Choices, Purpose, Things I Can

8. Things I Can Calculate: A Gift to Someday

Three weeks makes the difference. Twenty days of walking past the 7-11 with my own coffee has settled me into a habit of ignoring temptation. The devil and angel are no longer battling it out for my attention and my cash.

To consistently stop (or start) doing something for about a month seems to be what it takes to erase the pesky decision point and establish a new routine. This applies well beyond money. Take the stairs, stop playing brainless games on the phone, speak an affirmation, no sweets after 8pm. It’s not necessary to waste brain space considering the alternative. The new way is just The Way.

In two days, the financial fast ends. The exercise has worked wonders in our little family. Friends came for dinner one weekend and for board games another, giving us an excuse to pretty up our home instead of going out. On our quieter evenings, Bug and I read together and made art. The credit card bill has never been so low.

Tonight, with spending tamed for the time being, I dare to tackle the dreaded late winter chore: installing Turbo Tax.

Yep, this is Friday night in our rock-n-roll household.

At two hours past bedtime, Bug is still playing Minecraft on the couch. Meanwhile, the software whirs on my computer, masticating numbers and spitting out financial data with about as much compassion as a bathroom scale. I sip chamomile tea and brace myself for the blow.

Which turns out to be a sweet nothing.

For this odd, impossible moment, we have a clean bill of health.

The numbers have to spin and calculate two or three more times before I believe them. It doesn’t compute. It’s Tee’s year to name our boy both as a dependent and as a child care expense (tax code is a strange tongue for speaking human worth), so he’ll be absent from my return. This should mean I owe big money. I have to cut a sizable check each alternating year even though my salary is already stretched so thin, you can see the writing on the Goodwill tags.

This year, Turbo Tax tells me we may end up with an actual refund. Ten bucks or so, but still.

Event the slowest learners stumble into awareness eventually, so long as they keep plugging away. Five years into this single-parent deal, and I’m starting to figure a few things out.

Apparently, owning a condo means something other than crippling mortgage payments and neighbors reorganizing their anvils at 1:00 in the morning. It comes as a shock to exactly no one but me that mortgage interest is deductible. Sure, the bank makes off like a mob boss with a bag full of interest each month, but enduring the extortion means a smidgen of year-end relief in the form of a small credit back to moi.

Then we’re looking at the retirement account. This year, my income is higher than it’s ever been in my life (which isn’t saying much). I took on a few teaching gigs and an extra set of tasks at work, negotiating a temporary bump in pay. As December rolled around, I remembered it was Tee’s year to claim our boy, so I sent the paperwork to HR to take my entire salary for two pay periods and dumped it into pre-tax retirement. I came home and gritted my teeth as I wrote out a check with too many zeros and put it my traditional IRA.

This shell game wouldn’t have been possible without the few thousand liquid bucks chilling in my checking account. This is where the financial fast — and frugality in general — makes its mark. Forgo a takeout pizza here, a movie ticket there. . . In my non-child-claiming tax years, the spare change adds up and can land with a little weight in my retirement account. Thrift allows me to stockpile not only the upfront dollars but the deferred cash I would have had to pay in taxes on a higher income.

Sure, these scarily big deposits took a bite out of my checking account. But the pain paid off, quite literally. A lower income figure on my W-2 translated into a tax savings of nearly $2000. That’s a couple thousand bucks I don’t have to hand it over to the IRS. Instead, I stash it under my future self’s mattress. She’s breathing a bit easier now.

She even sends me a thank-you note.

With year-end paperwork all around, I slice open the statements for my personal IRA and my employer’s retirement plan. Another tilting moment finds me re-reading the numbers printed three and then four times. Added together, these accounts hold a measure of security that I hadn’t allowed myself to imagine. Not this year, not ever. My future self grins as I blink and turn it over in my hands.

This number — my number — is one that would make your average 41-year-old professional cringe, especially one with looming college costs and no spouse to share the pain. It’s a modest number at best. Hell, it’s not even a fixed number. 2014 was a good year for the stock market, and we all remember 2007 all too well. I won’t be kicking back anytime soon.

That said, now this:


This lovely, round, many-figured number, planted right at the spot I’d tilled with all my anxiety? It is a marvel. If I retire today, I might be able to live about three years on that little plot. But I don’t have to retire today. The number and I, we have time to expand, to compound.

This number didn’t just fall from the sky. It is a nourished by habits. It is miles of walking instead of driving, months of Friday nights at home making pizza with my son, yards of outdated fashion hanging in my closet. This number is planted in rich soil. It drinks intention. I get to keep feeding it with thrift and care, each watering a small gift to the someday me.

She is watching. She welcomes what grows here.

She is what grows here.


Happy 100 Days: 98

I have brought my breakfast and lunch to work with me every day for over two years. I have schlepped the giant satchel bursting with my belongings and all this food a nearly a mile each morning to the metro. Except for those blessed days when a friend took pity on my and let me ride shotgun back towards home, I have walked that almost-mile back to my decrepit Saturn each evening. That little car has ferried me into its 13th year, and it is still chugging along. I jury-rigged part of the bumper back on this weekend with wire. The nice fellow at the hardware store also made me two new keys because the old ones were so worn down, they had started falling out of the ignition while I was driving.
I refuse to waste the gas and pay to park on campus when the Commonwealth will pay for my metro expenses. Also, why shell out cash for a spot in the metro garage on this end when my legs work just fine? And this too: give me one good reason to trade in the old beater if she runs well enough to get Bug and me where we need to go. She still gets about 29 miles to the gallon, which isn’t half bad for a pre-hybrid plastic car.
Every day, $5 stays put in the wallet because of all that hoofing it. Every day, $10 is not spent on meals because I haul those clanking Pyrex containers to work. A little here, a little there. A few bucks saved by purchasing the new(ish) dress from the consignment shop instead of Macy’s. A few more saved by not purchasing the dress at all. Pennies in the piggy bank.
Don’t be fooled by my righteous claims. I am far from pure. I have blown more than you would think possible on curry and Red Zinfandel when out with the gals, and I have given over to my share of impulses when Bug is off traveling with his daddy. (Did someone say “spa day”?)
Still. Two years of living off the largesse of the folks, painting my own toenails, and making Halloween costumes by hand has paid off. I knew I was working towards something, but I didn’t know what.
Last night, I decided to pause and ask myself that exact question: What is all this for?
Last night, I decided to stop being scared of the answer.
I have been telling myself it will 2015 before I can afford a place for Bug and me. Rent prices in this area will take your breath away, and the best I can manage on my income might be a small studio in the outer reaches of Fairfax County.
Is this even accurate? From time to time, I skim the rental listings, but have I really considered buying? Now this is a stunning prospect. . .
Because what I want is a place for Bug and me. A little place, just the right size for us and close to his dad. One I can afford on my own. A place to land. A home.
Instead of getting worked up and worried about it, I stayed true to my Contract with Joy. I simply looked this possibility right in the face. What is the first step? Find out what sort of mortgage I can feasibly manage (easy enough with all the online calculators). Second, type in a zip code. Third, watch in wonder as the smorgasbord of listings within my price range appear before me. Fourth, gorge.
So, get this. All that scrimping and penny-pinching? I have actually managed to save enough for a down payment. A decent one. Not quite a 20% one, but within spitting distance of it. And you know what else? Mortgage payments are actually lower than rents on comparable places (duh). This means I can actually afford a two-bedroom condo in the astronomically expensive school district where Bug happens to be enrolled and still have a chunk of my monthly income left over for those little luxuries like groceries and heat. If I look outside his district, I could even afford a real honest-to-goodness townhouse, with a basement and a postage stamp yard and everything.
Who knew? Me! Little ol’ me, actually almost back on my feet!
So, I promise to make this fun. This is good news, not yet another reason to panic. Even though interest rates are at HISTORIC LOWS and housing prices have BOTTOMED OUT and NOW is the time to buy, I am in no hurry. Bug has had enough transitions for about the next three lifetimes, and I still have the pooch to consider, and I only just this week started clocking 7-8 hours of sleep a night after two years of insomnia. Maybe it’s better not to breeze past the lessons about the practices that brought me here: One small choice a day, one packed lunch, one listing, one minor act of courage. Each one accumulates. Pennies in the piggy bank.
Buying a home is a pretty big project. This is what I have heard, anyway. I’ve never done it before, so I’ll just have to find out for myself.