Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What 34 Feels Like

Autumn in Austin

Yesterday I celebrated my 34th birthday.  As a treat to myself, I wanted to take some time to update my poor blog, which remains so neglected in the hustle and bustle of this new life I’m building in Austin.

34 feels good.  I’m now in my second year of full-time freelancing.  It’s definitely easier this year than it was last year.  I feel more confident, more sure of myself and what I’m doing.  I love the work and the students.  I’m getting better at saying yes to the right things and no to the wrong things.  I’m still learning and growing, which feels wonderful.

34 feels busy.  Very busy!  Due to the logistics of sharing a car, Paul and I have longer days of work, more time away from home.  I was not on board with sharing a car, but now I am.  Somehow we are making it work.  It puts some boundaries on my work life because I can’t meet students in as many locations, but I think those boundaries are healthy.

34 feels accepting.  I’ve learned to let some stuff go in order to feel more peaceful.  We eat more meals out to alleviate some pressure on the cooking/cleaning front.  Our house is usually a little dirtier than I would like.  I’ve developed a tiny Starbucks habit, just to give myself something to look forward to on my longest days. 

34 feels assertive.  As a freelancer who works with other people most of the time, it’s hard to prioritize my own projects and professional development.  And yet, part of how we get better at our craft is through concentrated effort at climbing the next mountain.  I’m inching my way toward the weekly decisions that give me time for growth.  This is hard for me because 1) I really like helping people and 2) I really like getting paid for my time.  But if I don’t take time to refill the well of my intellectual and creative powers, then I’m not doing anyone any good.

34 feels well-loved.  Sometimes, I look around my house filled with people I love, one furry cat, books and art and good food, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude.  How did I stumble into such a good life? 

Totes for Bernie cropped

34 feels optimistic.  So many things give me optimism for the year ahead: Bernie Sanders is running for president.  Everyone in my house is gainfully employed and moving in the direction of their dreams.  My family is healthy.  Love is the law of the land in this country.

34 feels big and small.  Building a life is big.  But I think we find more pleasure and happiness in our daily routines, our daily treats.  The small stuff comforts us.  It gives us the strength and the courage to carry on with the big stuff.  34 feels like the perfect blend of big and small.

34 feels committed.  Paul and I are engaged!  And if I can ever get over my paralysis toward wedding planning, we will be married within the next year or two.  I love him so much.

The Ring

And just for fun, here’s a rapid-fire Q&A on a few things wedding-related:

Who proposed?  We both did!

When is the wedding?  Either summer of 2016 or 2017.

Where are you getting married?  Probably Michigan, near the shores of Lake Huron

Are you excited?  I am equal parts excited and terrified.  I’m less afraid of being married and more afraid of wedding planning.  But my sister just gifted me with two fantastic books that a dear friend gave her, so I’m feeling like I have a roadmap to hold my hand.

Do you guys want children?  Yes.  We’re hoping to have one child, and after that, we’ll see how we feel about more.  (To the moms and dads whose “first child” is twins, I salute you!)

* * *

That seems like a good note on which to end.  Onward and upward, friends!  May you always be moving in the direction of your heart’s desires.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Budgeting for Freelancers, Part Five: Tax Time Confessions

It’s that time again: another Budgeting for Freelancers post!  This series is my way of sharing my imperfect approach to freelance life.  Emphasis on the imperfect part for today.  Click here to read Part Four and find links to my earlier posts.

One of my motivations for writing this series is that most of the advice for freelancers on the internet is idealized.  By “idealized,” I mean the advice assumes ideal-case scenarios, which makes freelance money strategy seem easy and do-able.

The truth is that it’s not.  It’s really not.  It’s messy and uncertain, and it comes with a steep learning curve.  Today I’m going to share with you the backstory on why I’ve been freaking out about taxes.  (Don’t worry—this story has a happy ending.)

In October of 2014, I became the official accountant for Paul and me.  I manage our shared budget, tracking our expenses and our income.  I keep tabs on how much money we have saved for summer (our dry season—we’re both academic tutors).  I am also in charge of taxes.  Paul is in charge of some of his bookkeeping, but I manage our overall financial life.

In August of 2014, Paul and I completed our move to Austin, and I transitioned to full-time freelancing as a tutor.  I had been working two part-time jobs before we moved: tutoring and managing a lab at Texas A&M University.  I had taxes taken out of my lab job paychecks, so I was paying some taxes for most of 2014.  But once I started freelancing full-time, I paid no taxes.  Whoops.

Actually, it’s not quite so simple.  In June or July, I had checked on my “tax status” to see if I should send in a payment for my freelancing income.  And the answer was no.  After we moved to Austin and I started hustling for work, I was so freaking busy with work that I didn’t even think about taxes.  Plus I was making so little money for the year that how could I possibly owe any taxes on top of what had already been withheld?

The answer is a lot.  I could owe a lot in taxes, because self-employed people bear a huge tax burden, something on the order of 20% in taxes.

So now I owe some money because of my own negligence, and Paul owes some money because he didn’t make any estimated tax payments.  Fortunately, the late payment penalty is very reasonable, so I can breathe a sigh of relief about that.

Altogether (because I think the numbers matter), we owe about $3500 in taxes.  I’ve been freaking out as I scramble to find $3500 in our budget to pay taxes on April 15th.  And I think I’ve managed to do it, though it will drain our liquid assets.  I’ve been pretty upset about this situation.  On the surface, it seemed like maybe I was just upset that self-employment taxes were unreasonably high and now I had to drain our bank accounts.  I mean, I was definitely upset about that.  I was in despair: it’s so hard to be self-employed, and on top of that, 1 out of every 5 hours I work is to pay taxes just for the luxury of working my ass off with no benefits.  I started thinking, I can’t afford to be self-employed!  It was just too hard.  But every time I thought about going back to having a boss and letting someone else call the shots in my work life, I thought, Absolutely not.  I’m not giving up just yet.

So that gave me some clarity on how I feel about self-employment: grittingly determined to make it work.  But I still felt very upset, even lashing out in anger one night over something petty and stupid at the house.  That night was a turning point for me: there was something deeper going on here.

What I came to realize is that I was embarrassed and ashamed that I had fucked up our taxes this year.  I didn’t know what I was doing, and I hadn’t built taxes into our budget.  My negligence came from several places: 1) I had been paying taxes and thought it would be more than enough to cover my tax bill, 2) I hadn’t fully assumed the responsibility for budgeting for Paul’s taxes, and 3) I was so freaking busy during the fall semester that taxes didn’t even cross my mind.  It sounds na├»ve, and it totally was, but there you go: sometimes all your hustle gets aimed in one direction.

And now that I’ve unpacked the shame, I’m actually feeling much better about taxes.  It’s interesting: we don’t owe any less money, but I feel much calmer about our situation.  Now that I know better, I can do better.

Another noteworthy observation: if I had known in 2014 how hard it would be to establish myself as a self-employed person, I don’t think I would have had the courage to start.  I really think the deck is stacked against the self-employed; it is so expensive to support yourself and a business on freelance income.  It’s so expensive, in fact, that I have increased my tutoring rates.  I feel much less apologetic about how I run my business now, which is an unexpected gift from this whole experience.  I still want to help students, but I feel more confident about my boundaries.  This is a very good thing.

Freelancing has been trial by fire for me, but I have no regrets.  I’m glad I made the leap.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Six for Saturday: Reading, Watching, Thinking

Porch Swing at the Cabin

Paul Working on His Puzzle

Paul and I took a little vacation this week to his family’s cabin in the woods.  It was the perfect break except for the fact that it was way too short.  We read our books, worked on a puzzle, cooked, and lounged about with no to-do list.  I still did some work (haven’t quite figured out my work-life balance as a freelancer), but it was so nice to work with no appointments to keep and no place to go.  I figure that in this first year of full-time freelancing, every mistake is a chance to learn.  What I learned this week: I need a longer break during spring break—two full days away from the hustle of real life.  As it turns out, most of my students who wanted to meet with me this week canceled their appointments anyway, which makes the idea of being “available” during spring break seem silly.  Next time: a longer break and more lounging!

At The Cabin, I worked on my taxes, and you guys, taxes are seriously bumming me out.  A little backstory: I’ve been doing my own taxes for ten years, so I know my way around a 1040.  But 2014 is my first year of self-employment (SE), and holy god, doing SE taxes SUCKS.  I owe the government close to $2,000, and that’s despite the fact that 2014 was not particularly lucrative for me.  If I thought before this that self-employment was tough, I must amend my statement: I’d say it seems damn near impossible to make it work, to actually make enough money to live as a self-employed person.  Fortunately for me, I didn’t know how bad the tax burden would be, so I carried on cheerfully, meeting students and building my business.  I’m actually really grateful for my ignorance now because not knowing made my life less stressful at a time when I didn’t need any more stress.  I feel like I can handle the reality of SE taxes now, and moving forward, I can make decisions with that knowledge in hand.

But that’s the end of my sighing about taxes.  Onto the Saturday six!  

{ONE}  My book of choice at The Cabin was The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris.  If you haven’t heard of Sam Harris or his work, you are in for a treat: few people are as thoughtful and rigorous in their writing about religion, spirituality, and ethics as Sam Harris.  I’m a huge, huge fan of his work, most of which I’ve only experienced through youtube.  So far, I’m really enjoying The Moral Landscape, and I’m thinking about adding Waking Up, his book about non-religious spirituality, to our next Amazon order.

{TWO}  I’ve been really bummed about call-out culture.  Call-out culture, for those of you who live under a rock like me, is the practice of publicly shaming people who say or do oppressive things (think homophobic, trans-phobic, misogynistic, that sort of thing).  I didn’t even know this practice had a name until today.  But Paul shared this piece with me, and I think it really articulates the problems I see in call-out culture, namely that it’s alienating and dehumanizing.  It seems to bring out the worst in people.  The piece was an interesting read.

{THREE}  I’m thinking about buying some new makeup to go along with the subtle makeover that I’m doing on myself.  At Target, I saw the Pacifica line of products, which are vegan!  Anybody have any experience with Pacifica makeup?  I saw this good review on-line and am thinking about plunking down $14 for a lipstick (but see above re:taxes, hence I haven’t bought any new makeup yet…)

{FOUR}  This piece on pop culture exhaustion made me smile and nod.  I feel the same way: with a few exceptions, I just don’t care much for pop culture.  I have no mental bandwidth for it!

{FIVE}  My Twitter friend Fran recently posted a day in her life as a second-year med student who is studying for boards.  While I am so, so glad I did not go into medicine, I find the lifestyle fascinating.  Fran seems so calm and balanced!  She makes it look easy.

{SIX}  We’ve been making a vegetarian version of this gnocchi recipe with greens and sausage, and it’s outrageously good.  Just sub in your favorite veggie sausage and you are good to go.  It might become your favorite busy-night dinner.  Maybe I’ll post our version of it…

Whew, that’s it from me for now!  What have you been up to lately, my dears?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Life Lately

Red Pants Rainy Day

Mark Twain Quote

It’s a gray, rainy day here in Austin, Texas, but I’m wearing new red pants with bare ankles, so all is well!  I have a few hours of downtime today between work gigs, so here I am with a life update.

Overall, life is good.  Work is busybusybusy—I have a full roster of students, and I like working with them.  Most of my students this semester are high schoolers, so I’m anticipating that when they go on spring break in March, I’ll have a slower week.  When that happens, I’m looking forward to working on some content for my professional website.  It’s been too long since I’ve posted anything over there.  (But I do love my most recent post on what Cheryl Strayed and Wild taught me about tutoringHonk honk—of course I toot my own horn!)

In light of my work, Paul has really stepped up his game at home.  Not only does he do a lot of the dishes after our meals, he’s been turning our home into an art/engineering exhibit.  A list of his projects this year: a hydroponic garden with a computerized lighting/watering system, a set of cubbies for our living room, and a remote-controlled power box for the strings of lights in our living room.  He’s amazing.  And in February, we celebrated two years together!  What an adventure it’s been for us—the best.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “big things,” like motherhood, authorship, and what my purpose in life is.  Truthfully, I feel like Paul and I have been doing a big thing together this year, which is helping our roommate Courtney get back on her feet, financially and otherwise.  In some ways, I feel very parental toward her, even though she’s a grown-up.  Paul and I are older and more stable in life.  Together, Paul and I have been able to use our financial stability to help Courtney.  After being underemployed for seven-plus months, Courtney landed a job with a cool company called Legal Zoom in north Austin.  She started working in January.  Now, for anyone who hasn’t been unemployed or underemployed for an extended period of time, I can tell you that it’s a long, slow climb out of the unpaid bills that accumulate during unemployment.  You go from having lots of time and no money to no time and no money as you start paying down those bills.  So while Courtney works on her bills, Paul and I are keeping our house afloat, paying the rent each month and helping out as unexpected expenses pop up.  Given our collective circumstances, I feel a lot poorer right now, but I also know that it’s absolutely the right thing to do.

Now that my career as a tutor seems to be stabilizing, I’ve had more mental bandwidth to start thinking about other big things in life, like having a baby and writing a book.  I’ve been wanting to start working on a book for like two years now, but I’ve lacked whatever it takes to truly commit to a book project.  I’ve had some false starts, but I’m wondering how I’ll know when I have an idea that’s good enough to nurture into full existence.  Maybe I won’t know until the end, when I look back and say, “Yes!  Now that is a book I am proud to have written.”

As for babies…I have never been more ambivalent about that possibility.  And when I say I’m ambivalent, it’s not that I don’t care.  It’s that I really want and don’t want a kid at the same time.  I think of a line from Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert and I just know that I would have moments of parenthood like this:

The one thing nobody ever warned me about when I started having babies was this: Brace yourself for the happiest years of your life.  I never saw that coming.  The joy of it has been an avalanche.

And then there’s this tidbit, also from Committed:

Just go for it.  It’s not that hard.  You just have to push against all the forces that tell you what you can’t do anymore now that you’re a mom.

It probably says something about me that I’m more drawn to the “go for it!” quotes than the “it’s so hard” quotes.  Because the truth is that I already know it’s hard.  But is it what I want?  Do I want motherhood to be one of my “big things” in life?

I don’t know.  But I do know that I want to give birth to a book, so maybe I’ll focus my creative efforts on that one for a while.  At least with a book I can put the project aside for a while and nobody will start screaming!

Happy day, friends.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Blossoms and Inspiration for Wednesday!

Springtime Blossoms 2_25_15

Hello, hello!  After the hurricane that was the start of the 2015 academic semester, I am back with a few great links to share with you on this fine Wednesday.  Above, I share with you some springtime blossoms I saw this morning outside the library.  (So pretty, right?  So hopeful!  Come on, spring!)

Let’s get to the links!

* ONE: Dear Sugar is back!  In podcast form!  Hurray!

* TWO: When I was in graduate school, I never got around to writing a post about the care and feeding of your graduate student.  So I loved this post from Alison on the care and keeping of your med student.  Yes.  

* THREE: I’m trying to revise my wardrobe to reflect my new lifestyle as a professional freelancer.  I no longer work in a lab, nor do I go to the same place every day for work.  Some days I need to look more professional; other days I’m sitting on the floor with kids talking about science.  I’m trying to figure out how to curate a wardrobe that will work for me.  I loved Jess’s teacher capsule wardrobe—so many pretty pieces!  All those jewel tones are my kind of capsule—I want to see more capsules where people don’t shy away from using beautiful, vibrant COLOR.

* FOUR: I’m feeling drawn yet again to meditation and to contemplating my spirituality.  I have more to say on this topic, but for now, enjoy this beginner’s guide to meditation from my favorite, Gabrielle Bernstein.  I especially like #5: peace begins with me.

* FIVE: “Don’t doubt yourself.”  I’ve been super-busy with work, mostly high school chemistry.  On top of that, I’ve been offered some interesting freelancing opportunities that will push me out of my comfort zone.  I want to bookmark this post on avoiding freelancer burn-out because some weeks are really hard and I need reminders that it’s okay to set limits, to take time to learn new things, to be a little choosy over the jobs I take.

So what’s new with all of you, lovely readers?


Monday, January 19, 2015

2015 Intention: Flow

After such an incredible goal-reaching year, it would be easy for me to conclude that 2015 will be nothing special.  I’m hoping that all the hard work during 2014 has created a solid foundation so that 2015 will be a stable, happy year.  And that’s why my goals for 2015 are less about new achievements and more about flow.

Let’s talk about flow for a moment.  In 2014, Danielle LaPorte’s work rocketed into my world.  To hear Danielle speak about, oh, I don’t know, ANYTHING is to stop whatever you are doing and PAY ATTENTION.  Because whether you agree or disagree with her, you will feel compelled to listen, to figure out if she’s friend or foe.

I was actually a little miffed by the first interview of hers I heard, one she did with Jonathan Fields.  She slams higher education as being a system of right and wrong answers and toots her own horn for having never gone to college.  That’s an awfully narrow view of college and one that is not reflective of much of the work that happens in higher ed.  (True, a lot of STEM classes have right and wrong answers, but even those fields have plenty of room for creativity and ambiguity.)

I was annoyed by Danielle at first, but I kept listening.  Why?  Because I had left the realm of right and wrong answers, and I was trying to find my path.  Here was a woman who had dedicated her life to helping people find their paths.  Her method?  Ask yourself just one question:

How do you want to feel? 

How do you want to feel?  It’s so simple!  So simple and yet so…refreshing.  Profound.  Uncomplicated.

So I listened to all of Danielle’s talks I could find on youtube, then I put The Desire Map on my wishlist.  All along, I’ve been asking myself that one question: how do I want to feel?

Saturday Desk

As a book, The Desire Map is really two books in one: it’s the why and how of desire mapping.  I’ve read the why part; the how part is a workbook that I have yet to start in the pen-on-paper sense of the word.  But I’m introspective enough to have figured out how I want to feel.  Two words: flow and free.

Flow.  Flow describes how I want to feel in my personal and professional personal life.

I want to be more easy-going about how neat and clean (or not) our house is.

I want to spend lots of time exercising, on my bike and my two feet.

I want to keep the cash flowing in my life.

I want life to feel easier.

I’m pretty happy with how things are going now.  My work is off to a good start for the new semester, I’m renewing my commitment to running, and I haven’t been as stressed out about the state of our house.  This month, our roommate Courtney got a great new job, so that will increase our house’s cash flow.  For me, flow is about being energized by the things that I want to do.

Free.  Freedom can be a hard goal to nail down, given how busy our lives are and how enmeshed we are in relationships that place expectations on us.  I’m thinking of “free” in a few ways.

I want to be free to say yes or no.

I want to be free to accept invitations and to spend more time with friends.

I want to be free to learn more, write more, think more.

When you’re a freelancer, it’s easy to feel insecure about the next paycheck because it might not be there.  But I’m guessing that the sweet spot of freelancing is to know when the consequences of saying yes outweigh the freedom of saying no.  I remind myself that every yes has an opportunity cost: I won’t be free to say yes to something else when it comes along.

I want a great paycheck, but I also want to be me.  And I’m a person who needs time away from work in order to be energized and excited for my work.

* * *

You’ll notice that I don’t have any big achievement-oriented goals on my list for this year.  It’s not that I don’t have any goals like that; instead, they are embedded within my larger feelings for 2015.  I’m still running a half-marathon in February; I still aim to hit 20 billable hours each week.  Because my real goal for this year is to feel the way I want to feel, flow and free are deeper goals, more authentic goals.  And there are so many ways on a daily basis to feel the way I want to feel—it’s not limited to what I’ve listed here.

I have a feeling that 2015 is going to be a very good year.  Onward!  

Saturday, January 17, 2015

2014: The Year in Photographs (Part Two)

You Are Here

Austin, Austin, Austin!  That is the second half of 2014 for me in three words or less.  I’m so glad we made our move to Austin this year.  Austin has been exhilarating, challenging, and ultimately very rewarding.  I remember being jolted upright by the realization that chasing your dreams was, like, A LOT of work.  So much work.  And yet the hard work of chasing my teaching dreams was easier than delaying them any longer.

Austin gave me a chance to grow.  I learned how to live (mostly) peaceably with two roommates after living alone for a decade.  I learned how to run my own business.  I learned how to combine finances with my partner.  And I’m still learning what exactly I need in this new freelancing lifestyle of ours to make it really work for the long haul.

And with that, let’s check out my favorite photos from July-December of 2014.  (For Part One of this series, click here.)

Connect Four at Hullabaloo

* July: July was our last month in College Station.  Leaving was a bittersweet experience.  I knew that it was time to leave, yet I was sad to see that chapter of my life draw to a close.  As much as we all made fun of College Station, it was still our home, and we had a comfortable life there.

The photo above is from an evening at Hullabaloo Diner, legendary for its menu and train-car-turned-diner restaurant space.  We played Connect Four while waiting for a table; that’s Paul checking out his next move.  I love that photo as a reminder of the fun night we had with friends; we were out celebrating our friend Matt’s birthday, and it was an altogether great evening.      

On the Bike Trail

* August: In August, we settled into our new home in Austin, and Paul and I got busy working on our professional websites.  I spent much of August studying chemistry and genetics, trying to get ready for the fall 2014 semester.  In August, we discovered (via a friend) the riverfront trail that runs along the Colorado River in Austin.  The trail quickly became one of my favorite spots in Austin.  That’s me on my bike up there in a photo snapped by Paul.

Spider House

* September: In September, the fall semester started and I worked on marketing our various tutoring businesses.  The photo above is from Spider House, a groovy coffee shop near the University of Texas.  Courtney and I went on several field trips to advertise our services, including the Austin Writing Shop, and I snapped a photo of the art at Spider House.

Gorgeous Flowers

* October: October was a crazy-busy month for me, as the semester kicked into full speed and my tutoring schedule filled up.  I was so happy to have paid work because it meant I was doing it!  I was making a living as a freelancer!  It meant I was adding value to people’s lives using my teaching skills.

It was pretty great.  But it was HARD, too, in ways that I could not appreciate until I started doing it.  I didn’t have much time for blogging, photography, or any of my other creative hobbies, but I did spot the gorgeous roses at Whole Foods one day, hence this photo.  We can always find a few moments to appreciate beauty, no matter how busy we are, right?  Right. 

The View from the Trail

* November: Another photo from the riverfront trail!  We figured out that the trail can be used to ride to west Austin, to UT’s campus, and to downtown Austin.  I think this photo is from a UT/downtown trip.  In this photo, you can see some of the downtown buildings through the branches of this wooded part of the trail.

November was a great month.  I was pretty busy with work for most of it, but tutoring slowed down during the week of Thanksgiving, and I had some much-needed time off.  Paul and I celebrated my birthday with a long bike ride and a trip to downtown Austin for Anthropologie and fresh juice and snacks at Whole Foods.  It was a low-key celebration with my love, and it was perfect.

December Dusk in Austin

* December: December was by far the hardest month of 2014.  I was crazy-busy with work and worried sick about our house’s financial health.  I got pretty worn down by all the stress, but about a week before Christmas, work slowed down, and I was able to calm down and recover from all of it.  We had a fantastic party on New Year’s Eve as we said good-bye to 2014.

The photo above was taken from one of the bridges that crosses the river from downtown into south Austin.  You know I can’t pass a pretty sunset without taking a photo of it, and this one was no exception.  Austin is such a pretty city, with great views all around.  I look forward to exploring the city more, hopefully on foot and on bike.

* * *

2014 was a banner year for me.  I achieved a lot of goals and survived big challenges.  2015 might not be quite so exciting, but it might be even more rewarding.  I’ll be sharing my 2015 goals soon.  Until then…

Onward, 2015!