Don’t Underearn By Overstaying

lake ontario 3

If I could offer one piece of career advice to new grads, it would be to avoid becoming an eternal intern. In other words, don’t under-earn by staying too long at the same job, especially your first real job. Neil almost committed this common career faux pas before getting a wake-up call and changing jobs. We finally realized why staying in one place for your whole career is thing of the past: it’s often the best way to stunt your career and income growth.

Like many of his engineering classmates, Neil worked an internship full- or part-time throughout the second half of his education. A year before graduation, he was offered a full-time position. He didn’t even have to interview. The salary and benefits were good. It was a Fortune 500 company and he’d continue working in the same department he was already familiar with.

The only problem? “I almost became an eternal intern,” he says. In other words, he felt like he could not shake the new hire status at his first company.

The Most Dangerous Job

While his pay increased significantly post-degree, his job was boring and under-utilized his engineering skills. We continued to view the position as a good job because it paid well and was low-stress. There was a sense of security in working at a big company.

Despite being a great employee with plenty of initiative, he reached a plateau in his career. He studied hard and passed a rigorous eight-hour exam to earn a Professional Engineering license. He talked to his boss about opportunities for advancement, but that required relocation. There was no way he was going to move our family for a job he didn’t love.

That’s when he realized this job wasn’t safe and secure at all. In fact, staying there was the most dangerous career choice he could make. He was going to be viewed as an intern forever. The most successful people in his group had been hired from the outside. He wasn’t gaining marketable skills and being bored at work didn’t signal job security. It was time to make his move.

Learning Your Market Value

He started reading up on the area he wanted to get into, and applyied for jobs.  When he found the right position a few months later, he was astonished at the difference. He was hired at their highest level for engineers. Because he changed industries, he expected a learning curve, but feels a new momentum in his career. In the year and a half that he’s been there, his salary has increased over 20% compared to his last job. He finds the work much more interesting, and his boss is discussing career growth opportunities with him.

He’s noticed that the new grads his company hires have perpetual intern status, too. Even though they are very knowledgeable and hard-working, they aren’t always treated with equal respect and professionalism. He allowed his previous employer to continue viewing him as an intern simply by staying there too long.

Neil shared these new insights with a friend whom he believed was under-earning. With two weeks of beginning his job search, his friend was offered a job and asked to name his price! He secured a 40% raise. His skill set didn’t change; he simply found a company willing to pay his market value.

I’m so glad we realized the dangers of becoming an eternal intern and moved on. This is one of the reasons Millennials don’t stay at the same job for 30 years—and shouldn’t. Here are some lessons we’ve learned:

  1. Your company cares about the bottom line, not you. No one else is going to look out for you and your career.
  2. In many careers, staying in one place is the best way to under-earn. Every move you make is a chance to make a jump in salary and build your skills.
  3. The problem with your job may not be your company or boss, but your inherent status as a former intern or new hire. Changing jobs may be the only way to change this status.
  4. We should be more scared of the status quo than of change. We don’t grow when things stay the same, and we should be terrified to stop growing.
  5. Making the bold move to take a new job communicates a degree of confidence and initiative that is valuable to employers, and your career.

Neil enjoys work more than ever, but he doesn’t plan to stay at the same company until retirement. We’ve learned our lesson and won’t settle for stagnation ever again.

Have you grown your career through a job change? What is your top career advice for new grads?

Burbstead Update: Birds, Bees, and Sweet Peas

Last bird standing.

Last bird standing.

It’s summer on the burbstead! Time for an update.

Birds

Just yesterday, Neil took our chickens for “processing” at a friends’ house where he has access to a mechanical plucker and other handy equipment. We got back from vacation the day before and he tried to pack everything that night since, of his own admission, he always forgets something. Of course, the chickens are the one component he couldn’t pack until the morning.

A couple hours after he left I went outside to hang laundry. My two-year-old came with me to play in the sandbox. She wandered over to the chicken tractor as she had every morning. She’d given us a Stoic summary of what happens to the chickens the day before: “Sometimes my dad feed the chickens. Sometimes he kill them. Then we eat them up in the tummy.” So I wasn’t worried about her discovering the empty tractor.

“The chickens aren’t in there,” I warned as she headed over.

“This chicken need food,” she declared.

“Dad took the chickens to the farm,” I reminded.

“This chicken need food,” she insisted. For a second I thought there might be a dead chicken in there. What if one died in the night and he hadn’t had time to deal with it this morning? It seemed unlikely, but I looked over and, lo and behold, there was a live chicken walking around in the box.

Neil forgot a chicken! In the rush over going back and forth to load up the car, he’d left behind the last chicken.

Shoot, I thought. That’s going to be messy.

Vegetarians, cover your eyes. Luckily it wasn’t too bad, and it gave Neil a chance to try his hand at skinning rather than plucking. He’s considered doing a second round of chickens later in the summer when he wouldn’t have access to special equipment. He concluded that it was quite manageable. After all, plucking chickens used to be the wife’s job. Let’s just say I’m a city girl.

Guess how he hauled these chickens to the farm? In his trusty, rusty 2-door hatchback. One of the spending fallacies we most try to avoid is the “hobby accouterments” pitfall. It goes like this: I like biking, so I need expensive bike shorts, bike gloves, bike shirts, bike attachments, etc. Since we’re not racing the Tour de France we’ve stuck with basic safety equipment instead.

For the burbstead, the thinking could easily be, “I’m hauling manure, wood, plants, and live animals. I need a pickup truck.” This would be the perfect example of a values-based budgeting blind spot. We value these endeavors so it’d be tempting to justify a truck. Though Neil sorely misses his 1985 Ford F150 he’s resisted the urge to replace it since it’s much more vehicle than we need.

Bees

The bait hive.

The bait hive.

We promised to update y’all on our bait bee hive. So far, we’ve seen bees scouting it out, and even had bees guarding the entrance for a while. But those bees passed on this move-in ready apartment. Further research indicates the bait hive is on the small side. Maybe when Neil’s schedule clears a bit he’ll make a bigger one, but for now it’s in our friends’ woods.

Peas (Garden)

Our snow peas and sugar snaps are ripe and the kids can’t get enough of them. They have to be the easiest way to eat vegetables, ever. We’ve enjoyed some strawberries and picked our first black raspberry yesterday. Tomatoes, cucumbers, hot peppers, and garlic are planted. We’re already enjoyed this year’s harvest of asparagus. Herbs like mint, dill, chives, scallions, and coolantro (a heartier plant that tastes a lot like cilantro) are flourishing.

When we returned from vacation, our garden looked like it grew a lettuce Afro. After months of unlimited salad, the lettuce finally bolted. Neil pulled most of it and planted peppers. We’ll plant lettuce again near the end of summer and enjoy it in the cooler fall weather.

In Rockin’ the Burbstead, we mentioned our plan to double our garden space. Alas, that much manure is one thing the Focus can’t haul, and plans to use a friend’s truck fell through.

Instead we brainstormed an optimal alternative. In fact, it’s even better than our original plan. I mentioned to Neil that some friends are renting community plots, and the light bulb went on. Why not rent a plot for $8? We used to do this back in our apartment days. The soil is already tilled and water is included in the cost. The plots are 2 miles from our home, right on Neil’s route to work.

Since they’ll be slightly less convenient to tend, we’ll plant one low maintenance crop like corn. And this leaves more our of yard available for other uses.

 

How is your garden? What is your favorite part of summer?

What My Four-Year-Old Taught Me About Investing

catch on the beach

Learning how to play catch & doling out investment advice.

The following blog post is part of The Road to Financial Wellness blog tour. The Road to Financial Wellness is a three-month, grassroots campaign promoting financial empowerment on a national level and encourages people to pursue their dream lifestyle. Find out more about local events near you.

My son staunchly refuses to write the alphabet, but he is fascinated by exponential growth. Not that he knows this is what it’s called. To pass time he loves to ask, “What’s two twos? What’s two fours? What’s two eights?” And so on. Luckily he loses interest before I max out my mental math capacity. The other day while playing this game he said, “You can’t count to a million by starting from one. You have to count with different numbers.”

Forgive my mom pride, but I couldn’t help interpreting this statement as the best investment advice ever uttered by a preschooler. Advice that I simply didn’t understand for a long time.

I’m a saver by nature, but I didn’t receive the most thorough financial education, nor did I come from a “Rich Dad” household. I never realized that just about anyone can “get to a million” using time, compounding interest, and basic earning and saving disciplines.

I saved money, dollar by dollar, through high school and college. In fact, my emergency savings was probably over-funded. Had I invested the extra, even though it wasn’t much, it would’ve been an early start at exponential growth.

After college graduation I blindly accepted the default retirement contributions set up by my employer. When I left that job after a year, I withdrew my funds, paying hefty taxes. Luckily it was 2007, the market was favorable, and it went toward a house down payment. But I’m still kicking myself for that one.

I just didn’t get it.

The Light Bulb Goes On

Not until I watched the first DVD of Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. To be honest, that’s the only one I watched, but it was enough. He lays out the comparison of someone who invests $2000/year from ages 19-26, compared to someone who invests $2000/year from ages 27-65. Guess who has more at the end? The second guy never catches up. Though it makes assumes an overly optimistic 12%, the point is clear: start investing sooner rather than later. (Check it out here.)

By the time I watched this, we were contributing Ramsey’s recommended minimum of 15% to retirement accounts. But I was 25 and saving for retirement sounded amorphous, almost mythical. I wasn’t the least bit motivated about it, let alone informed. Since then I’ve become more educated about investing by reading a couple books & lots of personal finance blogs, as well as through conversations with my husband, who’s always learning more about this topic.

Maybe I should have finished watching the DVD course, but we actually had a lot of smaller pieces of personal finance in place. We were good at following a budget and limiting our spending. We had life insurance and a solid income. What I was lacking was the bigger picture of where these practical pieces could lead us. I didn’t need tips on how to save money; I needed a financial education.

Our goal isn’t to become millionaires, but to continue increasing our financial flexibility so that our life choices center more on our values and opportunities, and less on money. Paying off debt, simple living, and planning for retirement and kids’ college are all part of increasing our flexibility.

We won’t gain the flexibility we desire simply by scrimping and saving one dollar (or $100) at a time. For a long time I saved money without gaining the financial education about how to grow wealth. I’ve never wanted to be rich, but I do want the flexibility to prioritize family, volunteer, be generous, and retire someday.

That’s why we’re “counting by different numbers.”

How did you learn about investing? What’s the next step on your road to financial wellness?

The Blind Spot in Values-Based Spending

blind spot

Everyone has those things they’re willing to spend money. For some people it’s clothing, for others it’s restaurants or concerts or “toys.” We’ve always recognized that for us it’s travel.

Some people call this “values-based spending” and or “intentional budgeting.” Others refer to such spending as “budget failure justification.” I believe values-based spending is a great idea, though I doubt we’ve all thought through our values as much as we might give ourselves credit for. There’s also a common pitfall of saying you value just about everything, as a way to rationalize spending.

That said, it’s 100% legitimate to choose areas of non-essential spending and decide, “I value my health, so I’m going to buy healthy food, even if it costs more.” Or “I value learning so I’m willing to spend on books, or private school.” Whatever your areas are, that’s up to you. I wouldn’t recommend going into debt for most areas, but beyond that it really is a matter of personal preference.

At the same time, values-based spending has a dangerous blind spot: your values.

The Slippery Slope From Values to Invaluable

Once we pick a category and say, “this is valuable to me,” it’s a slippery slope to viewing that thing as invaluable. Meaning you’d spend (just about) any amount on that area that is so important to you.

The danger isn’t that you value a category, it’s that you have a blind spot toward your spending in that area. Let me give you an example from my life: dating my husband. This is non-negotiable to us. We make do with evenings at home together (that’s not most nights for us), but with two little ones and busy schedules, sometimes we just need to get out and have fun together before 9 pm.

So after our second child was old enough to leave with a babysitter, we went out about once a month and spent at least $50 every time. We’d budgeted $50 since we cherished that time together and wanted to have a meal and maybe do something afterwards. When Neil suggested we didn’t have to spend that much every time, I got defensive, made fun of our pre-parenthood Taco Bell or home dates, and basically shut down that suggestion real quick.

Then I realized I had a blind spot. We could choose to spend $50, and that was fine. Nothing wrong with it. We still do sometimes. But we could also enjoy ourselves just as much with cheaper meals or diversions, while upholding our values of date night and our marriage.

My emotional blind spot for this important area leeched my creativity in seeking good alternatives. While this expense wasn’t breaking the bank, the same phenomenon can take hold in many, sometimes more expensive areas.

Another area we value is our involvement in church ministry. We are volunteer leaders in our church and this means we spend money on retreats and social/ministry outings regularly. We are happy to do so, but have found some cheaper solutions. For example, sometimes we “pre-game” a restaurant outing and just order something small, or carpool or ride bikes to events when possible. We also choose to pay a babysitter so we can have less distractions during our home church meetings. So there are ways we’ve found to spend less while maintaining involvement, and there are also facets that we can’t really cut back on, or at least aren’t willing to.

How to Squint Out Your Blind Spots

First try to identify your value areas. And remember–you don’t get to pick everything! Common value areas include family, safety, health, education, faith, travel, adventure, gifts, technology, media, the arts, sports, friends, or experiences.

Now have a little brainstorming session, identifying possible alternatives to your current spending in your high-value areas. Be sure to ask your significant other or friends for ideas because it’s hard to think outside the box sometimes.

Please hear me: you might get creative, do some research, and find there are no better solutions or alternatives to your value areas. Maybe you recognize there are cheaper solutions, but you don’t have the time, inclination, or skills to adopt them. Then you would carry on as before, knowing that thing is really worth the price to you. That’s fine!

But a healthy dose of skepticism about our own values-based budgeting is helpful, because we’re almost inherently emotional about the things we value. And emotional money decisions aren’t always the wisest. It’s unrealistic to think any of us is going to do money perfectly every time, but I’d like the idea of reassessing and become more financially self-aware and solution-seeking over time.

What areas of your budget do you value most? Have you ever identified a blind spot in your values-based spending?

 

Inflate Someone Else’s Lifestyle Instead of Your Own

Meeting my sponsored child.

Meeting my sponsored child.

Did you know almost half the world’s population lives on less than $2.50/day?

A huge portion of the world lives in abject poverty. For example, recent droughts in India have increased prostitution, child labor, and the incidence of child brides because people simply don’t have enough resources to provide for their children. Many Dalits “don’t exist” on paper and thus do not have reliable access to government assistance.

Did you know that for $1/day, you can change the life of a child in poverty? For many people in developed nations, $1/day is an amount you’d barely even miss. That can’t even buy you a coffee. It’s about one Chipotle burrito per week. Whatever $1 means in your budget, if you can spare it, I encourage you to consider adding a real worth investment to your portfolio.

Why not inflate someone else’s lifestyle instead of your own? After all, $1 per day can’t inflate your lifestyle noticeably. Investing $1 per day isn’t going significantly alter your retirement plans. But it could radically alter the trajectory of someone else’s life, while also inflating your usefulness.

It could be the difference between infanticide and life. Between starvation and nutrition. Between ignorance and education. Between being sold as a child bride or prostitute, and having a wholesome childhood. Between a family being broken up or staying whole. Between untapped potential and opportunity.

There are so many great charitable causes out there, but child sponsorship is something near to my heart because children are often innocent victims of forces much greater than themselves. They have not chosen their way into bad circumstances. They are completely powerless to improve their situation.

Yes, some organizations take donations that do not actually benefit the children they claim to help. Corruption and fraud exist and that means donors have to exercise caution. That’s why we started our research with personal recommendations from friends who have visited the organizations we donate to, and eventually visited one of our sponsored children.

Let’s cover some common questions and concerns.

Does this conflict with parents from providing for their children?

The organizations we give to practice holistic efforts to help entire communities. Therefore, the parents often have access to vocational training, education, employment opportunities, and micro loans. While we can’t vouch for every possible scenario, the efforts of the organizations we’ve chosen to support include helping parents as well.

Also, many children who benefit from sponsorship are orphans. And since the quality and reach of orphan care varies quite a bit across countries, we are happy to help “orphans and widows” which James 1:27 describes as “true religion.”

How do you know the money is going to benefit the children?

During our international mission trips, Neil and I separately witnessed the huge gulf between sponsored children and street kids. Our sponsored children live in very simple but safe homes. They attend school rather than begging or trying to sell things on the street. They receive sufficient food and clothing, as well as an education. They often receive help with career training, higher education, and even marriage if they do not have a family to help with this.

We personally met the “house parents,” school teachers, program directors, and even the president of one organization we sponsor a child through. I also was able to meet our child’s mother, who spent almost our whole time together saying “very thank you.” It was incredibly humbling; you can read more about it here.

 

There are many good organizations that do child sponsorship and poverty relief, but I can’t vouch for them personally as I can for India Gospel League. I’ve personally seen the work of IGL and find the organization to be highly efficient, effective, and holistic. Friends of mine visited Compassion International’s work in one country (Ethiopia) and found their ministry to be worth supporting. I’ve also heard great things about World Relief.

Would you consider inflating someone else’s lifestyle through child sponsorship? This cause hits even closer to home now that I have children of my own. I can’t imagine being in a position where I couldn’t provide for them; it’s too heart-breaking to even think about. Yet many parents across the world find themselves in this situation, often due to forces outside their control.

Please don’t let fear of corruption hold you back from helping the needy. Do a little research. Check out a charity rating website like Charity Navigator. Ask friends if they could recommend an organization, or even volunteer with or visit a group to learn more. If you prefer to help domestically, go for it! Or if you want to help adults, consider supporting a microloan program, vocational education, or refugee needs.

Inflating some else’s lifestyle is a real worth investment that will have a solid return, and it’s very rewarding to know you can change someone’s life, even if you may never meet the person. It truly is “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Any questions or recommendations? Have you ever sponsored a child or microloan?

Pretend to Be a Student Until You Pay off Student Debt

College me: "I live in a tiny dorm room with 2 other people, and it's awesome!!"

College me: “I live in a tiny dorm room with 2 other people, and it’s awesome!!”

‘Tis the season for fake commencement speeches and poignant advice for college grads. Steve at Think Save Retire issued a challenge to write a commencement address, and I’m tweaking mine to be more of a “coffee date message.” Because my advice isn’t eloquent or pithy, it’s purely practical.

My #1 financial message to recent grads would be: pay off your student loans. My #1 strategy for doing so would be: pretend to still be a broke college student. Lifestyle inflation is nearly inevitable after college, and that’s appropriate, but delay as much of it as possible until you slay those loans.

Hopefully you’ve landed a good job, but even if you have a great new income, you still don’t have money if you have debt. I know those new paychecks will burn a hole in your pocket, but try to think about the impact of keeping those student loans around for 10-15 years. Let me give you some perspective.

I graduated from college ten years ago. Many of my peers are married with kids, and some are still swimming in student debt. They may long to purchase a home, but cannot afford one because they graduated with mortgage-size debt. Others are struggling to afford medical bills or fertility treatments, because student debt still holds them back. And college funds for their kids will have to wait, because they still haven’t finished funding their own education.

Now, I don’t judge people for having a lot of student loans. When they were teenagers, the people they trusted most told them this was good debt. They said you had to do this to get ahead in life. But the people telling them this—parents, teachers, school advisors—went to college at a time when you could pay for tuition by working in the summer! Times have changed, and some of us were railroaded into massive debt before we were mature enough to understand the implications.

So that stinks, but it’s too late. After all, student loans are the one type of debt that can’t be forgiven through bankruptcy. Not that that’d be a great option, anyway. So what are you supposed to do?

How about, for starters, don’t take on any more debt?! No cars loans. No financed furniture or computers. No credit card debt. Definitely no mortgages! Just don’t go there, because you’re already in debt.

What are you supposed to drive? Sit on? Eat? Wear? Live in?

The same things you’ve been driving, sitting on, eating, wearing, and living in. Keep splitting the rent with roommates. Get hand-me-down furniture. Keep driving the beater. Shop thrift stores for your professional wardrobe. Pack your lunch.

My husband and I married while we were still in college, but even after graduating we declared that we wanted to keep living like college students. Not in the sense of late-night partying and living on ramen noodles, but we wanted to keep our lifestyle simple and inexpensive.

We did “upgrade” from beat-up college rental homes with many roommates, to a 1-bedroom apartment. Our little place felt like the lap of luxury, but it was actually cheaper than the combined rents we’d been paying in a college town.

I remember our newlywed grocery budget was $30/week (not adjusted for inflation). We shopped at ALDI and Save-a-lot, packed lunches, and cooked dinner at home most nights. We still sometimes got fast food or went out to dinner. For entertainment, we often invited friends over, went for long walks, or visited free community events.

We bought a new bed and a bookshelf, and that was it. All our other furniture we bought used or got for free as hand-me-downs or gifts.

We continued driving our used cars, once of which Neil salvaged after the engine was submerged in water. We split Internet service with other friends in our apartment complex.

None of this felt like a sacrifice; we had plenty of fun, traveled, and still bought things we didn’t really need. In fact, we splurged big time after Neil graduated and went to a Europe for a month! So it wasn’t like we 100% froze our lifestyle or refrained from all extra spending. But we were able to save up the money from my first year teachers’ salary to take this big trip.

We didn’t take our own advice perfectly. We even bought our home right before paying off the school loans. In the end it didn’t matter, because it was simply of matter of timing at that point. We were bound and determined to pay them off quickly, and we did. I’m so glad we paid them off before starting a family, so we could start college funds for our kids.

Even with major “slip-ups” in pretending to be college students, we were able to set ourselves up for a more flexible future. An overall mindset of delaying lifestyle inflation helped us make financial progress I know wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. It’s also made it easier to live on one income while I’m home with little kids.

It’s really hard to deflate your lifestyle, so keep it simple out of the gate. You had a ton of fun in college without a big budget; the same is possible now that you have an income. As you focus on your new stage of life, don’t lose sight of your real financial position. If your net worth is still negative, pretend you’re broke. Because you actually are.

Building a Bait Bee Hive: A Case Study in Thrift

honey-bees-326337_960_720

Like most of our burbsteading endeavors, it was one of Neil’s engineer friends who talked him into beekeeping. If it weren’t for his ilk, we wouldn’t raise chickens or tap our maple trees, either.

Our garden, chickens, and maple sugaring didn’t start as attempts to save money. Rather, they fit the bill for the types of hobbies we like. That is, activities that aren’t too expensive, produce something, teach useful skills, and are kid-friendly and outdoorsy. Neil (and his engineering buddies) sit in cubicles all day and sometimes don’t get to see tangible results from their labor. I suspect this is one reason they tend to gravitate to productive, hands-on, organic activities.

Neil joined the bee bandwagon first and foremost to have a hobby in common with his friend. They took a class together, read library books, talked to other beekeepers, and went to purchase bees & hives off Craigslist together. This brings me to another hobby criterion: it should fit well into our existing social schedule. Of course it doesn’t have to be a shared hobby, but those are great! Bouncing ideas off fellow burbsteaders and sharing resources has led to some good times and beautiful frugal friend synergy.

Free Bees?

Beekeeping, like many hobbies, can be very expensive or quite economical. Buying one complete bee hive, with bees, costs around $375. Just the bees are around $100. Neil wasn’t willing to shell out that much for a tag-along hobby, especially since the bees can die so easily and we’re not spending a ton of honey as it is. It’s too much of a gamble.

When we say we pretend to be poor, we don’t for one minute think we’re living like those truly in poverty. We do find it very helpful to pretend we don’t have $375 available to get into beekeeping, and see where our research, creativity, and DIY courage take us. If we can find a reasonable cheaper solution, we will.

Through Neil’s research, he learned that you can catch a swarm of bees instead of buying them. Don’t worry, it’s not as dangerous as it sounds. In the spring, the new queen bees, along with lots of drones, will separate from their hive in a swarm. They can build their own hive, but will take up residence if they find a move-in ready bait hive.

A bait hive is pretty simple and cheap to make. Neil made it using scrap wood, and it took a couple hours, with the assistance of our son and his bee buddy. It’s basically a wooden box made to fit the hive frames, and some bee food to attract them. Our bait hive is currently in a tree in a friend’s yard next to woods, wildlife, and a field of clover and thistle.

It remains to be seen whether we’ll catch a swarm. But since we have next to nothing invested in this project, we don’t care too much whether we catch one or not. If we succeed, we’ll need more bee boxes, which can also be made from scrap wood.

Free Honey?

A friend who kept bees while growing up assures us it’s a great hobby for kids—something I wasn’t too sure about since my son acts afraid of ants sometimes. It’s already helping him overcome fear; he went with Neil to buy his friend’s hive and walked through a wall of bees, and even responded calmly when one landed on him.

Bees are also awesome for pollinating the garden, so it’ll be a true burbstead synergy if we could reap that benefit. We don’t use tons of honey, but we often top my homemade yogurt with it, and sometimes use it in homemade granola, granola bars, or just on peanut butter sandwiches. Local honey is said to help with seasonal allergies. It would also make a good gift for certain friends and family. And I’m a Blistex addict, so I’d be willing to attempt some homemade beeswax lip balm.

If all goes well, we’d expand the burbstead and maybe even save some money. Worst case, we’re out a few bucks for the bee frames, and some fun hours with a friend. Either way, beekeeping represents our philosophy of burbsteading, our hobby criterion, and our thrifty approach to potential new costs. Pretend you don’t have the money, and see what creative solutions you can come up with.

Stay tuned to find out if we catch a swarm!

Anyone have experience keeping bees? If not, what is a way you’ve found to do what you want to for less?

Have You Planned For Your Funeral?

leaf sunset

We recently attended a memorial service for an elderly friend in our church. But he wasn’t a typical elderly churchgoer. More than half the people in our church are under 25. I’m an “oldie” at 30! Aside from his wife, Howard was the only regular member over age 70. But he wasn’t just a “member.” He was the grandfather of our whole community.

Since his death, no one can stop talking about him and his impact in their life. Many, including us, weren’t even particularly close to him. But our interactions with him are so memorable. He was warm and wise, humorous and humble. Always so interested in the other person, and always had something interesting and encouraging to say. He knew Greek and Hebrew, studied the Bible voraciously, and also taught water color painting, played the piano, and sang. He probably had many other talents and accomplishments that I don’t know about, because he didn’t talk about himself much.

Before his death, he let his family know that in lieu of a funeral he wanted his friends to have a BYOB dance party.

I don’t know anything about his finances. He was a social worker and was retired by the time I met him. He certainly understood the Secret to Financial Freedom and inflated his usefulness instead of his lifestyle. However he handled his money, his memorial service left me aspiring to leave a legacy like Howard’s.

The point of all this money stuff is so we can actually live. Howard lived a full life up until the day he fell unconscious. He had a degenerative muscle disease during his adult life, but he saved his energy for serving others. The day before his collapse, he went over to a friend’s house and grilled steak for the family. During an recent week-long church trip he volunteered to give an in-depth Bible teaching for those who weren’t able to go on the trip.

His life was the epitome of real worth.

We can talk Vanguard vs. Betterment all day. We can talk Roth vs. Traditional all day. We can talk Minimalism vs. Pragmatism, Classic vs. Extreme Frugality, Budgeting vs. Tracking all day and night long.

These are all helpful philosophies, tools, and practices—if we keep them in their proper place. They are servants, not masters. They are the pieces, not the purpose. You could get all the financial stuff right and leave an outrageous inheritance, but if your family hates you, it’s worth less than nothing. Worst investment ever.

It’s also often said that on your death bed, you won’t wish you worked more hours or drove a nicer car. That’s a true and lovely sentiment, but what are we supposed to do with it? How do we live today wisely and well while also planning for the future?

I believe the answer lies in diversifying your life’s portfolio, leaving both real and net worth behind. The net worth could be easily consumed within a short period of time. Real worth is something that can last much longer, even for eternity.

Howard’s passing made me realize I don’t want to be moderate about my real worth legacy. I want to leave my kids a modest amount of money (maybe), and a host of friends celebrating a life that changed theirs. I want my family to have a hard time finding a venue big enough for my memorial service. I want a sea of youth 50 years my junior dancing at my final going away party. I want people deciding to turn back to God as they contemplate how I reflected the love of Jesus.

In reality, these are the details are Howard’s legacy. Mine will be different. But I certainly want it to reflect the spirit of his: that countless people felt deeply loved and drawn to Jesus by him.

I’m nowhere near having built such a legacy. And I know my legacy-building can’t be about me. That’s the irony—if I want this all for my own glory then it should never happen. That’s not how love works: “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters.” Real worth isn’t about what I’m doing, it’s about how that helps someone else.

Howard planned for his funeral every day, with kind and encouraging words and thoughtful acts of service. By sharing about God’s love with grocery baggers, and teaching New Testament Greek classes to punks like me. By faithfully praying for hundreds of people each week, and making dinner for his friends. He will be greatly missed this side of Paradise, but his legacy is thriving.

Are you planning for your funeral?

A Brief History of Work

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Have you ever wondered how society transitioned from farms to cubicles? And why so many now want to escape the cube—sometimes back to the farm? Sixty percent of Americans work in cubicles, and 93% dislike it, according to Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval (2015). As a burbsteader, I’ve been seeking to understand why we long to escape our white collar confines, which have been considered the pinnacle of employment.

First, there is the simple ebb and flow of culture over time. Generations seem to fluctuate back and forth. For example, there have been trends taking us from thrifty to spendy and back again. Compared to our parents, millennials tend more toward minimalism, passion careers, and saving money. But our parents were responding their parents, who may have saved or spent to extremes as a reaction to emerging from the Great Depression and WWII.

One main innovation led Americans from the agricultural farm to the cubicle farm: the railroad. People farmed for subsistence and for local markets until the birth of the steam engine. Horse & cart could only take goods so far, and only so many people were needed (or had the capital) to work as storekeepers. Farmers would sell or barter directly with the local storekeeper or individuals for the items they didn’t produce themselves.

With the railroad, farmers could focus on growing more of one or two crops and shipping these long distances. Industrialization replaced independent farmers and artisans, meaning more people worked in factories. At the same time, all this transporting and selling of goods required more people doing paperwork, keeping track of inventory, routes, and accounts. These people were called clerks.

Previously, clerks worked at “counting houses” and then their modern counterpart, banks. There weren’t many clerks in one institution and they often worked directly under one top dog in a flattened hierarchy where they could likely one day replace the boss. After the economic shift of industrialization, people were needed to manage these clerks and factory workers. Now a legion of clerks aspired to a limited number of managerial positions, which came to be called “white collar” jobs, a term satirically coined by Upton Sinclair.

People started studying how to manage clerks and factory workers. Enter industrial organization, scientific management, and vocational training. Next came studying which types of people to hire: the HR department was born. Office jobs continued to proliferate. In 1956, America reached a tipping point in its labor history: white collar workers outnumbered blue collar ones for the first time.

As big business grew in the early 1900s, skyscrapers were needed to house the growing population of clerks and middle management. Just as standardization was prioritized in management classes, it was prioritized in architecture. While some opulent skyscrapers boasted artistic lobbies and lavish offices for upper management, the bulk of the space was designed to be easily and efficiently multiplied. The standardized office units that we know today as cubicles were first called “cells.” What a lovely term—reminiscent of prison!

In fact, the principle-turned-proverb “form follows function” was coined by one of the most famous architects of this period, Louis Sullivan. Cookie cutter “cell” design had the advantage of being rentable. It allowed businesses to move in and out of spaces with ease. Rather than considering the best work environment for the employees or the type of work, future real estate value was the primary concern.

And so the majority of Americans ended up in cubicles. Why? The steam engine. The railroad. Paperwork. Big business. History reveals the concrete answers, but what lies beneath?

It seems that people were chasing freedom and security. Relief from the backbreaking or mind-numbing labor of farm and factory. Ending man’s dependence on out-of-control variables like the weather, animals, and diseases that threatened one’s livelihood. Freedom from subsistence living.

Cube life offered an illusion of freedom: if one moved up the managerial ladder enough, one would become wealthy and successful. No longer a drone, but a free person. Not told what to do, but telling others what to do. As it turns out, this is a mostly empty hope, as only an elite few climb this high, leaving a vast pool of desperate middle managers and unsatisfied office workers behind. Politics, policies, procedures, and TPS reports abound.

The modern cubicle is a bit like the epidural for childbirth. It might make the job less painful, but it’s still hard work.

William Whyte, author of Organization Man (1956), believed the corporate system was stifling freedom and the Protest work ethic that fueled America’s economic growth. He observed that big corporations “offered the womb-like safety and security that colleges provided….A smooth pipeline from dorm room to the desk made organization life irresistible.” Engineering and business education were emphasized during the cold war, and those emerging from the Great Depression were quick to view big business and office jobs as a source of security.

Baby boomers, born into a thriving post-war economy, became the most extravagant generation in history. In the 1970s, credit cards and other consumer debt became widely available to the average consumer, funneling many coming-of-age Boomers into unprecedented sums of personal debt.

And so a nation moved from one type of restriction to another. What numbed the pain of physical labor also ended up numbing the soul, or so it would seem from the wealth of satire surrounding the modern office. And don’t forget about the 93% disgruntled cube-dwellers. Many deal with this discontent with therapeutic spending. Shopping, restaurant outings, entertainment, and vacations are sought to alleviate the sting of all that cube time. A tiny portion, following the example of Jacob Lund Fisker’s Early Retirement Extreme, have used their office skills (and sometimes office down time) in the ultimate act of subversion: calculating their path to freedom and investing more than half their income in order to escape.

It’s invaluable to understand where we came from. Almost all of us came from the farm. Our progenitors left the farm because of the steam engine. And because eeking an existence out of soil is hard, and risky. But the cube has brought its own dangers. It’s the modern equivalent of smoking. Working in a colorless sea of identical “cells” can feel dehumanizing. It promises a stability it cannot deliver, which stifles artists, entrepreneurs, nonconformists, and naturalists alike. And this, as far as I can tell, is why people want out.

What do you think? Is the cube a wonder of the modern world, or nearly prison? Why do so many people want out?

 

This post draws upon the following sources, especially Cubed. Since this isn’t a research paper, I haven’t used in-text citation, but I want to credit the following references:

Lind, Michael. Land of Promise: an Economic History of the United States. 2012. Harper Collins Publishers, New York.

Newman, Rick. “Americans Don’t Like to Buy Stuff Anymore – And That’s A Problem. Yahoo Finance. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/americans-don-t-like-to-buy-stuff-anymore-%E2%80%93-and-that-s-a-problem-170924225.html

Saval, Nikil. Cubed: a Secret History of the Workplace. 2015. First Anchor Books, Random House, New York.

Rocking the Burbstead: How We Homestead on 0.1 Acres

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The chicken tractor is behind the Cozy Coup.

Last weekend, Neil accompanied a friend who was purchasing a hive of bees. The errand took them into the country, where they drove past a 100 acre farm for sale. At $1 million, it’s just a teensy bit out of our price range. But it left me thinking about how our .1 farmable acreage (calculated using this tool) is perfectly sufficient for our needs. For now 100 acres isn’t 1000 times better just because it’s 1000 times bigger. We feel no need to wait for “financial independence” to delve into our interests.

Setting big goals is great, and achieving them is even better. But what about the many years spent working toward those dreams? “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon sang. How to live well in the gap between your goals and your reality is an important question. Our Next Life recently addressed a similar theme in their post “Crafting a Life that Keeps the Stoke High“.

At the Pretend to Be Poor household, we’ve shared about enjoying the journey by prioritizing friendship, generosity, and volunteering, but we also have hobbies we find just plain fun. Mostly these center on old-fashioned, outdoorsy endeavors that have led more than one friend to call our place “the homestead.” While we dream of more land, more gardens, more animals, and more trees, we recognize we have the best of both worlds here at the old burbstead.

Liquid gold.

Burbsteading is serving us well. I can’t say we adore our suburb. Rural living sounds idyllic compared to our city’s strip malls, yet we acknowledge the many wonderful resources at our disposal. In addition to a good work situation and social network, our 0.3 acre property hosts many treasures.  Two maple trees provide enough syrup to last our family (and brunch guests) throughout the year.  Our 0.1 acre of “farmable” backyard area currently holds 4 garden plots, the sugar maples, 4 fruit trees, a berry patch, a rain barrel, a large wood pile, 2 compost piles, a bait beehive, and a 12-chicken pen. Plans for expansion are detailed below.

Si & chickens

Kids love burbsteading!

It’s no surprise we’re embracing the burbstead, since we raised vegetables and herbs in pots on our apartment balcony, in a plot rented from a community garden, and in pots in our friends’ backyard when we rented their basement. There’s nothing unique about growing a few tomato plants; our interests don’t go much further than classic frugality or living like grandma. The point is that we can substantially realize certain aspects of our dreams without changing our situation much at all.

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From our apple tree.

Maybe you’d never ever want to homestead, burbstead, or come near a tomato plant or a live chicken. Burbsteading represents a larger philosophy of practicing contentment and creativity in our current situation. Of living your dreams in little servings today. This means we can be at peace with being rooted in the ‘burbs for now while exploring our interest in raising our own food and getting outside often. It’s an active peace, making the most of our situation with rewarding, useful pursuits that don’t require major changes to other areas where we’re quite content.

So instead of pining after a better property, we are rocking the burbstead. This year we want to raise and preserve more food. We already feed our family of four (and frequent guests) a protein- and produce-rich diet for $75 per week, in large part by supplementing through our homegrown goodies. We’ve gradually increased our harvest each year. Plans for this year include:

  1. Doubling the number of garden beds.
  2. Doubling the number of chickens we raise by doing 2 rounds. This would provide enough chicken for almost half the year.
  3. Catching a swarm of bees in the bait hive Neil built. (More on this to come.) Honey from our yard could replace store-bought honey, some store-bought sugar, and could make good gifts.
  4. Preserving more produce through canning and freezing.
  5. Continue finding and splitting free firewood to offset heating costs.
  6. Continue cooking with whole chickens and making lots of homemade items such as broth, bread, yogurt, beans, granola bars, and more.

The efforts of the past 5 years here have culminated in the following results:

  1. Our compost piles and rain barrel make our garden organic and inexpensive.
  2. Free wood collection means we no longer pay for any firewood (or gym memberships).
  3. We enjoy at least 3 months of purchasing very little meat or vegetables, and less fruit.
  4. We enjoy canned condiments (salsa, pickles, jalepenos) for about half the year.
  5. We make all our own maple syrup.
  6. We have built-in hobbies, exercise, and activities for the kids & their friends.

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Burbsteading also allows us to trial new skills and interests in a fun, safe environment. We’ve burnt syrup, killed vegetable plants, and lost a fruit tree and a chicken or two, all without sweating the loss on a large scale. We’ve also had the freedom to ease into these hobbies slowly. Burbsteading brings a dose of reality to our dreams, and adds a measure of our dreams to reality.

The principle behind burbsteading applies to anyone. What is your dream? Your passion? Your interests? How can you incorporate these in the place you’re planted right now? Life can feel like a waiting game, but we’re not meant to wish away our lives until we bank a big stash. Integrating your interests into your present scenario goes a long way toward maintaining motivation, building skills, and enjoying the journey.

What aspect of your dreams could you integrate into your life today? Does burbsteading interest you?