Saturday, November 29, 2014

Budgeting for Freelancers, Part Four: Why We Combined Our Financial Lives

I’m back with another installment of Budgeting for Freelancers!  Want to read the rest of the series?  Here are Parts One, Two, and Three (click!).

I want to tell you about a deeply personal decision that Paul and I made earlier this year: the decision to combine our financial lives into one unit.

Paul and I have been dating for almost two years; we’ll hit the two-year mark in February.  We moved in together in May of 2014, and then we moved to Austin two months later.  We both work as freelance tutors, so we both face the highs and lows of self-employment.  Perhaps most importantly, we have been talking about money and our values since the earliest days of our relationship.

Long before we shared any bills or property, we talked about all manner of things related to money.  One of the first things I learned about Paul was his passion for quality and good design.  He buys the very best he can afford, and he’s very mindful of how his purchases reflect his values.  Paul is also very, very aware of the fact that his money literally represents his labor.  When you freelance and you get paid by the hour, you start to wear this fact on your heart.  Money is time (yesterday’s time), but time?  Time is not money.  Or at least time is not just money.  Time is a world of possibilities; money is one of them.

So in order to control his time, Paul had to control his money.  He did this by staying true to his values.  He and I share a love of reverent materialism.  We’re not anti-consumerism (though he is prone to shouting “capitalist overproduction!” much to my annoyance when I point out pretty skirts and dresses).  What we’re against is mindless consumerism and consumerism as a hobby.  How we spend our money is a powerful glimpse into our values, and Paul and I are committed to making our money work for us and our lifestyles.  We want to call the shots rather than letting consumerism or debt run our lives for us.

For a while, we shared expenses while meticulously tracking who spent what.  It was one approach to making things “fair.”  In hindsight, I have mixed feelings about this approach because I’m not sure I ever knew what “fair” is or was.  There were a lot of expenses that landed on the shared list, including a brand-new computer for Paul, groceries, and travel expenses like gas.  But the thing is, Paul and I didn’t enter into this relationship as equals.  Paul spent the last five years building his business.  He did what he had to do to be an entrepreneur and independent of a steady paycheck.  I spent the last five years working for other people, always fearful of what my bosses thought of me and my work.  I earned a comfortable paycheck and was able to save money quite aggressively, with the long-term goal of buying a home.

During the first year Paul and I were together, he worked at the job he had created for himself, and I bounced my way in and out of jobs.  I was jealous of his stability.  But I had saved a substantial amount of money, so I had resources and thus financial stability, even if my career was wobbling.

When we moved to Austin, we continued to split expenses.  Until one day when it dawned on me: we were sharing a life in Austin.  There were three names on the lease (our two names and our roommate’s).  We were tying our boats together, promising to support each other in life and love.  Splitting expenses seemed to go against the spirit of every other decision we were making.  So I couldn’t, in good faith, see why we should continue.

So we stopped.  For simplicity, we made the transition to one budget in October 2014.  I track our expenses and our income in one notebook.  Before we made the transition, we sat down with Courtney and dissected our budget.  By doing that, Paul and I were able to see how much money we needed to bring in each month to sustain our lifestyle.  So far, so good: October was a great month for us, work-wise.  We’ll see how November and December turn out!

We’ve chosen not to have any joint accounts, moreso out of laziness than anything else.  Instead, we share bills easily—I write the rent check, Paul usually buys the groceries and gas.  We don’t think about it much.  We’re mindful of our account balances, but there’s no more accounting within our relationship.  It was a pretty easy transition, though I’ll admit that Paul lacks my enthusiasm for budgeting and tracking expenses.  It’s possible that after so many lean years of being a one-man show, he’s enjoying the prosperity that our couplehood has brought him.  He still works very hard, but he seems more relaxed about expenses.  I think living together has asked all of us to compromise; one of Paul’s compromises is accepting a budget that is shaped by needs and wants that are not his own.

As for that nest egg of mine, I’m still hoping we’ll be able to buy a home in the next few years.  Austin has a notoriously crazy real estate market, but I live in hope that we’ll find a place.  For now, living in hope is good enough for me.  I was walking around my neighborhood the other day, and looking at houses, I felt my chest expand with hope.  There was no real forethought; it was more like my heart remembered a long-dormant dream and said, “Hey!”  My eyes starting searching for “For Sale” signs, though none were to be found that day.  Someday, the time will be right. 

Even if it takes us a long time to buy a house, Austin is now home.  We’ll be content with whatever our lives look like because that’s how we roll.  For now, I’m grateful that we’ve had enough money to take care of the three of us here in our Austin household.

But I’ll continue to live in hope.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Budgeting for Freelancers, Part Three: Free Fall and Family

This post is Part Three in a series about budgeting for freelancers.  Hop on over to Part One here and Part Two over here.

Paul and I have now had three solid months of freelancing together—no steady paycheck between us and the freedom to say yes to the opportunities that we like the most.  I love the commitments we’ve made to our work.  We have been incredibly blessed with an abundance of good students and parents with whom we work.  We’ve also started working as the coordinators for Science Club at Acton Academy here in Austin.  Acton is a small, progressive elementary school, so our students there are significantly younger than our usual group of high school and college students.  We are learning as we go along!

Our transition to Austin has been relatively easy, and I’m very happy with my work life.  In today’s post, my original intent was to write about our lifestyle choices.  But I realized that I can’t write about that without acknowledging our house finances, so I’m going to combine the two to talk about our priorities and what it means to live and spend with intention.

Three of us moved to Austin together this summer: Paul, me, and our roommate Courtney.  We all moved without real jobs; we knew that finding work would be a top priority for us in Austin.  Paul and I have had a relatively easy time finding work.  Courtney has had a more difficult time, for reasons that I’m not going to explain here.  What’s important to know is that we moved to Austin and promised each other that we would take care of one another.  Courtney and I both transitioned out of our old careers.  I was optimistic and nervous for both of us as we set out to establish ourselves in new careers in a new city.

Courtney has been under-employed for several months now.  It’s a situation that has tested all of us as we try to remain optimistic and hopeful that she’ll find decent employment.  Paul and I have navigated the uncertainty by sharing more our resources with Courtney, by seeing ourselves as a family that will float or sink together.  In more specific terms, here are some examples of how we share what we have:

* Paul and I have taken on the job of paying for the house groceries.  We three cook and eat a lot at home, and our dedication to the kitchen helps our food budget stretch.

* If we do go out to eat, everyone is invited.  Paul and I cover the bill.  We don’t do this very frequently, but it would make me sad to not include everyone. 

* If we get take-out (like burritos from Super Burrito!), we bring home food for everyone.  I just can’t imagine not treating everyone if two of us are getting burritos.

(In case you were wondering, Super Burrito is a house favorite—everybody loves a Super Burrito lunch!)

* Between the three of us, we have three cars.  One of them is much newer and nicer than the other two.  We share cars and rides as needed.  This was so, so helpful to me before I finally (finally!) got my driver’s license. 

And here’s a personal story from my past.  Growing up, my family often had just one working car, and my dad would usually drive that car to work.  That left my mom and all of us kids (I am one of five kids) with no car and thus no transportation beyond our bikes and our own two feet.  It was frustrating and embarrassing to constantly beg rides from other people to get to and from my extracurricular activities.  But the way other people took care of me during those years taught me gratitude for my community and the love they showed me.

It is hard when you have a roommate who isn’t able to pay for her share of things.  It’s a stressful situation for our house.  But all those years of being the kid without a ride, of being expected to fend for myself without parental care—those years taught me perseverance.  And they made me want to pay it forward, eventually.  I feel like that time has arrived.  Paul and I have the chance to help Courtney complete her transition to Austin, and to me, that completion means supporting her until she’s able to support herself.

There is one obvious question I haven’t answered yet, so here it is: what about rent?  Our compromise on rent (and our monthly bills) is that Paul and I are covering most of them, and Courtney will pay us back eventually.  I feel like this agreement is fair: Paul and I are covering some expenses as an expression of love and support.  For other expenses, we are simply tracking the bills and making sure they get paid on time.

To bring this post back around to its original message: taking care of the three of us is our top priority.  It means Paul and I have less money to put toward saving for the slower seasons, like Christmas break and summertime.  At some level, I’m crossing my fingers that we’ll be able to find some work this summer so we aren’t living on savings for 3-4 months.  As summer gets closer (and I realize it’s a long way off right now), I’ll do more than cross my fingers.  I’ll start asking around my network, looking for opportunities to teach, work with students, and improve my professional skills.

Having an under-employed roommate is probably not what most experts would recommend for a pair of freelancers.  But life is what happens while we are busy making other plans*.  In a year or two, when Courtney is working and our tutoring businesses are in full swing, I know I’ll be glad that we weathered this rough patch, caring for one another.  It’s hard now, but the future beckons.  Things will get better.

* John Lennon, RIP.

* * *

This post touches on sensitive issues, like work, value, and money.  Because of the personal content, I asked Courtney if she was comfortable with me writing about our situation, and she said yes.  I’m grateful to her for letting me share our story.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Hello, November: Celebrating Goals

Hello again, patient readers!  Life continues to be busy and wonderful and challenging, a kind of organized chaos of getting things done and sucking the marrow out of life.

It occurred to me recently, when I decided to check in on my 2014 goals set waaaaay back in June, that now is a good time to reflect on the massive accomplishments of this year.  Because dear readers, it’s been a big year, and I want to take a moment now, before the holidays-and-finals madness descends, that this year was the year of making it happen.  Booyah.

It feels like an entire year has passed since June, even though it’s only been five months.  But there are, I think, events that make time stretch into infinity, like big life changes and massive amounts of learning.  It’s why life felt like it moved slower when you were a kid.  I love that 2014 has been a year of so much growth, but I know I won’t mind if 2015 has fewer changes and more everyday moments.

I’m compiling my list of completed goals from this post I wrote in January and a second post I wrote in June about my 2014 goals.  So if you want to read the back story here, hop on over to those pages!

* Move to Austin.

Done!  Done done done done DONE!  This goal was nine months in the making, and looking back now, it feels like it unfolded exactly as it should have.  I’m so glad we’re here.

Oh, and isn’t Austin pretty at night?  I took this photo while biking along the riverfront trail one evening, on my way home from work.

Austin at Night

* Freelancing: stay in the game.

Austin has welcomed us with wide open arms!  I’ve been honored and humbled by the number of parents and students who have contacted me for tutoring.  I’ve arrived at a point where I have to start thinking more strategically about my long-term goals for tutoring—where I want to focus my attention, which subjects and age groups are the best fit for me, that sort of thing.  We’ve also launched the Austin Writing Shop, a one-stop shop for writing students in the humanities and sciences.  We’re hoping to do more promotion around the Austin Writing Shop because I really believe that we can help students become stronger, more confident, more persuasive writers.  That’s work that I want to do because I believe in the power of writing.

* Get a license, buy a car, become a full-fledged grown-up.

Holy crap, this one is finally done too!  I received my grown-up driver’s license on October 28th, and I’m so happy and relieved to have finally reached this milestone.  For the past week, I’ve been driving myself to my tutoring appointments and whatnot, instead of dragging Paul or Courtney with me everywhere I go.  It’s a huge relief for the house to have three solo drivers, but we still like to go places together to do things.  Just the other night, Courtney wanted to go to Book People for a good browse after a hard day, and I got my first taste of driving in the rain and driving downtown.  Yay?  Okay, so maybe the driving wasn’t super fun, but it is good to get new driving experiences to make me an all-around better driver.

I don’t  know if I mentioned it on this blog, but Paul and I bought a car together over the summer, a 2007 VW Passat.  We love it.  It was a big deal to buy a car together, but I think it was the right move for us.

* Wallet matters: break even financially.

Huh.  It turns out that buying a car, moving, and freelancing full time is more likely to leave one poorer instead of richer.  In the interest of full disclosure, my debt from 2014 is about $11,500, most of which is due to big purchases, like the car and our tutoring equipment.  Essentially, my savings have funded our dreams this year.  And you know what?  I’m okay with this.  I had the resources to get us where we wanted to go, to set up shop in a new city, and to help Courtney make her transition to Austin as well.  Transitions are expensive, and although I do get nervous about money sometimes, I am at peace with our decisions.

Would I feel differently if that $11,500 were actual debt, in the sense that I owe the bank that much money?  Maybe.  If we’d needed to take out a loan to buy the car, I think we would have done so.  Our tutoring equipment was a business expense, so it too feels less like a luxury and more like a necessity.  My point is that we spent money in pursuit of our dreams, and those dreams are becoming our everyday reality here in Austin.  I’d spend that money all over again if I had the choice.

I want to talk more in a future post about our budget choices as freelancers—how we think about money now that both of us are freelancers whose work is seasonal.

* * *

Before Paul and I started dating, I’d never been part of a couple that shared a home, a car, groceries, income, all of that.  I’d never been part of a couple that shared a life, and I wasn’t sure I was interested in that path.  But there is a real sense of wonder and strength that comes from being inside a partnership.  I love being a part of us.  I sometimes miss the days when my life felt smaller and simpler, but I can’t deny how good and right it feels to be building a life with Paul (and Courtney, who is like family to us).  2014 was a year of getting things done together, and I am so grateful for how far we’ve come.

Happy November, dear readers.