Monday, July 30, 2012

My Blank Slate

Last week, T and I went to sign the lease on my new apartment and scout out the situation.  The verdict? Smaller than I anticipated, but this is doable. The living room has already been furnished by my roommate, so I'm in charge of the kitchen plus my own room.

The kitchen includes two small squares of counter-top space, a small stove/oven combo and a small refrigerator.  Plus a microwave and panini press that may belong to my roommate's subletter.   I've got plans for extra shelving, but I'm worried about the minimal counter space.  The lack of dishwasher doesn't bother me, except that a dish drainer will take up valuable counter space.  The refrigerator's size was pretty worrying, but my roommate says she rarely cooks and never uses the freezer, so it looks like it'll mostly be mine.

My room is small too, but only slightly smaller than the room I lived in last year, so I think I can make it work. 

I know this isn't a very content-heavy post, but I wanted to share my before pictures.  When I move in a few weeks from now, I'll post the afters.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Small Successes: Slow and Steady

My attempts to reduce my waste while living at home have been met with a variety of reactions, from understanding to misunderstanding, from helpfulness to laughter and scorn.  When I tried to institute cloth napkins back in May, that last pair of reactions was the most prominent.  T thought it was gross to reuse them but wasteful to wash them if they'd only been used once (to clarify, at that point we had 8 napkins total, for 4 people).  Mom thought having to wash them was a pain in the rear.  Dad, after a while, confessed to me that he actually liked using them.  And more and more recently, everybody has used the cloth napkins.  As I've acquired more, I think their continued presence has helped my family feel like they're commonplace and ok to get dirty.  And sometimes everybody used paper ones and I would just silently exchange mine for cloth. 

But this. I came home Tuesday with a set of napkin rings and a some more new(ish) napkins from the thrift shop, and I looked at the middle of the kitchen table.  I realized that something was missing.  Can you tell what it is?

The paper napkin holder is empty.  I don't know when it was emptied, I think it may have actually been last week.  But it definitely stayed empty for at least three days.  Not much, but it's a start.

(This happened with reusable grocery bags as well, near the end of my high school days.  I bothered my parents to buy a few, and then kept bringing them along as often as possible, and now we have a fleet of them.  By the time the bag tax rolled around a year or so ago, we didn't even have to change our routine.)

Related to this, I've finally gotten around to getting napkin rings for the family.  I found a set of 5 wooden rings for 25 cents at the thrift shop, and have now decorated them with sharpies to distinguish each person's ring.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Preparing to Budget

I've finally gotten my housing assignment for next year, so my rent is a known quantity and its time for me to start setting up my budget.  I've given myself budgets in the past, to variable success, but I'm determined to stick with it this time.

The primary challenge to my budgeting process is that I don't know what my tax situation is going to look like.  I have a stipend, but nothing will be withheld from it as far as I know.  In addition, my fellowship package technically includes my tuition and some university fees that are paid without me ever seeing the money. Do they count as income? Will I have to pay taxes on it?  Right now, I have no idea, so I'm just picking the tax bracket that I technically fall into if my stipend were my only income and removing a flat percentage before I start budgeting.  If I wind up with extra money at the end of the year, hooray! I'd rather be cautious this year until I figure everything out. 

Post-taxes, this is how my budget will break down, percentage-wise.

Giving: 10%

Saving: 20%
- For the first year or two, most of this will go towards an emergency fund. My current savings will roll into the base of the emergency fund, and then I'd like to double the amount that I have right now.
- I'm also going to start putting away a little bit of money into general savings (which will eventually become a retirement account) and a future-house fund.

Needs: 55%
- My rent is about 42% of my total budget every month, although utilities (water and electricity) are already included.  I do have to pay a $29 internet fee every month, though.  I'm living in university-owned housing, which means I can live close to school without paying the higher rent that the neighborhood can command.  I'm also purchasing renter's insurance through my parents' home insurance.
- I'm budgeting $200/month for food. I wish I had kept track of my food costs last summer (I lived in the same neighborhood during an REU) so I could know if this is reasonable. 
- I plan to set aside a little bit of money every month to cover what I'm calling "career costs" - books, computer programs, dry cleaning for conference clothes, stuff like that.

Wants: 15%
- This is the category I'm most worried about sticking to. On the one hand, this percentage feels small compared to my other categories and recommendations I've seen online.  On the other hand, the actual dollar amount is well above what I've spent on myself every month during undergrad.  On the other other hand, my parents helped me out sometimes and won't be doing that as much anymore.  So yeah. Nervous.
- I'm including any eating out that causes me to go over my $200 "Needs" food budget.

I'm sure I'm going to wind up with some serious Wants-Vs-Needs analysis going on, especially the first semester.  Right now, my plan is pretty strict and my needs are almost entirely limited to food and shelter.  But I don't want to compromise on giving or saving, either.  The former category has been important to me for a while now, and the latter needs to become important for the future. So I will make this work.  Somehow.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Summer Slumping

I promise posts like this will not become a regular occurence.

I've hit my mid-break slump.  It happens nearly every school break that's longer than about a week where I don't have a job or volunteer position to take up most of my time.  In other words, it happens any time I'm left to monitor and motivate my own activities completely on my own at home.  After some relaxation and enthusiastic work on my projects, things peter out.  I waste a lot of time.  I avoid doing anything that looks like progress unless I have a due date that I can't avoid.

So that's what I've been doing for most of the last few weeks.  A whole lot of nothing.  I've probably spent upwards of 6 hours a day online.  95% of that time has been utterly useless (tumblr, twitter, tvtropes, online shopping (though thankfully no online buying), etc).  I've been reading the same book since I got back from Spain.  Not because it's an incredibly tough read, but because I've only been reading for a short amount of time every couple of days. 

And it's not that I don't want to work on things.  I go to bed thinking of all the things I've left undone that day, and what I plan to work on tomorrow.  It's just that, when the time comes, I decide that it's easier to do other things.  Work takes mental energy.  Tumblr takes approximately none. I can't think of anything interesting to post about because my waste-reducing efforts haven't had much effort put into them lately. 

I'm hitting the point, though, where work has to start happening.  I'm starting to climb my way out of the hole.  The end of the break is in sight, so I have to start getting things done.  I have a paper to finish writing before I leave.  I have to get ready to move.  My goal is to get regular posting restarted next week, and hopefully a post like this won't be necessary again.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hostel as Conference Lodgings

On my previously mentioned conference trip to Spain, I was traveling on a more stringent lodging budget than I have in the past.  Two things combined to cause this: I couldn't find a roommate to share a hotel room, and I'm between schools and advisers so I was scraping together funding from a variety of sources.  Rather than spend at least $150/night to stay in a hotel, I decided to stay in a hostel for about $250 for the entire week.  I got the idea from a postdoc who used to work at my undergrad who preferred to stay in hostels.  I've stayed in one before, but it was back in high school on a school trip to Italy.  So this was pretty much a brand new experience. 

I searched online for hostels in the conference city.  I read the reviews carefully, and I'm glad I did.  Any hostel with more than one or two reviews complaining of noise got thrown out, as did any with bad cleanliness reviews.  I didn't worry too much about reviewers complaining about the tourism aspects of the hostel (the lack of planned excursions or club trips, for example).  Then I picked the highest-ranked hostel that was closest to the conference center.

My stay turned out well.  I lucked out and my neighbor turned out to be another undergraduate attending the conference.  Although I hadn't paid attention to details like breakfast or air conditioning, I was exceedingly glad that my hostel had both.  Having breakfast included helped keep my food budget under control, and air conditioning made sleeping much more comfortable since it was hot and muggy in the city.  Paying attention to noise reviews meant that I picked the hostel a few blocks away from the party quarter, rather than another otherwise-well-reviewed hostel in between two bars.  The hostel also had good electronic security lockers, which I hadn't given a lot of thought to when I looked at reviews.

The best thing I took with me was good ear plugs.  Even though the hostel overall was quiet, if my roommates (I had 3 all week) came back late they could be noisy.  And soccer victory celebrations in the street are not muted affairs.

I do still wish I had done a few things differently.  For one thing, I wish I had booked early enough to book an women-only room.  I luckily had female roommates for most of the week, but my last night it was just me and three men I didn't know.  Booking earlier would have allowed me a little more peace of mind.  I still can't decide whether I would rather have booked a single room - I would have needed to look much earlier and maybe stay further from the convention center to avoid the party quarter. It would have cost about twice as much as the quad, but that's actually still cheaper than half of a hotel room.

I also wish I had taken shower shoes. Despite being pretty clean overall, the floors could be a bit questionable because I was waking up before the cleaning crew came in but after all the party-goers had come back.

So, in summary, hostels are more than just cheap lodgings for backpacking college students.  When chosen carefully, they can be great ways to stretch your conference budget.  

Friday, July 6, 2012

Surprised by Restaurant Waste Abroad

Others have noted that traveling can produce quite a bit of waste.  But I was surprised by two contrasts between all of the Spanish restaurants I visited and their American counterparts. 

On the beneficial side, the only outright trash produced at my table was paper napkins and a few toothpicks over the course of the week.  Even the cheapest, most touristy restaurants provided metal utensils, real plates and glass cups.  My hostel also provided reusable dishes and utensils at breakfast, even if they were plastic.  I did go to a few restaurants that provided cloth napkins as well.

One of the more unfortunate differences was the anti-tap water sentiment.  I carried my own water bottle that I filled at the tap whenever I could, but admittedly the taste of the city water wasn't fabulous (just for comparison, I haven't found city water in the US that bothers me taste-wise).  The bad taste is the reason given for why all restaurants only serve bottled water.  Nicer places served water from glass bottles, but others gave out plastic bottles.  The city seemed pretty recycling conscious, with bins everywhere in the streets, so I can only hope the bottles were eventually recycled.

I also noticed a difference in the amount of plastic included in my airplane meals.  Two trans-atlantic flights meant a pair of in-flight meals, one on an American-based carrier and one on a European carrier.  There was less plastic, and less trash in general, involved in the lunch I ate on the Air France flight than the dinner on the Delta flight.  However, it's entirely possible that this difference was based on my class - I got bumped to business class for the AF flight home, so I couldn't actually compare economy meals.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Quick Hello

I just wanted to give a quick update on why there haven't been posts for 2 weeks now.  I went away to a conference for a week, and originally that was to be the only hiatus, but when I came back a nasty storm had knocked out my family's power and we probably won't get it back until this weekend.  Suffice it to say, things are a little warm and I'm rather disconnected (I'm at a friend's house at the moment, so I can post this quickly).  When I get internet and power back, look for posts on lessons learned from hostel travel and my other experiences in Spain.