Sweepstake Fantasies

A funny thing happened to me tonight at Rite Aid. After I swiped my credit card through the machine and pushed all the appropriate buttons, the cashier took my receipt, circled something and then proceeded to give me a game card. It’s part of a promotion. They give you the card and several pieces to play each time you purchase something. Anyway, I usually decline promotions, but this particular one captured my imagination when I saw the grand prize: $250,000.

Why, you might ask, did that captivate me? It’s just a tad bit more than what we paid for our townhouse (currently worth $129,000). In other words, the price of freedom. So, I did something I rarely do with sweepstakes: I got excited. As soon as I got home, I took the card to our kitchen table, giddily opened my game pieces, gingerly bended the perforations to detach each piece and place it on its throne. Finding that I had enough game pieces for a chance to win the cruise (but nowhere near what was required for the mortgage), I actually followed the instructions and taped the requested pieces to an index card, put it in an envelope, stuck a stamp on, and slid it in the mail slot.

All the while thinking, “I’m an idiot! Why am I doing this? They’re going to send me junk mail and sell my information marketing firms.” Yet, the skeptic in my brain could not drown out the dreamer saying, “I want to win something, damn it!”

Guess after so many unpleasant surprises these past couple of years, I’ve reached a plateau. A place where I have become prey to fantasies of luck and chance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ungrateful for the good things that have happened. Working from home on a fantastic project, sharing an office with David, having more flexibility to be with our daughter. But there are so many question marks for the near future, it feels a bit akin to being in that uncomfortable 12-14 year old age range again. Lots of dramatic change teamed with an ever present sense of powerlessness, hope, possibility, uncertainty.

At such times, finding a game card with your magic number can make you feel like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory. Dreaming about a life beyond cabbage soup and laundry. A life where magic exists again and there are marvelous and odd surprises around every corner.

Two People, One Office

Okay, it’s been a couple months since my last post, and I know you’re wondering: how the heck are David and Katie doing working at home together? So, I’m happy to write that it’s going better than ever. It’s been going so well, in fact, that we “moved in together”, as in, we’re now sharing one office space. Before, David worked downstairs, I worked upstairs. We thought we needed our own space but it turns out it’s easier (and more enjoyable) for us to be in one spot. Here’s why:

  1. Designated work space = more relaxing home: We used to have file cabinets, a printer and desk downstairs… and a desk, computer, file folders and shelves upstairs. In other words, our work was everywhere. Leaving us no real sanctuary away from work. Once we moved all the office stuff into a designated room upstairs, we created a more peaceful environment downstairs. Plus, now when we’re in the “office”, everything we need is within arm’s reach.
  2. Camaraderie helps morale: Working from home is isolating. You start to miss the small talk and little jokes with people. The stuff that gives you perspective and helps you relax when work gets stressful. David and I have started to find that in each other (I know, I’m getting mushy). He laughs at me when I, unconsciously, give my computer a nasty stare. I laugh at him when he’s listening to that Hannah Montana / Biggie Smalls mash-up on his headphones (yes, so loud I can hear it several feet away).
  3. Kvetching during the day, not after: Before, David and I used to come home and we’d release a torrent of commentary about our work. Now, we’re able to tell each other things as they happen, which means when our work is done for the day we stop talking about it. Or, at the very least, our end-of-day work conversations are much more relaxed.

The only real drawback is conference calls. But, so far that hasn’t been much of an issue. We tell each other before we’re about to jump on the phone and offer to move downstairs if it’s going to be distracting.

Could other couples work like this? I’m not sure, but I would love to know. If you’re in a similar situations, tell me what you think. Pros/Cons? Are David and I still in the “honeymoon” phase or does this situation have staying power?

And, as always, thanks for reading.

Two at Home

David and I just completed our first full month of co-working from home. Typically this elicits strong curiosity from people who assume it’s a disadvantageous scenario. So, I tell them the truth: I love it.

During the summer, when David was contracting at a company downtown, we rarely saw each other. He had a long commute via public transit and had to leave home early and typically arrive home after our daughter was already in bed. Meanwhile, I had to get up super early to exercise (say 6am) before our daughter woke up (7:15/30am), dress & feed her, pack her lunch and drive her to daycare, then at night pick her up, feed her, bathe her, walk the dog, make dinner.

It was hard. Hard for me because I was doing all the kid-stuff before & after work. Hard for David because he was commuting and working non-stop.

Contrast that to our current situation: I wake up around 7am to exercise, David sleeps in until our daughter wakes up (7:15/30). He takes the morning shift to prepare her for daycare and drop her off. I walk the dog, shower and eat breakfast while they’re off to daycare. David comes back starts work downstairs. I’m already at work upstairs. Then when one of us has a break in the day, we visit the other. Sometimes we break and have lunch together.

At night we’re flexible with our daughter’s pick up. I usually get her, but if I need extra time David can jump in and do it. This happens in the morning at drop off too. Then we’re all together for dinner, bath-time, stories. Once our daughter’s in bed David and I have time to ease into the night: movies, TiVo, or quietly transitioning back to work to meet deadlines.

Our daily routine is so much more relaxed than it used to be. It’s hard for me to imagine returning to the daily grind of commuting into an office.

On the flip side, just like any good fairy tale, ours has its dark moments. There are days when the instability of our situation fills my entire body with anxiety. The looming deadline of projects; late checks from clients; the labrynth of tax work and accounting; and health insurance (we’re still on government subsidized COBRA, but that runs out in February). I could, and probably should, devote entire blog entries to these topics. They are some of the most compelling reasons people don’t quit their jobs to become contractors.

Remarkably, it’s all a little easier to deal with when we don’t have the additional burden of commuting. Do we get tired of each other or on each others nerves? Much, much less than we did when we were both working outside of the house.

It’s fascinating to me how life offers these little trades in sanity. Remove one hurdle, shift to the side, replace with another, add something pleasant to the mix. When I was a kid, I used to wonder if we’re all given the same amount of happiness and sadness in life — regardless of the specific situations. We’ve “won the lottery” in so many areas of our life, that it makes things like home value and monetary instability seem petty sometimes. So, I’ll take this little island of harmony while it lasts and we’ll see where the winter takes us.

Homeowner’s Remorse

As much as I’m proud of the work we’ve done on our house, there are some weeks I’d kill to be a renter again. The biggest reason lately is mobility. Last week I was in San Francisco for a conference and feeling the creative vibrancy of the place made me yearn to pack our bags for good… except for the ball and chain that is our mortgage.

It’s been hard lately to watch friends who purchased real estate around the same time we did sell their homes and move on to new cities, new neighborhoods. I’m happy for them, just insanely jealous. If we sold our home today at the high end of what units are going for in our neighborhood ($150,000), we would still owe the bank around $80,000. (That’s about twice what I have left in student loans.)

While in San Francisco, I actually found myself considering the prospect of “strategic default,” a recent trend of homeowners to have banks foreclose on their homes. Tempting but not wise. Not for us anyway. We made a commitment, we should stick to it (at least as long as we’re viably capable of doing so.)

I feel grateful that we have a home we can afford. But, okay, I’m also envious of the people who recently purchased homes in our neighborhood. (They are such nice people, I feel bad writing this.) Sometimes I daydream of what we could do with all the extra money if we had a $150,000 loan instead of a $235,000 loan, and if it was at 4.85% instead of 6%. We could install a dishwasher, replace the mismatched linoleum on the kitchen floor, plan a real vacation, or most of all… put more money away for our daughter’s college education.

At times like this, I try to summon the darker periods of my life — times when things seemed dire and the prospects of change dim. In each instance, it was not an eternity before things changed (though it may have felt like it at the time.) The worst days are often followed by the best. So, life is teaching me a lesson right now. For whatever reason, we’re meant to live in our over-priced condo, on this strange little cul de sac. For some reason, this is precisely what we need to do right now. Or so I keep reminding myself, even if daydreaming about San Francisco.

What (not?) to wear

A few weeks ago, I had plans to catch up with friends downtown. Temptation was running high for a new outfit. I had it set in my mind that I could run to Ann Taylor Loft for a quick sales-items-only shopping spree to find something nice to wear. Actually, it was an urge I’d been suppressing all week after attending two meetings where I had to leave the house in less than optimal business attire.

The truth of the matter is that I have 3 (maybe 4 when ironed) summer business shirts that I pair with an equal number of pants and skirts. This is typically enough to get by on when working from home, but it can make dressing painfully dull. Sometimes I can’t help but long for a closet filled with clothes I like, purchased for my body the way it looks now (not a year ago, two years ago, or…gulp six years ago).

TV shows such as “What not to wear” would suggest it’s normal to spend $5,000+ on a wardrobe. We see how the participants are teased for wearing sweat pants, t-shirts, and ill fitted suits. Then whisked away and transformed with their preloaded credit cards into TV appropriate models of refined taste and dress.

I don’t have $5,000 to spend on clothes. What I do have is a mortgage, student loan, daycare expenses. You get the point. So, I decided to have pride in those commitments and wear something from my closet. After all, there should be no shame in wearing what you can afford.  I “shopped” my own racks, dedicated time to ironing, dug into my box of accessories. Actually, it was kind of fun. If not fashionable, I at least felt tidy.

Once I was with my friends, I realized how lame I was for obsessing over clothes. Then Saturday came and I figured it probably would be worth hitting up the last of the summer sales. After all, even if I found something to wear out with friends, I still needed business clothes. I shopped for items that would actually be useful to me — not just fun for a night out, which is what often happens when I go for “last minute trips” to some store with an hour left before an event.

A little planning and restraint can go a long way in saving money. That said, I still grimaced seeing the total ring up ($188 for two dresses, two business shirts, and a skirt), knowing how hard it was to get that money — the first bit of “allowance” since losing my job in March. But it was worth the peace of mind it afforded me, opening my closet and not having to freak out about what to wear to my next meeting.

“Buying” Space

Since moving to Virginia seven years ago my husband and I have crammed every last second of our days with activities, work being the biggest, but getting a masters degree also ate up time, having a baby, juggling two big hobbies — belly dancing (me) and track-side roller derby announcing (David). The result? We rarely cleaned. We purchased things we didn’t use. And we neglected to donate, recycle or toss our unused goods.

Now that we’re home more, purging has become a bit of a pastime. Last weekend I said to David, “Hey, lets get rid of the TV and DVD player in the bedroom!” Removing that dusty set of boxes helped us reclaim a patch of our floor, which makes me giddy. We also cleared the house of four bags of books, two bags of toys, two laptop computers, two cell phones, two packs of too-small-diapers and at least a bag of trash.

Recently I remarked to a friend that throwing things out is almost more of a thrill now than buying new things. Master organizer that she is, she replied “When you purge items, what you’re ‘buying’ is space.” I’d never thought of it that way, but it makes a lot of sense. Our house feels bigger without all the stuff.

Then there’s cleaning… the mellow hum of the vacuum cleaner, the gentle spritz of the glass cleaner. Finding the perfect spot to place an item. Putting coins in one cup. Jewelry in one bag. Relocating the bottles of hairspray and moisturizer from the bookshelf to a box. Consolidating vitamins. Searching in the medicine box for expired drugs to toss. It’s meditative.

Having an organized home makes the following week more enjoyable too. We can find things and there’s plenty of glorious space to help keep the focus on work and creativity. Plus, all that purging makes us more hesitant to introduce new items into the home. I think about the lifespan of an object before buying it now. How long will it be useful? How will be dispose of it afterwards? Hopefully, these habits will stick and we can maintain our hard-earned space beyond the current economic situation.

“Live like you’re unemployed”

This weekend, I went to a baby shower in Baltimore and, while there, struck up a conversation with a graphic designer–Jean-Pierre–who had recently been laid off. Working again now, he and I were discussing the experience of being unemployed, how we found work, and how being laid off changed us.

It was amusing to hear how similar our stories were — for instance, we’d both developed “routines” while unemployed. For Jean-Pierre, that meant going to the gym every morning, making it to the coffee shop in time to get a good seat (”next to the outlet”) and sending at least 3 resumes out each day. (By the way, his hard work paid off — he found work in a lightning-fast 30 days!)

We also discussed ways we saved money at the grocery store. In particular, we both found ourselves buying small to save. Jean-Pierre, who cooks for one, paid closer attention to the size of the produce he was buying. A smaller head of lettuce, for instance, cost less and had a better chance of being fully utilized. By buying only what he would actually eat in a week, he saved money on food he might have had to toss.

Another point we agreed on: the importance of seeing friends. Jean-Pierre met up with people to go for walks, or other inexpensive activities. He also, like my family, ended up taking a vacation he’d pre-planned before getting the pink slip.

Toward the end of our conversation, Jean-Pierre said something that really struck me, that he now “lives like he was unemployed.” Meaning, that some of the habits from his layoff have stuck. He’s learned how to live on less. He’s still buying small heads of lettuce at the grocery store. He’s also more hesitant to buy new “things” like clothes or other items that aren’t entirely essential.

This has been true in our house, too. Now that David and I are contractors, we have to live frugally to prepare for gaps in work. Luckily, we’ve found ways to make that enjoyable. This weekend we had fun purging our book shelf and donating five full bags of books, toys and miscellaneous items to Goodwill. We met up with friends and family at our homes (not restaurants) for delicious meals and socializing. We played around with new recipes. We walked to the farmer’s market.

Jean-Pierre and I wondered how this new “unemployment” mind-set would effect a country where consumerism counts for 70% of the economy. If we all buy less, will that mean less work for people? Will it mean a much slower recovery? It might, but I have to admit, I feel much better about my new habits and I don’t want to give them up. It’s like I lost 10lbs and I want to keep losing.

Our home has less stuff and more order. Every time I open my cabinets and see a row of neatly stacked dried grains, fruits and beans, I get a jolt of excitement. The same thing happens when I look at our book shelves and see things that are meaningful to us, things that have a “place” and aren’t disrespectfully stuffed into every available crevice.

Living like we’re unemployed also means enjoying life more. I make time to take my daughter to the pool after daycare. I don’t waste time worrying about work over the weekend. It’s a priority to see friends for lunch, dinner, parties, etc. perhaps because I know better now that “work is work” — it comes and goes. And I love my work, but I no longer define myself by work alone.

Refinance denied, again

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: why did we try to refinance a mere month after being denied? Well, after my original post I heard from friends who had been through the process before. They suggested hiring the appraiser directly. Apparently when a bank hires the appraiser there’s a good chance the estimate will come in low if the bank doesn’t really want to give you the loan. Case in point: our home appraised at $145k. A week later our neighbor’s home (same condo association, one less bedroom than ours) came in at $330k. She hired her own appraiser. We did not.

So, knowing that our neighbor’s place appraised at $330k, we decided to hire her appraiser and a new mortgage broker. But, alas. We weren’t fast enough, because the regulations changed the following month. We were already knee deep into refinance #2, when we discovered the new rules. The government, sensing perhaps the highly subjective nature of home appraisals, separated the appraisers from the mortgage brokers and potential refinancers (in other words, us). Now, neither the mortgage broker nor home owner can hire the appraiser. It’s supposed to guarantee that neither party overly influences the final figure.

Maybe this regulation benefited others in our position, but it did not benefit us. The appraisal process A) took longer, and B) only increased the estimated value of our home by $5k. This appraiser, like the first one, included foreclosed properties as “comparables” to our unit. We don’t think that’s fair. Neither does our mortgage broker, who is now in a dispute with the appraiser over the estimate. I mean, it’s kind of ridiculous. We live in Arlington County. Just try to buy a 3 bedroom townhouse within county lines for $150k and see what pops up (don’t take my word for it, RedFin’s got the evidence): nothing.

Despite two denied refi attempts, we are still being hounded by offers in the mail. Our mortgage broker wants us to try again. You know what I want? Our money back. The appraisal process isn’t cheap. We’ve already dropped $700 in appraisal fees. We’ll hold onto this place as long as we have to, and then either sell, rent or grow old together here. I heard a report on Planet Money that it’s extremely rare for a person to pay off a 30 year mortgage. Everyone’s either refinancing or selling before they reach true home-ownership. So, really, the “American Dream” died a long time ago, we just think we’re achieving it. In reality, most of us are lucky if we’re in our place long enough to pay less than the renters next door.

Am I bitter? Not really. Disappointed? Yes. At least by purchasing a home, we know the grass is just as weird here as it was on the other side of the fence. We’ve learned a lot. We continue to learn. And if we ever leave this place, it will look 110% better than when we first moved in. I feel a sense of pride in that. I look at pictures from our first month here and it’s like, “wow, little house, you’ve come a long way. It’s perplexing that you’re worth less now than you were as a roach infested, broken-windowed, velvet wallpapered unit with a foot print on the ceiling”… but I guess that’s life these days. I think we’re all looking forward to a time when we can look back and laugh.