A few weeks ago, I had plans to catch up with friends downtown. Temptation was running high for a new outfit. I had it set in my mind that I could run to Ann Taylor Loft for a quick sales-items-only shopping spree to find something nice to wear. Actually, it was an urge I’d been suppressing all week after attending two meetings where I had to leave the house in less than optimal business attire. The truth of the matter is that I have 3 (maybe 4 when ironed) summer business shirts that I pair with an equal number of pants and skirts. This is typically enough to get by on when working from home, but it can make dressing painfully dull. Sometimes I can’t help but long for a closet filled with clothes I like, purchased for my body the way it looks now (not a year ago, two years ago, or…gulp six years ago). TV shows such as “What not to wear” would suggest it’s normal to spend $5,000+ on a wardrobe. We see how the participants are teased for wearing sweat pants, t-shirts, and ill fitted suits. Then whisked away and transformed with their preloaded credit cards into TV appropriate models of refined taste and dress. I don’t have $5,000 to spend on clothes. What I do have is a mortgage, student loan, daycare expenses. You get the point. So, I decided to have pride in those commitments and wear something from my closet. After all, there should be no shame in wearing what you can afford. I “shopped” my own racks, dedicated time to ironing, dug into my box of accessories. Actually, it was kind of fun. If not fashionable, I at least felt tidy. Once I was with my friends, I realized how lame I was for obsessing over clothes. Then Saturday came and I figured it probably would be worth hitting up the last of the summer sales. After all, even if I found something to wear out with friends, I still needed business clothes. I shopped for items that would actually be useful to me — not just fun for a night out, which is what often happens when I go for “last minute trips” to some store with an hour left before an event. A little planning and restraint can go a long way in saving money. That said, I still grimaced seeing the total ring up ($188 for two dresses, two business shirts, and a skirt), knowing how hard it was to get that money — the first bit of “allowance” since losing my job in March. But it was worth the peace of mind it afforded me, opening my closet and not having to freak out about what to wear to my next meeting.
Since moving to Virginia seven years ago my husband and I have crammed every last second of our days with activities, work being the biggest, but getting a masters degree also ate up time, having a baby, juggling two big hobbies — belly dancing (me) and track-side roller derby announcing (David). The result? We rarely cleaned. We purchased things we didn’t use. And we neglected to donate, recycle or toss our unused goods. Now that we’re home more, purging has become a bit of a pastime. Last weekend I said to David, “Hey, lets get rid of the TV and DVD player in the bedroom!” Removing that dusty set of boxes helped us reclaim a patch of our floor, which makes me giddy. We also cleared the house of four bags of books, two bags of toys, two laptop computers, two cell phones, two packs of too-small-diapers and at least a bag of trash. Recently I remarked to a friend that throwing things out is almost more of a thrill now than buying new things. Master organizer that she is, she replied “When you purge items, what you’re ‘buying’ is space.” I’d never thought of it that way, but it makes a lot of sense. Our house feels bigger without all the stuff. Then there’s cleaning… the mellow hum of the vacuum cleaner, the gentle spritz of the glass cleaner. Finding the perfect spot to place an item. Putting coins in one cup. Jewelry in one bag. Relocating the bottles of hairspray and moisturizer from the bookshelf to a box. Consolidating vitamins. Searching in the medicine box for expired drugs to toss. It’s meditative. Having an organized home makes the following week more enjoyable too. We can find things and there’s plenty of glorious space to help keep the focus on work and creativity. Plus, all that purging makes us more hesitant to introduce new items into the home. I think about the lifespan of an object before buying it now. How long will it be useful? How will be dispose of it afterwards? Hopefully, these habits will stick and we can maintain our hard-earned space beyond the current economic situation.
This weekend, I went to a baby shower in Baltimore and, while there, struck up a conversation with a graphic designer–Jean-Pierre–who had recently been laid off. Working again now, he and I were discussing the experience of being unemployed, how we found work, and how being laid off changed us. It was amusing to hear how similar our stories were — for instance, we’d both developed “routines” while unemployed. For Jean-Pierre, that meant going to the gym every morning, making it to the coffee shop in time to get a good seat (”next to the outlet”) and sending at least 3 resumes out each day. (By the way, his hard work paid off — he found work in a lightning-fast 30 days!) We also discussed ways we saved money at the grocery store. In particular, we both found ourselves buying small to save. Jean-Pierre, who cooks for one, paid closer attention to the size of the produce he was buying. A smaller head of lettuce, for instance, cost less and had a better chance of being fully utilized. By buying only what he would actually eat in a week, he saved money on food he might have had to toss. Another point we agreed on: the importance of seeing friends. Jean-Pierre met up with people to go for walks, or other inexpensive activities. He also, like my family, ended up taking a vacation he’d pre-planned before getting the pink slip. Toward the end of our conversation, Jean-Pierre said something that really struck me, that he now “lives like he was unemployed.” Meaning, that some of the habits from his layoff have stuck. He’s learned how to live on less. He’s still buying small heads of lettuce at the grocery store. He’s also more hesitant to buy new “things” like clothes or other items that aren’t entirely essential. This has been true in our house, too. Now that David and I are contractors, we have to live frugally to prepare for gaps in work. Luckily, we’ve found ways to make that enjoyable. This weekend we had fun purging our book shelf and donating five full bags of books, toys and miscellaneous items to Goodwill. We met up with friends and family at our homes (not restaurants) for delicious meals and socializing. We played around with new recipes. We walked to the farmer’s market. Jean-Pierre and I wondered how this new “unemployment” mind-set would effect a country where consumerism counts for 70% of the economy. If we all buy less, will that mean less work for people? Will it mean a much slower recovery? It might, but I have to admit, I feel much better about my new habits and I don’t want to give them up. It’s like I lost 10lbs and I want to keep losing. Our home has less stuff and more order. Every time I open my cabinets and see a row of neatly stacked dried grains, fruits and beans, I get a jolt of excitement. The same thing happens when I look at our book shelves and see things that are meaningful to us, things that have a “place” and aren’t disrespectfully stuffed into every available crevice. Living like we’re unemployed also means enjoying life more. I make time to take my daughter to the pool after daycare. I don’t waste time worrying about work over the weekend. It’s a priority to see friends for lunch, dinner, parties, etc. perhaps because I know better now that “work is work” — it comes and goes. And I love my work, but I no longer define myself by work alone.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking: why did we try to refinance a mere month after being denied? Well, after my original post I heard from friends who had been through the process before. They suggested hiring the appraiser directly. Apparently when a bank hires the appraiser there’s a good chance the estimate will come in low if the bank doesn’t really want to give you the loan. Case in point: our home appraised at $145k. A week later our neighbor’s home (same condo association, one less bedroom than ours) came in at $330k. She hired her own appraiser. We did not. So, knowing that our neighbor’s place appraised at $330k, we decided to hire her appraiser and a new mortgage broker. But, alas. We weren’t fast enough, because the regulations changed the following month. We were already knee deep into refinance #2, when we discovered the new rules. The government, sensing perhaps the highly subjective nature of home appraisals, separated the appraisers from the mortgage brokers and potential refinancers (in other words, us). Now, neither the mortgage broker nor home owner can hire the appraiser. It’s supposed to guarantee that neither party overly influences the final figure. Maybe this regulation benefited others in our position, but it did not benefit us. The appraisal process A) took longer, and B) only increased the estimated value of our home by $5k. This appraiser, like the first one, included foreclosed properties as “comparables” to our unit. We don’t think that’s fair. Neither does our mortgage broker, who is now in a dispute with the appraiser over the estimate. I mean, it’s kind of ridiculous. We live in Arlington County. Just try to buy a 3 bedroom townhouse within county lines for $150k and see what pops up (don’t take my word for it, RedFin’s got the evidence): nothing. Despite two denied refi attempts, we are still being hounded by offers in the mail. Our mortgage broker wants us to try again. You know what I want? Our money back. The appraisal process isn’t cheap. We’ve already dropped $700 in appraisal fees. We’ll hold onto this place as long as we have to, and then either sell, rent or grow old together here. I heard a report on Planet Money that it’s extremely rare for a person to pay off a 30 year mortgage. Everyone’s either refinancing or selling before they reach true home-ownership. So, really, the “American Dream” died a long time ago, we just think we’re achieving it. In reality, most of us are lucky if we’re in our place long enough to pay less than the renters next door. Am I bitter? Not really. Disappointed? Yes. At least by purchasing a home, we know the grass is just as weird here as it was on the other side of the fence. We’ve learned a lot. We continue to learn. And if we ever leave this place, it will look 110% better than when we first moved in. I feel a sense of pride in that. I look at pictures from our first month here and it’s like, “wow, little house, you’ve come a long way. It’s perplexing that you’re worth less now than you were as a roach infested, broken-windowed, velvet wallpapered unit with a foot print on the ceiling”… but I guess that’s life these days. I think we’re all looking forward to a time when we can look back and laugh.