On Local Community

I hated having to find a contractor when I first moved across the country to Arkansas. It wasn’t the first time I moved across the country and I know how it works. You pack up your stuff, label them on the box, put the new address into GPS and start driving.

I guess I don’t need to mention Arkansas is different than L.A., in the most obvious ways.

Arkansas does not have the beach, the sunshine, boba teas, acai bowls, or Ahi Pokes. L.A. has Trader Joes & In & Outs, and Arkansas has Walmart & Chick-fil-a. Even the smallest thing like finding a vet was difficult. My L.A. greyhound vet always told me, greyhounds process anesthesia differently, and they will not put her under while cleaning her teeth. Arkansas vet told me they MUST put my dog under regardless of breed when they clean her teeth. I still absolutely hate this.

When I first moved here, it was exhausting having to find a new grocery store that sells ribs and will cut them for you. People here don’t understand that Asians like having shorter pork ribs (so you can fit these ribs in a pot, duh!). I had to find a new dog sitter, a new car cleaner, a new mechanic, a new vet, a new apartment, a new doctor, a new dentist. In L.A., those things are easy. You just go on google or yelp and find the highest rated business nearest to you. Thousands of reviews detailed to the last review left only 5 minutes ago. If you ever felt like their service was not up to par, a 3-star could get everything fixed real quick. Arkansas was like a different country, one that was left behind by the world. Yelp only has McDonalds, Wendy’s, and Chick-fil-a. Google reviews were non-existing. People don’t use Meetup; they use Facebook. At the beginning, even my apartment, built 2 years ago, was NOT on google map. Imagine that. I had to put a pin and tag this pasture on google as “home” to get directions.  

Last month, I started renting my house on Airbnb while living in a rental. The day the first guest was arriving, I went over to the house in the morning to turn on the AC for her. And that was the first time this year I turned on the AC. I turned it on and left. A couple hours later around noon, I checked the thermostat temperature on my phone app. I realize it had gone up instead of down. My first guess was the thermostat must not be updating since I am not at the house. Well, you guessed it. There was nothing wrong with my thermostat; my AC was broken, dead, in the middle of a heat wave. 

That week the temperature was record high in Arkansas; temperature went up to 105 F at one point during the day. My airbnb guest surely isn’t going to pay $150 a night to be stewing in their own sweat. I called one of the AC companies from google search of nearby AC professionals, and the receiptionist immediately stopped me as soon as I said I needed someone to come and look at the AC. “We are at least a week and half out,” She told me. “Everyone is booked solid since it is so hot.” I took a deep breath trying to calm down and scrolled through my phone for other AC professional contacts in my phone.

Then I realized that there was an AC guy, David, I used for the barn. He came and connected the mini-split for the barn earlier this year. Someone from a Facebook group of local moms had recommended him (the group’s name is “Bentonville Moms in the know”, which I quite enjoy the blatant cheesiness). So I gave him a call but his receiptionist told me the same thing, everyone is swamped, but she gave me a list of other AC guys around the area to call and try my luck, and promised to put me on the waitlist for David. 

About 30 minutes later, after being rejected by probably the entire AC professionals in town, sitting in my living room, I finally broke down and started balling in tears. That’s when David called back. He said he remembered me, remembered coming to connect my barn, and he will be finishing up his work at 5pm but he understand it is urgent so he will come over on his way home to take a look. I was so thankful. It feels like someone has got my back, and wouldn’t leave me completely alone, stranded in this humid house without AC. 

David came as promised, a little after 5pm, he called and told me he was on his way to assure he was coming. When he showed up at the door, I could see there were little salt marks on his face from the dried up sweat. I can imagine he probably just got down from someone else’s attic and drove to my house. David smiled a little, took his glasses off and wiped his forehead with a hankerchift, and put his glasses back on. “Trouble with the AC, I see?” He walked in and put down his tool belt by the AC & Furnace and started working. 

I have dealt with my fair share of contractors while renovating my first house. The industry is male-dominated and with my look and my height, I felt contractors would try to upcharge because they think “this little girl doesn’t know what’s going on but she will pay us. Let’s charge her extra.” Perhaps it is cinicism, maybe there are some truth to it. Or maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t know. But I’ve always been extremely cautious with contractors.

David told me that the coil for the AC was broken. I knew he was right because last year, the same thing happened but the prior AC guy pumped some freon in, and told me the leak was fixed. David asked if I knew the AC was under warranty. I said, yes I registered it myself. He was very relieved. He said, “I ALWAYS register for my customers because it saves them tons of money when parts break like this.” He said, “don’t worry, I’ll pump some freon to get you going for now and that will last you a good few weeks. And I’ll order the parts, we can schedule some time when you don’t have Airbnb guests, and fix this. My estimate of the whole thing including my labor would be $xxx.” And actually, his final numbers (he gets paid by the hour) was a little less than his estimates but almost spot on.

The entire time David was working, he hummed a very quiet and joyful tune. The fact that he wasn’t stressed made me feel like there’s hope, and that he would be able to fix this in no time and life would go back to normal again. Sometimes he stops to push his glasses back up his nose. He would walk in and out of the house frequently to get yet another gadget I can’t name, but he always closes the door behind him, to make sure he doesn’t let cool air out (not that there was much cool air to start with). He would wipe his shoes on the door mat every single time he comes in, and at the end, he took a papertowel from his truck, and wiped the dust off where he was working.

That’s one of the first times I felt Arkansas wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t so bad that Arkansas is 10 years behind the time. Because behind L.A.’s convenience, best services, best reviews, and most innovative products, much of human connections have been long lost. There is nobody like David in L.A. Everyone is out for themselves and if you want something you MUST pay. I didn’t value the community and connections when I was in L.A. because I never understood fully what it was like to have neighbors you can rely on to watch over your house, to have contractors who become friends, and friends to look after your dog when you go out of town. I was very self-sufficient in L.A., but also alone. I had to be. I have no one to rely on. Strangely in Arkansas, I can trust almost complete strangers and become friends with them. 

This is when I realized I would probably never move back to L.A. I was building a career back then in L.A., but now I am building a life. 

 

FIRE Progress: After Tracking Every Dollar for 18 Months

A year has passed since my first post about tracking expenses. It was hard at times, especially at the beginning of COVID lockdown in March 2020 where the stock market tanked for a few weeks. It was difficult to see my “networth” plummet 40% all in one night. In this year, I’ve continued tracking my expenses on google sheet (click here to get a template) and learned a couple of lessons from tracking my expenses.

1. I changed from habitually eating out everyday to eating out only once a week and KEPT this habit.

It has been a year since I have limited my dining-out-habit, so I don’t quite remember what it was like when I ate out almost every single day anymore. I now have a budget of $150 a month for restaurant bills. I would like to reduce it down to under $100 in the next 6 months. But it is nice to eat out on Saturday after cutting two lawns with Mr. Code Junkie. Saturdays become more of an exciting ritual of hard labor followed by our favorite food.

I originally started by making my favorite coffee drink at home (lavender latte with oat milk). Then, I stopped drinking coffee altogether because it affected my sleep & appetite. Slowly, I started realizing alcohol also affects my sleep & next morning’s energy. So I quit drinking as well. I still enjoy going to coffee shops or bars with friends, but I would have some seltzer water instead.

I realized it was hard for me to change a habit (or almost an obsession, like coffee and chocolate), but it was REALLY hard only for the first 3-5 times I say “no” to that habit/obsession. The more I say no every time the option presents itself (like friends asking me to go to coffee, or walking by the chocolate aisle in a shop), the easier it is next time to control my cravings & dependencies on the habit/obsession.  

2. Reflect on the money spent and evaluate whether it was worth it

Having tracked every single expense, I was able to go back at the end of the year to see what I’ve spent my money on for the whole year. I found that I bought some stupid stuff this past year: reserved a van for Vegas (I really thought we could pull off living the Van-Life ) and ended up not using it, bought a work-out program and only used maybe once, bought more garden seeds than i can plant. Admitting making mistakes is part of the journey. It is also helpful for me to make better decisions in the future.

3. Budget for Incidentals (on top of emergency funds)

There are some expenses I did not budget for. In 2020, I had some health issues that ran up the medical bills. Even though I saved money for emergencies, I realized that these incidentals were not emergencies. There should always be a budgeted item for incidentals (whether it’s medical last year or home improvement this year). Since then, I have adjusted my budget to include about $3,000 – $5,000 incidentals a year. This has also been added to my retirement calculation so that I will have enough money in retirement if something breaks.

4. Able to make bigger decisions about finances (e.g., buying an investment property)

Earlier this year, I bought my very own first rental property because I had saved up enough portfolio to justify taking out a portion of it as down payment for a rental house. I wouldn’t have been able to confidently pull the trigger had I not track all my income & expenses to know I have the capacity. Here’s a short video on how to calculate rental property investments from my favorite real estate podcast. 

5. Having more meaningful money conversations with friends and family

Some of my friends are very supportive of my FIRE plans, but others think it’s a bit luxurious to be able to think retirement in general (let alone in 5 years). Regardless, sometimes we talk about prices of vaccums and rice cookers, sometimes we talk about buying/selling houses, and I can see from their point of view a lot better now. I can see both ways, one way of wanting to spend money and buying the best thing, and another way of saving money and finding alternative solutions to the problem. For example, you can buy a $150 rice cooker, or you could just use a pot to make rice. Same goes for coffee!

6. Having a constraint (budget) makes you more creative

Earlier this year, I had to furnish the tiny barn after spending a lot of money on the construction already. So I was trying to find creative ways to furnish it. I found these two chairs from our neighbor’s lawn for free while walking my dog, and I carried them both home (looking like a weirdo). They were two very old wooden chairs and one of them was a little unstable, but I Youtube’ed how to refurbish old chairs. I repaired, spray painted, and re-upholstered them with Riflepaper fabric. 

Another example – I had some leftover wall paint from renovating the barn. I really wanted to use them to paint the cabinets in my rental house, but I realized that the finish for these paint were eggshell (they are not shiny & smooth) and that might make the cabinets hard to clean. Instead of buying new paint, I found some polyurethane to apply to the top of the cabinets to give them a shinny & smooth protective coat. They came out great and I saved some $$$. Here’s a before & after photo for your enjoyment!

7. I enjoy the things I purchase more

Because I realized that every dollar I spent is earned with my own time, I am more careful with spending. I am spending less on things I love to buy but do not bring me as much joy: clothing, entertainment, drinks, candles, fancy arts & crafts tools, and decorations. The only  thing I bought relating to arts & crafts were some watercolor trays (with colors) and cold-pressed paper which brought me a lot of joy to learn how to do watercolor.

8. Getting closer to financial freedom

As I sent my friend hillsandhigher off to her retirement in Italy this July, I am truly envious! Although, fairly speaking my friend has been saving up for years for this moment and seeing her success makes me feel that it is possible to retire early.  I am making small but steady progresses here and there: renting out the barn, the house, and becoming a real estate agent. I’ve been watching my networth grow after recovering from the ecnomic down caused by COVID and steadily climbing. It encourages me to work harder towards my financial independence.

9. No-buy days

I now try to schedule no-spend days where I don’t buy anything. I find it an easy hobby to just log onto Amazon and buy something small, like a $10 charger, a $50 blender, or a nice little alarm clock! When Mr. Code Junkie took a business trip for a few days, I decided to not buy anything (including groceries) and see what I can make out of things I have at home. I discovered so much food in plain sight that I did not eat before! I am planning on implementing this in the next 12 months of FIRE journey.

10. Buy less, use less, waste less

Sounds more like a “Live, Love, Laugh” banner. 

Buy less: I strive to be a minimalist, mainly because clutter stresses me out. There are some side benefits for being a minimalist. When I started gathering things I don’t need around the house, I know I should not by stuff I don’t truly NEED because I will be donating them 3 months down the line. I try to save items I want to buy for at least a month and see if I actually need it before purchasing. However, this does not apply for things like: AC filters. You really should change your filters every 3 months!

The other day, we were having 4th of July cook out with greyhound parents, and for some reason we were talking about what temperature we leave our AC on. The AC for our house is always set around 78, if we turn it on at all. I grew up without AC so it is not as difficult to sit in the heat.  One of the greyhound parents K said they leave their AC on 72 during the day and 68 at night because they like to sleep in the cool. When I said I only turn it on occassionally and it stays at 78, our friends were all shocked. Although, after hearing this, K’s bf would not allow her to turn the AC lower than 77, to save their utility bills. Sorry K… Alas, sometimes it is wonderful to have AC, especially after you cut grass on a hot day!

What are some of your discoveries, tricks, and tips on tracking expenses and living frugally?

The Tyranny of More

Since I got my real estate agent license, I have been paying more attention to houses around me. This Sunday I went for a run and saw these two houses side by side. One on the left is probably 5 bedrooms with 6 bathrooms, a two-car garage, and a pool in the back, while the one on the right is probably a 2 bedroom 1 bath with no garage. (After researching, I actually found the one on the left was built after tearing down two houses and combine two regular lots into one.)

It seems that we all have agreed that more is better, without further consideration.

The real estate market has risen to a new record high in 2021. Many people changing their minds to buy new construction instead of existing houses. Who doesn’t like everything new, new paint, custom cabinets, a fresh coat of paint, and spotless countertops? People would go $100,000 or more in debt to buy a new construction than to fix up an older home that’s smaller.

Newly constructed houses are getting bigger and grander. A nuclear family of 4 suddenly needs 5 bedrooms (one for each person, a couple of guest bedrooms, and a library), preferably with a pool, two-car garages, and 6 bathrooms. This need for more space also became more exacerbated post-COVID-19 lockdown. People seem to want designated space in their homes for offices as well.

US-wide, homes built in the last 6 years are 74% larger than those built in the 1910s, an increase of a little over 1,000 square feet. The average new home in America, be it a condo or house, now spreads over 2,430 square feet. It is also important to note that households have been getting smaller over the same period parallel to the rise in living space. In 2015, the average number of people in a household is 2.58, compared to 4.54 in 1910. This means that today the average individual living in a newly built home in the US enjoy 211% more living space than their grandparents did, 957 square feet in total.

https://www.propertyshark.com/Real-Estate-Reports/2016/09/08/the-growth-of-urban-american-homes-in-the-last-100-years/

“More” is preventing us to have a close community.

Since the pandemic, a large portion of my friends started working from home. Many of them felt lonely. I volunteer at Crisis Textline and “isolation,” “relationship,” and “loneliness” have increased noticeably since 2020, no doubt largely influenced by the lockdown and restrictions. Despite human’s desire and biological needs to be together as a community, our desire for “more” is stopping us from having a true community.

Having a bigger house and more possessions makes us more isolated than ever. When was the last time you asked to borrow something from your neighbor? If you were missing something at home, is your first thought going to the store to purchase it or to borrow it from friends? Mine is the former. Having financial independence, not relying on people is taught to me as great traits of survival. Yet, we humans are designed to want to be needed, and be in a community, supporting each other. 

Since COVID, I have met friends who also have greyhounds and we now swap dog-sitting when one of us is out of town. Not only does it save so much money, but we started doing other things together like having game nights, and going to play pickleball together. I have never had friends who are in the “love to hang out” category (my friend types are usually either “we wear the same pants” or “I don’t want to hang out with you after work”). Not having a lot actually made me a better friend because I can ask for favors and return favors when my friends need me. Should I have had everything, and not needing anyone or any help, it would’ve been a much lonelier existence. 

In Mark Manson’s article “1,273 People Share Their Best Life Lessons from 2020,” he mentioned that the #1 lesson was “You Only Really Know Who You Are When Everything Is Taken From You.” Really, life is too short and we spend a lot of time worrying about getting “more” stuff: bigger houses, better cars, more clothes, more money, more friends, more success, more power. We never stopped to ask, do we actually need all those things? If those were taken away from us, what would we do? 

If you are considering buying a bigger house, perhaps reconsider; buy a smaller size house and use that extra money to do something else. 

What should we do with having “more” things?

  1. consider what is “enough” for you, in all aspects of life. Do I really need that new pair of running shoes, a new candle, a new iPad, a new GoPro, and a new fancy environmentally-friendly ziplock bag? Do I need to move to a more crowded city for a higher paying job but end up saving less? Do I need more money, status, power, and satisfaction?
  2. challenge yourself to have less, owning less, wanting less, and see what you can do. For example: what would happen if you didn’t have electricity for a night? What would happen if you lived out of one room of the house for a day? 
  3. redefine what is “enough.” Maybe it’s a smaller house, maybe it’s an apartment, maybe it’s a 4 bedroom instead of 5, maybe it’s to move back with your folks for a while and that’s totally ok! Actually, I miss having my mom do my laundry… a lot…, and my dad’s cooking.
  4. be surprised by the result! and understand what is truly essential to you. Free yourself from the so-called “must-haves.”

You will find that you can live with a lot less, consume a lot less, and be calm and content. And if you decided not to, at least it is a well-thought-out decision instead of a mind-numbing, knee-jerking reaction to the gigantic swinging capitalistic hammer.

How To Know When To Say Yes

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Hell yeah or no. This is the motto I am living for.

When I first heard this described to me, I was skeptical. I was taught to say yes to almost everything. This is how I built my career and found opportunities in life. It has proven to be successful. 

The most valuable currency we have is our time in this world. Everyone is overloaded, overworked, and overcommitted. That’s why this idea of saying no is so appealing and important. Use this system to narrow in on our focus in life excites us will save a lot more time.

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Howard Thurman

I first tried this philosophy on my tiny house project. I had some reservations about how hard it would be for me to finish this project on my own. I wasn’t sure if the city would even allow it. I thought maybe I could spend my time relaxing or traveling. Ultimately, I thought, is it a “hell yeah” to build a tiny house? HELL YEAH, it would be so cool! So I went for it.

Looking back, all of the projects I have taken on and kept on going are “hell-yeah” projects, the CPA exam, running a marathon, hiking, and backpacking trips.

Most of our “dilemmas” in life do not have an absolute right or wrong answers, so the best way to make a decision for you is to only work on projects that excite the hell out of you. Should I go with saving for retirement or pay off the mortgage? Should I stay in the current job or move to a big city? Should I get married? Have kids? They are all absolutely IMPORTANT questions, but there is no one answer. Focusing on your energy on multiple things at once, or worse, not making a decision, will actually cost you the most valuable resource you have, your time. This is why we should eliminate projects that aren’t a “hell-yeah” for us. Say no to them so we can give our full-self to the projects we love.

It is easy to explain this system of saying yes, but it’s actually hard to implement. Here are some of the decisions I’ve made saying no by using the “hell yeah or no” method. My thought process is not always straight forward but reflecting back, I could have saved more time and contemplation if I went with the system of decision fully.

  • I was very excited about learning beekeeping at the end of 2020. At first, I was told it will be just $10 to attend a beekeeping seminar for 4 weeks (1 day a week) before making my decision. This class was canceled, and the beekeeper asked me if I wanted to jump in by observing him, but I will have to buy $300+ worth of gear. I didn’t feel the hell-yeah anymore because I wasn’t sure what beekeeping would mean since I haven’t taken the class. After two days of contemplation, I said no. Reflection: I could have arrived at this answer faster, but I was afraid of rejecting someone else.
  • I signed up for a marathon in Seattle in 2020 that was postponed by the pandemic. However, I don’t feel the excitement of flying over to Seattle then drive 3 hours to the start line (in the mountains), and spending $800+ just to run a marathon. I said no after contemplating for a week. Reflection: Having signed up and paid for the marathon itself already has made my decision a lot harder. But it is a sunk cost at this point and should not be part of my decision-making. Hence, a simple “is this marathon still a hell-yeah?” would have given me the answer.

I am planning on implementing this rule more in my decision-making and see where it goes. 

What is something that you do to decide whether to take on a project or not?

Defeating the Monster of Convenience

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

We live in a society now that’s filled with convenience: kitchen gadgets that prepare coffee for you on a timer, uber eats delivers your food right to your door within minutes, and Amazon Now delivers within two hours after your order. Moreover, you can now have:

  • vets that come to your house to do annual exams for your dog,
  • a personal trainer that would drive work-out equipment to your house for you to work out,
  • the KitchenAid that does all of your kneadings, 
  • your smart-thermostat turns on and heats the house to the proper temperature before you get home.

Wikipedia defines convenience as a labor-saving device, service, or substance which makes a task easier or more efficient than a traditional method

Sometimes, I don’t even see the convenience anymore because it is so ingrained in our daily lives. 

I remember when I was growing up in China, we hanged our clothes to dry outside on the balcony on a bamboo rod (my parents still do this). When I was 9, we had our first landline phones installed and I called my grandma a LOT back then because it was so new and fun. The excitement of talking to my grandma through a plastic device seemed endless to a 9-year-old. Then the internet came around when I was in middle school, and I can still remember the very distinct dial tone when the modem connects through the phone lines. Our modem was so shitty that it leaked electricity on the bottom.  If you put your hand underneath it, it makes your palm tingle a little. 

Convenience is just like anything else, once you have it, you want more. Three years ago, I bought my very first house and paid contractors to renovate it. Then I excitedly put in an entire set of new appliances: fridge, stove, dishwasher, washer, and dryer all in matching colors. I love the freshly laundered and dried clothes with these new machines, and it finally doesn’t smell like that slight mildew from a rental apartment washer & dryer. It wasn’t soon that I became unsatisfied even with that. I wanted my clothes done in 5 minutes instead of an hour and a half.  I found myself start thinking similar thoughts with driving to work and making meals. I want to get to work faster. It annoyed me that it takes 5 minutes to get to work, so I’d rather work from home. I find that I am always rushing. Rushing for the laundry to be done, rushing to go to work, rushing to come home, rushing to cook quickly (or Uber Eats before I head home).  

Convenience seems to make our decisions for us, trumping what we like to imagine are our true preferences.

The Tyranny of Convenience, Tim Wu

Too much convenience takes away our ability to appreciate what we have and live in the present. I couldn’t tell you exactly what I was rushing for back then, or why I needed all those efficiencies. I didn’t have a very demanding job and my boss was beyond reasonable when it comes to clocking in and out. What I did find was that I had less and less patience for other things as well. I would get easily annoyed if someone cuts in front of me in traffic, upset about waiting in line at the grocery checkout. Even waiting for the shower to warm up seems to be too long and too inconvenient. The monster of convenience seems to be looming in the shadows around every corner.

The way to defeat the monster is to purposefully add inconvenience to your life.

One day, I thought instead of optimizing my life, maybe I’d do the opposite and see what happens. So I biked to work that week. It took a little preparation because it was in the winter. I scouted out the route the weekend before, laid all my biking clothes out, and packed my work clothes in a bag to change into. It was a liberating feeling because I had to pay very close attention to the road, the same road I drive on but now I bike. Everything passes by slower. I see the stores on the side of the streets I never noticed before. I realize there was a slight incline of the road (bike harder, legs!). I was red in the face and breathing heavily as I got into work but my head felt clearer and my mood is lifted. 

It is a lot more hassle to bike to work instead of driving, but I started to enjoy it after a month or two. The inconvenience of biking to work forced me to make it another event, one that I have to devote almost my full attention to be present. Surprisingly, adding this inconvenience makes me happier. Along the way, I picked up biking as a hobby.

Embracing inconvenience may sound odd, but we already do it without thinking of it as such. As if to mask the issue, we give other names to our inconvenient choices: We call them hobbies, avocations, callings, passions. These are the non-instrumental activities that help to define us. They reward us with character because they involve an encounter with meaningful resistance — with nature’s laws, with the limits of our own bodies — as in carving wood, melding raw ingredients, fixing a broken appliance, writing code, timing waves or facing the point when the runner’s legs and lungs begin to rebel against him.

The Tyranny of Convenience, Tim Wu

Nowadays, we often find ourselves overwhelmed by too many things we commit, going from one place to another. Yet, we don’t reflect enough on the present and live in the present.

Consciously embracing inconvenience, or better, create inconvenience is a way for us to slow down and catch ourselves from being haunted by the ghost of the past or strangled by the worries of tomorrow.

How We Travel Frugally on the Plane

Photo by Luke Porter on Unsplash

Many articles nowadays talk about frugal travel in terms of finding the cheapest plane ticket, booking luxury hotels with points, get a travel points credit card. Those all seem like common sense but what was the tipping point for us to travel frugally is actually a few things we bring on the plane.

  1. We pack tortilla wraps on the plane.

Yes, specifically tortilla wraps. We used to pack sandwiches on the plane, but usually the mayo, mustard, and the juice from the tomato make the bread soggy by the time we sit down on the plane and THIS GIRL does not like soggy bread. I recently found that if we switched to tortilla wraps, it holds much better and we can pack a much bigger portion in the wrap than a sandwich can hold in between its two flimsy soft bread slices!

I usually would get freshly sliced sandwich meat from Walmart in their deli section because 1) it is much better than the pre-packaged ones, and 2) you can get the proper amount and not waste half of the sliced turkey laying in the fridge at home.

Whenever we go on trips, we get sandwich meat a lot. It’s something easy and tasty. But have you ever gone to the deli? Personally, I don’t usually go up to the deli and ask for sliced sandwich meat, so I always get caught off-guard when the nice lady behind the counter asks me how thick I want the sandwich meat to be. I usually awkwardly say, “um… regular sandwich meat thickness?”

Well, yesterday when I was at Walmart, I saw this sign that blew my mind:

I never realized they actually have names for different thicknesses! Though, the names are not as creative, in my opinion. But now I know when I go up to the deli that I want it “shaved” (I love very very thinly sliced meat).

2. Shamelessly bring your favorite snack

I once saw this girl backpacking through the Appalachian Trail with a GIANT bag of chips strapped on top of her bag as if it’s her most precious possessions on a through-hike. I think after seeing this girl, I have come to terms with where I can bring a big bag of chips. Mr. Code Junkie loves chips, but he does not enjoy flying. So we decided we are going to bring a big ol’ bag of kettle cooked sea salt & vinegar chips (yes it’s VERY specific!) even if it counts as our “personal item.” 

I also bring dried mango and these cocoa covered almonds I found from Walmart. Now, the plane ride is more like my personal picnic time!

3. Bring an empty Nalgene bottle

Ok, it doesn’t specifically have to be Nelgene but I am properly obsessed with them. I first bought one for backpacking because they NEVER leak, you can’t break them even if you drop them on sharp stones, they have a life-time warranty (say what!), and they have a GREAT amount of surface area for me to put all the hiking stickers! I also use it as a hot water bottle in my sleeping bag on cold backpacking nights or cold nights at home. 

At Torres del Paine

This bottle started coming with me everywhere I travel, and it’s really useful. After going through security to pop to the nearest coffee shop and ask for some hot water (for some tea you brought through security) or some hot bean juice (coffee) for Mr. Code Junkie. It saves so much money not having to make a habit of going to Starbucks and being attempted to buy a pumpkin spice latte or that unicorn frappuccino (remember it was a thing?). 

What is the first domino that starts your frugal habits?

 

 

Winter Gardening in Arkansas (Garlic, Kale, and More)

Mr. Code Junkie and I went back to his parents’ for Thanksgiving for a week and a half and we ate our weight in juicy turkey and delicious stuffings. It still feels like the parents’ house is the best since they have a stocked fridge full of wonderful surprises while our fridge looks like a college student short on money.

I had hoped my garden would hold up while I was gone because for a while there, it really was doing wonderful. The bak choy is producing every single day, the tomatoes are growing mad, and so are the peppers that I started in October! I had thought about putting a hoop house on this bed while I was gone but I looked at the forecast and it says it will go down to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 Celsius), and I thought my plants can handle it.

Well, they did not.

According to my friend, the week we were gone, the temperature dipped down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-7 Celsius). Of all things, my calendula and lupine survived. The bak choy is struggling a little, but kale and cabbages seem to love the cold very much. 

I built a hoop house after watching this video by James Prigioni on Youtube and mine came out quite like his! Although I feel like his bed is probably a lot sturdier. According to Prigioni, the hoop house adds a zone and half which makes my zone (6A) 8 and a half! 

The garlic I planted in the fall (October-ish) all sprouted because we have had a fairly warm fall here in Northwest Arkansas. I forgot who recommended this seed company called Southern Exposure, but I got my garlic and some other seeds from this company and my sprouting rate has increased drastically compared to the seeds I buy from nurseries, or worse, Home Depot. I realized you can click on the little sun icon on the left column of the website and it shows all the seeds that are suitable for the South-East region (which isn’t exactly where I live but close enough). You can also filter by “Certified Organic,” “Heirloom,” and “From Small Farm.”

 

I recently got chatting with one of the guys who run a local orchard, and he introduced me to this rather rare fruit I have never heard before, pawpaws. This opened up a new door for me to explore all the fruit-growing hipsters of the world. After discussing with him, I decided to buy two Pawpaw trees and try it out. It takes 3 years for these trees to fruit, so I can practice my patience while I wait. I also read up on these from a book called For the Love of Pawpaws by Michael Judd. Apparently, my trees are descendants of the famous trees they cultivated from the University of Kentucky! They are supposed to taste like bananas + cantaloupe but each tree may produce a slightly different flavor of the fruit. And even crazier, there are pawpaw festivals

The reason I never heard about Pawpaws is that they have a very short shelf life (2-3 days) and cannot be transported like bananas, strawberries, and other fruits. The only way you can taste a pawpaw fruit is if you have a tree, or have a friend who has a tree! 

While there isn’t a lot going on in the garden in winter, I spent my time planning out next year’s garden layout! Learning from this year’s successes and failures (mostly failures and some dumb luck), I paired up different types of vegetables that are companions with each other, and only plant veggies I like to eat. I don’t know who I was kidding, planting beef-steak tomatoes and cucumbers thinking I would convert into a vegetarian overnight.

It is the time of year where we reflect, slow down, cook soups, spend time with loved ones, and gather our hopes for the new year (though we should always do all of these things!). I hope you are cherishing what you have and taking a break from the normal busy life to enjoy a bit of gardening in the winter.

How I Saved $70 in Two Hours

My best friend Ms. Bakes-A-Lot came from Ireland to visit us this weekend and it was wonderful to get to spend time with her for 5 full days! On Saturday, she asked me what kind of pie I wanted her to cook while she was in town. Without hesitation, I said “TIRAMISU!” Granted that is not a pie, but she indulged me and agreed to teach me how to make tiramisu. 

So we went on a road trip to Walmart to shop for ingredients. While we were in the store, Ms. Bakes-A-Lot asks me if I had a mixer. Being the minimalist-wanna-be, I have eliminated almost everything in the kitchen that I don’t use daily. I said, “I have a fork?” Then added, “that’s what I use to scramble eggs,” as a justification that I do not need a mixer in my life.

Ms. Bakes-A-Lot sighed and said, “well, if you want tiramisu, we have to get a mixer; even a handheld one will do.”

Here’s a sneak-peak of the tiramisu bite we made.

So we went to the aisle where they sell mixers, and my eyes went to the biggest mixer there is–the KitchenAid. I told Ms. Bakes-A-Lot I have been making bread and lots of Chinese pork buns lately and I’d love to buy a mixer that can also make a dough. I’ve done my research for many moons now and couldn’t decide whether I wanted a KitchenAid or a Bosch Universal Plus dough mixer. I’ve been lusting over both of them but never pulled the trigger.

Ms. Bakes-A-Lot looked at the KitchenAid prices and she realized that it was on “rollback” (Walmart’s way of saying it’s on sale). She informed me that $199 is a great deal for a KitchenAid because they are usually close to $300! Sure enough, we googled KitchenAid and it is selling at $259.99 online.

Unfortunately, the Walmart we were in did not have a white KitchenAid and I had my heart set on it being white so it matches everything in my kitchen. So Ms. Bakes-A-Lot suggested that we go to a different Walmart 10 minutes away and try our luck. (We live in Walmart-ville here in Arkansas.) When we got to the next Walmart, it was a lot more crowded, and my hopes to find this white Kitchenaid on sale started to diminish. We walked to the kitchen gadget section, and to my surprise, there is a white KitchenAid! But it was marked at $259 while other KitchenAids were $199. After reading the tag, it seemed like the white color was still full price while other colors are on sale. We took a picture of the on-sale tag with the other colors and took the white KitchenAid to the checkout.

Ms. Bakes-A-Lot wisely profiled the checkout cashiers, and we picked the kindest looking person to stand in line for and it paid off! When the cashier rang up the KitchenAid, of course, it said $259 + tax on the screen. I asked the cashier if the price is right because I saw the tag said it was $199. She said, did you take a picture of the tag? So I showed her my picture (while patting myself on the back) and she did her little keystrokes and got a manager to approve the markdown. Off we go with my white KitchenAid! 

So the moral to the story is:

  1. You should never settle for just “good enough,” even in KitchenAid!
  2. Look for a cashier that’s easy to talk to and be nice to them.
  3. Take a picture of the price before going up to the register.

I am now also a proud owner of a lovely white KitchenAid and Mr. CodeJunkie is so excited for the doughs and pork buns I’ll be making!

Cemeteries Tell Us More About the Living Than the Dead

Here is a list of questions I thought about while I walked through a local cemetery today. I hope it brings serenity and a new perspective on your life.

  • All the babies who died not long after birth, how long did it take for their parents to endure such loss?
  • The fathers and sons that died two days apart from each other, laying side by side. What happened? Did they get into an accident together? Were they close before they died?
  • All the named and unnamed ones who died in WWII, what would their lives be flourishing out to be had they stayed alive?
  • The woman who died 2 years after her marriage, at age 50, finally finding true love, was she happy?
  • The ones who lay in the huge tombs with expensive granite headstones, were they happy? Were they loved by their sons and daughters who erected such monuments for them or is it more pride and fame?
  • The ones who lay in the small graves with bunched flowers and toys, clearly frequently visited, were they this loved in their lives too? Were there fights, regrets, or guilt in their lives?
  • The ones who lay in the graves where you can barely make out the names. Have their sons & daughters & grandchildren died out? Have the family moved away? Did they have children? 
  • How many of these people in the graveyard died before their time? how many people died with pain? how many people died living a full life and leaving a legacy behind? How many died peacefully?
  • How many people have a graveyard spot reserved for them in anticipation? 

As of today, July 5, 2020, there were 533k deaths worldwide from Coronavirus. There were 132k deaths in the U.S. 

How many more graveyards are we digging to bury the dead? Will they have others to mourn for them? 

“They were what we are,

Dust, toy of the wind;

Fragile like men,

Weak like nothing.”

–Alphonse de Lamartine, Catacombs of Paris

life may seem meaningless, fragile, and minute in comparison to the inevitable death, the universe, and eternity, but, I didn’t write this article to make you depressed, sad, and hallow in your chest. 

When I visit graveyards and cemeteries, I reflect on whether I am living knowing that I will die. Cemeteries are the physical structures that confront our denial of mortality. It should give you a powerful punch across the face because we are small and fragile, and we aren’t here forever. It makes me feel the urgency of life knowing I have limited time. 

It’s time to live the boldest, unapologetic, and badass life you can ever imagine! Give your life meaning. Say more yes to the crazy invitations of the world. Oh and also, wear a mask.

*See this brief explanation about optimistic nihilism here

May Garden Update, Food Forest, and more

It’s hard to believe it’s only been a month since I started randomly planting things. Here’s what I planted in mid April.

The chamomile didn’t make it. I am not sure how to take care of them after they sprouted. They all seem to die just a few days after sprouting. So that’s something to learn next time. If you have any suggestions, please comment below or send me a note!

The sprouting potato from Walmart is doing amazing in the garden. This is a potato that we had in the pantry for weeks and forgotten to eat it. So it sprouted in the pantry. I dug a hole in the front of the garden bed thinking it would probably be dug up by squirrels and eaten (like the sweet potatoes I tried to plant last year). Surprisingly, the potato is growing REALLY WELL. 

I planted these leeks into the ground after harvesting just the leaves a couple of times, realizing that’s not how you harvest leeks. I am waiting for them to flower and go to seed, and replant them again in the summer.

The tomatoes I got are from Sam’s Club. They were grown plants (about 2 inches with flowers) and I planted them in around end of April. There are three kinds I tried: Husky cherry red hybrid tomatoes, Cherokee purple heirloom tomatoes, and Heatmaster hybrid tomatoes.

Hybrid tomatoes’ seeds will not germinate next year so they are just going to end after this year’s harvest. I am hoping the Cherokee tomatoes grow well, and I can collect some seeds from this plant for next year. I learned about determinate/indeterminate tomatoes just this morning, and how to prune them. Here’s one of my favorite gardening guy talking about setting fruit with tomato plants to make sure you get the tomatoes!

The sunflowers are growing really well so far. I germinated them around the same time with the zucchinis and they’ve grown a lot more than the zucchini. They are also seeds from my friend who grew them locally. So I hope they will do better in this soil than others. They tend to have long stems shooting up when they are young, so transplanting is slighting hard. I killed all of them last year because I accidentally snapped these stems (they are so tender!). This year, I waited a lot longer for the stem to firm before moving them anywhere which seem to have helped.