Normalism, or How We Broke The Cycle of Excessive Living to Pay Off Our Debt–Part 1

It has dawned on me lately how very excessive our culture is. It is ingrained in us and almost beyond the point of help, sometimes. I recently binged watched House Hunters and House Hunters International on Netflix and I became increasingly annoyed with the “must haves” of some people (granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, five bedrooms, a study, a separate play room, a large yard with a fence, etc.), particularly people moving overseas and expecting American-style housing. Not that I am not guilty of having demands of my own (A/C is non-negotiable unless I am living in Scandinavia or something), but I can easily see how we, as Americans, annoy others with our grandiose sense of living.

Up until a few years ago, I was very guilty of blowing my money on pretty items–clothes, housewares, etc.–and also of racking up debt. Luckily, I met a person that was raised dirt-floor poor and opened my eyes to how silly I was being. Chalk it up to being young and dumb, with no real concept of the future other than what I needed/wanted the very next moment rather than 10 years from now. Despite being 32, I have only learned how to “adult” since I was about 28.

There has been this great movement of people shedding stuff and becoming Minimalists and giving up large houses for teeny tiny adorable portable homes.  I have read the famous blog of the same name and have read many other accounts of people following suit.  They are pretty inspiring and make me kind of wistful.

I am not a Minimalist, however; I am a Normalist and a Realist.  I need some stuff.  Maybe not NEED, like I need air, but I do need some stuff.  I need it because it does actually make me happy.  I LIKE to see my walls adorned with photos of places we have been, family members and my lovely paintings that I have collected.  I LIKE to read Better Homes and Gardens and recreate my outdated spaces into beautiful rooms.  I LIKE to have to go a whole week without washing clothes…sure the mountain is huge at the end of the week, but there are usually clean socks to wear even if I wait until Saturday to do the wash.  Anyway, if my little home things make me happy, then there is no sense of getting rid of them.  Happiness is pretty essential.

However, my family has made a very conscious effort to live more simply, so as to be Normalists, not Excessivists, with the grand goal of paying off all of our debt and retiring early so that we can ENJOY life.  How do we do this and is it hard? Quite easily and not at all hard. Well…it does take some sacrifice, but once you are used to it, it really isn’t hard at all.  You will still have things, and hopefully a lot less clutter in your house and in your life.  After you have decided on which things are important to you, look for ways to enhance those things and just cut out the rest.  Figure out the items you own that you actually use for your things that are important to you, and which things hide in a cupboard 364 days a year.

Really, you just have to decide what is really important and what isn’t and what you can do for yourself and what you cannot. Some things don’t require a lot of skill or talent and you are able to find a YouTube tutorial to learn to tackle them yourself: basic auto repairs and maintenance or non-structural home remodels. You can even make it a family affair. Seriously.  Our family is very busy–both adults work, and kid has school and Tae Kwon Do.  There are probably lots of ways we could cut back on things that would give us more time, but our biggest problem is actually debt.  Our primary goal is to reduce and eventually eliminate our debt as fast as possible, so that we can re-focus our energy into having lots of fun while we are still young.  We make an extra special effort to use our free time productively together: we all help cook, clean, and do yard work, so that we all get time to do fun things together, like play games or sports.  My able-bodied neighbor with a large family of helpers just spent $3,000 on having her house painted…my husband, son, and I painted ours ourselves for about $700, and both projects started and ended at the same time.  Granted, neighbor and kids were probably chilling in their house playing video games or some such and having a grand ‘ol time,  but our little family was jamming to the radio and took breaks to cool off in the sprinklers. Our time together did not suffer for work and we added value to our home while saving money.  Savings: heaps and loads, plus you get quality time together, which is priceless.

The easiest thing to cut is cable.  Back in 2009, when I still had cable, the package for internet and cable was over $100…I think it was $130, to be exact, and that was for a lower-level package, no premium channels or anything.  I was never home long enough to watch $130 worth of TV, in my opinion.   When I was home, I really liked to garden or ride my bike.  We cut cable when my husband moved in and we have used Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and YouTube ever since.  Commercials are fewer, I don’t have to worry about setting the DVR, and I can binge watch when I do have time to kill or cannot sleep.  Better than all that, with all three streaming services and YouTube (which is free, obviously), we spend a grand total of about $25 a month.  My husband and I will often go what a game or a boxing match either at a friend’s or at a sports bar if there is one he is dying to see and it isn’t streaming online anywhere. Savings: $105 a month/ $1260 per year.

Our family also doesn’t try to have the newest, and best things.  I bought my son a Wii way back in 2008 or 2009, which he still plays with and we use to stream shows and movies.  He also loves my old Nintendo 64 from back in the day.  My husband bought a PS3 before I met him, which he also still plays with occasionally, but it functions mostly as a streaming device for music and shows/movies.  My husband is still rockin’ a slider phone from 2006 and I just bought a used iPhone 4 off of eBay.  Phones are just phones to us—we both work in a call center, so talking on one is the furthest thing from our minds and when we are together. Our cell phone plan is probably our favorite money-saving secret (note: this is not a sponsored post, I am just sharing our experience).  We use Ting and we pay only for what we use.  It isn’t pre-paid and there is no set amount that you can use or anything, the service is good, the customer service is great, and you can migrate your old Sprint or Verizon phone (including your fancy iPhone 6) and your old number from any carrier you are with.  You just pay for whatever minutes you use, whatever texts you send, and however many data bite thingies you use, and it tiers them all separately, so if you use more of one and not the other, you aren’t wasting money on the unused service.  Both of our phones together, with internet, costs us about $60 a month. That is $30 less than my old phone bill for just me through At&t. Savings: hundreds yearly on devices, $120 per month/$1,440 on cell phone plan per year.

Clothes were the biggest thing for me to learn to let go of.  I just love pretty things and it has always been one of my goals to dress like a French woman, but my priorities now are to pay debts, so life is easier in the long run.  Debts can haunt you a lot longer than not buying that cute sundress on sale.  I have learned to shop friends’ and sisters’ closets for their cast-offs and the Goodwill store for great deals.  And, I tell ya, if you hit one up near a richer part of town (I like the one in Brandon, FL which is near the Westshore Mall), you get some really nice stuff  and sometimes the tag is still attached! I do go shopping in regular stores a few times a year, or for a special occasion, but mostly, I have learned to re-use and re-purpose what I have by choosing classic pieces and accessories. Savings: Heaven only knows–a whole lot, probably at least $2,000 per year.

Next, we cook… a lot.  We pack lunch daily to work and cook almost every night.  We will go out to eat usually twice a month as a date night, but never anything fancy unless it is a very special occasion.  Our favorite restaurant is a taco truck—no  sense in paying hefty prices for tacos that taste only half as good as taco truck tacos.  Grocery shopping is limited to twice a month, and ain’t nobody got time for coupons in my house, so we are a bit creative.  We cook with what we have on hand for two weeks before the next shopping spree, with the exception being we do stop to get milk and bananas weekly.  We do our shopping at the roadside fruit and veggie stand and we go to a meat market for meat.  We make a lot of stews and soups because 1: they last longer, usually at least 3-4 meals. 2: they make a lot out of a little 3: they are generally healthier than heavier meals.  We always make a meal plan and buy only the ingredients we need for our meals. This keeps us from over-spending and from over-eating because we do not keep extra snacks in the house. Savings: probably about $400 per month/ $4,800 per year.

Finally, we conserve energy.  We live in Central Florida, where it is HOT and HUMID. Insufferably hot and humid, really, from about May through September, finally reaching an agreeable temperature around mid-October.  I have heard tale of people that lived before a/c  in tin roof houses (my mother),  but they are legends of old.  I think the long life-expectancy in this country directly correlates with the mass availability of central heat and air conditioning systems.  But just because you have it, doesn’t mean you have to use it ALL of the time…like Mid-October through the end of April, for instance. If we do get a random cold day in winter, we usually just pile on some blankets or wear socks, because our cold really doesn’t touch the cold that our Yankee friends get.  On normal days, we open the windows in our house and let the breeze in and we also cook outside every chance we get because it keeps the house cooler and the food tastes better.  For the dog days of summer, we have learned to acclimate ourselves to a higher temperature.  When we are not home, the air is OFF and so are ceiling fans, but when we are home, we turn on the ceiling fans and leave the air at about 75. We started bumping up the air by one degree every week until we got used to that temperature. If guests come over, we will adjust for them, but otherwise, we have learned to live with it.  We also hang our clothes up to dry most laundry days—unless it is raining, which is rare; then we go to the Laundromat about 2 miles away because it costs 25 cents and dries the clothes in about 20 minutes—long enough to eat tacos at our favorite taco truck across the street! We have cut our monthly electric bill from about $230 a month to about $75 a month in this way. Savings: $155 per month/ $1,860 per year.

Just by cutting back on some things and using the hands and brains God gave us, we save at least $11,360 per year, not including the savings on our DIY projects and electronic devices. All of this seems pretty common sense, but you would be surprised how the false sense of financial security will allow you to slip into bad habits that create a hellhole of debt. I will bring out the big guns next time, so you can see our aggressive debt PAYING tactics and see if they may help you.

Finding Our Heritage

Oh my goodness…Imma ’bout to be very brave or stupid, depends on how you look at it. Please don’t throw rocks at me. I am actually non-confrontational, but this has weighed upon me heavily lately. Okay…here goes…

I am an American Mutt.  I love my country and I love our freedoms, but I am not blinded by nationalism–I could just as easily be happy to be British or Japanese. I am proud of what we have accomplished as a nation, though I am pretty disenchanted with some of the ways and means we did accomplish these things (we have done many a dark deed and swept it under the rug). I think our country is finally starting to get to a place where lots of people can only really identify themselves as American rather than of a certain heritage, and that is something.

I mean, so yeah, your great-great-somebody may have come here from Ireland, but do you REALLY know anything about Ireland? Can you pronounce Gaelic words without sounding like a fool?  Can you cook anything Irish other than cabbage and potatoes? Probably not.  This is both good and sad.

It is good because America is finally perhaps making our own true heritage.  We are such a young country with a young culture and our ancestors were all a bunch of transplants, that for a long time we identified ourselves as being of such-and-such heritage.  We have had enough generations now that lots and lots of people cannot say they are 100% of one thing or another, myself included.  I am German, Polish, Irish, English, and Dutch (and probably half a dozen other things).  I have been to none of those countries (though we are going to Poland in 2016!) and I do not have a cool accent or a brogue and can speak exactly 7 words in German.  The only cuisine from any of these places I know is if I Google a recipe and try my luck or I find a tourist trap on International Drive in Orlando.

Being American and from the South, I can make my words have a lilt or twang and I can make cornbread,  collard greens, red velvet cake, and chicken and dumplins so good they’ll make you wanna smack your mama (but don’t do that because it is a mortal sin to dishonor your mama).  I have the grit and the determination so characteristic of Americans.  And if I travel to England, then I AM the one with a cool accent (well, depends on who you ask, I guess, but at least I am the different one).  I have ancestors here that I can trace to really important events, like the Civil War and WWI and WWII and the Great Depression.   We have traditions of hot dogs and fireworks in the summer, Sweet Sixteens, and stuffing ourselves on Thanksgiving.

But there are some things that get lost in the wash and this is the sad part.  Because we are molding our own new heritage, and because some of us have had roots here a lot longer than others, we become less understanding and tolerant of other people who have newer roots here.  We have, many of us, certainly forgotten the characteristics that were gifted from our mother lands…like languages and food and other traditions.  As a consequence, some of us viciously attack people who are a little less removed from their mother culture.  I have seen it firsthand with my husband’s family, who is 100% Mexican.  Our kids will be the first generation born here, in fact, on his side of the family.  I wish I could tell you why I get such pushback from people, including members of my extended family and people I really love, regarding the desire to learn how to cook my husband’s food and visit the land he was born in and teach our children Spanish.  I don’t feel that it makes me less American for wanting to teach my children their heritage.  I do not feel like it makes me less American for loving to learn about my husband’s heritage.

I don’t see how or why some people think that it somehow cheapens the value of our freedoms or disgraces our country in any way to like to learn and experience other cultures.  It has always floored me.  In fact, I think it is kind of a shame that I don’t know how to make a proper pierogie like my great-grandmother or participate in Cherokee powwows or celebrate with certain traditions.  Sadly, I have actually lost relationships, including close family members, due to my affinity of my husband’s culture.  Truly, it isn’t that I value it above my own, but I am happy to have another “adopted” culture.  I LIKE to cook true Mexican food.  I LIKE to go to Quinceñeras and other Mexican parties.  I LIKE visiting Mexico, just as I am sure I would LIKE visiting England or France or India or Japan.  Being American to me is so much more than living here, speaking American English,  and having a Constitution and Bill of Rights.  Even if I were to move to another country and take on dual citizenship, I would still identify myself as American, because I am.

Being an American means that I believe all men and women were created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness….no matter who they are or where they are from or what their heritage is.  Being a Christian emphasizes this even MORE to me.  It is my duty and obligation and my JOY as a Christian to spread love and goodwill and to take care of those less fortunate than myself.

Obviously, I don’t mean a free for all to allow criminals and terrorists to come willy-nilly into the country, but I DO mean treating all with respect and dignity owed to the human race.  I strongly disagree with separating families or treating anyone as a 2nd class person because they were not born here, however they got here.  You never, ever know what desperation or circumstances drives people to do what they do.

My husband immigrated here when he was a child with his family.  His older brother was blinded in a car accident at the age of 16 and his parents exhausted the medical options available to them in Mexico in an effort to restore their son’s sight.  They thought there might be a chance that he could have an operation in the States and they knew there was a good school here that is world-renowned, so they made a very dangerous voyage to give their son the very best chance.   My father in-law worked very hard in the fields and groves and then paid—in cash—for 7 acres of Florida piney woods, thick with palmettos.  He and his sons cleared all seven acres themselves and built a little farm.  The kids all went to public school and learned English and excelled in their classes.  My husband went on to join the US Navy, stationed in San Diego and deployed twice to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  He loves his adopted country and actually appreciates his freedoms better than most born-and-bred Americans.

Try digging up 7 acres of this…no thanks.

Navy pic (2)

That fresh-faced sailor on the far right is my hunny! Doesn’t the hat make you LOL????

Maybe it is where we live or some of the people we know, I am not sure, but whenever Elmer talks about his love of Mexico or traditions he knows in polite conversation, he actually gets glares and harsh words.   Once someone overheard him talking with another man in Spanish and they were told to “Speak English, this is ‘Merica!” Of course, my husband responded in perfect English, without a trace of an accent, for the person to mind his own business.   He often gets asked by people, and embarrassingly enough, members of my own family, why immigrants don’t go through proper channels and why they “take our jobs and resources”.   Nothing gets his Irish—er, Mexican—dander up faster.

For those of you that think you get just “go through proper channels”, please don’t be mistaken.  Depending on who you are and where you are from, “proper channels” may not exist or may take years. What your great great grandfather did to get here from Poland isn’t the same as what is happening today.  I thought and felt the same as many, but I have learned to understand and empathize.  Mexicans themselves want PROPER border control.  They also want the Mexican government to fix itself so they could stay in a land they love.  Mexicans themselves would like a less bureaucratic method of obtaining proper visas and residencies and would much prefer to keep their life savings rather than forking it over to crooked coyotes to lead them across a barren desert in the middle of the night.  There are a lot of problems that need fixing on both sides of the fence, that is for sure, and I don’t think anyone on either side denies it.  It really comes down to what my husband refers to as the “lottery of birth”.  You were either born fortunate, in a safe country with a warm bed and promise of food for every meal, or you were not.  If you were not, then you do whatever you can to meet the basic human needs, which could include crossing a river in the dead of night with a sock stuffed in your baby’s mouth to keep it from crying and working as a field hand for a few dollars a day to buy food.

migrant_workers_ji.top.jpg

photo from cnn.com

As Americans, we are quite rightfully protective of our country, but we are also quite quick to shift blame and point fingers…which is human nature.  People, in general, are usually afraid of something that we don’t know much about and we also tend to work ourselves into some sort of mass hysteria based on assumptions.  We are also quick to take for granted our lives of privilege and assume newcomers can immediately build what took our own families a long time to build.   I can only give insight on my own personal experiences, and I cannot speak for everyone at all times, but can tell you that I was sadly mistaken about the Mexicans I know living in our country.

My mother in law cannot speak more than 5 words in English. I have heard her say “hi!”, “bye”, “tank you” and “purdy”.  She is an older woman, doesn’t drive, and is uneducated.  She has lived her entire life as a field hand, a housewife, and a mother of 7 children.  She will turn your whole understanding of what Mexican food actually is on its head (hint: there is no cheddar, sour cream, or lettuce).  She is the first up in the morning and usually the last in bed, and she can run circles around everyone.  There is not a lazy bone in her body.  And, buddy, she LOVES America.  She has little flags everywhere and is so proud of her voter’s ID.  She votes in all elections, vigorously researching candidates.  She practices her American rights more than I do.  But she can no more shed what has been her culture for her entire 67 years of life, and her family’s culture for an untold number of generations, than you can.

La Doña y su hijo. A sweetheart and a Queen of Cooks.

La Doña y su hijo. A sweetheart and a Queen of Cooks.

I could go on and on, quite honestly, and list many immigrants that work so very hard and just want to feed their families and live peaceful lives and I know many Americans that lie, cheat and take advantage of the system, but I won’t go into all that, especially as it does go both ways.  What I do know is that our problems do not get fixed with suspicion, derision, pointing fingers, guns and high walls.  I also know we are “one nation, UNDER God” and your morals and values of human decency should far outweigh your sense of patriotism. If we truly take our motto “In God We Trust” to heart and live our values, then we can actually heal what is broken and have a true American Culture that sets us apart, a culture that IS like a salad bowl with all kinds of yummy goodies that taste good on their own, but make a magical medley when tossed together.

I leave with you the always hilarious Stephen Colbert…

Here are some really eye-opening documentaries/movies:

  • Frontera–movie on Netflix
  • This (Illegal) American Life–documentary found on youtube
  • Morgan Spurlock’s Inside Man: Immigration: TV episode on Amazon prime
  • Which Way Home–HBO documentary, on Netflix
  • Homeland: Immigration in America–PBS documentary, http://explorehomeland.org/
  • Cesar’s Last Fast–documentary on Netflix

Read:

  • Esperanza Rising
  • The House on Mango Street