10 steps we’re taking before buying a home

 1. Completing homebuyer education.

If you’re looking to buy a home for the first time, I highly recommend checking out homebuyer education programs in your state or area. Many states offer incentives and special programs for first-time homebuyers who meet certain income requirements, and the USDA Rural Development also offers programs for low-income individuals. The program in our state also includes one-on-one first-time homebuyer counseling, which can help individuals and couples better prepare for this life-changing financial event.

2. Tracking our spending.

Truth: This is something that is really difficult to start doing. But once you do start—I promise—it does get easier. I recommend using pen-and-paper methods, and then entering the purchases into a spreadsheet later. If you have a partner, both of you should be tracking as a “unit.” The physical act of writing each and every purchase down keeps me accountable and more aware of what I’m spending on. It becomes a habit if you do it consistently, and you may actually find some satisfaction in the ritual itself.

3. Identifying “problem areas” of spending and addressing accordingly. 

Patterns will emerge once you begin tracking your spending. I found that was spending $25-$40 a week on workday lunches. My office building has a cafeteria which is extremely convenient (and delicious), but their food isn’t cheap. I’ve willfully banned myself from buying lunches out, including my beloved Panera and Chipotle—at least for now, I’m committed to bringing food from home DAILY. I still allow takeout once a week and dining out once a week. It makes the times I do eat out more special, and is an easy category to cut back on, especially if you’re ok with eating leftovers!

4. Stalking my credit reports/score. 

We learned in homebuyer education that the “magic” credit score to open the doors for eligibility for mortgage lenders is 640. Mine is somewhat above that (thanks to a lot of hard work). I keep track of my score via Credit Karma, which is a handy site/app that gives a well-illustrated snapshot of your credit and provides weekly updates and notifications of changes to your credit score. One con is that Credit Karma only pulls from two of the big three major credit bureaus (Equifax and Transunion), so for Transunion, you can always pull from AnnualCreditReport.com, which directs you to each bureau to request a free copy of your report (does not include your score). It seems like a no-brainer, but you’ll want to comb through your reports to ensure everything looks correct, and resolve any disputes well before applying for a mortgage—doing so right before your lender pulls your credit will actually cause your score to drop.

5. Avoiding applying for ANY new credit. 

Applying for new credit is always damaging to your credit score. Hard inquiries can remain on your credit report for up to two years. A single credit card may not be too bad, but what can really hurt is applying for an auto loan. A few years back, I traded in my failing car for a “new” used car, going from loan-free to having a monthly auto loan payment. Three months later, I was rear-ended and my new car was totaled, forcing me to apply for another auto loan. Typically dealers will apply on your behalf to several lenders, seeking the best interest rate. Each inquiry to each lender will lower your score a bit. If your car is in working condition, try to keep it until you are in your new home. If you desperately need new wheels, consider buying a cheaper used car in cash, or going through a credit union for financing to avoid multiple hard inquiries.

6. Keeping my oldest lines of credit active/not closing any credit accounts. 

Keeping lines of credit open is key for healthy credit. In general, the longer you’ve had an account, the more of a boost it gives your overall score. Lenders look for average length of credit when viewing your creditworthiness, so it behooves you to maintain older credit accounts, even if you use them infrequently or want to close them. Once you’re in your new home, you may want to gradually close accounts one at a time or let them inactivate on their own, but as you’re preparing to apply for that mortgage, keeping your accounts active is usually the best option.

7. Watching my utilization ratios like a hawk. 

When it comes to credit, ratios are key. When assessing creditworthiness of potential borrowers, lenders want to see that you can use credit responsibly. Ideally, you should only be utilizing 10% of your total available credit in revolving accounts. That means if your card has a limit of $1,000, you should only “use” about $100 of that. This can be difficult to accomplish, but remember: don’t be afraid of high credit limits. If a lender raises your spending limit, that is ultimately a good thing, because it automatically decreases your utilization—just be careful not to turn that available credit into debt.

8. Saying no to things I love that cost a lot of money. 

This one is painful for me because it includes two things I’m passionate about: travel and getting tattooed. These “expensive hobbies” are being set on the back burner until we get into our new home. Travel is an important human experience and something I want to do as much as possible, especially before I have a family to look after. I’ve tried to approach this with my partner and see if we can plan a “lite” vacation or a small getaway next year, but he’s been firm in our need to buckle down and focus on saving for the house instead. He is, of course, right. We are on the low-income spectrum (very much working class, not middle class) and we’ll need as much as we can in liquid funds to cover expenses. So…I’m (grudgingly) postponing any travel and tattoo plans for the foreseeable future.

9. Sitting tight in my current job, even though it won’t be my lifelong career. 

While a new career with a better salary may make mortgage payments easier to manage, lenders are looking for stability when determining what to give you for a mortgage—this is especially true as a first-time homebuyer. Lenders are always assessing risk, and one of the easiest ways to do that is by looking at your employment. They’ll want pay stubs to prove your income, and being at your current job (at least within the same organization) for 3+ years is ideal. A job or career change may not be a deal breaker, but it will weaken your position as a first-time homebuyer. There are times where a job change may not be an option, but if possible, it’s best to sit tight until you have closed on your new home.

10. Editing my possessions. 

Two years ago, I read Marie Kondo’s viral book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. While I didn’t exactly follow her all-at-once declutter style, her book DID bestow on me the important question to ask myself when regarding my “stuff:” Does this spark joy? Another question I also ask: Is this useful? If they both are met with “no,” I eliminate it without further questions. I’ve yet to regret an item I’ve decluttered. Less is more, especially when packing and moving. In our consumerist society, we tend to accumulate more possessions the longer we are in a place. I plan on doing myself a favor and beginning my tenure in my OWN home with only things that bring me joy.

Are you on a journey to become a homeowner? Have you already bought a home? If so, what advice would you give to first-timers (like us)?

Advertisements

Money talk: Donating $ while in debt

When Hurricane Harvey ravaged southeastern Texas, one of the first things I thought was, “what about the animals?” Household pets, livestock, and wildlife were lost, abandoned, or even killed by the effects of the storm. As an animal lover, it hurt my heart knowing that innocent animals were suffering. From 2,000 miles away, I was compelled to put my money where my heart was, so I donated to a national nonprofit whose efforts were going to help displaced and homeless pets affected by post-Harvey flooding. My donation was modest; my income and debt levels don’t support the ability to give large amounts (I graduated this year with over $40,000 in student loans). But it still felt wonderful to be able to say I did something, especially when I couldn’t actually “do” anything.

Live generously.jpg

After submitting my donation, casually mentioned it to one of my older family members. His response: “When you squeeze your budget to live within your means and attack your debt, you may discover that donations are a luxury you cannot afford!” Mind you, this family member is from a different generation—one that didn’t use credit, and was raised to believe that if you owed money, you paid it back before “just giving it away.” Like many other millennials, I live in the shadow of student debt. I also spend some money on occasional meals out, a leather handbag, and way too many lipsticks. “Frivolous spending” is something most of us are guilty of, even when we carry debt burdens and earn modest incomes. But when we give our money to a cause or organization we believe in, our mindset shifts: no longer is it a purchase or expenditure we’re apt to later regret (added to our waistline or as clutter in our home), but an unselfish, intentional investment in something that actually matters.

“Tithing” (donating 1/10th of one’s earnings or belongings is a part of the Old Testament, and many religions believe that consistently giving to one’s church or charity should be a priority, even in times of financial hardship. I’m not religious, but I do believe that giving is still important, but should be adjusted to your personal situation. Ten percent is a steep number if you’re only making $35,000 a year—about $290 a month. That amount could be better spent applied towards some of your debt burden. But what about $10, $25, $50? These can be allocated into your actual budget, alongside your groceries and utilities. “Smaller” donation amounts aren’t going to make or break you financially, and that intentional spend goes toward something that’s not only relevant to you, but also benefits the community/country/world as a whole. A $20 donation to the World Wildlife Fund may not “do” much on its own, but it represents your charitable intentions and backs a cause you believe in. It also supports a healthy habit of giving and generosity, which can grow as your income grows and debt burden decreases.

Some personal finance writers are adamantly against giving while carrying any kind of debt burden. As far as I’m concerned, there is a significant difference between donating money when you’re living off of credit cards (bad) and doing so when you are living reasonably within your means and chipping away at debt (good). Not giving any money to charity is a Scrooge mentality, and does not align with the type of person I want to be. Giving to those less fortunate or advocating for causes like the environment and animals is and always will be an important part of who I am.

It is also important to remember there are other ways of giving than donating money. We can donate clothing, shoes, books, and household goods to organizations like Goodwill. We can give old blankets to an animal shelter. And of course, perhaps the most valuable of all donations, is that of time—which for me personally, is more difficult to part with than actual cash. So many organizations are in need of volunteers—if you can’t give financially, then consider giving the gift of your time.

If we postpone giving for when we (or if!) are completely debt-free, we could be spending decades of our lives not giving. And if we choose not to give, we’re ultimately doing ourselves a disservice by not living with intention.

What are your thoughts on charitable giving with debt? Tell me in the comments below!

Forgotten America: Trona, CA

Nestled in the Searles Valley about 70 miles southwest of Death Valley National Park lies the fascinating desert community of Trona, California, which straddles San Bernardino and Inyo counties. Situated in Searles Valley, Trona was built upon a promising wealth of natural mineral resources discovered in 1862 by John Searles. Named after trisodium hydrogendicarbonate dehydrate, Trona was developed in 1914 to accommodate a growing workforce for the booming mining industry. In 1974, the corporation was bought out, and production diminished. By 1982, more than half of the employees were laid off, people moved away, but some residents remained—with vested interests in SVM and the community. Trona’s population once peaked at around 7,000 in “boom times,” but Trona is now home to around 1,000 residents. Trona’s economic heartbeat remains Searles Valley Minerals, which continues to mine and process brine solutions harvested from the Searles Lake basin, although in lesser quantities. Products made by SVM include boric acid, sodium carbonate, sodium sulfate, borax, and salts—used in a wide array of industries in products like dye, detergents, and window glass.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We stumbled upon Trona by accident, heading toward Death Valley National Park. We had checked into our dingy Ridgecrest motel room in the afternoon following a long drive from Los Angeles. We knew that the park would be at least a 90-minute drive and we wouldn’t make it, but we still wanted to take advantage of the remaining daylight and see what adventures might await us in the Mojave Desert. We took highway 178, which snakes northeast from Ridgecrest toward Death Valley. There isn’t much to see, just vast expanses of land with a wall of distant mountains, desert grasses and scrub brush as far as the eye can see.

As we approached Trona (30 miles northeast from Ridgecrest), the landscape shifted, characterized by bumpy salt mounds and dry, cracked earth. We stopped to more closely examine the textures of the land—the crumbling salty hills were unlike anything we had seen before. The bone-dry Searles Valley basin stretched out for miles. There is a public rest stop in Trona, which became a useful stopover for what became several passes through the town. In front of the rest stop is a California Historical Landmark commemorating John Searles’ landmark borax discovery in 1862.

There was only one feature of Trona highlighted in our Lonely Planet guidebook: The Trona Pinnacles, an unusual geological feature overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Over thousands of years, over 500 tremendous tufa spires formed out of the Searles Lake bed, creating stunning, almost otherworldly formations. Faintly visible from the main road, a lone BLM sign indicated the Pinnacles to be five miles down a dirt road, also admonishing travelers that ATVs or vehicles with 4 wheel-drive are recommended. My boyfriend and I (not wanting to miss an opportunity to explore) braced ourselves and went forth with our rented Chevy Malibu. We rattled slowly along the bumpiest dirt road I’ve ever experienced, and although we didn’t make it all the way to the Pinnacles, we did get to see them and marvel at their beauty from a distance. It felt like we were visiting another planet (fitting, since the Pinnacles have been the backdrop for iconic films such as Planet of the Apes and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier). The sun was dipping below the horizon on our way back, making for an anxious drive and some beautiful photographs during the so-called “magic hour” right before sundown. A string of abandoned railway cars stretched along the landscape, seemingly going on forever, attached to nothing.

The most memorable feature of Trona (aside from its unique geological landscape and rich mineral resources) is the visible decay of the town itself: abandoned dwellings marked with graffiti, rusted-out automobile and tractor frames, collapsing outbuildings of varying size and shape, an array of under-maintained stores, businesses, and churches. Later research told us that the reason for the abandoned structures is due to their containing asbestos—too hazardous to inhabit and too costly to destroy. So they are left to the elements and vandals, hollow monuments of a town that once thrived many decades ago. Hulking over the town is the industrial sprawl of Searles Valley Minerals, its maze of pipes and smokestacks obviously working despite being in dire need of repairs and updates. Also noteworthy: Trona still has almost a dozen churches—a feature that speaks to the hallmarks of community and tradition to which Trona seems holding steadfast.

Trona cannot be called an outright ghost town. It boasts its own high school (home to the Trona Tornadoes) with an infamous all-dirt football field dubbed “the pit,” which once captured the attention of The New York Times. Its graduating class in 2015 was a mere fourteen students. SVM still employs most of the town with its mineral mining and processing operation. Save for the Pinnacles, Trona isn’t what you’d call pretty or scenic—it’s at turns ugly, scary, and sad. But it’s also uniquely fascinating, offering passersby a glimpse of lives very different from our own, people fiercely holding onto what makes their community special. Despite its forlornness, Trona still manages to evoke a certain feeling: One of toughness, solidarity, and authentic “America,” built on the promise of industry and hope.

References:

Tiny desert community of Trona hopes to rise from the ashes
Forgotten destinations: Visting Trona by Natasha Petrosova 
Trona, California: Glimpses of a boom town gone bust

Body positive: musings

bodypositive3

I consider myself lucky in that I’ve never had to experience a true struggle with weight. Throughout my life I’ve always maintained what would clinically be described as a “healthy weight” (whatever that means). That being said…I’ve always had insecurities about my body, basically since puberty. My body started changing then, and it continues to evolve as I get older. Now that I’m in my 30s, there are some more noticeable changes. Namely that I keep getting curvier…and curvier. I am guilty of making “I’m fat!” lamentations on a way-too-frequent basis, with my boyfriend as my sole witness (I’m working on it). Most of my friends are bigger than me to various degrees, so it seems in poor taste to whine about my body insecurities when their concerns carry more weight (literally). And for the record, my boyfriend makes it very clear he’s still into my body, even though it’s not the same body I had when we fell in love (and neither is his).

But I do struggle. Most women do, even those of us who aren’t “overweight.” As we age, our metabolism slows down. If we aren’t meticulous with our diet and fitness regime, we tend to thicken out in various places. For me, it’s my lower stomach, hips, and thighs—my tummy being my biggest insecurity. At 5’2”, I’m very petite, so pounds tend to show up more visibly on me than they do on women with taller frames.

bodypositive2

I’ve “outgrown” most of my size 4 clothes and am now selecting a size 6, and trading most of my “smalls” for “mediums.” After being a size 4 for many years, it can be difficult to accept that my body is changing…growing…filling out. Rather than depress myself by trying to squeeze into my 4s, I bought myself clothes that actually fit. Wouldn’t a vigorous exercise regime and strict low-carb diet slim me back down to my twentysomething body? I suppose so, if I had the discipline to follow through. I try to eat healthy, and I try to work out/stay active. But I’m not a “fitness person” or a “clean eating person.” I have tried to be, and I’m just…not. I hate workout clothes, I hate sweating. I walk as much as I can. I like quinoa and salads. I have to be real with myself, and a strict fitness lifestyle will never be sustainable for me in the long-term. Every time I roll out my yoga mat for a quick 10 or 20 minute toning workout is a huge victory. And it is—something is always better than nothing.

Yesterday I treated myself to a new nightie from Target—soft, stretchy modal trimmed with lace. Comfy but sexy. But as I sat on my futon watching the latest season of House of Cards, my hands wandered down to my lower belly and began pinching the fat deposits on my lower abdomen. I was disgusted and angry with myself. How could I let this happen? I just wanted this “disgusting fat” off of me! Then I stopped, and went on Pinterest, searching keywords like “real women bodies” and “body positive.” I was inspired then and there to create my own Body Positive Pinterest board to create beautiful reminders that my body is 1) completely and utterly normal 2) healthy and 3) doesn’t need to be “perfect” to be loved TODAY. We all know how underrepresented “real women” are in today’s social media culture. But there are a growing number of women who inspire me and embrace “imperfections” like fat rolls and cellulite, and companies like Aerie that are being more inclusive with their models. We still have a long way to go, culturally, when it comes to body acceptance.

bodypositive.jpg

I realized something else last night: I have been self-shaming my body for months, maybe even years. Because I’m not at my ideal fitness level, or my ideal weight, because my body is expanding rather than shrinking, softening rather than tightening. But why wage war on my body? Why not just accept that my thirtysomething body IS GOING TO BE DIFFERENT than the body I had a decade ago? If I go through pregnancy and childbirth, there are going to be more changes.

My goal is to move my body, nourish my body, and be gentle, kind, and loving toward my body. Are you with me?!

I stumbled across Fat Girl Flow and while I am not “fat,” I adore Corissa’s message, most importantly that being body positive isn’t about “health,” it’s about loving the body we have regardless. Don’t unhealthy bodies deserve just as much love as a “healthy” body?

On my body positive reading list: Body Kindness: Transform Your Health From the Inside Out—And Never Say Diet Again by Rebecca Scritchfield, and Planking for Pizza: A Body Positive Guide to a Confident, Healthy, Happy You by Jessica Pack (@plankingforpizza on Instagram).

June poem

ce488c6dc84f62f7250082bf6e6d0468

If June had a flavor, it would be strawberry:
bright, sweet, juicy
If June had a color, it would be green
spreading everywhere its florid promises
If June had a sound, it would be
the irreverent laughter of children
over a jangle of dog collars,
a delicate chorus of insects
If June had a smell, it would be peony and cut grass,
the smoky waft from a charcoal grill
If June had a feeling, it would be
rich chocolate melting on the tongue–
exquisite and temporary
a place I wouldn’t mind staying forever

written 6.20.16
Over a year old but I wanted to share.

Threading the needle

I found this journal prompt and decided (as I often do) to make a list. When I liked the list I made, I decided to share it with you! 🙂

  1. Relax.
  2. Breathe.
  3. Slow down.
  4. Practice patience–the things you seek are already on their way to you.
  5. Your life is okay as it is.
  6. Don’t postpone happiness–it’s yours today, if you want it.
  7. You are so loved! More than you probably know.
  8. You can still do more of the things you love.
  9. It’s okay to say no sometimes. Give yourself a break.
  10. Do at least one thing today that will help your “future self.”

Then I found this image on Pinterest when I searched “patience art.”

patience.jpg

I was struck by its simplicity but also its message. Patience is threading the needle. You have to slow down! I drank too much coffee today–the caffeine is making me jittery and anxious. I can’t “thread my needle” when I’m like this! I’m going to practice 1-4 the rest of the day until I feel calm enough to try again.

Making friends with stress

Stress is bad. We hear this everywhere; our culture is filled with pressure to be productive and efficient and all kinds of obstacles that prohibit our success, but doctors are always telling us to “reduce stress.” I guess…get a massage, take a bath, take a long walk, say no more often, “unplug,” do aromatherapy, adult coloring…etc–the list of “stress” treatments goes on and on.

I envy people who can go with the flow, or who would describe themselves as “laid-back” (every guy on Match.com, if memory serves). But I’m a naturally high-strung person. I’m worried, reactive, and paranoid. My brain is a constant flurry of “what ifs.” Sleeping is hard because my brain wants to remember every incident in my life, however irrelevant to my current circumstances. I am always worried about what needs to be done. I’m a type A personality, but also an expert procrastinator. Being in college for four years has helped me somewhat with “time management,” and I’m used to functioning under high stress situations–my job, for one.

As graduation approaches, I’m tentatively taking steps into what my future holds. For the longest time, I assumed I would apply for grad school, not even pursuing teaching certification without a Master’s degree. Now, I’m not so sure. Having a Master’s can earn you more pay, but it can also price you out of a job when districts don’t want to pay that extra. Maybe I should go through the steps to get certified pre-grad school, and keep that on the back burner as an option? Part of me wants to keep the momentum going of being in school because I love it, and not that much in my life has to change–I can still work full-time and take my online classes, and I’m used to the routine of having homework all the time. I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I suppose I’m going to start by contacting the New Hampshire DOE to see what their process is for alternative certification. I wish SO hard that I had done the “normal” thing and gone to college right after high school…maybe things would be easier now and I would already be doing something rewarding/fulfilling. Alas, that was not my path.

uncertainty

The uncertainty of what comes next, combined with daily stressors (work, mid-March blizzards delivering 20+ inches of snow) has made me feel like I’m about to explode. Rather than eliminate all stress (unrealistic), I’m trying to make friends with my stress and help it help me achieve my goals. According to Psychology Today, moderate stress can be a good thing: it helps motivate you and prepares you to better handle other stressful live events better than those who experience little to no adversity. A study at UC Berkelely found that exposure to moderate stress actually increased brain activity.

Questions for you, reader: How are the stress levels in your life? What stresses you out the most? What tools do you use to deal with stress? Please share in the comments!