The riches

This month marks nine years since I graduated from high school (yikes!) and nine years since I had a debt-free existence. That was the last time I had actual “wealth.”

I always had a job in high school, and very few expenses (a cell phone-free life, if you can imagine) so I saved a couple thousand dollars to take with me to college. I have no idea where that money went. A mini fridge? Spring break? Old Navy pajamas?

Somewhere in my first brush with financial freedom, I completely lost my financial freedom. When I got my first credit card, the one with the Monet painting on it, I swore I would pay off the balance every month. And for a few months, I did. But eventually I wanted more, so I bought more.

I loved the marathon bargain hunting trips I took with my mom growing up, but I think by the time I had my own money, I wanted to have a name brand, pay full price, buy the best version of the DVD player instead of the cheap one. I’d had enough Payless. I wanted J.Crew.

I really got to a point where I didn’t see anything wrong with the way I spent my money. I put things on credit and dealt with them later. I took vacations I couldn’t afford. I bought an expensive car on a $30,000 salary. And I guess that’s what sucks about the world – you can do all that and no one will stop you. No one will grab your arm and tell you you’re crazy. Debt is normal. People who buy things with actual money are the weirdos.

I don’t know what it was exactly that woke me up. I guess it was the fact that I had always been able to rescue myself, racking up debt and then paying it down. And then this year I finally couldn’t. I payed my cards down $3,000, and in just a few months put it all back on. I am a financial Weight Watchers horror story. It’s not my fault I had to have back surgery that cost me thousands. But it is my fault I took a vacation to Europe without planning for the cost. It is my fault that I screwed up my taxes year after year. It’s my fault that I let my money control me.

Money isn’t everything, but when you’ve handled your money in a way that gives you the freedom to enjoy a vacation, to spend more time with the people you love, to feel in control of your life, it makes a huge, huge difference.

So, earlier this year, I finally decided to stop lying to myself. I went on a financial diet, so to speak. (The comparisons to food and the problems I have with eating could be compared endlessly, by the way.) I set a goal for myself that every month I would put $XX toward my credit card. If I had more I’d put more, if I had less I’d put less, but that was the goal.

For me, skipping dessert was a hell of a lot harder than making that payment. I think I’ve done it four times now, and it was just not that big of a deal. I had to buy some clothes for work (and my expanding rear), but I bought them all at Target and saved a bundle.

So four months later I am still struggling, but I think I’ve turned the tide, and I can’t tell you how good that feels. I really did not think I could do it until I did.

I’m finding myself with a wee bit of outrage, too. Why isn’t there a mandatory financial literacy class in, well, any grade? I remember learning how to balance my checkbook in 6th grade before we went to Exchange City. But no one ever taught me about interest rates or self employment tax. Somehow you’re just supposed to know how to get a mortgage. You think a couple people might have liked to know that information?

I suppose it’s true that an 8th grader would do their damnedest to tune out a financial literacy class. Some of these mistakes have to be made before a person realizes how important it is to be smart with your money. But I really feel like I was failed educationally in that sense. And I was a huge dork – I would have at least listened.

At my current job I’ve met a lot of financial professionals who don’t fit my stereotype whatsoever. They’re laid-back, they don’t speak business jargon and roll their eyes when you don’t understand. They want people to understand this stuff, because it’s better for all of us in the long run.

I’m still far from wealthy, but I’ve done some things I think everyone can do, and if you’ve made it this far and are still reading for some reason, maybe you’ll get something out of what I’ve learned.

-First of all, find out how much you’re spending every month, and DON’T LIE.

-Move all of your automatic deductions to your debit card instead of credit. Don’t let money go onto that card without you noticing. Actually pay for everything.

-Look at things you can cut back instead of cutting out. I decided I couldn’t afford my salon, my studio yoga or the doggie daycare. I’m growing out my hair, doing a DVD at home and taking the dog for walks (which my rear also appreciates).

-Look at your calendar. If there’s anything big in the next six months you’ll have to pay for, start saving.

-Make goals. The lamest of the lame advice, but in this case it has worked for me.

-Get one of those ING savings accounts. Even a 3 percent return is a hell of a lot more than you’ll get on a regular account.

See, that wasn’t that hard. Perhaps I have a 2nd career in financial education.

It’s amazing how much just being aware of my habits has made me stop doing dumb things. Now I’m looking at what else I can cut or sell or buy cheaper next time. (Thanks to Sophia for introducing me to the wonder that is the dollar store). Unfortunately in the middle of all this I had to buy a new computer, but I had the payments taken out of my checking account automatically, and I barely notice it.

Today I paid $46 to fill my gas tank. Sadly that’s not even that much anymore. That really scares me, and I think it will be my next battle. The adorable SUV I thought I had to have? I’m about ready to swap cars with the next hatchback that rolls by.

Loving: Big, beautiful eggs

For most of my life, eggs were white, uniform and about $1 a dozen. I think that’s why I admire farm fresh eggs so much. We buy them at the farmers market, where they’re all different shades of brown and light blue, even greenish. Some are huge with fat, bright yellow yolks that take up more space in the shell than it seems like they should. Others are smaller, more oblong. The ones my mom brought me this weekend even had a little sheen of dirt still on them. I think they cost about $3 a carton, which seems more than reasonable to me.

We hard boiled them and put them in a potato salad with asparagus and dill. I look forward to a summer full of omelets, deviled eggs and fluffy pancakes.

Loving: Sun tea

Growing up, we always had a big glass jar we’d put outside in the summertime and make sun tea. I think the jar eventually broke and we had to switch to a leaky plastic replacement, but I still never miss a chance to brew tea in the sunlight.

The last few weeks it’s been a pina colada blend (thanks, Erin!) that has a little coconut taste, but not so much that it hits you over the head with it. I like to watch the little strands of pink dye spread over the water until the whole jar turns pink.

Wake-up call

We all woke up this morning to this.

Bang, bang.

Bang, bang, bang.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

Me: Why would someone do that at 8:30 on a Sunday?

Mike: Apparently it’s hammer time.

Realizing love isn’t enough

As much as I’ve always been independent and always wanted to figure things out for myself, I’ve also always been a lover, a romantic, a little too emotional for my own good. It pains me to say that, but it’s true. In high school, long before I figured out most of the guys I had crushes on were douchebags, nothing made me more excited than the thought of getting their attention. Since I never actually had the guy I wanted, I figured that once I did, everything would be okay.

And I pretty much carried that attitude through college, too. Even as I learned more about myself and what I wanted, I still believed that once you found the right person, your happiness would be pretty much sealed. All you would have to do is meet that person and get together, and the force of your connection would carry you through.

Man was that a load of crap.

I am unbelievably lucky to have found my person when I did. I found someone who I connected with instantly (well, five years and instantly), and we had all those five-hour, me-too! conversations, the sexual tension, the feeling of sureness. It’s an incredible feeling.

But what it took me four more years to realize, what I honestly did not get until I was 27, is that relationships are work. Falling in love, feeling sure is just the beginning of your journey. You will be tested time and time again, only it won’t be about your love or your attraction. It will be about your patience, your selflessness, your communication skills. Your ability to watch “Mythbusters” hours on end. You will have to learn for yourself what is asking for what you need and what is meeting the other person halfway. It’s hard, it’s really hard. I’ve fought myself so many times, wondering if I would be strong enough to give up a job so that Mike could satisfy a dream. Could I not buy something I wanted so that we could save for something important? Could I stop being just me and be us? But still be me?

I didn’t realize I would be tested so quickly and so intensely in our relationship, but I’m grateful for it now. We spent almost a year apart. A year! All those nights we could have been growing apart we chose to grow together, and that means a lot to me. Who knew we’d be looking at a layoff, a major surgery, a rescued dog that needed more that we were prepared to give? Life happens.

At some point, when we’d made it through all of that and could breathe again, I realized that love was never enough to get us here. We got here because we finally decided we’d found someone worth all that trouble, and we stuck around for it.

I wish I could go back and tell high school me that passion is important, but it isn’t what will save you at the end of the day. It’s commitment and faith and maturity and selflessness on top of love that carry you through a relationship. It’s not the person that’s hot for you that matters; it’s the person that will throw himself in front of a bus for you.

When I think about my grandmother shampooing my grandfather’s hair in the sink or riding the bus everyday to be with him at the nursing home, to fight for him when he couldn’t, I understand why they made it through 55 years of marriage. They knew that this love story would not have a fairy tale ending, but that they would get through it anyway.

I don’t know how we will make it through the hardest days, but I know that we are here and we want to try. We are lovers and then some. We will do this thing.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has really inspired me to start eating more locally and more seasonally. Those were both important to me already, but the truth is that unless you have a farm or a really fantastic garden, it’s hard to commit to eating that way. I’ve gotten really used to the availability of pretty much any food any time of year, but unfortunately I’ve also gotten used to how bad some of that produce tastes.

So, I’m trying to take advantage of our fabulous farmers market and the grocery stores that do carry Iowa-made products. One of the items we grabbed at Saturday’s market was a bundle of rhubarb. I’ve never made anything with rhubarb before, but I figured I couldn’t go wrong with a sugary, buttery rhubarb crisp.

I got the recipe from one of the best cookbooks I’ve ever had, called Simply in Season. I believe it was a gift from Mike’s grandparents. The recipes inside are really simple (as you might guess), and I think it’s that simplicity that makes them so good. The book is divided into seasons rather than type of food, so you can look up a recipe based on what’s at the market that week.

For this one I changed it a little bit, leaving out orange peel in the fruit mixture and using strawberries instead of sorrel. Feel free to go with the original.

**Warning: Do not make this recipe unless you are prepared to mow down a whole pan. It’s that good.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

4 cups rhubarb, finely chopped
2 cups strawberries, finely chopped
1 cup sugar
1 t. vanilla

Combine in large saucepan, Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to medium and cook 4 minutes, stirring frequently.


1/4 cup water
3 T. cornstarch

Dissolve cornstarch in water. Add to rhubarb mixture and cook until thickened, stirring constantly.

1-1/2 cups flour
1-1/2 cups oats
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup butter
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans

Mix together until crumbly. Place about 3-1/2 cups of crumb mixture into greased 9 X 13 pan and press to make an even layer. Pour in rhubarb/strawberry mixture and spread evenly. Sprinkle remaining crumb mixture over top. Bake in preheated oven at 350 for 30-40 minutes. Cut into squares.

Top with vanilla ice cream. Try not to get too much on your face.

Relief

This conversation yesterday was priceless. Mike had just come home from soccer and I was sitting in front of my computer (shocker).

Me: We need to talk.

Mike (with extremely concerned expression): Okayyyy. What is it?

Me: We have got to do something about the toilet.

Mike: Oh. Ha! I thought you were going to say you were pregnant. Whew!

Me: No. The toilet is just not flushing right at all.

Loving: my neighborhood

I think I have house envy because I am in absolutely no position to buy a house right now, but there are so many cute ones in my neighborhood and tons for sale.

Lately I’ve been walking Reggie in the mornings and just trying to appreciate how nice it was to find a rental in my ‘hood. It has terrible sidewalks, but lovely houses with character and nice people. Pretty trees, too.

Many of the houses are absolutely drool worthy and look like this.

This one down the street is one of my favorites.

We even have Lustrons,

and round houses!

Our neighbors don’t even care when Reggie jumps the broken fence and runs wild in their yard. I am seriously spoiled.