Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Only Holiday Craft I'll Ever Make: Budget-Friendly Cloth Beeswax Wraps

I love the holidays, but I've never been that interested in the beat-down-the-doors-of-Best-Buy-to-get-a-killer-deal, purchase-a-million-presents-for-a-Pinterest-worthy-tree aspect of this time of year. It's not that I'm too cheap. I'm just too lazy, and honestly, an over-emphasis on buying stuff makes me feel kind of depressed.

This year, I decided I wanted to give presents that are:
  • Cost effective (we have a $200 gifting budget, which has to cover our immediate family plus our parents, our four siblings, and our siblings' kids)
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Homemade
  • But also not hard to make

A few months ago, I saw this video about cloth beeswax wraps, which can be used in place of plastic wrap to cover and store food. Another opportunity to ditch plastic and bolster my treehugger credibility? I was intrigued. So I found a few DIY tutorials and tried making my own. 


The verdict: Even for a novice (read: extremely untalented) crafter like myself, the wraps are super easy to make. Moreover, they're inexpensive, reusable, and - yes - they actually work. 

So here it is, folks: the only crafting tutorial you're ever going to find on this blog:

Budget-Friendly Cloth Beeswax Wraps

What you'll need:
  • Cotton fabric: A legit environmentalist would cut up old clothes or blankets or something.  That's probably what you should do. Personally, I went to the local craft store and bought a bunch of inexpensive cotton fabric scraps in a variety of colors. These were displayed at the front of the store near the registers. They were pre-cut, meaning that I didn't have to ask anyone to help me with giant bolts of cloth. Introvert win! Cost of fabric: $8
  • Beeswax: I was sure I'd have to order this online, but it turns out that you can find beeswax at Michael's craft store alongside all of their candle-making supplies. I bought a big block of it, which would have been somewhat expensive had I not had a 50% off coupon. (Pro tip, even from this clueless crafter: Michael's offers so many discounts that you should never, ever purchase anything for full price.) Cost of beeswax: $10
  • Pinking shears: As I understand it, these mitigate fraying at the edge of the fabric. They also make a cool zig-zag cut. You can find these at most big stores. Cost of pinking shears: $10 or so
  • Cheese grater: You likely already have one of these, but unless you enjoy wax bits in your cheese, I recommend getting a second grater just for this craft. Cost of grater: less than $5
  • Parchment paper: Man, this stuff is nifty. Nothing sticks to it. It's in the same aisle as aluminum foil and - shudder - plastic wrap. Cost of parchment paper: less than $5
  • An oven or toaster oven. Disclaimer: please do not purchase an oven for the purpose of this craft. That is not in the spirit of making an inexpensive gift.
  • A small paintbrush. Any paintbrush will do. I stole the one that came with my kid's watercolor set. It worked great. He probably won't notice, but if he does, I'm going to play the indignance card and remind him who buys his bread and toothpaste. I'm not giving a price for this because every child I know has more paintbrushes than they could ever use, so go find one of those kids and "borrow" their art supplies. It'll be fine.

How to make your cloth beeswax wraps:

Step 1: Wash the fabric. Confession time: I skipped this step because we don't have a washer and drier in our apartment, and I was feeling impatient. You can see why crafting doesn't work out for me that often. Honestly, it really didn't seem to matter, but it's probably a good idea anyway, just so the colors in the fabric don't bleed. 

Step 2: Cut the fabric to desired size. I cut pieces to the following dimensions: 6"x6", 8"x8", and 9"x10".

Step 3: Grate the wax. I grated about half a cup at a time. Pro tip: Keep Bandaids on hand for when you accidentally grate your finger.

Step 4: Preheat your oven to 225 F. 250 F would probably be okay, too. They key is to not inadvertently burn your house down, as that is also not in the spirit of creating an inexpensive craft. If you're using a toaster oven, don't even bother with heating it up. More about this in a second.

Step 5: Place a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet, and place a piece of your cloth on the parchment paper.

Step 6: Sprinkle the cloth with wax. I wish I could tell you how much to use, but I sort of just eyeballed this. If you use too little, you can always add more; if you use too much, you can always sop it up with another piece of cloth.

Step 7: If you're using a regular oven, stick the baking sheet + cloth + wax into the oven for 5 minutes. If you're using a toaster oven, place the sheet on top of the toaster oven and set it to toast for 3-4 minutes. 

Step 8: Once the wax is melty, use the paintbrush to saturate the entire cloth. If you find that parts of the cloth are unsaturated, add more wax and repeat the melting process. By the time you're done, the cloth should be fully imbued with the wax, but it shouldn't be dripping, and chunks of wax shouldn't be falling off the cloth once it cools. If you find that you've been a bit wax happy, you can use another piece of cloth to sop it up. Or, you can be like me: throw your hands up in frustration and start over.

Step 9: Let the cloth cool. Logically, other DIYers recommend using clothing pins to hang them up, but I like to flip them around like pizza dough. It's fun and they cool fast.

Note: when covering dishes or bowls, the wrap isn't going to automatically stick to the sides the way plastic wrap does. You'll need to get it a bit warm and pliable first. I recommend sticking it in the microwave for 10-15 seconds.

To clean your wrap, just use dishwashing detergent and cold water. Get it nice and sudsy, and then rinse.

If you find that your wraps are looking a little worse for the wear, stick them back in a warm oven so that the wax can re-melt and redistribute.

If you try this, let me know how it goes! Happy budget-friendly treehugger holidays!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Tentative Goals for 2018

As we hurtle into December, I find myself in that familiar end-of-year reflection headspace. I've been thinking a lot about our 2017 financial accomplishments and what we hope to accomplish in 2018.

Truth to tell, we went into 2017 with zero financial goals. Not a single one. Nevertheless, we found ourselves making progress, especially after we finally took a good hard look at our >$76K in debt in April and made the decision to dig ourselves out. And all in all, we've made some major progress:
  • Both Fortysomething and I found stable jobs with benefits in a town notorious for few job opportunities (I credit this to a combination of persistence and blatant luck). I'm beyond grateful that this happened.
  • We created a budget, and we've been fairly devoted to sticking to it.
  • We paid off one of our credit cards as well as our car loan.
  • By the end of December, we'll have reduced our debt by more than $8000.

We're going into the new year with a few big, specific goals:
  • Pay off our credit cards by May 2018. This is way ahead of the payoff schedule we developed a couple of months ago, but between side hustles and a tax refund (fingers crossed), we should be able to make it happen. 
  • Become homeowners by the end of the summer. I know there are pros and cons to home ownership. We totally get that it's expensive and that 10 different things are bound to break within a month of us moving in. Nevertheless, we feel it's worth it for us, especially given that a) rents here are exorbitant, b) we don't plan on leaving this town, like, ever, and c) living in an apartment complex is driving me insane. I'll write a longer post about this in the next few months.
  • For me, I want to find a job that better aligns with my education, experience, and interests. Yeah, I know I said that I was going to let this one go, but as it turns out, I really need to find something else. Working on it!
  • Put at least $600 a month into savings (not including retirement savings - we'll be doing that, too). Debt payoff is a priority, but we also need to set some money aside for emergencies, travel, and various annual fees.
  • Reassess our student loan repayments. We want to get these paid off as soon as possible, but depending on mortgage + salary of new job that I am determined to get, we may need to adjust. Hopefully, we'll be able to devote a big, BIG chunk of money to student loans each month.
What about you? What are some of your financial goals for 2018? Pay off some debt? Build your savings? Max out your retirement fund? Get a side hustle or two? Do tell!

Disease Called Debt

Thursday, November 30, 2017

An Impromptu Getaway to the Desert

I'm popping in real quick with an update because I'm worried that if I don't get a blog post up tonight, it might not happen for another week. The past few days have been crazy, and the weekend's shaping up to be just as packed. But I wanted to share the deets on our recent spur-of-the-moment mini-trip.

First, let me get situated.


Late November had us spending more than usual. That's mostly due to the impromptu anniversary trip we took to Phoenix right after Thanksgiving. We woke up on Black Friday figuring that we'd lay low and laze around for the long weekend, but Fortysomething just *happened* to check Expedia and discovered some great deals in the desert. The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch was offering 50% off their rooms for the weekend, so we snagged two nights at the special rate, threw clothing and swimsuits into a bag, hopped into the car, and got our mini-vacay on. 


(Sidenote: This isn't intended to be a hotel review, but I would absolutely recommend this resort. It's a little on the older side and the interior feels like a cross between a wine cellar and a WWII bunker, but it's well maintained and the pool is amazing. Plus, when we discovered that the people next door were prone to loud, ummmm, interactions, the front desk was able to move us to a quieter room immediately. Also, 50% off.)

While we were there, we hit up the ever-wondrous Trader Joe's for snacks and went out to eat at some pretty fantastic (and relatively affordable) dining spots, all of which we would recommend if you're in the Phoenix area: Scramble (a breakfast restaurant with vegan options), Pomo Pizzeria (wood-fired pizza, also with vegan options), and FreshMint (a casual Vietnamese restaurant with - you guessed it! - vegan options). I guess I should add Panera to that list, too, since The Kiddo is obsessed with it and insisted we have lunch there.

Other than hanging out at the pool, we met up with some relatives and tried to hike Camelback Mountain. I say "tried" because it turns out that there are two trails on Camelback, one that you could describe as Difficult But Doable and one that's Pretty Near Impossible. I accidentally took us to the latter. The hike came to an abrupt end when we found ourselves staring up what basically amounted to a cliff face with a handrail and the Kiddo refused to take another step. We turned around and went to Papago Park instead.

Phoenix in its smoggy winter glory
Papago Park

Phoenix isn't really my cup of tea for most of the year - it's too dang hot - but in the winter, I adore it. Sometimes you just need some sunshine.

Ah, you savvy personal finance people are asking, that's nice. But what was the cost?

The breakdown:

Hotel, including all taxes and fees (2 nights): $258.58

Food, including all restaurant meals and grocery trips: $204.56

Total cost: $463.14

Inexpensive? No, but Fortysomething and I didn't buy each other any presents, and the time away together on our anniversary was priceless. We covered our expenses with money from our travel fund. Granted, we weren't planning on doing that, but I feel absolutely comfortable with our decision to do so. 

After all, money is meant to be used... on the things you really value and care about. And for us, this trip fit that bill.

Disease Called Debt

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Winning, November 2017 Edition

I almost - but not quite! - slacked off on posting the November edition of WINNING, a series in which I identify our accomplishments in an effort to stay positive and motivated throughout our debt repayment journey


As hard as this season has been with respect to my job and the never-ending slog of digging out of our financial hole, we've had several financial and personal wins lately:

(1) Per our new and improved repayment plan (I've dubbed it The Monster Repayment PlanTM), we dedicated $2200 to debt repayment this month!:
  • $1330 to Credit Card #2
  • $275 to Credit Card #3
  • $201 to Student Loan #1
  • $393 to Student Loan #2
If this plan is sustainable (and I think it is), we'll pay off both credit cards by the end of next August - possibly earlier, if we get a tax refund and work bonuses.


(2) Thanks to Win #1, we now have a total debt load of less than $70K (to be precise, it stands at $69,771). That's still a lot of debt, but considering that we started off at close to $78K last April, we've made some major progress. It feels amazing to hit this benchmark.


(3) Despite the hefty repayment sums dictated by The Monster Repayment PlanTM, we'll still be able to put $600 into savings this month. That brings our total emergency/sinking fund to almost $3000.


(4) I finally made a decision about our 2018 health insurance. The choice was between my current traditional PPO plan and a lower-premium high deductible health plan plus health savings account. After asking for tons of advice (thanks, blogosphere!) and crunching the numbers, I settled on the latter. We'll spend $100 less per month on premiums, while my employer will funnel an additional $110 per month into the HSA. Honestly, I couldn't pass up the free money. Plus, the maximum out-of-pocket is $4000; while that's no small sum, we feel it's something we can cover if we need to.


(5) Fortysomething received two major accolades at work: He won a teaching grant for his classroom, and he earned a teaching award from the students and administration. Although he's been in his current position for only four months, it's clear he's absolutely thriving and sees this gig as a long-term commitment (which promotes long-term job stability, which in turn promotes longer-term financial stability).


Progress! It's happening! It's really happening!

What about you? What are some of your recent financial accomplishments? (I want to know!)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Update: Work and Life Epiphanies

Recently, I've written extensively about work anxiety, insomnia, and the sustainability (or... non-sustainability?) of my people-oriented, customer-facing job. I've talked about how my doctor recommended that I actually quit my current gig, even if I don't have something else lined up with which to replace it. I've seriously considered the possibility of going it alone, taking on contract work, turning to the marketplace for my health insurance, and crossing my fingers that it will all work out.

If I sounded like I was agonizing over what to do, I was. I am. Trying to analyze difficult circumstances and make big life decisions is an uphill battle, especially when you're depressed, sleep-deprived, and not thinking all that rationally.

This past week has been better. Work has slowed down. My sleep has improved (it's still not great, but at least I'm not staying up for multiple nights in a row). PLUS, I've had not one but TWO epiphanies that helped me view my job conundrum in a whole new light:

Epiphany #1: Maybe the issue is not so much the requirements of my current job as the fact that I'm still grieving the loss of my previous career. I won't go into the whole story here, but I used to be a college professor at a small, idyllic liberal arts school. After my first year of instructing a handful of introductory science courses, I started to suspect that teaching wasn't my calling. I was decent at it - my evaluations were good, and I connected with my students - but I hated the grading, I hated the bureaucracy, I HATED faculty meetings, and I hated the whole tenure process. I stuck it out for two more terms just to make sure it wasn't simply first year doldrums. I resigned after the second year feeling 100 percent certain that I was making the right decision. Fast forward a few months: I applied for my current job on a whim and landed it primarily because I had some solid transferable skills (including the ability to pass as a people person).

While I don't miss teaching (like, at all), I do miss science and the science community. Being a professor was my entry card into that world. I miss it the way you might miss an old flame whom you loved deeply, but who just wasn't right for you. Do I regret the breakup? No, but that doesn't make the grief any easier.

I've been in this current job for almost 10 months, and over that time, I've scoured the job ads almost every day, searching for a science gig in my town for which I'm qualified. Nothing's panned out, but I keep hunting. And hunting. And hunting.

The problem with this never-ending job search is that I always feel like I have one foot out the door at my current place of employment. This week, I realized that a sizable chunk of my stress comes from being in that position - in, but not all in; always searching for something different instead of investing in what I already have; constantly pining for the past. Busy times are always stressful, but I'm pretty sure they're even more stressful if your mind isn't totally in the game.

So I've made a decision: I'm going to apply for one more job that popped up in my search last week, and then that's it. For the next few months, I'm just going to focus on my current work. I'm going to invest myself in this job. That doesn't mean I'll do this forever, but I desperately need a break from the what-ifs. If other opportunities present themselves in the meantime, I'll consider them... but I'm taking a break from actively seeking them out.

Epiphany #2: My primary goal right now isn't to find my dream job. It's to get out of debt. Clearly the two aren't mutually exclusive; I may eventually land said dream job AND get out of debt. But if we're just talking goals and which one I want to focus on right now, it's doing what I can to help my family establish a stronger financial foundation so that we have more freedom in the future (and you know what? That is a perfectly legitimate, laudable goal.)

So no, I will not be quitting my current job, which offers excellent benefits, requires very little thought outside of the nine to five, allows me to work with people I genuinely adore, and generally provides exactly the kind of stability we need in order to reach our zero debt goals. Instead, I'll be making more of an effort to give what I can to the job and seeking out in-house opportunities to utilize my strengths and experience.

That said, I will be actively working to reduce my work stress, especially during this current slow period. I'll be finding a good therapist between now and January. That way, when things pick up again, I'll have better coping skills and someone I can turn to when I just need to vent. 

I've made my decision, and just by doing that, I feel so much better.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

October Budget Review: Grumbly Progress

When I was 24 years old, I hiked through the Alps. We started in Germany and wended our way down to Italy via Austria. I had little previous hiking experience, so the first few days consisted of blistery foot pain, utter exhaustion, frequent spills (I'm not the most coordinated person you'll ever meet), and constant hunger. But I didn't really care, because every time I looked up, I caught another glorious view of the mountains. Far off in the distance was our destination, and I knew we were going to get there one day. In those first few hard days, those views sustained me.

Fast forward three weeks: I'd transformed into a seasoned and efficient hiker. I could walk all day long with just a brief rest at lunch. My calloused feet were inured to my stiff boots and the rocky ground. I'd figured out how to pace myself, and I wasn't tripping as much. 

You'd think, then, that the trip became easier with time - but it really didn't. The further we traveled and the stronger I became physically, the more mentally worn down I felt. By the time we arrived at the Italian border, I was sick of eating rehydrated food, sick of going to bed in my stinky sleeping bag, sick of the same four trail ditties that my trail buddies would sing on repeat, and generally sick of walking. The views were nice, sure - but I just wanted to get to my destination and take a shower, thank you very much. 

Had someone come by and offered to drive me the rest of the way, I probably would have said yes.

Despite the fact that so many aspects of the hike became easier with time, there seemed to be an inverse correlation between time on the trail and mental stamina.

I've noticed a similar phenomenon with our debt repayment. At first we were clueless and clunky with our budget. We regularly over-spent. On several occasions, we forgot to account for all of our bills and accrued late fees. We made plenty of mistakes -  but we kept going because we felt thrilled at the thought of creating a better financial situation for ourselves.

Fast forward six months. We don't make those rookie mistakes anymore, and the budget is dialed in. Take October 2017, for example:

Sure, we went a bit over in the "Other" category (I blame my birthday), but we still came in $20 under budget. For the most part, we spent what we planned to spend. We even put $500 into savings... and we paid off the car. This month, we're ramping up our debt allocation to $2200 so that we can put our repayment into overdrive.

We're doing almost as well as we possibly could be doing, and yet the main thing I feel about this debt repayment process right now - and here's where I keep it real (and whiny!) - is that I'm sick of it. I'm sick of being in debt, and I'm sick of digging out of it. I'm sick of seeing thousands of dollars go to our creditors each month instead of into our own savings and investment accounts. 

That's how I would characterize our journey in October of 2017: We're doing it, and we're doing it well, but we're not particularly happy about it. This journey is long, and exhausting, and frustrating. I mean, we're totally getting there... It's just not always fun. But we're moving forward, one grumbly step at a time.

Now that I've got that out of my system...

How did your October go?

P.S. That Alpine backpacking trip? It was one of the most worthwhile experiences of my life. I look back and appreciate all of it - the good and the bad, the inspiring and the painful. And that's how I'm hoping to see this debt repayment journey when I reflect on it in a few years.

Disease Called Debt

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Sometimes, You Can't Just Walk Out.

I've been dealing with some intense work-related anxiety (see previous work issues post here, where I explain what bothers me about my job despite my awesome coworkers, considerate boss, and amazing benefits). The anxiety has, in turn, sparked a debilitating wave of insomnia the likes of which I've never experienced before. I've gone entire nights without sleeping; earlier this week, I went almost two nights without sleeping and was nearly delusional by the time I finally conked out at 4 AM. Zzzquil has become largely ineffective because I've used it so often that I've developed a tolerance. I've blazed through all of my sick days and even dipped into my vacation time. I've lost five pounds without trying.

Fearing that I'd get fired or at least hauled in by HR for a friendly chat, and utterly tired of being tired, I called my doctor and begged for a same-day appointment to discuss my options. She did the usual physical tests, all of which were normal, and then dove into an extensive mental health questionnaire. I broke down when she asked how often I feel overwhelmed (answer: Every. Single. Day.)

She sat down and looked me in the eye.

"Listen to me," she said. "I can give you a prescription for a sleeping pill. We can talk about some cognitive behavioral therapy. But my honest opinion is that this job is becoming toxic for you. You need a new job. Ditch what you're doing, because it isn't good for you."

Then she brought in an in-house therapist to chat with me. The therapist had the same opinion: "Life is too short to be unhappy at work. Sometimes you just have to walk away. Nothing is worth more than your health."

I get what they're saying. Health is wealth: not going to argue with that. And there have been days when the easiest thing in the world would have been to get up from my desk, pick up my coat, and walk out for good. I'm 100 percent certain that I would have felt immediate relief. Maybe I'd even be able to sleep.

But here's the thing: for the sake of my family and our finances, I can't just walk out; I think it's irresponsible/naive/flippant of anyone to suggest I should do so. Sure, I might feel better for a day or three, but then reality would set in. How would we pay our bills? How would we deal with our debt? Would we have to purchase health insurance via the Marketplace? (I'm all for healthcare that includes those of us with pre-existing conditions, but my premiums would be three times what they are now.) What's worse: financial stress or job stress? 

If we lived in a big city with a wealth of employment options, I might be able to get away with giving notice before having something else lined up. But here, jobs are scarce; I competed with at least 50 other applicants for my current gig. It's not as simple as just sending out a couple of resumes. Finding another job will take months. 

Right now, I'm willing to look for other work (and have been doing so for weeks), but I'm unwilling to walk away from financial stability. I just need to find a way to handle the stress of my job. I'm already doing things like getting outside at lunchtime, enjoying my interactions with coworkers, meditating for a few minutes a day, taking deep breaths in between clients, and appreciating that I have a job, but there must be something else I can do to improve my situation in the short term. 

Or at least, improve it enough so that I can sleep. (The sleeping pill my doctor prescribed is hit or miss: some nights it knocks me out within minutes; other nights, it almost seems to have the opposite effect, making me feel wide awake instead of drowsy. Maybe there's a better option out there.)

My biggest fear right now is that this won't improve, I'll continue having to miss work, and I'll be forced to quit because I literally can't do my job. 

I don't know what the answer is, exactly, so I guess we'll wait and see. But for now, I'm forging ahead, plans (and salary) intact. 

If you've been there, done this, I would love to know how you handled it. I feel like I'm between a rock and a hard place right now, and although I know I'll figure it out eventually, it's definitely a trying time.

The Only Holiday Craft I'll Ever Make: Budget-Friendly Cloth Beeswax Wraps

I love the holidays, but I've never been that interested in the beat-down-the-doors-of-Best-Buy-to-get-a-killer-deal, purchase-a-million...