A Debt-Free Life Finale + Custom Illustration Giveaway!

moneystory-elephantEvicting the roommates was a swift affair once I called in the big guns. You’ll remember from last time that they had stopped paying rent and the situation was dire. M flew in from Seattle to “negotiate” (a punched hole in the wall was involved as I recall – the Czech girl’s boyfriend was the temperamental sort). I was cowering somewhere out of sight and didn’t witness the event. The couple left with a string of muttered Czech words trailing behind, cursing my name, I’m sure. Freed from thongs and mountainous cigarette ashes, I advertised for a new roommate, and a lovely woman who loved to clean moved in. Though we became friends and our apartment looked less destitute, by now, my whole experience in my beloved city seemed…wrong.

Yes, I loved my job working on the Pottery Barn catalog, and happily arranged photos of sofas and sconces into layouts. I sighed with contentment every morning as I entered the beautifully designed office space, and I delighted in pow-wowing about various shades of the hue du jour with the Color Manager (it’s true, there was actually someone with that job title and her main responsibility was to make sure the colors looked right in the catalog). But the pay left a lot to be desired, and the truth was that I really wasn’t the type to climb the corporate ladder.

As for my second job, I convinced myself that my moonlighting gig as a dispatcher for a community safety program was a good use of my time — it entailed recording activities in the downtown area while rovers/safety officers roamed the streets or “beats” to make sure that all was kosher. ”Beat 1, report condition, over,” I would say authoritatively into a walkie talkie while sitting in a small office in downtown, and the walkie talkie would crackle, “All clear, over” or “Code 235, over” (translation: drunken homeless activity resulting in injury, call an ambulance asap). Etcetera. Food stamp dissemination days were raucous and dangerous. The pay, as you can imagine, was laughable.

All I seemed to do was work. And still, I was broke.

**

When faced with debt, there are only three rational steps to take:

1. Reduce spending

2. Increase incoming funds

3. Both of the above

But if humans were rational creatures, none of us would be in debt or overweight or anorexic or in unhealthy relationships. We would all live in clutter-free homes and crime wouldn’t exist. Procrastination would be a myth and therapists would be obsolete. We are irrational beings, filled with emotional compulsions, habitual impulses, family values absorbed or scorned, social influences, primal needs and wants, the propensity to find justification — all these factors are viewed through the various filters that are like fun house mirrors. They warp and twist and distort the simple equation of rationality. It’s what makes us wholly fallible and profoundly creative.

I was doing my best at being rational and taking all the correct steps: I’d cut all the non-essential spending I could, worked two jobs, nixed my social life. Yet, I could constantly feel the familiar and tantalizing tug of “maybe if I buy that [insert some shiny object], I’ll feel better. I deserve a little something for working so hard.” The more I resisted, the stronger the irrational pull. It was only because of M and the astronomical guilt I felt about his generosity that I didn’t succumb. Okay, I did succumb once in a while. But rarely. Despite my efforts, though, I wasn’t making fast enough progress on my debt-reduction plan.

I hadn’t fooled anyone and I knew that the San Francisco life I originally tried to create was like visiting the Hollywood studios. The artfully constructed sets look great from the front and on the surface, but a quick peek would show you that there was nothing behind them — just the backside of the cheap plywood structure hastily erected and a tangle of messy wires. I’d dismantled my little land of make believe and it didn’t feel liberating at all. Just empty and sad. I needed to learn how to build real things. Solid, immutable, deeply valuable things.

It was time to leave San Francisco. M and I had been discussing the possibility of my joining him in Seattle and I figured that if I was avoiding all social contact in SF, I might as well move to a more affordable place where I knew no one save M, and earnestly work on getting rid of my debt. So in March of 2002, I said a solemn and defeated good-bye to the city of lights and headed to Seattle.

**

I am going to fast forward here because I feel like I need to get to the point. The next phase was a lot of slogging through. So much happened, mostly bad, and M and I teetered on the edge of dissolution for many years. We lived together in one frightening apartment after another (I’ve since discovered that it’s his specialty to find scary living quarters, but they were cheap). With the dot com debacle, jobs were scarce and M had trouble finding work. I was lucky enough to interview at several good companies and worked an insane night shift position that paid the best out of my options. We had no car so I rode a bus across town at 11:30pm to basically babysit petulant workers unaccustomed to supervision, then I took two more buses after I slept a couple of hours to tutor rich high school kids in English literature. While working the night shift, I became friends with the grocery clerks at the Safeway down the street because I had nowhere else to go at 3am on my breaks. I was intrigued and inspired that my friends had saved up enough money to send their kids to college with their cashiering job, and seriously considered applying myself and punt the tutoring job. However, I was promoted to a daytime position after a year so I put the cashier idea to rest.

At this point, my income was over $60,000 and I was getting regular bonuses and raises each year. I covered all expenses as my repayment to M and that included rent, utilities, our phone bills, his gym membership and whatever he charged on his credit card. For two years, all I did was work and pay bills. By the middle of 2004, my student loans were paid off 5 years ahead of schedule. And in December of 2004, I opened my tracking notebook as I did every month, and I’d finally hit the magic number: $13,000. In one year and nine months, I paid M back in full — my $30,000 debt was gone. Two months later, M proposed.

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I often wished for a magic bullet while I was in debt and in the back of my mind I thought that if I looked hard enough, I’d find it. I wanted to pay it all off without anyone knowing, while maintaining a stylish appearance. No magic bullet exists, of course. Yes, I was blessed by M’s magnanimous nature, and if it weren’t for him, I probably would have continued accruing more debt at the rate I was going. He’s the hero of this whole story. In accepting his money though, I’ve wondered if I ended up paying a greater price: M may never fully trust me with money. We’ve talked about this. And maybe he shouldn’t. Maybe it’s an important awareness for both of us to have — that I am prone to trying to keep up with the Joneses, that I tend to fill emptiness and insecurity with material acquisitions, that it’s easy for me to revel in the brief high of feeling like I belong because I have the right bag, the right pair of jeans, the right smart phone.

It’s now been 10 years since I paid that last bill, and we’ve remained debt-free. To get here, I’ve had to find ways to make more money, spend less, lather, rinse and repeat. But the two most important ingredients for me, I found, were accountability and removing myself from surroundings that triggered my spending. As long as I kept my debt shrouded in secret and continued to interact with people that I wanted to impress, I kept digging deeper holes for myself.

It’s been hard, this unmasking. I’ve spent many years thinking about how I let my spending get out of hand, and beyond the usual explanations of wanting to fit in or the lesson of learning how to accept myself, I needed to understand how to stay debt-free. To create practical new habits. We make conscious and sometimes embarrassing choices to this end. We rent a run-down townhouse that fits squarely in our budget and drive a jalopy that is a far cry from the Lexus I declared I’d cruise around in when I was fresh out of college. But we bought it with cash and it runs just fine. We don’t use credit cards. Ever. We have savings and never touch it. I choose my friends carefully. Most of all, I listen intently for that tantalizing call to pretend to be someone I’m not — it’s how I know I shouldn’t be in a particular situation or with a certain person.

I’ve realized over and over that whenever I act out of a need for external validation, my life starts to veer off in the wrong direction. It hasn’t been just the debt. My health suffered by staying in jobs that sounded impressive. There were many bad relationships based on dating guys who fit the “right” mold, the kind of boys other people would approve of that I didn’t actually connect with. I ardently believed I needed to be thin to be accepted, so I dieted like a maniac. And on and on and on. The debt, however, was one of my biggest lessons to date. It was easy to buy an image on credit, to borrow the illusion of happiness with the best of intentions to pay it back later when I hoped my projected image and happiness would have solidified into reality. Except it didn’t happen that way.

I have more to say, but my story is at its end. I think there are many, many ways to go about eliminating debt if that is something affecting your life. My way was unglamorous and filled with shame for many years, but only because I made it that way. I believe it can be done with dignity. I’m clearly not a personal finance expert so I don’t have answers, but I do know this: most of my possessions now are humble or secondhand or wonkily handmade, but I’ve never felt richer. I have my health. And my family. And good friends. And time to create. These, I believe, are the true currencies of a rich and happy life. One more thought: after ten debt-free years, I am finally learning how to build real things. Solid, immutable, deeply valuable things.

perspective

****

And now for the Giveaway!! With 2015 rapidly approaching, perhaps some of you have New Year’s goals or resolutions in mind? I have a piece of paper stuck above my sewing machine with the word “gratitude” — I’ve long stopped consciously noticing it, but I find it to be a helpful reminder when my eyes occasionally focus on it. I also like the word “perspective”. I wonder if you would like a customized illustrated word of your own? Or maybe a cute animal or a portrait of your child(ren) wearing an outfit? Amber brought up the custom illustration idea and I thought it sounded like loads of fun.

I would love to offer 10 custom 5 x 7″-ish illustrations. They will be original watercolors on coldpressed paper. To enter, it’s a bit interview-esque, but I liked this question that my editor asked me recently: “What would you like to be doing in five years?” For me, I’d like to be working on another book or two and have my own studio where I’m cranking out beautiful clothes and fun illustrations and much-improved photography!

I will keep the giveaway open until Christmas and will announce the winner the next day. I don’t need to mention that international folks are more than welcome by now, right? Good luck!

Thank you for reading
My tale of money matters
Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

P.S. My mama is in town and ’tis the holiday season, so I will take next Monday and Wednesday off. Merry, merry!

A Debt-Free Life Part 3

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He went ballistic. Telling M about my debt was not going well. He started to do the frantic head-clutching move reserved for extreme stress and duress, and he looked at me like he’d never seen me before. I bawled.

“How much???” He practically keened and clutched his head some more.

And here, I have to confess that I shaved off a few thousand dollars because I was scared out of my wits, but then quickly admitted the real sum because at this point our future together seemed unlikely. What did I have to lose? By the time I told M about my financial burden, I’d managed to chisel down my credit card balance to $13,000 from $22,600 in 15 months and had started making my monthly grad school payments. My total debt came out to approximately $30,000. His eyes bulged.

Then, still protecting his head as if to ward off an oncoming asteroid, M did something unimaginable. He said, “I’ll help you.” Help? Keep in mind, this was a man who had just lost his business with the collapse of the dot com bubble and was sleeping on the floor of a minuscule apartment, surrounded by all the computer equipment from their defunct company. I couldn’t understand what he was saying.

He had some stock that he could sell, he told me. Not enough to cover all of my debt, but enough for the credit card amount. This was an act so outrageous and so unexpected, I absolutely refused. No. Nonononononono. I was even more ashamed — I couldn’t owe my boyfriend money! I can pay it off by myself in a few years, I insisted. But he wouldn’t take my refusal. He said he couldn’t be with me while I carried on wasting money through so much interest. Debt, in every way, made him crazy.

After much heated debate, we came to an agreement. I would accept his generosity, but I would pay him back every penny and make drastic changes to do so. I would let go of the last vestige of my mirage of living the covetable life: my dream apartment. My charming little studio with crown moldings and the claw foot tub in the stylish neighborhood of Russian Hill. My money-draining haven that I gripped onto because I didn’t want people to know how bad a shape I was in financially. Instead, I would move into M’s slightly cheaper and decidedly dilapidated apartment, and he and his business partner, by necessity, would move back to Seattle HQ to officially close up shop. The San Francisco expansion had failed. His whole business had failed.

Secretly, I was relieved that I wouldn’t be moving into Fight Club in Chinatown where roaches skittered ceaselessly and the bunkmates were all men – That was where M first lived when he arrived in town, but a few months after we started dating he had found an affordable rental in North Beach (affordable at least by SF standards though I can’t find the exact amount in any of my journals). He’d marginally upgraded to an alleyway flat that reeked of a blend of bolognese sauce and raw fish and lived with his business partner while shutting down his tech company.

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It was a period of turmoil. M handed me a check for $13,000 and left San Francisco. I cut up my credit cards and paid them off, sold almost everything I owned which wasn’t much, really. A dresser. Some pots and pans. A friend agreed to store my iron daybed. I scrubbed clean my sweet studio I’d called home for three years, and moved into M’s dingy room with one tiny window, and became the warden of his computer equipment. Since I couldn’t afford to pay for the entire apartment by myself, we found a girl from the Czech Republic and her American boyfriend to settle into the other bedroom. I began a new and confusing chapter of frugal living.

Perhaps the word “grim” described the situation best. Or maybe “appalling”. I would often wake up in the middle of the night while sleeping on the tatami (bamboo) mat that M had randomly inherited from somewhere. My roommates fought at top volume in the wee hours, often following it up with wild and equally loud love-making. They ate my food in the fridge without ever acknowledging it, and in the bathroom, I was greeted by her leopard print and neon thong underwear strewn all over the place (this would explain my intense aversion to leopard print now). Food crusted the counter tops and floor and our place looked less like a human habitat and more like a guinea pig cage. A guinea pig cage with really dirty guinea pigs. They were both smokers, and somehow had difficulty with the concept of ashtrays, so I would step into mounds of ashes and cigarette butts every morning when I left for work. I’m pretty sure they dabbled in hard drugs too and their source of income was a mystery. We barely exchanged words except for my meek requests for cleaning help. I started to notice things disappearing: my scarf, a pair of shoes. And this was just the first month.

Meanwhile, I avoided my friends because I now lived in what was essentially squalor with two delinquents, still with significant debt, and I had a hard time wrapping my head around my new set of circumstances. How did I end up here?

Owing M money made me feel worse than the previously looming presence of anonymous creditors. This new fiscal arrangement introduced a weird dynamic between us, and living in different cities didn’t help. We hadn’t quite worked out the logistics of how I was going to pay him back (would the rent I’m paying count since I was subleasing from him? Do I send him monthly checks? Do I pay him back in one lump-sum? It made me dizzy), and he now viewed me as irresponsible with money. Rightly so, but that didn’t soften the blow. I could sense distrust on his part, and that hit me hardest. Even though we talked on the phone frequently, neither of us could spare the extra cash to visit each other. Long distance relationships are notoriously difficult to maintain, and we knew that.

And then my roommates stopped paying their rent.

To be continued….*

 

*Okay, I actually have the whole thing written out, but it is mega mega long, so I had to cut it off. Finale on Friday + a giveaway that’s a little different from my usual fare!

 

Monday Outfit: Alpine Coat Take 2

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Good morning! Part 3 of the Debt-Free Life installment is in development, but friends, I was unprepared for how much it took out of me to write part 1 and 2. So I had to take a breather with some Christmas sewing and also put final touches on a coat over the weekend. Turns out, it’s far less mentally taxing to wrangle fake fur than it is to look through all of my old journals during that period in my life to form a coherent post. So Wednesday for sure. As K likes to say, I pinky promise.

alpine-coat-khaki2

Let’s have some outerwear talk, shall we? I worked on this coat bit by bit over the course of a week to see if I could instill a more leisurely style of sewing instead of the manic, all-at-one-go methodology I normally employ. Leisurely sewing is lovely, but I discovered that by the time I finished it, I couldn’t really rustle up any details about the process. In the best of times my memory is sketchy, but I’m hopeless after a week. It’s a major reason I keep a journal and enjoy recording my projects here — otherwise, I would see a vast emptiness where my memory bank should be.

If you have better memory retention than I do and the coat looks vaguely familiar, it’s because I made a modified version of the Alpine coat recently. Here’s an image to remind you:

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K has been wearing the “homeless” coat religiously every day, and I finally had to admit to myself that I couldn’t stand looking at it anymore. Even M commented on its weirdness and he rarely comments on the clothes I make. Naturally, I had to make a replacement stat.

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This time I wanted to make the Alpine coat with the intended hood instead of my improvised collar. I chose a khaki stretch denim for the outer shell, and used a combination of fleece for the bodice lining and silky fabric (polyester?) for the hood and sleeves lining because I was short on the fleece. I also went one size down and cut the 8, which is still very roomy — in fact, so roomy that it’s almost the same size as the 10.

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alpine-coat-khaki4You’d think that sewing the same pattern the second time would ensure a perfect outcome, but nope. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever managed to make anything without a single flaw or mistake, and that would be a no. Anyway, the error is pretty minor and not really obvious: I put the pocket flaps facing the wrong way, so it’s a little awkward and counterintuitive to get the hands into the pockets, but it’ll do.

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I love this coat!! The quilting took about seven years, and I had to make do with synthetic batting instead of the uber warm wool batting I used for the homeless coat, but it’s still an eminently respectable winter garb, I’d say. Do you like the way K styled it? We were heading to a friend’s house for a holiday party and she insisted on wearing the blue recital dress I made…

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But it had to be twisted and safety-pinned to a rather strict specification on her part…we had a few hairy moments when the dress wouldn’t stay twisted the way she liked. Very exacting standards she has, my girl.

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The coat is a success, and a small part of my handmade Christmas gifts have been completed, so it was a good weekend. I’m off to go down memory lane once again to cobble together how I was able to dig my way out of my money mess — I’ll be back on Wednesday!

Happy Friday + A Debt-Free Life Part 2

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Happy Friday! When we last left off, I had utterly lost control of my financial situation. The thing is, it didn’t look like it. On the surface, that tipping point seemed so insignificant, so logical.

Imagine this: I am newly graduated, fresh-faced and eager to make my mark in the business world. I’ve garnered a job at a swanky beachside marketing company, overlooking the frenetic consumer activity of the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade shopping district. I am earning more money than I ever have, though it really only came out to about $1500 per month after taxes. But no matter, I live with my best friend in a dirt cheap apartment, I have virtually no expenses and by my calculations, I have a disposable income of about $700 a month. $700! How I wish I’d socked those dollars away and invested – I’d be a multimillionaire by now. My shiny new credit card sits in my wallet, for emergencies only, obviously. Soon enough, however, I seem to be using it an awful lot for non-emergency situations because who likes to carry around wads of cash? And at the time, debit cards were not de rigueur.

I ate out for lunch every day. Swipe, went the credit card. I would meet friends for drinks and dancing, or maybe hit up the trendiest restaurants. Swipe, swipe. I was a stone’s throw away from the mall after all, so it became a daily habit to stop off at various shops after work. Many, many swipes. I was lavish with gifts for friends and family, but was even more lavish with gifts for myself. After about six months, I automatically reached for my beloved plastic. I found more and more ways to spend money that seemed worthwhile in the moment – I discovered that facials did amazing things for my adult-onset acne, so I booked regular appointments. “Do you take Visa?” I asked the facialist. Of course she did. $700 a month can buy a lot of things.

Except. One month, I got my bill and it was just over $700. I was puzzled. How could that be? I was certain that I’d been tracking all of my expenditures and scanned the itemized list. Oh, I’d forgotten about that birthday dinner for my co-worker. Yikes, is that how much I spent on clothes? I told myself that I would buy less the following month and sheepishly paid it in full.

But the same thing happened the next month, and the month after that. I would be just a hair over my monthly budget and would vow to cut back. After a few months of this, I broke my cardinal rule: I paid only half of my bill. I feverishly reasoned that the interest wouldn’t be that much and I would pay it in full the next time. I always do, I promised myself. Besides, I’ve learned my lesson and I’ll stop my mindless shopping. Famous last words. The moment I allowed that exception to my credit card payment credo to happen — that was the precise moment I lost control. Something in me cracked, and my yo-yo money dieting took effect, the ever-expanding mass of compounding interest gleefully latching on.

Shortly after I broke my rule, I got a promotion and a sizable increase in salary, and not only did my responsibilities and workload increase, so did my debt. Gone were the days of paying off my balance in full, and I rationalized that I was still paying more than the minimum. Underneath my excuses, I had a mounting sense of terror. I knew I was losing a grip on my financial situation, but I couldn’t seem to reverse the problem. My shopping habit was firmly entrenched, and I became an expert at justifying my spending. And every month when the bill came, I would hold my head in my hands, full of guilt and remorse. I wanted to confide in someone but was petrified of the judgement, the scorn. I’d always been the responsible, competent one, the one who took care of others. I had worked over thirty hours a week all four years of university to pay my way through school while my friends partied – the notion that I wouldn’t be able to pay off “a little” debt seemed ridiculous. I didn’t tell a soul and buried myself further in denial.

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And then I did what any sensible, cash-strapped person does: I went to graduate school and shouldered more debt, becoming the ultimate cliché. I did, at least, have the lucidity to choose the cheaper one-year program over the mind-numbingly costly three-year program. On top of that, after I graduated, I decided to move to one of the most expensive cities (San Francisco) and work at a non-profit organization. Oh, and I absolutely had to live by myself in a cute little apartment in the heart of the city. Makes perfect sense, right?

I quickly upgraded my non-profit job to a better paying one, but I still wasn’t earning a sufficient income. My closest friends were investment bankers and attorneys and management consultants, successful people making six to seven figure salaries — I was too ashamed to admit that I couldn’t keep up with their lifestyle and did my best to maintain appearances. I still paid more than the minimum for my credit card bills, but it was getting harder and harder to do. I was simply living beyond my means. I secretly cried when friends asked me to be a bridesmaid because I knew that it would set me back financially even more severely (bachelorette parties at a resort in Napa! Taffeta dresses! Airfare to various parts of the country!). Weddings, I found out, require serious funds even if you’re not the one getting married and a lot of people in my life were getting married. I watched in horror as the numbers ballooned, the interest multiplying like bunnies on Viagra. The year was 2000 and I was $22,600 in debt. And this was credit card debt alone — my grad school loan payments hadn’t even started yet (an additional $18,000 in the pipeline). My salary? $39,500. Technically, I owed more than my entire salary, and I finally understood what had happened to my college friend and that her nonchalance had been an out-and-out facade.

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Enter M. As soon as we started dating, it was clear that this was a man who valued his Ben Franklins, and he loved to talk about money. He was going through his own financial woes as his business flailed in the dot com bust, but he was a scrimper and a saver and thought nothing of eating only toast and sleeping in a bunk bed among five Chinese renters in a fleabag apartment (we called it “Fight Club”), just to ensure he had enough money in the bank. There was no way I was going to tell him about my dirty secret; I knew I represented his worst nightmare. He seemed reluctant to be in a committed relationship, so I figured I was safe, and in the meantime, I was relieved that we went on low-budget dates.

A year passed, and much to my surprise, we were still dating. We’d exchanged “I love you”s and he’d given me a David Sedaris book. He’d ridden his bicycle across the country because he’s just that way, and I’d flown out to rendezvous with him in Montana and then to Indiana to meet his parents. I knew, deep deep down, he was the guy for me. Yet, I still hadn’t told him about my debt and it was killing me.

On the sly, like a women haunted by a banshee, I’d sprung into desperate action to loosen my financial noose. I found a second job as a night dispatcher. I made excuses when friends invited me out. I ate less. I researched online and learned how to consolidate my balances onto lower rate cards. I even called up credit card companies to waive my fees. I chipped away at my debt monster, and was able to painstakingly bring it down to about $16,000 in 12 months. My progress was slow and I would still have to contend with the grad school payments that would be kicking in shortly, but at least it was going in the right direction. But I was worried…at this rate, freedom from debt would take much longer than I expected.

**

It was a frigid, clear night in the winter of 2001 and I had decided it was time. I was going to tell him. I wanted to be completely honest with M, to finally unload this secret I’d been holding onto for so, so long. We were walking somewhere – heading to a movie, I’m sure. My whole body was shaking, I was sweating profusely even though I could see my breath coming out in billowy, filmy clouds.

“Honey?” I was near hyperventilation, “I have to tell you something.”

To be continued….*

 

*I know!! I didn’t mean to create another cliff hanger, but I delved into my old journals and found so much I’d forgotten… Part 3 on Monday on how the whole shabang was truly paid off! Happy weekend!

 

Thoughts + A Debt-Free Life aka Kicking the “Should”s

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I have been feeling a little deflated about blogging lately. I’ve talked about this before, I know, and I’ve pondered whether I’ve become too predictable because I’m such a routine-lover. I can confidently say that I’m not dialing it in by any stretch and I still love sharing my creations and each comment still makes me feel giddy. But I’ve also been conflicted about what I’m doing (at what point is too many dresses for one child? Probably about 100 dresses ago) and haven’t been pouring myself into my posts as I did in the early days, when I was scared to hit the “publish” button each and every time. Scary can be a good sign.

Not that I think this should be a vehicle for bare-all confessions or be an extreme sport version of sewing blogging, but my approach seems to have gone from comfortably intimate coffee date to community center craft fair — you know, instead of that cozy feeling of sharing recent updates with a good friend over a hot beverage, I’ve been getting the sense that I’m manning an irrelevant booth where folks meander from a safe distance, vaguely noting my amateur paintings and handicrafts, scanning the room for something better elsewhere. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. I don’t know. I know it’s a useless way to think, and I guess it’s the old insecurity monster rearing its head…I’m not looking for assurances but am trying to identify this current state I’m experiencing.

So to shake myself out of this slumpy mood and externally-focused mentality, I am going to talk about a taboo topic today: money. It’s something that makes me cringe all over, and it always helps me focus when I write outside of my comfort zone. If you haven’t gathered by now, I am not a naturally frugal person — I never have been and probably never will be (reading this, my husband is clutching at his heart and gnawing at his already bitten-down-to-the-nubs nails). I’m obsessed with pretty, delightful objects. Clothes and shoes. Stationery. Art supplies. Fabric. Books. Organic, hand-plucked, truffle-infused, wildly expensive edible things. I love love love giving decadent gifts. M jokes that if he wants to know where I am at any given point in the day, he just needs to find the nearest overpriced, beautifully decorated coffee shop.

Despite this Achilles heel of spendthrift tendencies on my part, we live a debt-free life. Yes, zero debt. No mortgage, no car payments, no credit card balance, no school loans, nada. It was incredibly hard for me to get here and it most certainly wasn’t always this way.

I’ve been going down memory lane these past few days as I am wont to do at the end of the year, unearthing dozens and dozens of my old journals. I came across a ratty old notebook with “2003 + 2004 + 2005 budget” scrawled on the cover. In it, I had meticulously recorded every expense: utilities, student loans, credit card bills. So many credit card bills…

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My parents never talked about money when I was growing up, but I knew that we didn’t have much for most of my childhood. When I was a kid, my dad ran a liquor store in downtown L.A. and business quickly boomed. We moved into a spacious white house in a tony part of town and I switched from an all-black school to one filled with blonde, blue-eyed children. But then, inexplicably and suddenly, everything went belly up. We lost the store, the house, the car, the apartment building my parents had invested in. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out about all of this — at the time I was in the second grade and just couldn’t understand why we had to skidaddle to Japan in the middle of the school year. I completed my second grade in Japan and stayed at my Grandma’s house in Tokyo, where a metal tub sat on the ground in a structure that was similar to an outhouse. It was dark and terrifying in there. Hot water had to be manually poured into the tub if we wanted to take a bath, and most days we went to the public bath house. I can still recall the bustle of naked women and girls surrounding me, how I averted my eyes and felt out of place even though I looked like them. I missed America.

Eventually, my parents cobbled together some funds and we returned to the US, briefly settling into a tiny house in an area called Hawaiian Gardens, the smallest city in Los Angeles county, and then we moved again. And again. Because my family uprooted so frequently, I grew up observing the whole socioeconomic spectrum from scrappy, welfare families to multi-jillionaire Hollywood aristocracies. I could go on forever detailing the surreal worlds I saw, but what’s important is this: I learned that money was something no one talked about.

Though dollars and cents were never explicitly discussed, I knew that spending more than you earned was not an option in our household. That was antithetical to our industrious, Japanese work ethic. As soon as I turned 15, I immediately applied for a worker’s permit and looked for an after school job in earnest so I could finally buy all the on-trend clothes that I’d coveted for years. I blew through my meager paychecks with one shopping spree after another, and my mom looked on worriedly, meekly suggesting that I might want to try to save some of my earnings. Save? What for? I was a teenager! I was certain I’d be earning gobs of money when I was older.

**

In college, I knew a girl who amassed an astronomical amount of credit card debt as well as parking ticket fees. I recognized in her the same carpe diem attitude I had in spending my paychecks, except she was using borrowed money and this unsettled me. In my naivete, I couldn’t figure out how she was paying off her credit card bills at first. When I finally sussed out that she wasn’t even meeting the minimum payments, I was astounded. Why wasn’t she worried? She seemed so confident and together and appeared secure in the knowledge that everything would take care of itself; her closets overflowed with clothes and she proudly kitted her dorm room with a state-of-the-art microwave and mini-refrigerator.

**

“I’m going to own a Lexus before I’m 30,” I was horrified with myself as I mentally saw the words come out of my mouth like a cartoon bubble while I chatted with a co-worker. I was 22-years-old and was earning $24,000 a year at a marketing firm in Santa Monica, and I was trying desperately to impress the much older and much more sophisticated woman who was training me. I remember how she tucked her glossy highlighted hair behind one ear and looked at me askance without a word. My face burned. We were heading to an L.A. hotspot for a company lunch — the type of place frequented by A-list celebrities — and I was feeling inadequate surrounded by all the glitz and glamour. It seemed like the sort of thing I should say, but it sounded all wrong when actually verbalized.

It was around this time that I got my first credit card. And I started to worship the altar of “should”s. Oh, I should get a sleek haircut so I don’t look like I’m fourteen (I looked ridiculously young with my long hair, but after my haircut I discovered that I still looked ridiculously young, only my head resembled a mushroom). I should really buy a suit so my boss will take me seriously (I bought a red polyester pantsuit that made me appear like I’d raided Elvis Presley’s closet to play dress-up – not my best look. I returned it the next day when I saw my boss’s suppressed smirk). I didn’t, thankfully, buy a Lexus on credit, and at first, I was very cautious with my newly acquired purchasing power. I kept in mind the debt-ridden girl from college and smugly knew that I wouldn’t ever allow myself to go down that route. I paid off my balance each month and soon, hooked by the ease, I was using my credit card for everything and not just for special purchases as I had done in the beginning.

And then I utterly lost control.

 

To be continued….*

 

*That’s a good cliff-hanger, right? Look at me, trying something new! Stay tuned to find out how I got out of debt — not an easy task…

 

Monday Outfit: Recital Dress

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Good morning! We had such a jam-packed weekend, it’s actually a relief to have the quiet of a weekday routine. What with a school ice skating event, K’s first ever piano recital, a holiday cookie party (which was as drool-worthy as it sounds) and an impromptu sleepover at our house, I helter-skeltered all weekend.

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I also whipped up a recital dress because c’mon, how could I not? I received this velveteen fabric in a peachy-pink from my mom years ago, and until this past weekend, I wasn’t too inspired by it.

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The color is truly lovely on K, and I should make her more clothes in this hue. The whole dress is self-drafted and although the hem is slightly puckered, overall, I’m happy with the outcome. K wanted the dress to sweep the floor, but I felt it wise to avoid any tripping accidents during the recital, so I figured tea length would be a decent compromise.

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This fabric behaved exactly like a knit, so I treated it as such. The dress is shimmery, fancy (thanks to the added silver lace trim that never got used for Halloween) and comfy. What’s not to love?

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Here she is, smiling nervously just after she finished her performance.  We were so proud! The lighting was horrible, so this was the best I could do, but I love how she accessorized with her “lucky ring necklace”. I thought of including in this post the video of her playing “March” by  Tchaikovsky (or, as K likes to joke “Chai Coffee”), but K begged me not to.

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Actually, I made two recital dresses because I was gripped with indecision the night before. That was serious fast sewing I executed Friday night. This one is self-drafted as well and I made it first. You can see that I used the same silver trim — I wish I’d gotten some photos of her in it because it’s a sweet frock. I was sure that K would choose the blue dress, but a niggling voice told me I should also sew up the peachy fabric. I’m so glad I did, because she looked so pretty and happy in it:

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I hope you had a fun weekend, friends!

 

 

 

 

Happy Friday + Advent Randomness

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Happy Friday! Even though I’m sharing it today, I did, in fact, finish this Advent Calendar in the nick of time on November 30th, much to my relief. Compared to the last couple of years, it’s a more understated calendar, but I put a lot of thought into it. This year, I had some very specific rules for myself:

1. Construct the advent calendar out of what I already have on hand (the exception was the little gifts that are part of the calendar)

2. No candy or sweets

3. Include lots of books, because books are K’s favorite thing in the world

4. Must have an element of giving and not be just about receiving

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I had all these left over metal tins from a misguided idea to sell magnets many, many years ago and they’ve been sitting in our basement forever. I thought I was being all eco and brilliantly repurposing (and the tins can still be reused!), but M pointed out that it looks like the attack of Altoids.

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I printed numbers onto some copper paper from my infinite stash of pretty papers and used my circle punch and some twine and voila! Aided by the magic that is mounted foam tabs like these, we have a quick and dirty DIY Advent Calendar (okay, some of the tins have been falling off the wall and required reinforcement, but the initial effect was quite lovely). What makes this extra fun is that each tin contains a little note. On odd-numbered days, I included clues that lead K to a hidden little gift — a scavenger hunt! On even-numbered days, K is assigned a “giving” task (e.g. gather clothes to donate to her school’s Uganda program or make a video to send to Grandma and Grandpa), and she gets to choose a book from the “Advent basket”. The books are a combination of thrifted, bargain sales and a few new releases that I know she’ll flip over.

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Although I spent some serious time thinking up the whole project, the execution took about an hour (mostly because I haven’t wrapped all the little presents yet since I wait until the night before to hide them). The verdict: “Mama, I can tell you worked so hard on this. You’re so so awesome!!” She practically squeezed the life out of me and I nearly cried the ugly cry — she said it in such a heartfelt, appreciative way.

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The winner of the Sew Sweet Giveaway is Haylee, congrats! I always enjoy reading all the giveaway comments and now I’m hankering to learn multiple languages, take up woodworking, try my hand at spinning yarn!

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Countdown has begun
but the anticipation
is the best part, no?

Wishing you all a lovely weekend! K has her first ever piano recital tomorrow – very, very excited!

 

 

Sewing for Me: Bronte Top

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I know I’m knocking your socks off with this dark grey top. With its sleek, chic silhouette in monochrome, I dare you to tell me that you’re not overcome with the desire to spend an hour (or two) making one for yourself too. What’s that? You saw something strikingly similar at H & M for $5 at the Black Friday sale? Point taken.

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You’ll see, though, that on closer inspection, this top has so much going for it that blows fast fashion out of the water. The lapped shoulders up the stylistic ante, and the cut is quite flattering (I was worried that it might make me look overly buxom before I tried it on, but I don’t think it does). And it’s actually a super fast project if you don’t let it sit around the way I did. I received the Bronte Knit Top pattern as part of the Perfect Pattern Parcel tour I participated in a few weeks ago, but I quickly lost track of time so I wasn’t able to make this top back then.

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So glad I hoisted my mojo back into place to get this one done. It might be one of my favorite tops I’ve made to date. I realize it doesn’t look all that special at first glance, but it feels very me — I look for simple and unfussy in clothes.

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That’s not to say I wouldn’t change a few things. I cut the size 12 and the fit is almost spot-on, but there’s a bit of extra pulling under the arms and above the bust; I also need to invest in better fitting bras. I think I’ll grade between a 12 and 14 next time. Love the long sleeves that reach to my fingertips when I pull them all the way down, but I want to add a few inches to the bodice length. You know how I like my tops to be on the long side.

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As per instructions, I hand-stitched the overlapping sections of the shoulders in place. That was a meditative last step, and it does help prevent excessive bunching. As for the fabric I used…don’t hold me to it, but I’m pretty sure this is a cotton/poly blend with some spandex or lycra. I just love working with knits that have a teeny bit of lycra or spandex in it because there’s no curling, and it’s a breeze to sew. Surprisingly, it’s not very stretchy, but this knit is on the heftier side in terms of thickness so it doesn’t accentuate the lumps and bumps in a glaring way.

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This is a sewing project akin to the sorbet that comes between courses to cleanse your palate (or so I’ve heard. I’ve never had a fancy multi-course dinner involving palate cleansers). It erased the lingering albeit slight malaise I felt about the unsuccessful coat (which she wears daily, but still) and it’s helping me gear up for one of the most challenging garments I’m about to undertake. I’m talking about skinny jeans, of course. Which one should I try first? Here are my three options:

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Ginger by Closet Case Patterns |  Vogue 8774  |  Jalie 2908 (skinnified)

Hmmmmmmmm. On a side note, anyone know where I can get good rivets for jeans? I’m getting motivated, folks!

Monday Outfit: Hooded Knit Cardi + Sew Sweet Giveaway [CLOSED]

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Good morning, friends! I thoroughly enjoyed the long weekend, and I’m feeling rejuvenated. We ended up at a Chinese restaurant on turkey day after all, and I believe this will have to be our annual tradition because it was so stress-free. I don’t mind cooking, but the clean-up is a sore spot for me, so not having to while away time sudsing up dishes was a huge bonus. We also went to see the movie Big Hero 6, and it’s an all-ages pleaser (and yes, I cried — it was very touching)! To add spice to the weekend, we had yet another one of our unplanned trips and found ourselves at a Comfort Inn in Bellingham on Friday, swimming in their minuscule pool. It was awesome.

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As promised, I have a little giveaway today. I was gifted this stellar book by Tuttle, and I was excited to add it to my arsenal of sewing books because I’ve been waffling over whether to buy it for years. It was originally published by Nihon Vogue, and I have hemmed and hawed over acquiring it for various reasons, and always left it at the bookstore because I felt like I had too many books. I thought “score!” when I received the newly translated English version, but oh, the sizing goes up to 120cm, which K has pretty much outgrown.

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Undaunted, I wanted to make at least one thing out of it before I passed it along to someone with a smaller girl-child to sew for. So I traced pattern L which looked generous in sizing, added two inches to the sleeves and hem (though I forgot to lengthen the plackets so had to shorten the hem back to its original length), and pieced together some scrap knit fabrics, making sure to use the stretchiest knit I could find for the top portion. Too-tight shoulders never feel good. I’m really liking the sporty look. Note: because the stretch factor was vastly different between the light grey and blue-grey knits, I couldn’t get the gathers below the yoke to form. The gathers would have been sweet, but I’m fine without them. This is what the cardi looks like in the book:

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With the color-blocking, gathered sleeves, pockets, hood and plackets, this cardi actually took a little longer than I expected. All in all, it’s a good cold-weather staple to have, and I’m glad I sewed it up. As you can see, K got bored of modeling and insisted that she read while I snapped away with my camera:

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She did oblige by dancing a little, and then we tried a different prop, which she quickly abandoned:

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So, onto the giveaway! This book comes with 22 patterns for dresses, pants, skirts and tops (plus a bag and a hat). Super cute. And of course, the book is filled with the signature beautiful styling and photography of all Japanese craft books. You can see more of the book here.

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To enter the giveaway, please answer the following question: if you were guaranteed the time and resources to acquire any new skill or improve upon an existing one, what would it be? I myself would like to learn how to invest and understand how the market works. I’m fairly money-challenged, and I’ve never really invested, and it seems like a solid skill to have. On the flip side, I would also love to learn pottery/ceramics. How about you?

I will leave the giveaway open until this Thursday, December 4th and I will announce the winner the following day. Yes to international entries! Good luck!

 

Happy Thanksgiving: Free Printable

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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and despite my best efforts to ignore it, it seems that the holiday season is in full swing. I’m thankful for so many things, and you, my friends, are on the short list. As a small token of my appreciation, I have a holiday printable for you: Dala horses! I’ve always loved this Swedish holiday motif, and I doodled some up and thought they would make sweet tags/cards. Here’s what the whole sheet looks like, printable on 8.5 x 11″ paper:

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I still haven’t mastered the whole downloadable/printable thing, so if you run into any issues, please let me know, yes? I believe the file seems to work best when downloaded onto your computer rather than trying to print directly from the window…

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If you are celebrating turkey day, I hope it’s filled with loved ones and enduring, good memories. And if you’re not celebrating this All-American holiday, well, I still hope it’s filled with loved ones and enduring good memories.

I’m taking Friday off to party like rockstars with my little nuclear family, and I’ll see you back here on Monday, with a giveaway. xo!

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