I was thirty before I had any financial stability to speak of. I hustled my butt off to get through college because I knew that was my only way to earn the kind of income where I could quit bouncing out of penury and into financial disaster over and over.
Now I’m proud to be the one who is able to help. I’ve hosted all sorts of people on my own couch, lent or given money, sometimes anonymously (or hid it somewhere where nobody would find it until I left). I’ll never stop because I can never go back in time and not need a helping hand. It feels like a karmic debt that can never be repaid.
I know from experience that hard times are temporary. Terrifying! Traumatic sometimes! But temporary in the end. There are a lot of people like me out there, who know what it’s like and will respond to an honest plea.
Just remember to always clean up after yourself and be easy to get along with. Hang in there. When things are at their worst, that means it won’t take much for things to get better soon.
I got a new job while I was sick with COVID-19, and the reason I share that is to give people hope. It’s hard to imagine a bigger negative for a panel interview than fighting a serious lung infection. Now that I’m working, I thought I’d share some ideas on the pandemic job market.
First off, you have the great good fortune of not having to compete against me for a job, because I’m out of the game. Tee here.
Look, it’s important to treat unemployment with a sense of humor. Why? Because if you get sucked into despair and dread, it will give you a different attitude than if you find a way to project confidence and good cheer. Fake it if you have to, but attitude is a bigger determiner for hiring than your resume is.
Always be emitting rays that express, I can help you solve your biggest problems.
As opposed to: I have big problems.
Which is probably true! But money can probably solve many or most of those problems. I love financial problems because they can be solved with money. Problems that cannot be solved with money - like COVID-19 - are, as they say, “the suck.”
During my divorce, I was plagued with a series of unlikely problems. I had no income because I was in the midst of a workers comp case, then the IRS came after me because someone else’s salary was reported under my Social Security number, then I fell down the stairs and broke my tailbone, then the court dismissed my divorce case three times. It was a really annoying year. A year full of lawyers, a year when I earned $1410 and almost all of it went to legal fees.
I started working for money when I was 10 years old, but that was the year that I really learned how to make something out of nothing and figure out how to get by.
Honestly, of course. No matter how bad things are, committing a crime will make it worse. Either you get busted and you lose everything, or you become known to other criminals.
If you want to become financially comfortable, your reputation is quite literally everything. There is an entire different universe available to people with good credit who can pass a criminal background check and get a security clearance. Keep that in mind if you don’t feel like you have much else going for you - you may be drastically undervaluing your clean record.
There are three huge mistakes that we tend to make when we’re unemployed:
Point one: If you’re going to let pessimism control your search, to the point that you’re willing to take a bad job with bad hours and a horrible commute working for a mean boss, then please at least do me one single favor.
Make sure you take that cruddy position in a field that you want to know more about.
My family always wanted me to learn a trade, and by that they meant a blue-collar job such as an electrician. I do have a trade, except the collar is pink instead of blue. With basic secretarial skills, I can get a job in any industry anywhere in the world. If I wanted to, I could use my skills to get an entry-level position in law or accounting or marketing or interior design or whatever I like.
This is why I feel like I am better equipped than a lot of people to give job search advice. I’ve worked in dozens of fields. As an admin, I also dealt with dozens of job applicants. I even worked in an employment agency for a few months.
I’m buds with a couple of astronauts, a couple of professional athletes, and a few people who run their own restaurants. They’re cool people, but none of them has ever had a normal job!
Point two: the person offering you advice may be rich, may be brilliant, and also may know nothing whatsoever about how to get you the job you actually want. You’re better off Googling your field and reading blogs by people who do that type of work.
(And if they’re as broke as you, then why are you listening to them??)
Point three: about the job search. I’m working with a few people who are down on their luck right now, and not once has one of them actually beat me to something I suggested that they do. The default is to take several days to apply for something when someone brings it to their attention, then spend the rest of the time worrying.
Eight hours a day, five days a week is the minimum. That means researching your field and it means going directly to the source (the company where you want to work) and it means writing as many separate, targeted versions of your resume as necessary.
If you raise money for one single thing, let it be to pay a professional to go over your resume with you. Sell stuff if you have to. I paid a consultant to go over mine with me, and it got me almost 50% more than I made at my last job. I also got hired for only the third position I applied for.
This brings up another point, which is: multiple streams of income. This is what poor and rich people have in common, that middle class people do not. Don’t expect to pay all your expenses through a single source.
If you need a thousand dollars, you can do it several ways:
Earn a thousand dollars from one job;
Earn $500 from two sources;
Earn $250 from four sources;
Earn $100 from ten sources;
Any other variation you can think of.
The basic strategies are to work for someone else or work for yourself. If you’re working for someone else, pick something that tends to survive financial downturns and then make yourself indispensable. If you’re working for yourself, are you selling to broke people or rich people? I can sell something that costs $1 to almost anyone. If I’m selling to rich people, I want to charge as much as I can get away with or they’ll think I’m incompetent.
These are the areas where I would be looking, if I were unemployed right now:
COVID-centric jobs. Anything medical. Contact tracing. Insurance and medical billing. Online universities and tutoring services. Collections agencies and repo. Biohazard cleanup. Real estate and auctions. Bankruptcy and payday lending. Mortuaries and funeral homes. This stuff is depressing but it can’t be argued that someone will pay for it to get done.
Side hustles: You probably want to avoid the traditional stuff, like delivery and ride-share, cleaning, babysitting, or dog-walking because you want to avoid physical contact with people, right? I would look to offering services online to people who are housebound. Is there anything at all you can teach, especially to bored kids? Are you good at something like interior design, makeup, or styling? Can you tutor? Do you have something unique you can do on camera, like sock puppets, that someone might pay for you to do to entertain their kids?
Think for the future. Whatever you wind up doing, it’s for the short term. Think about what you want to be doing five years from now. Not what you think you can do with your current resume, but what actually appeals to you. Five years is plenty of time to train for it, whatever that is.
Keep in mind that when times are hard, you have very little to lose. That makes it a much better time to take risks! Scarcity thinking will make you want to contract and pull in your energies and aim lower, but that’s the biggest risk of all. Aim high - there’s less competition up there.
There is never a wrong time for a great idea. The trouble is, great ideas usually come across as bad ideas. This is why most people will make incremental changes - or none at all - at crisis points, even when a radical change is the only real solution to the problem.
Example: evacuation. Nobody ever *wants* to evacuate. Even though we all know what wildfires and hurricanes and floods are, we don’t want to believe that this is our movie now. There are always stubborn holdouts, and then there are the last of the procrastinators who always think we have more time than we do. Groups with different motives and different emotional reactions can still wind up with the same sad outcomes.
Making decisions is hard. There are consequences for being wrong that tend to look more likely than the consequences of what probably feels unrealistic. (The category five storm, the ashes that used to be a house, the empty retirement account, the foreclosure, whatever is the name of the new living nightmare). Not me, nope! Not going to happen!
This is why it’s easier to plan for these eventualities, game them out and prepare. Then it doesn’t feel as much like a ‘decision’ as simply following a policy.
This is why we have go bags, and it’s why we have emergency savings, and it’s why we have advance care directives, and it’s why we occasionally do a bit of theoretical modeling of threat scenarios. Put a plan in place, and those couple of hours of forecasting can translate to peace of mind that lasts for years.
Ironically, we worry more when we have no plan than we do in the process of making a plan.
Some of the toughest plans to make are the financial plans. It’s not uncommon for a couple to know exactly who they would want to take their kids if something happened to both of them. That is an incredibly depressing scenario! Yet everyone involved feels better if there’s a plan, because those kids really, really matter.
Why and how would it be scarier or more depressing to talk about various financial outcomes than it would the prospect of orphaned children?
Simple: The orphan scenario will probably never happen, but the financial situation is happening right now.
Troubleshooting is a process of root cause analysis. Without professional training, it can feel like someone is looking for someone else to blame. Default reaction here is always going to be defensiveness. “Me?!? What about YOU?!?”
That’s the thing about radical change, though. It doesn’t matter what happened before. What matters is that from now on, the entire nature of the game is going to be different. We’re just starting fresh.
We’re going to sit together, and we’re going to learn what we don’t know, and we’re going to figure out a plan that actually works.
No matter what anybody else thinks.
My husband and I are living a radical lifestyle that is wildly divergent from the values we were both taught as kids, which are basically:
Live near where you grew up, where you know everyone and you have a network of people to trade favors. Buy a house there so it will grow in value. Have two cars for maximum freedom.
Neither of us has any plans to do any of these things, and we’ve had to explain ourselves to family, friends, and colleagues several times. My husband will even get out a calculator and go through the math to show that we’ve done our due diligence. Our financial policy is pretty unpopular.
Buying a house is a bad idea in many cities, and it’s always a bad idea if you live there less than five years. Owning one car (much less two or more) is unnecessary, expensive, and even dangerous. Relocate strategically for your career. Live on only half your income at most.
Granted, most couples are not going to do what we do, and that’s perfectly fine. Be normal, be happy. You do you.
Just because you don’t want to do what we’re doing, though, doesn’t mean that your current plan is working for you. It’s not an either/or choice. It’s a false dilemma to hold up something extreme as the only possible alternative to what you’re doing now.
The questions are:
Is your current plan working for everyone involved?
What does everyone involved want to be doing in five years, and do you have a plan to get there?
“Working” means that it’s sustainable indefinitely. The schedule is manageable, everyone involved carries a fair load and has high quality leisure time, everyone involved is living their most cherished values and working toward their purpose. Income is higher than expenses. If there is debt, it’s trending downward, not plateauing or increasing.
Note that this probably does not describe the majority of American households.
The way to initiate a radical reassessment conversation with your partner is to be willing to go first. Come to the table with some ideas of what you specifically want - that helps - but also try to outline something that your partner wants. If you lead with how making a change will help get them what they want, you can start the conversation on a high note and skip right past all the blame and recriminations.
It can really help to bring a story, an example of someone else who has done what you want to do. Fortunately, there are couples in the FIRE community of all ages who share their personal stories of financial independence. You can share ours:
We radically downsized to 1/4 the living space and got rid of over 80% of our stuff. Now we live in a nice apartment less than a mile from the beach, working our dream jobs, and we invest over half our income. We’re debt-free, of course - we don’t even have a mortgage. We haven’t argued about money for many years.
It’s a pretty basic formula. If you’re in financial trouble, you can either increase your income, cut your living expenses, or both. You can make a temporary change, like moving to a much cheaper home or selling a vehicle, and agree to reinflate your lifestyle at a designated point. You can choose to approach your situation with good humor and excitement at how relieved you will be when all this stress is gone.
Look each other in the eye and commit: We’re a team. We can do this together.
I got a new job, and one of my first priorities was setting up automatic deductions for my retirement plan.
Hopefully, this is the most boring thing I’ll ever say.
It should be boring because it should be seen as:
Almost too obvious to mention
When instead it’s one of the most commonly procrastinated tasks. Women especially tend to refer to it as confusing or overwhelming. I did, too, until my first husband spent our entire house savings behind my back and I wound up divorced and flat broke.
Now I think of financial planning as the ultimate in self-care.
You think a hot bath and a massage would be relaxing? Try knowing you have an emergency savings cushion.
Out of all the causes of a tension headache, in my opinion, money worries are the worst. I used to lie awake and cry myself to sleep because I was so freaked out about my finances. Now, it’s one of the touch points I use when I want to calm down.
I set up my first retirement account when I was 26, a couple years after my divorce. I felt old as the hills, like I had been procrastinating for years, but the truth was that most of my jobs didn’t allow for such an option.
I remember the first time I got a quarterly retirement statement, and it said I had about $40.
“There are double digits in my retirement account!” I said to everyone in my office. “I can retire for... half a day!”
This is a good joke to make around older, more established people. It makes them feel better about their own situation.
Fast forward nearly twenty years and that account has significantly more in it than my entire annual earnings from that job.
Time does most of the work. It really is “set it and forget it.” For every minute you spend reading materials and figuring out where you want to allocate your funds, you get a year of peace and tranquility.
I was determined to learn all this investing stuff as a young woman because I had learned the hard way that you can’t trust anyone else to do it for you. I also knew, from observing older women among my friends and family, that I would probably get old, too. Older ladies that I knew were almost exclusively broke.
It’s been my observation that elderly people tend to live around 15 years longer than they thought they would.
Nobody can picture themselves being old, frail, and poor. Why would you want to??
I understood, though, that if I had forty years to prepare, that was plenty of time to try to take care of Old Me. Even if I always earned well below the median. Even if I lived alone and had to do it all by myself.
The irony here is that my frugality attracted my second husband. Not only am I still in charge of my own money, I have a partner to share expenses, and he’s in charge of his own money, too.
This is where the challenge came in. It was time to set up my new portfolio at my new job. Since we are working from home, for the same employer, in the same room, and it was the end of the day on Friday, my hubby noticed what I was doing. (Probably because I talk to myself a lot).
He wandered over and started peeking over my shoulder.
This is a moment of choice.
It’s so easy to sit back passively and let another person make our decisions, take our risks, do our labor. Like when I had to assemble my own office chair this weekend - it only took an hour and an Allen wrench, but I was also doing laundry and I would have loved to just have someone else do it!
There is nothing like the pride of knowing you’ve done it all yourself, though. I’m sitting in my chair right now, enjoying it so much more than the wooden folding chair I was using over the past three weeks. And that is an analogy for the two types of retirement I could have.
I thanked my husband for his interest and reminded him that I had a strong track record in choosing my own investments. I broke even in 2008 (+0.25%) and I’ve beat the market a few years.
He went back to what he was doing, probably smirking on the inside, because he loves that I am good with money. He also loves that I can stand up for myself.
The default at my employer, it turns out, is to set aside 10% and put it in a target date fund. That’s totally reasonable. It was a weird moment though to see that they had chosen the same date I would, and also to know that there are now only twenty years left of my traditional career arc.
It’s a long time, though!
I maxed out on everything. I like to think of it as being ‘extra.’ I like to think of my investment choices as somewhat flamboyant. Rather than whatever image people have of extreme savings, I like to see it more as the ‘sequins and a feather boa’ version. We’re allowed to put 15% of our incomes into our 401(k), pre-tax, so I do. I also put aside another 10% for my IRA.
We save more than that, of course - we like to live on just half our income - but where we put the rest of it is a different subject for a different day.
Where did I put my funds? It doesn’t matter, really, because there are only maybe a dozen or so options for most employers. Those funds are generally only available to institutional investors, which is cool because it means I couldn’t get into them as a freelancer.
Really the only thing that matters is that Old Me is going to look back and be proud of the decisions that Young Me made. We still have time, and time is better than money.
(Although money is pretty darn great, too).
Empty shelves two weeks in. Our grocery situation here in Southern California is gradually improving, but there are still large blank sections in even the best-stocked stores. If your situation is like ours, you’ve already been putting together some pretty ad hoc meals. For those who have never experienced food insecurity before, this is probably stressful, until you learn to accept it and get creative.
I’ve been here before, and this is my advice. Eat the weird stuff first.
My husband and I ventured out on a supply run this weekend. We went to a grocery store about a quarter mile from our apartment. There was plenty of produce... but almost nothing else. It basically had: some dog food, wine, honey, maple syrup, one can of pumpkin, Maine lobster juice, and a single bottle of raspberry pomegranate açaí cultured goat milk kefir.
They did have disinfectant wipes when you walked in, though!
What struck me about that bottle of kefir was that someone had obviously bought the rest of the bottles off the shelf at $8 each.
I’m a weird-groceries person, which I think the popular name for that is “foodie.” I’ve always enjoyed trying new things. In fact this is part of how I hooked my husband. He’s from a semi-rural area and his town had no fast food, much less anything more exotic than spaghetti. I took him to a Nepalese restaurant, introduced him to Vietnamese cuisine, and by the time I got him into an Ethiopian place the ring was on my hand. I feel very fortunate that we are both intrigued by novelty, especially now.
That’s how we’re framing this. It’s a grand culinary experiment and the prize is: dinner.
There are no picky eaters in my family. It’s a cultural thing for us. I can share a few of our family guidelines, if you’re not always getting buy-in with what’s available that night.
If we didn’t like something, we would tell each other, “Just wash it down.” Usually with milk.
“How do you know you don’t like it until you try it? It might be your new favorite.”
“Three more bites.”
All of these ideas are helpful for the hungry backpacker. Food discipline is fundamental for any expedition. If you eat everything in your pack, guess what. You’d better be good at foraging and hope that everything you recognize is currently in season or you’re going to wind up like that guy in Into the Wild. Start with portion control or you simply can’t go as far or have as much fun.
One time our car broke down on the way to camp. We had been planning to stop at the little general store in town before the turnoff. All we had was whatever was in the bottom of my dad’s pack. Because my dad is a genius at improvising and because we had been trained to eat whatever was on offer, we did okay. Trout for dinner and... instant-mashed-potato/whole wheat pancakes with trail mix for breakfast. Delicious? Infamously no. Enough to fill our bellies until we got home? Yup.
This is a wacky time to be hunting for provisions, when it’s easier to find expensive luxury goods like swordfish, oysters, chocolate, kale chips, and organic raspberries than it is to find beans, rice, or tortillas. At least for now. It’s almost precisely the opposite of what everyone had during WWII rationing.
This is why I say, eat the weird stuff first. Whatever you have that’s been hanging around in your fridge, freezer, and cabinets since... since when exactly? Certainly anything you know you did not buy in 2020 should go first.
I work with hoarders, and almost every single one of my people is a food hoarder. Some of them do it by accident, such as the households that have a full wet bar even though none of them drink alcohol, or the ones who keep finding ketchup packets mixed in with their mail. There will be things like jars of gifted jam, cake mix for a potential special occasion, or other holiday foods like a single can of cranberry sauce.
My friends who cook play a home version of Iron Chef. Pretend it’s that.
The idea is to take something like that can of cranberry sauce, and think of ways to use it, then build around it. Divergent thinking, brainstorming. Creativity. Gamification. Because the alternative is to eat through all the default stuff and then find yourself with a bunch of random ingredients that, try as one might, can’t be fitted into an appetizing meal.
I have a game that I call Freezer Surprise. It’s a little inside joke amongst our closest friends. Normally I like to go by the book and follow recipes meticulously, because that’s how I learn new cuisines. The first time I ever had risotto was after making it from a cookbook with no photos. When I do Freezer Surprise, I’m improvising with whatever I happen to have on hand. One night I made this absolutely insane pot pie with some leftover roasted vegetables, homemade vegan sausage crumbles, and a dab of gravy that had been in the freezer since Thanksgiving. It was outrageously good... and I have no idea how to ever repeat it.
Freezer Surprise is a great game for confident cooks, but probably not for the beginner. When I started learning to cook, I could ruin literally anything, from instant macaroni to frozen pizza. I even made an inedible peach pie.
Fortunately, one thing that we do have in lavish abundance is advice. We can look up hundreds of millions of recipes on the internet, and we can even use recipe generators based on whatever specific ingredients we type in. We can ask our friends, What would you make with this? We can let our mealtimes bring us together. We can even turn on our cameras and cook and dine together. Kinda.
What I gained from my experience with long-term food insecurity was an immense, endless gratitude for basic weekday dinners. I have the ability to eat anything without complaint. I know how to make dozens of variations of inexpensive meals. I’m a frugal shopper, alway have been. I never thought I’d need those skills again. Turns out it’s like eating a bicycle; you never forget how.
For those of us who have ever been flat broke, busted, or dirt poor, now is our time! We get to turn all that old trauma and heartache into helpful information for our communities! Watch this space, because I’m going to use my self-isolation time over the next few weeks to share everything I know about turning nothing into something.
Let’s start with alternative sources of acquiring work, creating job opportunities, and solving problems without money.
First, there are thousands of fresh new job opportunities right now. Someone is going to have to build all those ventilators! Everyone I know in construction, engineering, and tech has more work on their hands than they can handle.
Some businesses are offering loyalty programs. Our gym is offering special-access workshops for “after this is over.” Other businesses are selling gift certificates. There are adjacent opportunities here; for instance, if I worked in a salon I would offer consulting for all my clients who are now on camera all day.
For some of us, the problem is one that I refer to as the Fish Cannery. An old friend of mine and her boyfriend used to work in an Alaskan fish cannery for a few months every year. They would get tons of overtime and work seven days a week. The bad news was, they couldn’t shower or wash their clothes most days, and they went to bed with rank hair every night. The good news was, room and board were included, there was nowhere to go and nothing to buy, so they just racked up money. Then the boyfriend would live on the beach in Mexico for six months and surf all day.
Those of us currently doing Fish Cannery are working mega overtime. We have money but no supplies and no free time to do much of anything else. Like fix things.
Keep this in mind if anyone or everyone in your household is out of work.
Crisis has a cream pie in each hand, one to feed you and one to grind into your face. The trick in times of scarcity is to take the pie in the face and scrape a little into a jar to save for later.
If I were out of work right now, I would sit down with a pad of paper and a pencil, and I would do two things.
Right now, we’re adding the constraint that this chore should not involve physical contact with another person.
One of the worst things about scarcity mindset is that it tends to convince us that we’re worthless, helpless, and hopeless. THAT IS A LIE. If you’re an able-bodied person right now, you’re better off than anyone in a ventilator, so quit the pity party and start ideating.
I’m going to do this ideation for you, right here, right now! I’m dividing the list into digital and physical, as in, things you can do on a phone or computer vs. things you would do with, like, tools.
You and client can wave at each other through the window, they leave the job outside, you do the work and they Venmo you. Or leave you trade items like TP, groceries, or whatever you have arranged.
Fix bicycles. Or small engine repair, like sewing machines, if you know how.
Home repair. I think it would be legit to do something like unclog a drain, if the family shut the door and stayed isolated in a room until you left.
Roto-tilling and putting in a Victory Garden. Also maintaining it. Most people who have a big yard don’t actually know how to grow vegetables. So they’re stuck on a three-hour conference call safe indoors, and you’re growing food for the neighborhood, safe outdoors.
Teaching. If you have specialized skills in anything from IT to canning, someone may be willing to pay you, or trade you, to get online with them and share your knowledge. Sure, they can watch videos online, but they probably already tried that before they called you.
Consulting. For example, what do businesses need in order to go paperless? I know for an absolute fact that some people are still being forced to commute into their offices because management has no clue how to do business virtually. PEOPLE ARE GOING TO DIE because of reluctance to learn these skills.
Entertainment. We have the entire internet to entertain us, and people are already climbing the walls with boredom. Offer something live and unpredictable, especially if it’s child-focused and educational.
These are just a few ideas. I certainly hope that it will be easy to add all the glaringly obvious opportunities I’ve missed.
Now I’m going to do a little futurism and offer some forecasts.
This thing isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. H1N1 lasted for a year back in 1918. We are currently just beginning a process of incredible transition. The world of 2023 is going to look very different than it does today. We’re going to need all hands on deck to make it happen.
I think most entertainment will become either audio-only, animated, AR/VR, or gaming because it will be a while before sports or Hollywood are doing anything in person. I think people will quickly adapt to remote personal training, education, and commerce. I think there will be more opportunities than ever to make and package food, manufacture products that can’t be shipped overseas, and make deliveries. Space, robotics, drones, medical equipment, security, and PPE (face masks, gloves, etc) are going to continue to expand. Pent-up demand for clothes, toiletries, and basic housewares will build until we finally get the all-clear. There will be jobs that don’t currently exist and money to be earned.
Do you know someone who has been unemployed since rocks were soft? I’m thinking that even that person will be able to find work soon. Even if it’s you! You can read, cantcha? So why not? We’re in a new world now, and I don’t think even a criminal background, lack of credentials, or being non-neurotypical is going to be as much of an obstacle.
One thing that poor people and wealthy people have in common is that they both think in terms of “multiple streams of income.” The only people who rely on one job or one salary are middle-class people. It’s time to learn new ways of thinking and new skills. We all need to work together to dream a new world into existence, and we’d better start acting fast.
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.
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