Let’s talk money!

linhas de mocambiqueI am known for being a jet setter for reasons that are only partially attributable to me. Frankly, all of my recent voyages (for the last 5 years) can be 90% attributable to my profession. When at 19, I signed up for a career I didn’t really understand, I certainly didn’t realize the impact my career choice would have on many aspects of my life. My last thought was how it would affect my finances. I mean, I was excited about stable income, since I was a hustling nanny trying to live in New York City. So, now, it’s almost a decade later, and reality is settling in. What the Facebook pictures don’t say is that I am a glorified postal worker. I get to scan the world while doing, largely, menial tasks. But, when I walk out of my office to find myself looking at the sunset on the Indian Ocean, I’m reminded that this is what my 19 year-old self signed up for. The travel adventure!

But this isn’t about silver linings. And I can’t eat adventure. Let’s talk money.

People really don’t realize how financially stressful it is to live a constantly oscillating life abroad. Let me explain: When you have no idea where you’re going to live 2 years from now, it certainly makes keeping a budget difficult. I can’t talk to financial planners, because they want me to budget my groceries and stick to that level forever. They treat travel as a luxury, instead of a source of income. They want me to keep a log of my spending habits, but I struggle to keep track of the currencies and exchange rates. How much is South African Rand in dollars today? And the Indian rupee last year this time? They don’t understand what it means to have to travel to another country to get cheaper groceries – do I add in the cost of 2 tanks of gas and tolls to my grocery bills? My situation is abnormal, but not unusual. Just ask my military friends – they get it! Anyway, my world is one of feast and famine.

I am recognizing the patterns of my travel transitions. I arrive in a new country. I spend 6 months going places, buying things, traveling with new friends, and paying for it all on my credit card. Mind you, I have no clue what this funny money is really worth and I’m working like a dog during the week. I tell myself I have to enjoy this. I, You, WE only live once! Who knows when I’ll be back here again? And, did I mention, I’m working like a dog during the week? Let’s call this a 6-month feast of fantasy. At some point, I wake up and realize that I’m over my head in credit card debt and that something has to give. Usually, I find some finance clean up book (think Suze Orman, The Budgetnista, Personal Finance for Dummies, I could go on…), steal some tips, get a plan together, work all 7 cylinders for about 1 year to get my act and my credit together. Great, so now there’s 6 months left in this country of my career’s choosing and I want to take full advantage. So, I hit the bucketlist – hard! I depart for the continental United States with what seems like a reasonable amount of debt for a woman of my age and station in life.

But now I’m back in America, where my job forces me to NOT work for a month. LOVELY! Finally, one Congressional mandate I believe in. I’m not used to living on my mom’s couch for 30 days straight, so I travel for about half of it. (Add up the cost of these plane tickets and “I’m back in Amurikah” spending sprees). I end up back in Washington for light work before I leave for the next destination. In Washington, I’m paying for expenses I’ve forgotten exist. Yoga classes? Gym membership? Cellphone bill? I’m not even sure how to use these services, but its nice to have the option again, so why not? Can you hear the happiness of my credit card companies growing? Oh! I forgot to mention that I took a pay cut for coming back to the U.S. of A., even for this brief respite. So, I’m spending like a princess, but my salary is that of an entry-level trainee at McDonald’s. This goes on for about 6 months or so. I tell myself that when I go to my next country, I’ll be able to catch up.

I get to the next new & exciting place. Trailing behind me are all the debts I’ve wracked up from leaving the last amazing city and floating my broke, overspending ass in DC for 6 months, and I still want to spend the next 6 months going places, buying things, traveling with new friends, and paying for it all on my credit card. You see this vicious cycle growing out of control? Well, I sure as hell do! And I’ve decided to stop this shit. Really!

How exactly? Basically, by going into my 7-cylinder year clean up sooner in the cycle. Why wait a whole 6 months before I realize that CapitalOne is milking me like a cow? And, by realizing that spending money is something I do, but I have to do more purposefully and carefully.

One thing that always worked for me when I was in college is the reminder that money is just a form of currency. It’s meant to move. It doesn’t grow unless it’s given and received. Life isn’t about hoarding – cash, experiences, or possessions. So, every time I needed my income to grow, I did something counterintuitive. I took it upon myself to give. I gave to charity, to the guy on the street I normally walked right past, to the kids raising money for their basketball team. Sometimes it was just a dollar. Other times more. But, it reminded me that not having money was never my problem. Having it and spending purposefully, instead, has been a life long struggle.

On this, my latest trip across the Atlantic Ocean, I decided not to wait for a whole 6 months or even a New Year to resolve to make a change. It’s time for me to go back to giving, rather than spending. And when it’s not purposeful or meaningful, it’s time for me to go on a fiscal fast. Oddly enough, most people don’t know what my fasts look like. And that’s part of why I’m sharing this lesser known part of my journey.

I don’t take travel out of my budget, because for me it’s not a luxury, it’s a fact of life. But, that’s my reality. In times like these, I’ve turned off my cable all together. I only put $20 of gas in my car and made myself make it work each week – to/from work only. I bought only fresh vegetables from the local market, rather than going to the overpriced supermarket with lots of variety, but imported packaged prices. And as I say it now, I know some people are saying, “what kind of fast is that?” The point here is that my fast is my fast. I have to do what works for me, not the cookie cutter budget from a book for people who lead a more predictable life than mine. Being a nomad is how I make my daily bread, but it’s up to me to decide how I slice it and if I can afford to butter it.

“So what’s the point of this long rant?” you may ask. Well, it’s 2 fold:

1 – I’ve found myself in many conversations lately where money was a topic. Particularly in Mozambique, people count your money for you. They ask what brand you’re wearing. They would rather travel to South Africa for an afternoon to shop for food than to spend the night on the same trip and see a nature park. It’s all about letting people see what you have, not about enjoying 1) what you have, 2) who you are, or 3) what your money can afford you. In this space (and even my hometown in New Joizey) being humble doesn’t translate. And no matter how honest I am, people always I assume I have money – lots of it. Let’s be honest. Since I’ve become a career woman, I’ve become part of the working middle class, who – once you actually count their incoming/outgoing cash flow – is actually cash poor. BUT my profession provides the basics in fabulous fashion. Read: Don’t be fooled. If you walk into my house, none of this shit is mine!

A lot of people’s self worth is tied to how much money they have and how much money others think they have. We are all victims and perpetrators. But, this is my latest attempt to shake myself free. This is my attempt to remove the veil that social media and distant allure perpetuate. Remember? My McDonald’s sized paychecks are provided by the employer that let’s me be a glorified postal worker in cities you’ve never heard of. It’s as simple as that.

Financial freedom is an individual road that we can all travel. Mine has taken me to two countries on the edge of the Indian Ocean, but yours may take you just down the street. Both are valid. Either way, walk your own path and be honest in that truth. Cash rich, debt free, and all the ebbs and flows between.

2—I haven’t been giving like I should. I haven’t been giving, in any real sense of the word. I’ve been spending. And it’s time to make a change. I thought about doing this in 2014, but somehow my own wants got in the way. But 2015 is a different time and yet another opportunity to be better than I’ve ever been. Each month I will give $25 to a different charity in honor of or in support of people/causes that have touched me. Let’s be clear, I’m declaring this publicly not show off (or even inspire, frankly), but to hold myself accountable to a group of peers and family members whose opinion of me I value. Sometimes declarations said in silence are all too easily forgotten. A la 2014. So listed below are the 12 charities that will receive a donation from me next year.

1- Whitman-Walker Clinic, DC

2- Community Foodbank of New Jersey

3-Livro Aberto, Children’s Literacy in Mozambique

4-Newark Arts Council

5-The City School, Boston

6-The Susan G. Komen Foundation

7-Deepalaya Foundation

8-The Newark Museum

9-Harlem Children’s Zone

10-Children’s Aid Society

11-American Civil Liberties Union

12-Common Good City Farm

In 2015, I’ll be sure to send you a monthly update reminding you of the month’s chosen charity AND the connection I have with its cause.

Here’s to keeping me honest (Maybe that’s something else I can attribute to my profession) and showing the reality behind the passport stamps. May my journey be one you grow context from and one you see as a source of ideas. And may my every day as a public servant jet-setter continue to be as fun and exciting as the 19-year-old in me had hoped it would be.

Here’s to toasting up Martinelli’s instead of Moet… for at least another year.

48 Books and a Baby

Some time around August of last year, I really got into www.goodreads.com. I’d seen that a co-worker of mine had set a goal of 52 books to read in 2012. To set the stage, Nikki is smart and pretty and – at the time – also very, very pregnant. This got me to thinking, if Nikki can handle a full-time job, morning sickness and 52 books this year, I gotta be able to read like at least a friggin’ hundred books!

In reality, it was August. I had read 10 books by then. And my ego only gets the nerve to compete with people who don’t actually know that I’m competing with them. Nikki kicked my ass.

I scaled down my goal from 100 to 52 some time around October when I finished book number 25. By the year’s end I cruised in with a cool 48 books for effort. Silent competitors never prosper… Sigh…Nikki, on the other hand, had a beautiful baby girl, who she and her husband curled into a ball and dressed up like an Anne Geddes baby all through the holiday season. (Competition aside, I thoroughly enjoyed each and every rendition.) And she read all 52 of her books.

This quest to read a crap ton of books in an absurdly short amount of time says a lot about my commitment to really stupid, stupid benchmarks. It also shows that this is something I would never do for any physical competition, because… well… I’m so nerdy, I pretend to be above all that. The positive result, however, was that I ended up reading a bunch of books I never would have picked up but for the love of competition with a pretty pregnant Hawaiian lady who turned out to also be a darned fast reader.

Here are the top 5 books of my quest to 52. Read them at your leisure:

images-1Brave New World – (Classic Fiction) How did I miss this one in high school? Or college, for that matter? I went to a women’s college. We were taught to care about fiction novels, and Natives, and the objectification of women, and sexual liberty, and code words for Marx, and “family planning”! I mean I just don’t understand how this one slipped past me.  This frightening view of our present day vices manifested at their extremes kinda sounds about as realistic as melting polar ice caps. Psshhaww, we all know that’ll never happen!

Tiger_Mom_15Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – (Non-Fiction/Autobiography Memoir) My mother is about as close to being like Amy Chua, as Tupac is to being alive. But, I thoroughly remember my classmates who had ‘Chinese moms’ (Read the book to define the term. Don’t assume I’m being racist) and how strangely anti-social those kids seemed at the time. Like, they knew they could be perfectly normal kids, but their weirdo parents wouldn’t let them. Now, I look at their facebook pages and they look happy and well-integrated into society – so maybe their mothers were on to something. More than once I wanted to call my mother to tell her that she acts more like a Jewish dad than a Chinese mom. But, I knew she hadn’t read the book and would think that I was just being racist.

we-need-to-talk-about-kevin-book-coverWe Need to Talk about Kevin – (Contemporary Fiction) This is probably one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. While I was reading it, I was visibly depressed and often called my friends saying things like ‘I really need to finish this book. I’m pretty sure I’m showing signs of PTSD.’ It is a timely read with the most recent mentally disturbed American socially awkward boy with a gun episode known as Adam Lanza. This book seems to support the notion that these screwy kiddie killers have families that are tormented by their inability to contain these deranged seedlings. While they can see disaster coming nobody ever lends credence to the lady that says ‘my kid is really fucked up. No, really. I’m not kidding.’ Anybody who says that has got to be a bad parent, right? Or it is possible that she was handed a bad kid at birth?

What Young India WantsWhat Young India Wants – (Non-Fiction essays) You don’t need me to tell you that India’s got problems. Aside from the ones I constantly bring up over red wine, there are others that Chetan Bhagat points out in this book: a corrupt and elderly bureaucracy, high youth suicide rates, a broken education system, identity issues up the wazoo. So, just this once you don’t get to act like I’m being a jerk for saying these things, because this time I didn’t say it. Chetan did… finally!

BookEnds-by-Jane-GreenBookends – (Contemporary Fiction) I wasn’t trying to like this book, but it just kinda happened. There is a book store, love after 30, a lesbian liaison, awesome real estate and… did I mention there is book store?! Set in contemporary England, this book feels like what would happen if Ross, Rachel, Chandler and Monica moved to London and decided to open a public lending library. It’s not meant to be thought-provoking, but it’s a feel good story with a few moral nuggets of wisdom. Certainly, it’s a good read for a commute or a beach vacation… did I mention there is a book store?!

Other recommended reads:

In Our Time (Hemingway), 2 States (Bhagat), Women & Money (Orman)

Dud reads:

Bossypants (Fey) – This should be funny. It’s not.

Madras on Rainy Days (Ali) – This should be hard-hitting, but it drones on and comes across as trite. The premise is great, but the writing is poorly executed.

Three Continents (Jhabvala) – Yet another 300+ page rich-kid melodrama about how India does not hold the answers to the world’s problems (a duh!). #anotherPTSDinducingbook