Customer Support Triage: Why do we ignore its importance?

If you had the honor to talk to me in late 2021, you might have known how happy I was to quit an underpaying job in private higher education to obtain my goal of working for the federal government. The premise of my job–certifying students’ semester enrollment so they could be paid their Department of Veterans Affairs education benefits–wasn’t the problem. The problem was I didn’t like my direct boss, like many Americans. I didn’t like the lack of a built-in career ladder for that role; I couldn’t take all the years I spent certifying these benefits to move up to a coaching or supervisory role. Said boss wasn’t moving out of her role and presenting an opportunity to take over, to do it better. These things left me stuck with two realities. Sticking it out as an underemployed person, being paid roughly $43,000 a year, felt like earning my two graduate degrees were a complete waste of time. The second reality was to find something–at that point, anything–that brought me up a ladder rung. I didn’t care what the ladder looked like. Rickety? I’ll break a leg, but it might be worth it. Would I climb it blindly now? Yep. How much worse could it be over being paid crap wages again and a long commute to a sketchy part of Phoenix on my in-person days? Was it propped up artificially by something I might discover at a later point in time? Maybe, but tomorrow me could handle it.

Gambling with my career future turned out to be more problematic than I expected.

The temporary elation I felt about having finally “made it” into my dream work industry wore off quickly. Like a piece of fast fashion, nothing about the opportunity felt made to last.

Not everyone will feel this way, so in sharing my sentiments about working for Social Security Administration, please understand that some people love what they do to serve the agency and its customers. If they don’t love what they do, many are willing to suck it up for the opportunity to be paid well. An an example, my career ladder at SSA was GS-9/11/12. Had I done well, the first step at GS-12 in our local area pays $86, 343 effective January of this year. If you have expensive dreams, a number of dependents, or constantly feed lifestyle creep, that amount of money doesn’t go far. Being who I am though, I choose to value dreams and happiness over the prestige of being a GS-12 at one of the local SSA offices. (Over time, I can hit this career milestone somewhere else, so I am not giving up the opportunity, but looking at where it presents itself.)

A GS-12 at SSA was not worth it, to me.

I was at odds with the way the agency is ran, and it was hurting me as someone who values being a working professional. When I first started applying for federal jobs in 2012, SSA was not high on the list. Even when I wavered about whether federal work would serve my longterm career interests and I moved to sporadically applying to federal jobs, I couldn’t shake my feelings about SSA. Being a rather uninformed person without a lot of contacts who were collecting Social Security, I didn’t have a lot to go on other than gut feeling it was the wrong workplace for me. Fast forward to the 2021 version of me, tired of being underemployed and willing to give it a chance, I put on some heavy blinders to receive a pay bump. I stuck it out a little over a year and three months, and I have no desire to go back to the agency. I am outlining my problems with the current operation from my narrow perspective; some of what I see as problems are, in another’s eyes, positives. There are many opinions on where we should focus governmental funds, who is deserving of help, how they should be served, and so on. I cannot appease everyone with my opinions, nor do I expect to do so, but here are my problems with SSA as the agency stands today.

America has a difficult relationship with SSA spending, and it shows when you work there.

Spending reveals itself in how work is managed and how things are maintained. Based on staffing levels, not only at the agency but from what I was told from how understaffed Disability Determination Services (DDS) was also undermanned, it was important for me to pre-interview my contacts and if it was determined they didn’t met eligibility standards, I could take an abbreviated application. (What would have been more useful was having a consistent and effective pre-interview phone call with interested applicants and let them take an abbreviated application at that point-of-contact. No one should be making an appointment a month or two down the road when they could be told in 10 minutes they aren’t eligible!) Each person I could technically deny, whether he or she had an insufficient work history to quality for SSDI or received too much income/support or had too many resources to qualify for SSI, meant my time was freed up to serve someone already receiving benefits. My “free” time was then available to stay on top of incoming paystubs to keep SSI recipients’ payments as accurate as possible; I worked (more towards the end of my time there) learning the SSI overpayment process; or the agency then had me at its disposable to cover front-end interviews for Social Security Number cards when it was short-staffed and in-person activity was high and they’d pull any person not interviewing or on phones to clear the lobby.

Aside from the workload feeling untenable as a trainee, seeing the lack of investment in the agency and the trust of its people additionally felt awful. Simple things like waiting for the agency to repair a broken parking lot gate arm so as to prevent the employee lot from being used by customers or how office supplies are locked up and only managers are allowed to distribute Post-Its. Even the two fridges in the communal break room, as I learned, were purchased from employees’ shared contributions. The agency also did not pay for the microwave, water cooler, or coffee machines. People donated what they had in excess or chipped in to make these modern conveniences available.

From my educational background perspective, I don’t feel it makes sense to treat the agency’s lobby as an emergency room of sorts. The walk-in service is grossly problematic over the inconvenience sometimes seen in appointment based services. People would gripe constantly about having to wait out in the cold but worst still waiting in the summer. Who wants to bake in the 115-120 degrees Fahrenheit sun? The lobbies are small, so outdoor waits are normal. Looking back, I think our lobby capacity was something like 53 persons. There are no outdoor shade structures, benches, or seats for clients to utilize. Not surprising given that over the years across the United States more and more places pare back or making rest structures uncomfortable so as to deter the chronically unhoused from resting there. An increased ability to utilize online services doesn’t mean all persons who are capable of taking advantage of those opportunities will do so, which would reduce the delays experienced by persons lacking internet access and allow the agency to better serve non-English/limited English speakers who cannot use or don’t fully understand our English-based applications.

In advocating particularly for our limited/non-English speaking and deaf customers, the lack of planning appointments out properly means that these seem to be the groups most disadvantaged by policy. I was told my goal was to take a disability claim in an hour and a half. Anyone belonging to one of these groups needs more time because there is an intermediary serving as our translator. Instead, the goal was to pack an appointment day with 4 disability claims. The most I was ever able to manage was 3 appointments, and none of those days went smoothly. Some people need an SSDI application, an SSI application, a representative payee application, and have a household with 5-10 individuals. That’s a lot of development needed. Oh, and you want to add a translator to one of those appointments? Six hours of the day eaten up by those generic pre-determined time slots. Take away 2 15-minute breaks and a 30 minute lunch. There is only a one hour leeway for mistakes/miscommunication/working around computer failures/planning ahead of the appointments to help them all run more smoothly. (And there are days that free hour is just gone if there’s an employee meeting that could have been better served by an email.) I wasn’t good at handling the stress of it all, feeling like my soul was being crushed left and right. There were a lot of weeks I despised my job, and some days those policies were exacerbated by hostile clients. Ultimately, I decided it was in my best interest to leave so I could go back to feeling like myself.

Not everyone gets to walk away like I did. I feel bad for those clients I really wanted to help because the systems in place don’t have their best interests at heart.

Our nation’s workforce with the goal of maximizing financial gains is designed to keep a lot of individuals with disabilities out of the workforce or in a state of underemployment, and if they don’t have family or friends to support them, they need financial assistance through SSDI or SSI to get by. Living in the United States means confronting this system that devalues people and then is left wondering why no one wants to work in that role/agency/industry or stay that along. We’re tired. Seeing the inequality is one thing, but also helping support it in some way is demoralizing. People most reliant on community support are paying the high cost of being served in a way that doesn’t address their unique circumstances. They’re the ones most in need of appointments built around when they can take time off from work, can access public transportation, or a suitable friend or family member can take them to the local field office. People are inhumanely waiting outdoor in these long lines, with no access to a restroom, until they can get in the building and get an appointment number. Some are even too nervous to use the restroom while waiting in the lobby for fear of being passed over and having to wait longer. They are the ones that would come to the interview window and ask permission to go relieve themselves, adding more time to a system that’s been clocking their wait time since they got an appointment number. (Yes, their lobby wait time is measured. The length of their phone or in-person visit is tracked. If you’re a non-responder, yep, that’s recorded, too.) Getting back to the heart and soul of service though, some people deserve more help than others and I couldn’t keep fighting for the system that exacerbates the problems of the poor and disabled, treating them like a homogenous group.

Why should the American worker whose family is reliant on her staying employed in her low wage part time job, leaving her little time to improve her English speaking skills, get the same hour and a half long phone interview slot for her child’s SSI claim as the recent college graduate who has internet access and a computer, but didn’t feel compelled to complete his disability application online in spite of being fully able to do so?

She needs the support and he’s choosing to consume it.

Customer support triage is not impossible in this situation, but it does require ignoring some rules we’ve commonly accepted in life. In this case, we need to teach that supporting the most underserved in our community means addressing equity over equality. We don’t all need the same support, so it should be funneled towards where it is needed most and the frontline workers assisting them need to have their needs attended to as well so they can perform to the best of their capabilities. Adjudicators need permission to schedule longer interviews, when necessary, and that can be planned out at first contact. These centers that have disproportionate queues should have the chance to explore appointment days again, like what was implemented during the pandemic. If someone misses their appointment, all the appointments that want to move up and get seen earlier get the chance to do so, giving some freebie slots in the afternoon for the occasional walk-in service. I don’t feel these are difficult things to ask for, and perhaps, if given the chance, might do some real good to turn around SSA’s image and rapport with its customers and employees alike.

A Life of Fullness

Today, on my way to work and on my way home, I listened to The Financial Confessions podcast’s “Burnout, Boundaries, and the Lie of Consumerist Self-Help.” A little sprinkle of advice that we often hear from our parents: you don’t need to spend money to fit in with others and you shouldn’t feel pressured to conform to social standards. Their messaging, wrapped in different language choices from how my parents have spoken of my potential and place in social groups, provided a nice little reminder I could probably use on repeat once a week. Year after year, I’ve sought to hit the next rung on my career ladder and worried too much about how my life compares to that of my peers. The earlier steps were “easier.” Or they felt easier. It is easy to forget who I was at 16 applying for my first job. I carried around a lot of nervousness. Putting my name and some basic information about “qualifications” on that paper application did not make me feel like I was a shoe-in for the cashier job I ended up working for roughly two years. Really young employee me would probably laugh now that here I stand, on the cusp of turning 39, still a nervous person when it comes to interviews of any kind. (I’m talking jobs and friendships alike.)

I loved listening to this episode today because it represents another message telling me it is ok to avoid living life like everyone else. Maybe it’s not the same construct as Eve Rodsky’s Find Your Unicorn Space but the message is pretty close in sentiment. We live in a world that constantly eats away at one of our finite resources: time. This same world is also always encouraging us to spend money, one of our other finite resources, in a quest to show off who we truly are (or want to be). Listening to this podcast today was a wonderful compliment to the one I listened to yesterday on my way home: The Lazy Genius episode #294 How to Celebrate Your Own Birthday. I didn’t plan a week of catching up on podcast listening, but the two podcasts hit me at a moment when I needed a break from my favorite rock and pop songs to fill my commute time.

Given that this year will be my last year in my 30’s, I want to be an example to others that just being you is enough.

For me, it’s time to be done thinking of a career as rungs on a ladder and that ladder you hopped on at 22 or 35 representing everything valuable you contribute to society. I’ve seen for far too many of us, it is a stepping stone at best and for others, it’s an anchor weighing them unfortunately down in a less than ideal spot in life. Yes, we can go up and down a ladder as much as we like in many cases, but some ladders don’t fit where we need to go. Maybe we should start thinking of a career as a hobby farm. We can plant a few things here and there and see what works for the space available, our individual attention span, and personal tastes. We get to enjoy seasonal fruits. We can share the excess value of my contributions where they might be best appreciated. A part of me wishes I had thought of my working years a bit more this way ages ago, but it takes the right influences to nudge my confidence level from “timid newbie” to “What the hell…let’s do it!” At a minimum, I have 23 possible years to accrue more earnings to meet my retirement goals; I could stay on part-time in my 60’s if I find value in the work or find I need extra money; and lastly, it’s always possible, my career journey ends abruptly and I am reliant on disability benefits to nudge my budget away from the red.

Based on where I am today–both in my career and budget–I wanted to mention how much happier I am now that we’ve pared back on mindless spending. This step away from the immediate gratification culture I am often confronted with has really changed my life more than a number of other choices available to me. One of my biggest spending mistakes was my previous obsession with self-help books in my 20’s. Some of it might have been that the genre was doing quite well with publishers at the time and some of it might have been not accepting the fact my post-deployment life didn’t fit the way I wanted it to at the time. I didn’t feel like I was grown up after Iraq. I didn’t feel like I fit well in the Marine Corps’ rigid structure. I didn’t feel like I was part of my friend group from back home and college either. Being lost looks different for everyone and it’s kind of disappointing to realize society is cultivating this idea that conformity is the end goal–but only until being unique becomes marketable again. Around the time that I accepted I didn’t need someone else’s acceptance, life shifted. I realized the Marine Corps was a chapter of my life, one that I could reread over and over again and take new meaning from. If I had stayed in, I don’t know that I would have learned to appreciate money they way I do now.

The podcasts I listened to this week made me feel proud again of my individuality. I don’t have to fit anyone else’s aesthetic. I don’t need to treat my aging body or my true age as something to be ashamed of and there’s no shame in celebrating my journey a bit differently. My body is not a trend to aspire to nor should my way of perceiving the world. We would be lost if we all looked, sounded, and talked the same. My interests don’t need to be trendy and I hope yours aren’t either.

As something who often hates being asked “Tell me about yourself.” I know that who I am is someone I found.

I was once lost because I kept trying to meet goals others projected onto me. Those goals hurt my love of education, how I felt about my body, personal relationships, and career interests. Once I started to care a little less what everyone thought, I started to understand the body, mind, and spirit that make up who I am. This short stature means I often need help; it can take the form of ladders, but most often, it means politely asking a taller person to put something within my reach. My mind is not dented because the hardship of serving in Iraq resulted in PTSD. I am more empathetic than I was before and small details catch my eye a bit better. (Granted, typos happen. I’m working on being a better editor every day!) My love of reading improves my mental state and while I’ve traded in fiction for the allure of reference writing material and memoirs for the most part, I find all reading to be valuable. My spirit is clumsy. That brain-mouth interaction fails me often and my spirit who forgets to pay attention often results in me falling up and down the stairs. My clumsiness is part of my charm–and bruises are evidence I lost a fight here and there with a chair, the dog who ran into me, or the counter that never moves out of my way.

The next couple of steps in my future might not be easy in my quest to embrace my individuality even further, but I’ve faced obstacles before and felt like I didn’t fit in. I don’t care to compete with others (been there, done that) and it’s getting old hearing stories to press on, regardless of the costs. I am happy to hit a year where I am ignoring the hustle culture messaging. Sure, there’s always more money to be made, but I constantly see people with a lot more and they aren’t happy. They just keep changing the goal post they call ‘happiness.’ Maybe it’s $70k a year. Maybe it’s the 3,500 square foot house. Maybe it’s x number of vacations a year. Their dreams are not my dreams, and I refuse to envy them anymore. It may take some time to stop reading an article here and there on some odd case, but I will eventually do better. The life experiences that generally make me happy and feel like I’m living the life best suited for me are pretty simple. Here’s what my full life looks like today:

Family

  1. We almost always eat dinner together.
  2. We take turns doing the dishes.
  3. We don’t raise our voices when we’re angry.

Work

  1. Avoiding handling money.
  2. Keeping my commute to a minimum.
  3. Ample PTO/sick/vacation time.

Writing/Reading Goals

  1. Give me a vocabulary challenge.
  2. Help me see how to better portray my own lived experiences.
  3. Mix things up with easy reads and long-term reading projects.

Friends

  1. Gather for fun experiences (with and without alcohol).
  2. Improve my recall of important dates and checking in.
  3. Avoid gossiping.

Vacationing Like an Adult: Financial Transparency in a World Full of Influencers

Vacations are dreamy.

You get to leave behind waking up early, commuting, crowded communal fridges with questionable smells, and the exhaustion of irritated clients who seem to get more nasty in their behavior and word choices every day.

Vacations are the kind of magic grown ups get. We traded in beliefs that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy exist for a world of rooms that seemingly clean themselves (thank you to all the tireless janitorial and maid staff). Our child selves who once craved to be a new profession every day revel in our adult escape from our true professions. Maybe we are underpaid, under appreciated, or overworked. Or all three. Any way, we get to abandon that worker identity for a set period of time. After all, how many people ask you on vacation What do you do? None, right?! It’s a bit magical to move about in your private albeit borrowed space enjoying your extra sleep, the views and food, and literally being waited on. The pampering is worth the cost.

So why do so many influencers stay quiet about the funds it takes to get to some of the places they visit? Maybe it’s their way to avoid dimming the magic of the trips they go on but shedding some of that mystery has a real purpose. You can inspire people to save up for their dreams by showing them some of these amazing venues are less out of reach than they might imagine.

Today I will provide the behind-the-scenes look at our recent California vacation. We stayed at Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, a place we’ve never visited before. Although we were in California to participate in the WB Studio Tour and check out Wizarding World at Universal Studios, we choose to stay here for the ocean views and the food choices. An added bonus is the entire resort campus is non-smoking. People could not smoke tobacco products or vape either. My personal belief is a lot of public accommodations need to adopt an entirely smoke free environment.

My only struggle with the resort was the amount of staff members eager to greet my husband’s service dog. The resort is exceptionally dog-friendly and staff often missed the fact Gregor should be left alone even though he was wearing his gear identifying him as a service animal (not a requirement, by the way). Here is a peek at their resort policies on dogs and the resort fees I’ll share about later.

As the costs of many things rise in Arizona, we also realized planning for this trip meant planning for California prices. The allure of AirBnB’s has dimmed in our eyes based on the amount of extra cleaning fees being tacked on for stays even though you clean up before you leave, so staying in California meant planning for the aforementioned resort fees, parking costs we might incur, and pre-made meals that add up for a family of three. Of the on-site restaurant options, we grabbed drinks and a light breakfast at Sea Beans; our casual dinner was at Catalina Kitchen followed by a breakfast buffet there; but Bashi was the all-around favorite for us. We went here for New Year’s Eve and now I kind of wish we had done our second dinner there, too.

Bashi won out both for the amount of dairy free dishes (more on that in a minute) and the portion size. The wok fried garlic noodles ($18) I enjoyed was substantial enough to be my dinner, a small side for my husband, and our breakfast the next morning paired with the bit of leftover Peking duck from his dinner ($75). In all fairness, I forgot what our daughter ordered for dinner, but we all left satisfied with our meals, the two Americanos and one Ramune strawberry soda, plus the leftovers and the to go orders of mochi and a slice of vegan meyer lemon cheesecake. This one meal, $210 with tip, represents the bulk of what we spent on dining at the resort. Our resort savings on food is all courtesy of being Amex members; travel is something we want to enjoy more so it made sense for us to explore rewards options, but this blog post is not sponsored by any of the businesses mentioned today. We set aside our own funds over a few months to make this New Year’s Eve trip possible. For others looking to replicate the experience, their timeframe to save may be shorter or longer.

My personal failing over choosing Catalina Kitchen is centered on not looking at the menu earlier. Nearly everything had butter or some sort of cheese. I do bring lactase enzyme tablets with me in case there are dishes that might have accidentally been prepared wrong when I ask for a dairy alternative. The medication is not always helpful so the safer thing to do is hunt for other menu items. At Catalina Kitchen, I requested the sautéed spinach be prepared with olive oil over butter and I paired my $9 side dish with $22 tuna tartare. I also requested the avocado be removed because that fruit started to make me sick back in 2014. If you want to look at how poorly I prepared for the weekend, check out their menu. It’s a dairy heaven for some and nightmare for someone like me trying to avoid it.

I will take a moment to mention we’ve cut back on ordering alcohol when we dine out. Looking over the lobby bar’s menu, if I had decided to buy something, I probably would have picked the Holiday Fashion ($16), made with Bulleit rye, the Fireside ($20) made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, or the Shunka Shuto ‘Four Seasons’ whiskey flight ($40). Notice a theme? Or two. Or three. I love trying out holiday and season inspired drinks. Even more, I love trying out bourbon and whiskey drinks. Better yet, is saving money for something that matters more. As drink prices creep up to the same as entree prices, we choose to pair back on social drinks. The small bottle of wine in our room was enough to celebrate our NYE holiday weekend. The bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Valley 2019 pinot noir paired well with our evening of partially watching Robert Pattinson in “The Batman”. We fell asleep before ten and I was awakened by revelers outside screaming Happy New Year’s at midnight.

Now that I’ve gushed a bit about food and drink options, here’s what really brings people to this resort.

The pandemic made us hold off on travel for so long, it is only natural to want to make up for the lost time. Doing so with an eye on the budget did not dampen the experience at all. Granted, California was more rainy than what we hoped for when we planned the trip. We watched the wind take over the area, witnessed streets littered with palm fronds, and waited out pockets of rain to enjoy what I share with you today.


WB STUDIO TOUR

My love for the show “Gilmore Girls” is why I wanted to do the WB Studio Tour over the holidays. This show was my go-to entertainment during my separation from the Marine Corps and has remained one of my favorite shows to this day. Walking through the set was more fun than popping into the Friends Central Perk set up; I loved “Friends” growing up (still do), but the show does not have the same energy the way “Gilmore Girls” steals my heart. Sookie is my favorite main character; I love how she always creates something fabulous (with the exception of when she was pregnant and did not know it yet!). Her love for other people really shines in her cooking; I love seeing how what she makes for individuals in her life represents them so well. If there was someone who taught me that cooking is a craft, it is her.

There wasn’t a way to pop into Luke’s Diner, so we got 3 orders of tator tots ($19.84) from Al’s Pancake World and sought refuge in the church from the wind and possibility of more rain.

(These photos are a small collection of my overall experience. Ones like my family photo in front of Luke’s Diner will remain private to respect my husband’s and daughter’s privacy.)

And yes, I have a favorite boyfriend. Rory’s boyfriend, Logan, will remain my favorite. For all his flaws, I think if the show had gone on to show how he matured after some early adult personal failures, others would love him as much as I do. I am still hoping he’s Rory’s baby daddy.


UNIVERSAL STUDIOS

Our trip to Universal Studios was more expensive than the WB Studio Tour and being a person terrified of roller coasters, it was not the best use of my money. Seeing Wizarding World was neat though and my lunch at the Jurassic Cafe was as great second choice (my first choice was the harvest stew in a bread bowl). The citrus glazed chicken ($17.99) was served with a cranberry chimichurri, papaya slaw (clearly mine was missing!), and rice and beans. I do wish more places were required to list ingredients in full, so it’s easier to find out what has allergens. I took a lactase enzyme in case there was dairy in my meal; you can never be too careful!

To walk around this area, it is best to explain you are wandering around one of the prettiest shopping centers. I would have loved for it to have more of the feel we experienced at WB so the Warner Brothers Studio Tour London The Making of Harry Potter is something I think we should save up to do one of these years.

NOTE: I ordered the frozen butter beer non-dairy. With the cold California weather, I should have looked into heading into the Three Broomsticks to order the hot version. Whether you order it frozen, hot, or original, the drink is $8 before tax.


Below is the rundown of our categories. I will say I tried to over budget ahead of the trip. I assumed gas would be $5 a gallon, but it varied from about $3.39 or so up to around $4.29. We saved a little on resort fees, but I cannot recall if the credits we had for that are also part of our travel rewards. I should get better about budgeting for parking; I said this last year, too, after our 2021 trip to San Francisco. There was a $15 charge for parking at WB Studio and I feel that should be rolled into the ticket. Our decision to valet the car at Universal Studios costs $50 plus the $5 tip. We still stayed under budget for the whole trip which is what really matters.


BUDGETEDACTUAL
ROOM$1868.64$1868.64
RESORT FEES$150.00$135.00
NYE DINNER, RESORT DINNER,
BUFFET BREAKFAST
$565.00 ***$314.00
ROAD FOOD/PARK SELECTIONScombined with previous$155.69
WB STUDIO TOUR$207.00$207.00
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS TOUR$402.00$402.00
TRANSPORTATION$175.00$163.68
PARKING (ended up with 1 reg, 1 valet)$0.00$70.00
TIPS (out of personal cash; room/luggage)$0.00$9.00
SOUVENIR BUDGET *Our daughter bought other souvenirs with her money.$95.00$91.40
TOTALS$3,462.64$3,416.41

I bundled up for New Year’s, but the jacket was a perfect outfit addition.

Wishing you all a great start to 2023.

~Cheryl

Looking to Write More in 2023: My Why

2022 is almost over.

I am a bit more than grateful to see this year end. A few unexpected health challenges in the form of an ovarian cyst that burst in the spring and dealing with carpal tunnel this late summer/early fall plus losing our 2-year-old dog, Radar, presented some major disappointments. 2022 has not felt like a year full of hope and joy, so I’ve been working on turning around my attitude in the face of adversity. Writing helps me refocus my energy and I love reflecting on my journey of personal growth.

Here are some things about 2022 that remind me this year wasn’t all bad:

  1. We made two extra partial payments on our mortgage.
  2. We set aside enough money for a mini vacation. (More to follow in January.)
  3. We’ve regularly set aside money towards a 2023 fall vacation to see friends living out-of-state.
  4. I found no cost writing inspirational materials courtesy of a local public library:
    • Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay by Adair Lara
    • The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English by Lynne Murphy
    • Steering the Craft: The Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. Le Guin
  5. Many of the new recipes I’ve tested are quickly becoming family family dishes.
  6. My friendships at work at thriving as are my friendships outside of work, making Arizona feel more like a place where I belong.
  7. My family and I are trying to be better about staying in touch. (We do just fine on social media, but we’re more of an in-person bunch and everyone avoids picking up the phone.)
  8. I found new vegan cheese options I like:

My journey with carpal tunnel syndrome is not over, but I am finding the condition easier to manage. On days where it hurts a bit to type, I throw on my arm brace for a good hour or more. It’s not like I am backpedaling and needing to wear it everyday and I take that progress as a good sign. My weightlifting journey will take a bit more work to get back up to my former strength level and I’ve accepted that situation is something I cannot change.

As I mentioned earlier, writing is that tool in my tool box that helps me reflect on where I am today, my future path, and the spaces I’ve occupied in the past. I seriously considered getting a dictation technology to help me move forward with my writing due to dealing with carpal tunnel, but right now, it’s looking like I may not need that option just yet. For work, I get by using an ergonomic keyboard. At home, I try to be mindful about using my phone to draft small notes for my writing projects. When typing on my phone for more than ten minutes or spending more time typing on my laptop, I usually wear my arm brace. The end goal being yours truly is going to keep up writing, both because my work life requires it and my personal life is fulfilled by this activity.

Now I have pretty sloppy handwriting, but I had to scribble this little sentiment as I listened to Find Your Unicorn Space by Eve Rodsky on Audible. (No ad talk here. It was a purchase made from our own wallets.) I love that this piece of knowledge that was shared doesn’t quantify success as a writer. It’s not about the size of the audience. It is not about the amount of money one earns by selling their writing. It is not about being a professional or amateur writer or a student in the classroom. One can be a writer without worrying about how the world perceives it. The notion of enjoying the journey and less the accomplishment (i.e. the published book or articles) is something I’ve needed to work on appreciating more. The times I’ve wanted to focus heavily on completing the memoir in X timeframe, my writing suffers. When I take my time to think of what I want to say, reinforced by ideas springing up from reads like those mentioned above, my writing better expresses who I am.

I want to roll into 2023 feeling more like me. Right now, I occasionally make time to write once a month here on the blog. I won’t call it a resolution, but I think it would be nice to get back to writing more. I don’t promise two or more posts a month, but I plan to write here and there what speaks to me. Since this passion project is an unpaid endeavor, maybe that will mean a good post is 300 words and another month what I wish to share, equally good in a different way, will be 800 words or more. I realize I’ve been too harsh on my writing practice. The freedom I have by writing what I want versus others who are paid to write to hawk a product or service is a freedom I haven’t explored as much as I should. This active pursuit of public writing started back in August 2014, so I guess the best thing to say is I’ll see you again in 2023. I love writing for the sheer love of personal expression and that’s my why to keep up this habit.

What Does a Dairy Free Thanksgiving Look Like?

Food memories are something I quite like talking about–we all tend to have some positive experience around food or drink choices, be it recalling the best lunch entree in your elementary school cafeteria, cookies from grandma, or the first alcoholic drink you ever tried. In answering those questions here are my selections: I liked school pizza, my grandmother-in-law makes some great snowball cookies, and my first sip of alcohol I believe was Southern Comfort and coke (it’s been a minute!). There is something to be said about how food transports us; even the move “Ratatouille” honed in on this reality in the scene where the harsh food critic remembers how comforting ratatouille was during his childhood years.

I do not see my family that much for the holidays as an adult now because travel is expensive, but something like a holiday meal allows me to feel like the space between is not as great. Well before we sit down to our Thanksgiving dinner, my family is on my mind and I often wonder if I’ll get ahold of everyone and/or whether we’ll have time to chat. Making a festive meal certainly takes a lot of time and the duties are not always split among a lot of people. When I was younger though, my family broke down these responsibilities pretty well when my mom was sick during our last Thanksgiving together. Her cancer progression is still an issue that hits me hard, but that last Thanksgiving is a fond detail in my wealth of memories. I made an ice cream pie; it was far from fancy, but as a teenager, I could make it on my own and I was proud to (literally!) bring something to the table.

My parents’ home is rather modest in ways, but there was always space to crowd in people and all the food they brought with them. The kitchen is a pretty tight space, but my dad and stepmom remodeled over the years, improving the flow of the space. Their work has been exceptionally helpful with our family expanding due to the addition of partners and grandchildren. Every time I think of my parents’ house, I think of nearly every inch of counter space eaten up by an assortment of plastic storage containers full of side dishes, holiday tins full of treats, and roasting pans and saucepans with the dinner entree and whatever sauce was appropriate for the meat selected that year.

I am not as consistent as my parents in recreating my Thanksgiving dinner. The same is true of Christmas. I love trying out new things; I guess that can be our tradition of sorts unless I start to be more consistent in making the cinnamon pie I love for Thanksgiving. This year we brought one to Friendsgiving since I already settled on making a vegan pecan pie for our family meal. Preparing the same components for the holidays is not important to me, and I think it’s important home cooks feel comfortable deviating from practices established by older family members. I constantly make new things for our weekly dinners, so it is only natural to keep up the same practice for the holidays. Cooking is my hobby; I may not create many of my own recipes, but I don’t think that decision reduces the enjoyment I feel from the craft. Now that I am lactose intolerant, it is becoming more of a mindful practice. Vegan and lactose free ingredients are not always options for me. Something could be out of budget, out of stock due to low supply, or the vegan version does not work as well due to textural differences or fat content compared to the traditional dairy products. None of these concerns though drove my desire to build a dairy free Thanksgiving this year, a complete 180 from what I know will be found in my parents’ home.

I’ve grown tired of remembering what dishes require taking Lactaid beforehand and buying the medicine is truly a waste of money when I have the power to create dishes without dairy. Last year I wasn’t as mindful in building a dairy free Thanksgiving, selecting items like Trader Joe’s green bean casserole bites because I wanted a taste of green bean casserole without being stuck with a lot of leftovers that would be painful to my digestive system. Those little bites still upset my stomach. What is off-limits to me does not keep me from recommending those to others who might need a last minute appetizer. They are tasty. If Trader Joe’s went out on a limb and released a vegan version, I’d gladly buy it for future holiday gatherings. Returning to this year’s dinner, there are some traditional selections:

  1. Turkey with gravy
  2. Cranberry sauce
  3. Dinner rolls
  4. Sweet potatoes (savory, not sweet, topping)
  5. Pecan pie

The execution of the menu is what lumps my choices into being somewhat non-traditional for the holiday.

  1. The turkey uses Aarti’s tandoori butter turkey breast recipe from Selena +Chef as the base idea, substituting vegan butter for dairy butter and increasing the amount of ingredients to cover the entire bird. We will also use the vegan butter for the gravy from this same show episode.
  2. Cranberry sauce naturally is dairy free, but I’ll use apple juice instead of orange juice to sweeten it.
  3. Udi’s gluten free classic French dinner rolls replace the Rhodes dinner rolls. While the two roll choices are both dairy free, my body also feels better when I cut back on the amount of gluten I eat during the week.
  4. A sweet potato casserole with marshmallows could have been on the menu and made with vegan butter, but I opted instead to roast purple sweet potatoes and will top them with The Mushroom Company au jus onion saucy mushrooms. The other plus is these steam in the bag!
  5. I thought a vegan pecan pie recipe would be harder to come across, but I will make the one from Nora Cooks. (I’ve never made a pecan pie before, so wish me luck!)

As far as price goes, the dinner is $117.27 pre-tax, and excludes items that are pantry or fridge staples already on-hand like flour, vegan butter, apple juice, and spices. I also plan to pair the vegan pecan pie with the dairy free Cherry Garcia ice cream Ben & Jerry’s makes; since the latter was already in the freezer and not specifically bought for the holiday, I did exclude it from my pricing. The only thing I truly forgot to account for was buying flax seed for the pie, and I am ok with not trying to tally it as we bought non-dairy Reddiwhip and So Delicious Coco Whip for pies recently and I included numbers for both of those in my Thanksgiving tally.

Our breakdown looks as follows (and is enough for Thanksgiving dinner plus leftovers!):

  1. 10.76 lb. free range organic turkey ($53.69)
  2. 2 packages Trader Joe’s cranberries ($5.00)
  3. Vegan pecan pie ($24.65)
    • 1 pie shell, frozen store bought
    • Non-dairy Reddiwhip
    • So Delicious Coco Whip
    • 10 oz. chopped pecans
    • 1 bottle dark Karo syrup
  4. (4 packages) Mushroom Company onion au jus mushrooms ($15.96)
  5. (2 packages) Udi’s gluten free classic French dinner rolls ($10.98)
  6. 3lbs. organic Stokes brand purple sweet potatoes ($6.99)

I hope this little snapshot of Thanksgiving inspires you all and wherever you find yourself this week, may you be surrounded by people you care about and who care about you. Life is short. Be around people who matter and whatever you are grateful for this season, please remember there are many grieving this time of year. Their “happy” will not look like your “happy” and that’s ok. I speak about loss not tied just to the Club Q shooting in Colorado, but these families and many like theirs will stare at empty seats this year and without the person(s) who brought particular dishes, jokes, games, etc. that make their family events memorable. We can enjoy our blessings and still be mindful that hands need holding, prayers are requested, and support options exist within our means and spheres of influence to serve those families in need this season. Remember, it is not the time of year to only think of ourselves.

Happy Birthday, Marines.

I sent this piece in awhile ago to Good Housekeeping and since I have not heard back about it, I wanted to share it as a little birthday message to my fellow Marines. I love my second birthday something fierce, and I know many Marines that feel the same way. This message is in honor of those I’ve befriended over my journey as a United States Marine and the friends I’ve met as a Marine veteran. All I ask is if you drink today, please don’t drink and drive. The same goes for tomorrow, and all the days that follow.

Love,

Cheryl


The birthday weekends. The birthday week. The birthday month. When does it stop?

I’ve never wrapped my mind around the prolonged adult birthday. The over-the-top festivities for one adult person seem a little crazy. From birthday sashes to birthday crew embroidered or screen-printed shirts, I just don’t get it. The fact that there are currently over 2.5 million posts under #birthdaymonth for Instagram terrifies me a little. If American weddings are getting out of hand for costs, how are the prolonged birthdays impacting everyone’s wallets and personal time? Maybe it is because I grew up in a house with a lot of siblings. In fact, I have a twin and my oldest sister’s birthday is six days before ours—my parents could never afford to gives us lavish birthday events, but they still celebrated us as unique individuals, often with simple birthday events at home complete with pizza, cake and ice cream, and presents. There would be paper decorations, themed party plates, and cheap party favors to hold over neighbor kids since you know, it wasn’t their birthday. My oldest sister often received clothes and makeup whereas I, the polar opposite who also looked oddly more like her than my own twin, received gifts most introverted people love: journals, books, and art supplies. Who knows what age I was when I figured out I did not like to “people” and maybe that’s why I’ve never adored the idea of a flashy birthday that no one wants to end.

And then I was entitled to a second birthday, which changed everything.

I drink on my second birthday; it’s a tradition, which I will explain in due time. I was underage for my first second birthday and in a situation where underage drinking was easy to curb. In the interest of being honest, underage drinking did not appeal to me but for the first new birthday the more senior adults present crafted a night of revelry for all age groups in attendance. Music, plenty of conversation, the chance to relax, and an abundance of food to rival some Thanksgiving tables. From an array of appetizers; beef and seafood entrees, but oddly, no chicken; hearty homestyle sides like baked potatoes, corn, and dinner rolls with butter for those looking to indulge plus fruit and salad for those seeking mindful choices; and with cheesecake, fruit pies, and birthday cake as our dessert options, it was apparent no expense was spared in feeding us all. There was enough to feed all my brothers and sisters present.

Belonging to this big, blended family is not easy all the time. I cannot recall who all made it out to my first second birthday shindig, but I kept the commemorative menu. There are faces I haven’t seen in ages and I don’t know who has kids now versus who might still be traveling around the United States or around the world, but this paper survives.  Keeping this scrap evidence in nearly mint condition feels impressive given the moves I’ve also made across the United States over the past nineteen years and it is a healthy reminder we are all family regardless of our personal differences. Those aren’t as apparent to outsiders though; we are often viewed as a rowdy homogenous group by strangers—and I feel the lens with which others see us is not entirely false. After all, we dress in matching birthday outfits. Yep, we are that kind of family. Buttoned up in our formal attire, we look fancy to the untrained eye, until we open our mouths. Then we let it slip we only look refined. (Watch out, we swear.)

I may not miss all these family members, but every year, there are some I really miss, and we keep in touch over Instagram and Facebook. We are a weird bunch, but it is nice to share your birthday with others, and I don’t mean casually share (i.e. you come to my birthday party and I come to yours). We share the SAME birthday. Our second birthday was bestowed upon us because we all opted to become United States Marines and the Marine Corps birthplace, Tun Tavern, is why it’s common to drink on my second birthday. We had our love-hate relationship with the Marine Corps on a regular basis, but it is always amusing to reflect on how much going to a birthday ball was like being a kid whisked away to an extended family member’s house for a holiday gathering; it could be you’re visiting the extended family you love or you’re visiting the side that loves nothing more than to criticize; and since drinks are easy to find, you’re either drinking with people you like and already drink me pretty regularly or you’re in the company of people who make you want to drink and let’s hope the bar is not too expensive. A good (read: less over-the-top) Marine Corps birthday experience can fall on a workday, saving you some of the pain of readying yourself for the family to compare your achievements to those of your siblings. I think plenty of Marines (and Marine veterans) might agree that the birthday itself is often more fun than attending the Marine Corps ball. You are spared some uniform and ball prep stress: you can hold off on buying ribbons and medals you need to get your dress blues updated, you can stop looking for a ruler to see exactly what 1/8” looks like for your ribbon bar, and you are not out money to stay in a hotel room for the event or the money it takes to get there. How many hours away is this thing again?

At your home base though, it’s a different story. Everywhere you go, you run into a fellow Marine, also dressed more casually in their camouflage utility uniform. You yell out, “Happy Birthday.” In return, you are greeted with a “Happy Birthday.” The next Marine you see, you yell out, “Happy Birthday.” She responds, “Happy Birthday.” Repeat. ALL. DAY. LONG. Everyone is so busy telling each other Happy Birthday no major arguments seem to crop up and very little work gets done. No one is sizing you up on your number of deployments or knows you barely make it through the rifle range due to your pizza box rifle badge the way they might have if you were at the Marine Corps ball in blues. Instead, the day speeds by. Soon enough, it’s four-thirty and time to go home. You might end the day hanging out with Marines you like the most, and the very next day is Veterans Day, meaning no work tomorrow. This situation is probably the closest thing I can recall to being a little kid on a movie day in school or passing out Valentine’s in an elementary school classroom. Does it really matter if you like everyone or not? No. You recognize that everyone deserves to feel special and you participate.

When you’re truly fortunate, you get to marry the two experiences—and the situation gives off vibes of the prolonged birthday weekend. This can happen, too, after separating from the Marine Corps as I have been gifted a mini bottle of liquor from a fellow Marine veteran when our shared birthday rolled in on a weekday. I’ve been known to bring in a “Happy Birthday, Marines” cake even in an office populated with veterans from other services—and everyone gets to eat cake! (It’s my birthday and everyone is invited for the festivities.) My Facebook activity that day will also center on reaching out to my old boss from 1st Marine Division, seeing if my former SSgt is still doing well, and checking up on my brothers from that unit that are still involved in my life to see if they’re having a good day. If it’s not me saying hello to them directly, I might also drop in to say hi to a spouse to relay the message. I will equally haunt them the following day to wish all a Happy Veteran’s Day, too.

Maybe that’s why it is time I revisit my feelings on the birthday weekend, week, and month. Sure, it’s not my preferred way to celebrate, but not everyone is entitled to two birthdays. The Marine Corps was a workplace environment, one that honored its birthday in a way I have not seen emulated in the civilian workforce. Perhaps that issue is a big part of why my fellow adult Americans are clinging to extended birthday endeavors. The workplace they are in has let them down a bit and by connecting more with friends and family—or indulging themselves with a month of various self-purchased treats and experiences—they are rekindling their spirits. Esprit de corps is not found everywhere; it is cultivated repeatedly as the Marine Corps has shown me. If my peers are looking for others to support them as they reinvent and reinvest in themselves year after year, for someone to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and to give them a better sense of belonging than where they started, I know I can do that. The Marine Corps taught me how—sometimes, it can be as simple as saying “Happy Birthday,” checking their birthday outfit for them before they stroll out the door and eating cake together.

The Mild Side of Halloween

I LOVE Halloween. Absolutely love it. The kid who knew stranger danger a little too much and yet, Halloween has an opposite effect on me; sure I’ll go out and beg for candy at a stranger’s house. That’s not odd at all. As a kid, I remember dressing up as an angel and at some point, my cardboard wings got ensnared in a neighbor’s faux spider webbing. That was probably more terrifying than greeting strangers in our neighborhood and I don’t know why. We had a young girl who lived in our neighborhood who was abducted (and sadly, killed). I feel, in the interest of protecting that family’s privacy, it would be important to not share her name and possibly bring up painful memories for them. I was so young when it happened in 1991, I do not recall the neighbor although she was someone who attended my elementary school. There are ground rules in my home now though that are directly tied to this tragic event, but still, Halloween is one of those occasions I drop my guard around strangers.

Both my family growing up permitted us to trick or treat and for awhile, my husband and I allowed our daughter to trick or treat. One of the things I’ve enjoyed seeing over the years is the concept of “trunk or treating” since it is easier to supervise kids (both from possible predators and being hit by cars who don’t see kids in dark costumes as they cross the street). Trick of treating is a fond memory from my childhood and I like that in different ways, we’ve provided some semblance of that experience for our own child. My siblings and I used to take our haul and set up shop in our bedroom, perusing each other’s stash. Deciding the value of fun size snickers versus a fun size bag of M&M’s or a few Tootsie Rolls exemplified our biggest decisions to make each year. Being an only child, our daughter does not get that same experience, but we find ways to make the holiday special. This year, in lieu of trick or treating herself, she is passing out the goods (with our supervision, of course). We may not have candies set up for kids with food allergies, but we crafted some goody bags with bubbles and stickers as a safe alternative–also making sure to nab a teal faux pumpkin to place on the porch so those allergy prone kiddos know we have something other than snacks to offer.

I wanted to share today I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a milder version of Halloween. I was willing to watch (or as much as possible) scary movies like “Poltergist” and “Cudo” as a kid, but the adult me likes mild, like I like my taco seasoning. Surprises don’t sit well with me. I don’t want the faux blood and mannequins, the witch that pops up when you walk by, and I absolutely don’t want to see the fake entrails falling out onto the floor. I powered through as much of “The Northman” recently that I could–drawing the line at the point where a guy is shown on screen with numerous organs cascading everywhere. I was DONE. My kid-like Halloween festivities are zen inspiring (mostly). A lot of my decor screams I’ve read all the Marie Kondo books I could get my hands on and found the things that spark joy, and only joy. My mild side is also budget mindful.

The past few months we’ve paid an additional $700 per month towards the mortgage principal and if I go too Halloween decor crazy, I sacrifice a larger goal for a short term experience. To make up for the modest spending, I am soaking in all the Instagram love for the fun side of Halloween I can. Lately, I’ve found a number of amusing ghost posts. These two are pretty great finds:

This past month, I’ve thought a lot about how I wanted to tackle new Halloween purchases. We lost our youngest dog, Radar, last month to what is still an unexplained illness and the big thing that was off-limits to me based on how I’ve been feeling was avoiding the growing popularity of pet skeleton Halloween decor. I have some yogi skeletons so if I stumbled upon a new one, I was still willing to purchase that kind of skeleton. We are deviating a little from avoiding the pet skeleton idea as our daughter found these things called MeeMeows and one is a skeleton cat; it is a sugar skull concept design and that one plus the ghost cat and the werewolf cat are joining the growing zoo of stuffed animals. If you want to buy some Halloween cats, you can check out the site at aphmeow.com. (No affiliate or sponsored post here; these are just things that ended up being purchased for our home.)
Muted colors are becoming evident as our preferred Halloween decor and this blend of neutrals was not entirely planned. I started off originally picking up faux white pumpkins because I like how little touches of white make a home look. Choosing faux versus real was an easy choice; real pumpkins start to rot, but faux pumpkins only require some gentle dusting and occasionally wiping down as the dog gets slobber everywhere and on everything. The two paper mache pumpkins hail from Target, setting me back only $5 and they look so nice as is our other decor choices, I won’t bother painting them. When I previously bought the larger yogi skeletons from Michael’s, a gold option was available. The store had sold this size for about $12 and I believe I got them on sale for $6 (Note: I did not find these on the shelves again this year, ruining my plan to get a different posed skeleton.) By the way, Trader Joe’s does not seem to have its yogi skeleton air plants in stock either. The slight detour in design choice was my Cute and Spoopy framed print by Jame Zolo through Society6. (Again, not a sponsored post. In case you need a reminder.) I love it a lot though and might add other ghost prints in years to come.

My plan this year had been to dress like Jessie from Pokemon this year. Will I go through with it? I don’t know. I might need to look for one of her vacation outfits to recreate the look and I’m still wondering how to craft that crazy long hair (and how to keep it in place). For now though, I leave you with a photo of me dressed up in high school with two of my siblings. I wanted to find a few little kid Halloween costume photos I know exist, but those must still be at my parents’ house. And before I forget, a little thank you to my current readers. My choice to deviate from talking about student loan forgiveness this month is entirely related to the fact nothing has happened at this point. I’ll treat you all to a discussion on what my student loan forgiveness looks like when it actually happens. Let’s hope it actually happens and is a treat, less a trick. I don’t care for pranks.

A Foodie’s Grocery Adventures

$700. That was the plan. In July, we spent $758.23. I wanted to trim the budget although the goal was a bit unrealistic; grocery stores we frequent still do not have the type of sales prices consistently available pre-pandemic. An additional challenge this month was unexpectedly developing carpal tunnel and needing some easier meal solutions. More on those options in a minute.

Writing is still quite painful. This medical issue cropped up last week and I have an arm brace to wear for a bit longer, limiting both my ability and desire to write by hand or by typing. Due to my situation, today’s post will be more about sharing visuals from this month than writing about my shopping and cooking experiences. Writing all this takes a lot of energy…

Some of the most expensive regular food purchases this month:

  1. 7-piece sushi $14.49
  2. 1lb. shredded chicken $10.06
  3. 6 brioche rolls that spoiled the next day $5.99
  4. 1 pint Horizon whipping cream $5.49
  5. 14.5 oz. Quaker Oatmeal Squares $5.49
  6. 3.58lbs. yellow peaches (8 total) $8.91
  7. 1.5lbs. fresh mushrooms $6.49
  8. 12-piece chicken tenders $21.48

The most affordable items:

  1. Nature’s Own bread, 22oz. loaf $2.99 currently, but it has been $4.20 each
  2. Bumblee Chunk Light tuna, 5 oz. $0.89, normally $1.59 each
  3. Simple Truth Organic tofu, 14 oz. $1.79
  4. Strawberries, 16oz. $2.50
  5. Cilantro, still 2 for $1.00
  6. Heritage Farm Bone-in, skin on chicken thighs $1.99/lb.
  7. Water gallon, self fill-up $0.25/gallon versus buying sparkling or pre-bottled waters (prices vary)
  8. Beyond Beef, 16 oz. $5.99, normally $9.99 each

An important part of today’s conversation is admitting that I don’t grocery shop at discount grocery stores, dollar stores, or Walmart. By doing so, I could save more money on my food bill. Part of me recognizes it is better not to shop these places to allow less privileged shoppers more access to food within their reduced food budgets. Another part of me struggles because I need to find specific foods to help me deal with lactose intolerance. The hard core foodie side of me enjoys the exploration process available through specialty grocery stores like HMart, Patel Brothers, AJ’s Fine Foods, Trader Joe’s, Natural Grocers, Sprouts, and Whole Foods. Driving out of my way to buy specialty items is a privilege and I always find something new and interesting, and those are normally worth the extra money. When it comes to Walmart and dollar stores though, these businesses bother me. Dollar stores take up space that could be used by grocery stores capable of providing better nutritional offerings to their respective communities and Walmart in more recent times has dried up its population of workers with disabilities. I think we’ve only picked up water once at Walmart during the pandemic, but we more generally avoid it and I do not blame people who have a greater need to rely on these establishments.

Some of our meals this month:

Braised chicken with lemon from Modern Proper (ours was made dairy free).

Dominican tofu from Familia Kitchen (using store bought sofrito)

Mushroom sauce from Delicious that was paired with a dairy free polenta.

The dairy free components plus tofu for our Dominican recipe entree.

Huel was not on our radar this month per se, but having easy breakfasts and lunches to prep are worth the $200 approximately spent for meals to be enjoyed this one and the next. Our efforts to build convenience in our food budget, including Huel and other stuff, put us over the goal created at the beginning of this month, but our fridge, freezer, and pantry are stocked with more than what we needed for August.

The current state of our food supplies can reduce grocery spending next month although these decisions busted this month’s budget and that issue is something I could work to remember. Food represents a variable expense, not a fixed expense like housing. I never start the month knowing which groceries will be cheaper, but those that are and can be stored in the pantry or freezer are worth deviating from the original goal when the budget allows.

In the next month or so, I look forward to talking about the student loan forgiveness decision passed this month since student loans are often a significant monthly expense like groceries, notwithstanding the current loan pause situation resulting from pandemic policies. My family stands to benefit from this recent decision and I’d love to share later how that change looks when coupled with my use of VA education benefits. Until then, stay well and thanks for reading.

Living Life Comfortably When Things Get Expensive

Taking a breather from writing is not always easy for me. I guilt myself, perhaps a bit too much, over my unpaid hobby when I neglect it. Some days, it is hard to step away guilt free because there is a lot of joy I find in writing, but the realist in me also understands I don’t make money off the activity the way full time bloggers and influencers do from their social media presence. Quite often, I do need to step away from my blog to have more time for my family and my responsibilities as a person who works outside the home. My personality and lack of tech savvy skills are also not a good match for the world of full time blogging and the uncertainty that comes from an irregular income contingent on bringing in sponsors, having ads, and what not. I guess from here on out I want to be honest that my writing will be more sporadic. I enjoy writing as a craft and if it’s going to continue as an unpaid hobby, I need to guilt trip myself less about it.

That all being said, the last few months have been a great time to reflect on where my life is at and the goals I have down the line. Watching our world unfold in a terrible way due to things like the ongoing war in Ukraine and the school shooting in Uvalde have only made me want to retreat a little bit more, using my goals as a way to stay grounded. I must also remember terrible things going on this world does not mean I cannot find joy in the many positive things also going on at the same time. So finding joy in a time of uncertainty is something I continue to strive to find in my daily life. A big part of finding joy in uncertainty is having a financial cushion.

My Path to FI

I make the statement “My Path to FI” but it really represents an intent to bring my entire family to financial independence. I choose to say “my” rather than “ours” because I am the sole author of this blog. I do speak of our financial situation as a package deal though because we are a two-income household and we will continue on that path. Being disciplined along the way though requires finding inspiration and I thought I’d shared today some of the spaces where I am finding inspiration to stay motivated as the pandemic has made grocery shopping, dining out, and home improvement materials more expensive.

I started to follow @kayelle.daily on Instagram somewhat recently to see her progress as a six-figure single income household during her mortgage payoff and while she describes herself as “work optional” based on her husband’s job, I understand that type of journey is not right for me. I can jump onboard with the idea of paying down the mortgage, but I don’t want to stay at home full time as a mother. When I first found this account on Instagram, I will admit I was a bit overwhelmed. Her page was beautiful, but I was looking for an explanation of how she got to where she is today.

After scouting further back into her past posts, I found the explanation I was looking for to understand how her mortgage pay off journey became a realistic goal. Once I saw where her journey actually began, I felt better about keeping her on my list of inspiration sources. I’ve been that person making $32,500 to roughly $43,000 in the past and being underemployed was cramping my ability to get closer to larger financial goals. When my family also stopped paying for childcare, we also grew the space between our income and expenses, too. (It still bothers me though that it is more expensive in my State to pay for infant childcare compared to sending a young adult to a four year public university.)

Now, I’ll be upfront, I won’t embrace the gazelle intensity quite as much. Having found both How to Money and ChooseFI some time ago, I feel comfortable moving away from Dave Ramsey’s teachings and towards a path that feels sustainable. A big part of wanting to blend a combination of competing financial goals (i.e. paying towards retirement while at the same time throwing extra money towards the mortgage and saving for vacations) is that I see more and more how uncertain our lifespans are. If I were to be a person who doesn’t get to reach her goal of living to be 100, I don’t want to be remembered as a miser for the years I worked towards financial freedom. Approaching financial goals from a mindset of financial scarcity has been stressful at times, and I don’t want to be in that boat again. My family would have missed out on making better memories for the sake of paying down some bills. I would not trade the time we spent at Disneyland and San Francisco last year for other financial goals. The pandemic really wore us all down and the ability to go out and explore the world a little more helped ease the stress we’ve experienced since March 2020.

On other hand, because I want to live a happy life when I’m in my 80’s, 90’s, and hopefully live to see 100, I cannot live now like money can always be earned. I have no idea how many working years I’ll get, so it is prudent to get the mortgage paid off before retirement. A mortgage is a pretty stable payment to make in many ways and as the rent continues to grow in our area, I don’t want to become a renter again. My favorite neighborhood in Gilbert, Agritopia, has easily become one of these least affordable neighborhoods and I could not imagine as I age, living on more of a fixed income, having less choice regarding where I can live. When I’m older, I may need more freedom to make modifications to my living situation so I can age in place and the freedom of being mortgage-free will make it possible to put in upgrades of my liking. I think if we could build our home with some universal design upgrades in mind, our home will be both aesthetically pleasing while better serving everyone who lives or visits our home for the years we call it ours.

Knowing that Arizona also does not offer all the things that speak to my soul, I am glad we are both on board with making travel a priority which is the last thing I want to touch on today. We already have an out-of-state trip planned for the spring (something to share in more detail post trip). Saving up for the adventure is important since flights, hotel rooms, and a rental car will eat up most of the travel budget. Our plan to visit with friends there requires some extra pre-planning to ensure our adventures factor in weather issues (unlike the mistakes we made on our San Francisco trip!) as most places have less consistent weather in the spring compared to our slice of Arizona. I am also hunting around for restaurants with a greater balance of dairy-free entrees and desserts for me and options my family will enjoy that won’t require them to sacrifice on my behalf.

More to follow as always. I hope to catch up again in late August or September.

~Cheryl

Not Selling Can Make Sense in a Sellers Housing Market: Here’s Why

For awhile now, I’ve watched the housing market escalate like crazy. My weekend hobby to look at model homes is probably where I first started to notice this tend aside from occasionally listening to podcasts that discussed our nation’s growing crisis with affordable housing and a sharp increase in homelessness in places like Los Angeles. One neighborhood, in particular, in our local area jumped in model home prices from $330,000 for a sub-2,000 sq. ft. floor plan in January 2020 to $483,900 in September of last year. By last month, the same exact floor plan, was marketed for $535,900. As a second time homeowner, I did look into whether now would be the time to sell our current home. The opportunity to look at downsizing a little, but not as small as our first sub 1,300 sq. ft. homes, was tempting.

The appraisal came in at a good amount: $524,000. It was less than what sites like Redfin and Zillow provided as estimates, and I am sure it would have been a bit higher than what sites like Open Door would provide as their goal to shortly re market the house to someone else for a profit. The rise in current home prices was an opportunity to look more clearly not only at our needs, but our wants. Could we afford a smaller space with at least the same size yard or larger that was ideally no older than our current residence? One of the best places we decided to start our search was checking out smaller new builds that offered condos. I know condos don’t seem all that popular in Arizona, but I would not mind one if it came with more than just a patio. It irks me that home builders pack multi family homes in such a way as to afford next to nothing for private outdoor gatherings. Despite this issue, we went ahead and look at local offerings.

Not all were condos, but the time spent traipsing through new builds gave us an opportunity to look at housing in a critical way we have not always done in the past. (Me, especially, since I fall in love with a lot of home upgrades.) We were/are settled into a home that works for our family and budget; we could window shop for windows and other housing amenities without feeling any pressure that housing options would dry up on us like they had in years prior when we competed with other buyers toting cash offers for resale homes when our housing budget was tighter and the supply of homes with a first time budget was even lower.

One of my favorite options was the Sapphire Plan condo from Lennar Homes at their Echelon at Treviso community. The 4 bed/3 bath condo built in Chandler, Arizona is in a cute community, but the $478,990 cost for a condo that lacks a yard immediately put it out of consideration. We have two dogs and they require outdoor space for our convenience and piece of mind that requires little to no supervision and both dogs could easily jump over the low walls separating each unit’s patio from each other. In spite of the lack of yard space, I think the builder did a great job in providing driveways; I do not recall if all units had a full size driveway but it is rather typical here for builders to short change condo owners on a driveway and instead utilize community parking for their needs. It makes having guests over a bit of a challenge as we found when we lived in a small home that was built along those same lines of forgoing driveways to pack in more houses.

Something like this could have worked, but it is important to do a cost benefit analysis.

Our situation would look like this:

$524,000 home sale

-$31,440 (to provide a 6% real estate commision)

-remaining home loan

Home Profit

-$4,000 (moving costs, full pack and moving services, roughly)

“True” Home Profit

Using a new build home provides a sort of “best estimate” of reduced moving costs by looking into a home with all the things we generally want. This condo community includes the fridge, gas oven, dishwasher, and microwave. Standard as well are quartz and granite countertops. A new build comes with PEX plumbing and a tankless water heater, options we would not have with some older resale home options. Still, we have dogs, and carpet with animals can get pretty gross. To be as comfortable as we are based on our current home, we would lose some of the remaining home profits to upgrade the floors in a new build so as to avoid carpets all together.

And this was our “best case scenario” based on some reduction in square footage and a reduction in outdoor space in order to find an “affordable” new build. We would still have to acquire a new mortgage, but something like the $478k new build condo is more appealing than what we’re seeing for similarly sized new build homes. Right now, Lennar’s Belrose community in Gilbert has a sub 2,000 sq. ft home listed for $529,990 and one of the cheapest models in their Chandler community, Asher Pointe, is $581,990. Neither option would allow us to capitalize on the fact our home’s value has increased based on increased housing demand over the pandemic. (There are other home builders currently producing similar homes, but I wanted to still with the Lennar brand for comparison purposes.)

If we wanted to revert back to looking at resale homes, a sub $500,000 home presents some interesting offerings. There is a home located at 242 S. Dobson Rd. in Chandler, built in 1975. It is a 3 bedroom, one bath residence with a carport that was listed back in late February for $430,000 and the Zillow price is now $424,000. The 7,361 sq. foot lot is really its selling point. The home could be torn down to the studs by a buyer with the right budget and a real amazing home crafted in its place.

A quick peek at Zillow for a Gilbert, AZ search for a sub $500,000 residence only produces 23 agent listings and 9 other listings as of today. Eight of the latter properties are in the foreclosure process. One condo is in The Gardens neighborhood, shown below.

Here is the unit we once considered for our first home that is located in The Gardens:

We were more familiar with the neighborhood back in 2016 when we were interested in offering $162,000 for a different unit. The condo would not have been an ideal fit in large part due to the fact there is no outdoor space at all attached to the unit. impossibly tight budget, $162,000, matched the tightness of the space. The unit is a 2 bed, 2 bath unit totaling 1,188 square feet. I have to chuckle a bit about how much the old owner was firm about not budging on the price. It was listed for $164,900 and after our offer was not taken, she sold it for less than offering at $159,000. The property was last listed as a rental home in 2019 from what I found on realtor.com.

Looking at a similarly priced home to the current The Gardens condo for sale at $410,000, Gilbert also has this home on the market. This one is a bit older than the condo, but the 1998 home instead has a lot size over 6,000 feet for just $15,000 more than the condo. These are the kinds of comparisons confronting us as we went back and forth on whether or not to sell our current home because the sizable profit we could have made was tempting.

What is not tempting is looking at the involved risks that outweigh the benefits. It is hard to gauge how well maintained homes are by just looking at what’s produced by a home inspection. There are things you can find out down the road and items do just reach the end of their lifespans. Roofs need repairing, pools require resurfacing, A/C units fail, and water heaters will eventually need replacement. The ages of properties most in line with our desired budget are coming up on their replacement/repair windows for various large ticket items like a roof or the A/C. If we ever looked at a condo or other multi family housing situations more seriously, I also have the Surfside condo collapse last year that killed 98 persons informing my decision making process. I think I would need a lot more information about the building’s maintenance history before purchasing anything in a high rise building.

As we settle into the place we now intend to call home for awhile, I am interested in what improvements make sense from an aesthetic and financial standpoint. Interior home improvements do not garner a lot of the same return on investment as outdoor improvements. We can protect our earned equity by being mindful in our choices and doing the work ourselves when it makes sense. Things like electric improvements, such as the canned lighting we want to put into the living room one day, will be the job for an electrician. These photos are a little peek at what we’ve currently done to bring extra functionality into our combined living room/dining area without breaking the bank.

Acrylic shelves are from CB2. They are normally just under $25 a piece for the 24″ segment.
The raw metal shelf (in the middle photo) and the raw metal ledges for our home bar project in progress come from DIY Cartel. 48″ shelves will set you back just under $100 a piece and the 48″ floating ledges are just under $90 a piece.