Diane Breaks a Rule

Today I violated what I have long considered to be a cardinal rule: I bought cheap shoes. Boots, actually, which is even worse. Boots are an investment piece.

As long as I can remember, I have had this thing about shoes. I think it’s based on some Miss Diana Vreeland-based rule that one must wear expensive shoes and carry an expensive bag (it’s a cousin to the no white shoes after Labor Day rule).

Why Diana Vreeland’s opinion matters so much to me, I’m not certain. She was a strong, creative and outspoken woman – and I like that in a person. She wrote a classic autobiography and I like that, too. But I don’t live in Miss DV’s world. Anyway, I know that any of my “expensive” shoes would probably still seem cheap to her. It’s not like the shoes I buy are featured in Vogue (although in DV’s defense, she may have said to buy the most expensive shoes one could afford – but then she would also have been likely to be supportive of starving for fashion).

There’s definitely a part of me that understands starving for fashion’s sake. Then there’s the other part of me that gets excited about chickens and edible perennials. I think the chickens win out.

Methinks she is over-pondering the boots – but I’m thinking the cheap boots are a representation of a more mature lifestyle. Mature here means smart and responsible – not crow’s feet and a crepey neck. In the past I have justified these “investment pieces” by saying how long they will last me. For example, the last pair of boots I bought cost a few hundred dollars. But I bought them many years ago – maybe 10. I wore them a lot, they worked with pants and dresses, as work or casual-wear. They were very useful and I certainly got my money’s worth out of them. They are just too high-heeled for me these days. But what if I bought a pair of cheap – but well-made – boots and still wore them for 10 years! Then I could get even more of my money’s worth out of them. This is a revelation to me. And a few hundred dollars I can count towards saving 30 large.

Here I am, rocking my cheap – but well-made – boots:


If you are very nice, maybe in 10 years I will let you see them from the side.

Road trip: Smart option or crazy undertaking?

I am a traveler. I’ve even dabbled in travel writing. I’ve backpacked, couch-surfed, lived overseas (on two different continents), stayed in some rather expensive accommodations and slept on the dirt at the edge of a fading fire. Without question, my most meaningful travel experiences have happened when I’ve travelled as many locals do – cheaply.

I think when I’m traveling with limited resources I’m freed to be open to all experiences. Whether that experience is of stormy seas on a four-hour ferry ride or a simple plate of food straight from a market stall. Money can provide better bathrooms, but it can also homogenize a place to the point where relying on it can get in the way of an authentic travel experience.

So given this history, imagine my shock when my DH (Dear Husband) made a proposal that made me challenge my self-image . . .

DH and I had planned on visiting family in South Texas for New Year’s Eve. When we went to book airline tickets, we discovered prices were more than double what they had been a few years ago when we last made the same trip. This time around we also had to book three tickets rather than two, since Clara no longer flies for free.

We used all our online booking tricks and sites. Nothing. We waited. Prices didn’t budge. We could find nothing in the reasonable range. And that is when it happened. DH suggested we drive to Texas. Trade wings for wheels. See more. Pay less. Take a three-year-old girl more than 1,000 miles within 16 hours to reach Austin, and another four or so to a South Texas ranch?

Now, I hate to admit this, that I, the great adventurer, balked at the idea. My first thoughts focused on the possible negatives: three-year-old, more time to be spent in car then on the ground. Three-year-old. We could be saddle sore before we even reached our destination. It seemed motherhood had nearly knocked the spirit of exploration out of me.

To complete such a Gainesville – South Texas round trip in eight days sounded like madness to me. But to pay all that money for airfare and a short three days at our final destination didn’t seem so wise either.

Road trip: Smart option or crazy undertaking?

Turns out – smart. The price of our eight days on the road was cheaper than the cost of three days, three plane tickets and a rental car would have been. And, as I realized while the miles rolled away beneath me, more days of traveling fun were actually priceless. We really experienced the trip. Okay, not at the wagon train level, but still we were in contact with the ground we were passing through. Clara learned about geography, at least the existence of a few states. She had a blast, and the family had uninterrupted bonding time with no fights or tantrums.

But what really sold me, reignited my zest for the open road, and sideswiped my fears was New Orleans. The Big Easy is right smack in the middle of the 16-hour stretch to Austin, making it a perfect spot for the first day’s layover.


Okay, so as it turned out, no beignets. The line was too long for Café du Monde’s famous fried dough. Instead, we indulged in both raw and fried oysters, fried shrimp and some good beer at the Bourbon House; and late breakfast massive omelets at Camellia Grill’s bar counter in the French Quarter the next morning. All the while we were actually saving money verses flying.

When not eating we spent our time wandering the streets around Jackson Square. Always festive, the French Quarter’s residents had draped over-the-top Christmas decorations from their balconies and dangled them under eves.

The rest of the trip, our day and night in Austin, and even the time spent playing games and singing in the car, all affirmed we’d made the right call. Did I mention that packing a car (station wagon in this case) is a lot easier than packing for air travel? When in doubt, throw it in!

As with any successful road trip, ours was fun because we enjoyed the travel. Being at the ranch for our New Year’s celebration was the exclamation point to a special journey, rather than our only experience. Most travel these days is focused on getting there. Being there. On this 2,400-mile drive, we were there from the minute we left our driveway. 


Power to the People

As we begin 2012, the Occupy Wall Street protests continue across the country, Greece and the rest of the EU teeter on the brink of something precipitous, and news outlets broadcast every sigh and gasp of various global stock exchanges, I, Denise, will attempt do something nearly as life changing for our family – begin to tame the household finances. Because, while the world around me seems to be, well, (depending on whether I’m in a half-full or half-empty mood), reforming or collapsing, our household budget is one bucking bronco I can control. With will, focus, a firm grip on the rope and, above all, balance, I can and will direct this family toward debt-free prosperity.

I should say that I have not always been in this relatively privileged position. In my previous life as a single person and owner of a small business start-up, I was once so broke that I was moonlighting as a waitress and even had to borrow money from my sister to cover my mortgage one dire month. Credit card debt piled up faster than discarded wrapping paper on Christmas morning.

As a single person I could scrimp and cut costs to nothing. Eat air and water. Now, married with a family the responsibilities are different. My husband and I agree we need to plan ahead. We have the power to do this. With the Warren book, we have a sensible guide that is designed to help “the little guy” like us make our way through a frenzied financial field that is not necessarily level.

We at NerdHaven Farms South have a few positives on our side: My husband, the breadwinner, is a tenured professor. Until the government does away with the tenure system (which could be soon), he has job security. (Buddha knows security is an illusion, but I want to help bolster any here-and-now “security” we appear to have with the application of moderation.)

Also in our favor is our location. North Florida has a relatively low cost of living as compared to say, Los Angeles. Our farmer’s market veggies are cheaper, our restaurants much less expensive (if also less varied and less bleeping* amazing). Entertainment costs are pennies on the dollar to LA’s.

Working against us is our age at the onset of this true experiment. My husband and I are in our 40s, leaving us precious little time to save for retirement, pay off mortgages and student loans, let alone save for our daughter’s education. Late bloomers are we, which is one reason why we have a (fabulous) three-year-old daughter, Clara, otherwise known as She-Who-Will-Have-Increasingly More-Expensive-Needs. I thought the cost of those biodegradable diapers was high – bring on the swim, ballet and gymnastic classes, etc. Phew. I can feel college looming on the horizon.

To survive it, my husband and I agree we must get our house in order now. I’m nearly finished reading All Your Worth. From it I have gleaned Warren’s plan to balance our budget. While I can’t go into specifics yet, from the book I have learned creating a budget is, contrary to what many of us have heard our entire lives, not about penny-pinching, rather it is about balance. Innocuous, powerful, central — balance. So for the next few days I’m going to crunch numbers until I can uncover how much we spend on each of Warren’s three categories: needs, wants and savings. Then I’m going to make a plan to make sure we spend no more than 50 percent of our after tax income on needs, 30 percent or less on wants, and 20 percent (which includes paying down debt) on savings. Wish me luck analyzing our budget. I will report back soon.

NerdHaven West Creates a Plan

The 30 Large Project is open for business, people. The idea is to get our finances under control and have a plan to create some kind of financial balance. I have a bad habit of being unorganized – undisciplined really – about my spending. I close my eyes and swipe my card. These days I am lucky because I do not doubt that the cashier will hand me the receipt with a smile (well, maybe not a smile). There have been times in the past when I have held my breath, crossed my fingers and swiped, not certain at all what the outcome would be.

Right now we are fortunate to be experiencing good times and I am grateful. I am able to be at home, because my husband is working (like crazy). There have been other times when we could not even consider a stay-at-home-mom option. And those days may come again (did I mention a daughter going to college?) And so, I think the way to be truly grateful for this time is not to waste it. I want to be disciplined and organized about our money now – and create a sustainable financial plan that can help carry us into the future.

As a start, I bought Elizabeth Warren’s book, All Your Worth, to give us a framework to analyze our finances and make decisions going forward. I chose this book because, first off, I love Elizabeth Warren. She speaks truth to power, as they say, so I felt she would likely be speaking the truth in her book. Also, her basic idea makes some common sense: in order for a financial plan to be sustainable, it needs to be reasonable and balanced.

Her idea of balanced is:

(a) 50 percent of after-tax income goes to “must-haves,” such as mortgage, utilities, food (more on this later), and things we are already in contracts for (cell phone);

(b) 20 percent of after-tax income goes to savings (which also includes credit card debt); and

(c) the remaining 30 percent goes to “wants,” which is basically everything else.

So we get everything – but in balance. Just like Weight Watchers.

It was heartening to go through Warren’s charts and see that, though we spend maybe too much in the “must have” category (we included our children’s private school tuition as a must have) we have a pretty good handle on savings (i.e., we are paying down our debt). What is left is just keeping those “wants” in check.

Based on Ms. Warren’s formula, we figure 30 percent of our weekly take home pay can go to “wants.” For example, this week’s “wants” will include football cleats and other sports supplies for the boy, and a graduation gown rental for the girl (why we have to pay for it this early, I do not know).

To keep track of my spending I have a check register and will give myself a “balance” of 30 percent of our weekly after-tax income (as well as a weekly amount for food – this money comes from the “must have” column – again more on food later). This “balance” will be our walking around money for the week for food and other household expenses that are not “must haves.” When I pay for something, I will – shocking I know – deduct it from my balance. I hope in this way to keep an eye on how we spend our dough and to create a limit (gasp!) on what we spend. Some weeks hopefully I can spend less. Some weeks will be much more (e.g., round-trip airfare to Florida for Thanksgiving). But the idea is to be disciplined, keep track and create balance. Maybe we can even save for those big budget family trips to Florida. I know – weird, right? We’ll see how it goes.

About the food costs thing I mentioned earlier: Ms. Warren says that the USDA estimated cost to feed a family of four is $650 a month. This book was written in 2005, and clearly food costs have risen since then. But we figured – what the heck – we’ll use the $650 amount. So I am going to try to feed us all for $650 a month. Already we have our CSA subscription of $37.80 a week so that’s $170 a month right there. So we’re talking roughly $100 a week for anything that we don’t get in the CSA box.

Limiting my food spending to $100 a week may be hard to do as I have this condition called, “Serious Whole Foods Addiction,” but that is the plan. Any extra costs, if there are any, (but I’m going to be so good there won’t be any) can just come out of our weekly “wants” amount. I mean, even though it is food, going to California Pizza Kitchen for dinner is not a “must have,” it’s a “want.” Although when I was working I have to say it sometimes felt like a sanity saving must have. These days, in my stay-at-home-Mom mode, it’s a luxury that I don’t even want. I’d rather cook at home.

True Life Experiment

Welcome to our blog!

Two sisters, both stay-at home moms on opposite sides of the country, try to do the (seemingly) impossible: maintain a blog – one with good writing, quality photos, yummy recipes and stories about the little things that loom large in our lives. When we both became stay-at-home moms (dare we say housewives?), we started out trying to write a blog about saving money (if you look at the first several posts you’ll see), but it turns out we just want to write about things that make us happy, and especially happy to be home. And while we find saving money to be something necessary, it just doesn’t always tickle our writing fancies. And we have some fancies that demand tickling.

Diane (Nerdhaven West): I am married and have two children, a daughter in college (already?) and a son in middle school. I live in Los Angeles, California. I am an attorney, but I left my legal-aid job to spend more time at home, while my husband, a filmmaker, is away working. After spending too much time over the years at jobs I mostly loved, I wanted to spend more time attending to the quality of my family’s domestic life. I also teach yoga. I like funky music, gardening with natives and edibles, cooking and eating and other creative pursuits. I raise chickens. I have a whole shelf in my bedroom closet devoted to storing homemade preserved foods such as pickled carrots, mandarin mostarda, grapefruit jam and two kinds of booze (when the zombie apocalypse comes, the party will be at my house). I like to save money and be responsible – but I also like to spend money and do kooky things sometimes, too. I hope that writing this blog makes me more responsible in my writing practice. Do you think blogging could also help me lose an inch or two of belly fat? That would be sweet.

Denise (Nerdhaven South): My husband, a professor, and I married in our forties in Gainesville, Florida. Work didn’t hold the same allure for me after I gave birth to our daughter a year later. So I left my full-time public relations job, and a second full-time pursuit of magazine publishing, for a life of free-lance writing and child wrangling. Among other activities, I love reading, travel, history, music, building local community, and plotting to turn my lot-and-a-half into an edible landscape one plant at a time. I love writing about the little things that combine to create a magical life. Those things surround me, and I recognize them when I remember to keep open a traveler’s eye — maintain a fresh perspective on the everyday. I travel as much as possible, often with my daughter or the whole family, to remind myself of what I have at home and of the miracles that exist in the world.