On feeling like a legit business

I’m not sure if it was because of Renegade, or because of my giant knits, or just because, but last month something changed with my little business. I’ve been selling crafts in some form for almost three years now, but not until July did I really start to feel like it was working.

I’d been in kind of a drought up to that point, and my mind was all over the place wondering what to do next. I thought about getting a normal job, going back to school, changing my career path entirely, and a million other options. But at some point my thoughts started to focus, and I realized that the combination of my knitting business, which I LOVE, and my writing business, which has always been something that felt right to me, deserved my full attention. So that’s what I did. I found my focus. I think that’s what I needed all along.

I’m getting to the point now where I have to order pretty much all of my supplies online in bulk because I have emptied my local craft stores (of yarn, batting, foam rolls, dye boxes…). And I don’t have time to make the trips anymore because I need to be at home working.

I’m starting to have problems that are good problems to have. Yes!

That is to say, I really have to start taking this seriously now. My business is starting to look like what I always wanted it to look like. It’s amazing. Also scary.

I know I am doing the right thing, though, because my mind is constantly thinking about more things I can make, ways to improve what I’m already making, shows I can sign up for, giveaways, marketing, all of it. Thank goodness I am an organization freak, because it’s a lot to manage.

In the interest of taking things seriously I read an article (can’t find it now) about pricing your products. I usually have to ignore these recommendations because knitting just doesn’t work in these formulas. I pretty much proved myself right. I determined that my most popular item, the xlg pouf, should retail for $520, the giant pouf for $876, and a small pouf $240. The small pouf currently retails for $35. So yeah, I’m a little off.

But joking aside, what does that mean? I don’t want to just write it off as impossible. But obviously something is going to have to change for this to be sustainable. One possibility is having some luxe products that make up for the lack of profit elsewhere. Another option would be to just stop making the smaller poufs altogether. I hate to eliminate all of the less expensive items, but maybe I could make some smaller things out of rope, which would be faster and more unique anyway.

Darling photo by Sarah.

You probably don’t want to hear all this. But I can’t be the only one with a handmade business that struggles with these issues.

The other thing that is going to change is how I’ve handled shipping. I am so done with the post office! I have put up with their cranky employees, long lines, crazy rules and terrible customer service for too long. No other company could operate so poorly and still exist. The last straw was yesterday when I received an email confirming that my packages had been picked up while they were still sitting on my front porch. Gah!

I have my issues with Fedex and UPS, but I think I’ve learned enough about them now to make it work.

I’m happy to say now that I’m off to start working on my first wholesale order for a new store in San Francisco. It’s in north beach, the same neighborhood as the Jack Kerouac Alley show. I had to turn down another offer to sell at a store because it just wasn’t right for me. That was hard. This makes it worth it.

Freelancing: month one

Talking with a friend last night, we both realized it was almost August already. And that made me realize that I’ve made it through my first month as a freelancer!

It’s been good. Really good. Kind of strange, given that a week of it was spent in Lawrence doing basically nothing, a week in Nia training and another week getting ready for and then riding in Ragbrai. But considering that I’ve spent this week actually working, and almost being overwhelmed by work, I feel like things are going well. I even got paid for a couple things today.

There’s always this fear that hangs over you. Like, OK, I can pay my bills this month, and next month. But what if shit hits the fan in October and I’m totally screwed? Which is not a very positive place to hang out, so I try to keep those thoughts as fleeting as possible.

Another interesting tidbit. This month I had time to thrift, and then I put up a bunch of those items on Etsy just to see if anyone would buy them. And they did! My handmade stuff rarely sells as quickly as this stuff has. So now I’m pondering making vintage a larger part of what I sell. It’s hard, because you want to stay committed to your original plans, but eventually you have to decide what’s worth your time. And I so love the thrill of the treasure hunt when I find this stuff at garage sales, so I’m happy to keep doing it.

I would say, though, that the number one reason I’m doing so well right now is that I did take several months to plan my departure, and move my debt payments into saving for this change. I would highly recommend that you do that if you’re pondering working for yourself. A lot of things have not panned out yet (though I believe they will eventually), so you need to be ready if you’re not making a full income right away. Don’t do something crazy like go without health insurance or start spending your 401k money – that is last resort type of stuff.

I’m also still struggling with time management a bit. I’ve checked quite a few things off my to-do list, but I’m finding that the less desirable things (like working out!) will still fall to the back burner if I don’t schedule them in. Because who’s gonna make me do it but me?

If you ever have any questions for me about how I’m making this work, feel free to ask.

On gratitude

Normally I am never home to absorb the wisdom of Oprah, but since I took a sick day I was couchbound working on a crochet project (details on that to come) when I flipped to the show today. I caught the last few minutes when Suze Orman was basically answering the questions – “What do I do about the fact that I’m super depressed about losing money when I did everything right?” and “When is this shit going to get better?”

Good questions, indeed.

She didn’t think we’d truly be back to economic bliss until 2015 (let’s hope that’s not true), but her other answer really struck me. She said that we all need to work on being happy with what we have instead of brooding over what we have lost. And I realized I had been spending a lot of energy focusing on not only the paychecks I lost, but what might have been. Bigger paychecks, extra freelance work, smaller debt, faster progression to many dreams, etc. That is so not helping at all.

When I really think about it, I have zillions of things to be thankful for. People and opportunities and my health and my crafts and on and on. At the end of the day all of that is still around and just thinking about that makes me a little verclempt.

The energy healer I went to once (it was for a story, OK?) told me that when you’re in a place of gratitude you can’t be fearful, and it’s really true. I am so afraid of so many things, and constantly being reminded that I should be scared, that I forget to be thankful sometimes. I also think that in my field the culture is to be cynical and questioning of everything, so much so that we don’t give ourselves permission to just be in the moment and be happy.

It’s very tough to get past that anger and resentment about the economy, especially when you don’t feel you had anything to do with it. But I think Suze’s right. It’s time to move on.

The other day I was interviewing a guy who got cancer when he was 20 years old, a junior in college. Five years later he is running his first triathlon, waiting the last few months before his first child is born. He’s scared every day of getting sick again, but he keeps on moving. I was pretty humbled after that.

So thanks to Joe, and to daytime TV, for reminding me just how good I have it.

How to save money in a recession and be otherwise productive

I had a little realization this week. I was just thinking about how different things were a year ago, when I had an SUV and gas was going up like 50 cents a day. My credit card debt felt crushing. The economy wasn’t le suck yet, but it wasn’t fantastic either. I was just starting to understand that I could take control of my life and stop feeling like it controlled me.

Little by little I made a lot of changes. And now, things are better. Having just paid off a small loan I’m seeing slightly bigger paychecks. The debt has been dented. The car has been traded in for a smaller, cheaper one. I’m saving in advance of travel (what a concept).

Starting the crafty business did not make me rich, but it did give me something to get excited about.

All of this means that when I take a week with no pay next week I don’t have to despair. I’ll be okay. I’ll be okay when we inevitably have to do it again. And the other thing I realized is that if the debt number doesn’t go down this month, that’s okay, too. I can’t be upset at myself if a little thing like not receiving a paycheck interferes with my plans. I’ll do my best, but I can’t move mountains.

I think just reflecting a little and seeing that I really did make progress, even if it was slow, is so important. I need that confidence in a year when everything has been so overwhelmingly negative. I can do this. I am doing it. No doubt I won’t make the progress I could have made in a better year, but it’s pointless to dwell on that.

And the other thing? I’m running again. After rest didn’t help my twisted knee I just said screw it and hobbled through a walk with the dogs and a few steps jogging. The next day it felt better. So I ran a little bit longer. Then it felt a lot better. So I’ve kept going out, running a little longer every time. Chugging up hills, wiping away snotsicles. Laughing at how little I can run compared to how much I used to. But being proud nonetheless. I remember why I do this now, this crazy thing. It just feels so good when you conquer something that is so hard. The runners high is real, no matter how far you are to the back of the pack. And believe me, I am always there. So maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to do that race in May that I was hoping for.

Baby steps, ya know?

Yes, I am still a blogger.

It’s true, I suck at blogging lately. With everything I put on my plate, something always gets pushed off. But I can’t seem to give up anything (what should I get rid of? My incomes? Going to the gym? Doing the laundry?) I find it’s really hard to get away, too, because I just think about everything I have to do when I get back. Sundays I spend the whole day thinking about going to work on Monday. I’m sure you know this feeling.

On behalf of pretty much everyone, I would just like to say, screw you economy. Screw you for making us feel like we don’t have choices anymore. Screw you for making us feel guilty if we do still have a job. I did not get an adjustable rate mortgage or have any part in the auto industry tanking. Why do I have to pay for it?

OK, mini rant complete.

But seriously, I feel like I am working my ass off to claw my way out of debt, just to have almost nothing left for myself at the end of the month. And now I have to take a week of unpaid vacation. Soon we will be building Hoovervilles in Rice Field.

I am trying to stay positive, but it is really tough some days. I try to think about fun things, like planning a wedding (woo hoo!) and Orla Kiely at Target. I try not to think about the $45 in parking tickets I just added to my tab.

This is gonna get better soon, right?

One hell of a to-do list

I wouldn’t say I was having a quarterlife crisis (pretty sure that happened about four years ago) but I’m definitely having one of those moments where I think, oh my God, how could I possibly have reached this age without having done this, this and this? And not even that I haven’t done them yet, but that I’m not even close, can’t even see the beginning of that accomplishment. And I’m not even that old, but old enough. Perhaps looming birthdays always do that to a person.

I don’t know, I had just gotten really excited about making financial progress and then because life is rarely friendly to your savings account I find myself right back where I started. And it’s just so paralyzing when you don’t have enough money to do the things you want. But it’s my fault, it’s all me if I don’t.

I always think of myself as a person with my shit together. Like I’m organized, I think things out. Why can’t I figure out how to manage all those “adult” things that apparently you’re just supposed to know how to do? So I bought a car. Great, in five years I might finally own something. I’ll be a 33-year-old with a five-year-old car.

So, I apologize for the complainy-ness of this post, but I’m sure others know what I mean. I think we all could use some good news, some sign that high gas prices and the credit crisis and layoffs are all part of a cycle, a cycle that will change soon, for the better. And maybe we could let ourselves off the hook just a little if we don’t check off every single item on an impossible list.

I got my mind set on you

I’m definitely one of those people that when I decide I want something, I will do everything in my power to get it or make it happen. My OCD kicks in, and trying to change my mind is pretty much a lost cause. Such was the case with the Toyota Yaris. I saw those little hatchbacks driving down the street and I just fell in love.

So I made it part of the plan. Sell the big car, get a small one, save $15 on every tank of gas. Makes sense to me!

I have to admit, the day before I went to trade in my old car I got to thinking about everything that had happened in my life since I bought that car and it made me a little weepy.

The CR-V was a bit of an impulse buy. I took my Civic to get an oil change, and while I was waiting I wandered over to the showroom to peek at new cars. I’d been thinking I needed to upgrade to a bigger car after all the trouble I’d had navigating my car through Iowa winters. The truth is that all I needed was front wheel drive and a few lessons on snow driving, but that was only part of why I wanted the car. I’d never had a new car before. I’d never walked into a dealership and stood on my own two feet through the oh-so-fun process of wheeling and dealing. I’d just moved into my first apartment I could call my own. This was the next big step.

So I did it, and I was pretty proud of myself. I talked the saleswoman down twice until I got a price I could handle. And then I drove my baby home. It snowed less than a week later. And as my parents like to recall, I told them it was “not an issue.”

I packed that car to the ceiling when I found out I was moving to Colorado. I drove it to Iowa and back several times in 2005. And I packed it to the ceiling when I found out I was both losing my dream job and yet finally getting to live with Mike. Then together we drove it all the way to South Carolina and back in 2006.

I don’t know. After all that, the car just meant a lot to me. In some ways it was my companion. I couldn’t let it go without a thorough vacuum and scrub.

But it was also part of the reason I’ve struggled so much financially the past few years. Sometimes getting what you want means getting what you shouldn’t. And that car just wasn’t a good match for someone who spends 90 percent of her time driving alone. Reggie sure loved to hang her head out the window and let her tongue dangle in the breeze. Now she’ll have to compromise in the back seat of the purple car. I don’t think she’ll mind too much. As long as she’s going somewhere with us.

I hope the Yaris is the next step in truly living what we believe. It’s rated at 36 mpg on the highway (which means it can get even more), so it should significantly lower my gas bills. It probably won’t be the right car for us forever, but it’s great for now. And let’s face it, it’s cute as hell.

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.

What I needed to hear

Yesterday I met with someone who can probably bring more healing to my life than any doctor I’ve seen in years, and that’s a financial advisor.

I’ve been really afraid for a while now that someone would take a look at my finances and go “hmmm, I think you should, hmmm.” But this guy didn’t. Not even close. He scribbled out the messy details of my income, bills, debt and did more math than I’ve done since high school in about 5 minutes. And at the end of that he pronounced me not in a great place, but moving in the right direction. He said things like “this is not that bad” and “I can see you’re ready to do this” and most importantly “I see more teachers retire with a lot of money than actuaries.”

Uh, what?

Apparently people who have a nice income know how to spend it and people who have to scrimp and save become good savers. So, seeing how I’ve chosen journalism as a career I’m gonna go ahead and guess I’ll be in the column with the teachers.

I expected to get a lot of information out of that appointment, but I really didn’t expect to get confidence. All you hear and read about is how poor the economy is doing, how bad our spending habits are, how expensive gas is going to be. Nobody ever says, you can do this! You can pay off your debt, you can save a little, and you can actually pay for a vacation when it comes up.

That was a big thing, too. He reminded me that this is supposed to be the best time of my life, the most carefree, and if all I think about when I’m on vacation is how I will not be able to pay for this and that, I will never really enjoy it.

The financial company gave this presentation to my office a while back and they said that Americans have these houses with rooms that have no furniture in them, no curtains on the windows. I’d never really paid attention to that, but it’s so true! We buy big houses and big cars and then we don’t fill them because we can’t. I think I’m finally starting to see the light in that sense. If you’re gonna want something and sink a bunch of money into it, at least use it. At least get something out of it. I have absolutely no regrets about taking a trip to Europe when I didn’t have the money because I will never, ever forget the incredible things I saw. But I resent that $140 pair of shoes I’ve only worn 4 times. What a waste.

So, things are starting to click. It’ll probably get worse before it gets better. But for once in a long, long time I feel good about my money and my ability to handle it. And that was at least worth the sum total of my 401k.