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I spoke too soon! Winter ain’t over till it’s over, and I’m sick again so it definitely ain’t over yet. Really wishing we were back in Greece right now like last year.

I trust you are all in better health than I am.

This week’s links

A few of you had questions about building standards and insulation in NZ on my Generation Rent post, which I quite frankly couldn’t be bothered researching. But then lo and behold, this Reddit thread popped up, and sheds a little light on this

Every word in this post made me ache to return to Italy for a bit

A gem from Cash Cow Couple: Converting your spouse from spender to saver

Notes on life and such at Greatest Escapist, on the eve of turning 30

And the Broke and Beautiful Life on abandoning self-imposed deadlines

Finally, at Inc: Your life does not have to be your work

“One of the most critical choices you’ll need to make when you start out in your career is exactly what kind of person you want to be. I think it’s somewhat back in fashion these days to be a workaholic. For some of us it never went out of style. Almost everyone today wants to be an entrepreneur, build a business, and be a big honking overnight success. But that’s only part of the story. Ultimately it’s not about making money, it’s about making a difference. It’s also about more than making a living: It’s about making a life. And the “you” that you become is a big part of the life you build outside the office, as well as within your business.”

 

Five material things that (would) make me happy

material girl in a material world

As a general rule, I am all about experiences over stuff. Stuff wears out, breaks, gets stolen.

But as reported in the Atlantic this week, some material goods actually CAN make you happy. And I’m definitely not going to argue with that. Here are the material things that make my life better …

My guitar

After nearly two years being guitar-less, I picked one up for $100 secondhand last month. I can’t tell you how much joy it’s bringing me. I’m never going to be much more than a dabbler, but I didn’t realise how much I missed playing.

Unlike my old guitar, it’s not a name brand, though, and for the first time I am finding out first hand what difference that actually makes. (Occasional fret buzz, less than smooth-looking neck/body joint, and prone to paint surface cracks.) But since I’m never going to be a serious muso, it’ll do just fine for now – and possibly for a long time.

Good quality kitchen knife

I can never go back to the days of sawing away at vegetables/meat with the kind of knife that now feels so flimsy I could practically bend it with my bare hands. No siree.

Expensive frypan

Likewise, I love my Circulon pan. Now I can actually make decent looking hotcakes, among other things!

A reliable car

Not something we’ve had the privilege of experiencing much, alas. Working on changing that.

A decent house

I dream of living in a house that’s properly insulated, warm and dry.  And hey, since dreams are free, let’s throw in a bonus heat pump. Still a way off…

Location, location, location: Renters just wanna live centrally (this one does, anyway)

It’s funny how different people’s priorities can be when house hunting.

The only negative about our current place, in my eyes, is how freezing cold it is. That and the fact it doesn’t have a full stove. The cold issue, however, is the one that might prompt me to move sooner rather than later. (It’s so cold I’ve actually been keeping half an eye on listings, but there just aren’t that many options out there, certainly none that are overall better than this.)

My MIL, however, seems to think it’s a bit of a dungeon, due to the small size and the fact all the windows have dark tints, for whatever reason. Apparently there’s a two-bedroom house available for rent she knows of and suggested to T, but I can tell you right now that we would not take it. Why?

That house is in Te Atatu, which is further out than where we currently live. That would increase the cost of my bus pass, and I can guarantee the commute would only be worse. Right now, we live literally a minute away from the bus stop, not to mention a few minutes from the local hub with mall, train station, multiple supermarkets, butchers, grocers, Asian stores and organics shop. It doesn’t get much better than that. I’d happily sacrifice a degree of convenience to live in Te Atatu if we were buying a house there, but not for a rental.

For me, as a renter, location is the first thing I look at. I know I won’t be able to afford to live as centrally when we buy, so I’m making the most of it. Even if I had a car of my own, I couldn’t/wouldn’t drive to work, so access to public transport is paramount.

I can’t do much about cold and damp because that’s the default for New Zealand rentals, so onto the next thing on the list…

Next, I stand my ground on mixer taps in the bathroom and kitchen. I will not live somewhere where hot and cold water pour out of separate taps (yes, this is still common in a lot of rentals). That is barbaric; it’s 2014 and any landlords who haven’t updated their plumbing need to get with the programme.

Having lots of space comes last for me. But I guess it comes first for my MIL, and if T was single I think it might be his top criteria, too. Me, I grew up in a fairly small house. I hate cleaning. And I’m not big on entertaining at home. Home is where I go to escape from the world.

What do you look for when choosing somewhere to live?

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Hullo! I quite like Cait’s weekly post where she mentions the highlights of her week, so I might copy her style today.

The low of my week was making a hard decision with T. Not an ideal outcome, but best of a bad situation. Nonetheless, we’re feeling good. Somehow, being in control makes it feel so much better than when it happens TO you. Not ready to discuss yet, though.

The high of my week was quite a few, actually! T’s watch that he accidentally left behind in Italy finally arrived (we made several attempts to get it back starting, well, as soon as we left Italy. But for various reasons all of those failed, and the fact T didn’t really endear himself to our host while we were there no doubt didn’t help). I just passed the 3-month mark at work – while I did not have a 90-day trial period, it’s still a milestone IMO. Still loving it and can’t believe I found a coworker who shares the exact same taste in music (and yes, we sit next to each other). Also went for the first/only run of July – feels like the coldest part of winter may be over – and the soles of my new Nike Flex make it feel like running on a springy cloud. Not so sure about the upper/side parts of the shoe. Full judgement reserved.

My plans this weekend include listening to awesome music on YouTube and playing some guitar (As if Toronto wasn’t already cool enough, I just learned that Motion Device, possibly the coolest ever kid band, is from there!)

This week’s links

What really matters in a relationship, via Musical Poem

L Bee shares her personal money nightmare

Feeling Michelle on this right now – letting money control my life 

One of the best things on feminism I’ve read in awhile, by the Bloggess

And a travel writer who’s become a travel writing sceptic

Friday Five: Take these things and shove ‘em where the sun don’t shine

What’s been bugging me lately:

Rising prices

Now you can’t get a six-inch sub at Subway for under $5. Even the cheapest subs are now $5.70. DISLIKE.

Mexican food poseurs

You all know how passionately I feel about Mexican food (specifically, its absence here). I wish I could ban coworkers from uttering the names Mexican Cafe or Mexicali Fresh in my earshot.

Winter

I feel bad complaining, knowing most of you guys live places where it snows. But I don’t care. Given how cold our house is, I reckon it evens out (even T is wearing multiple layers indoors and complaining about the cold, and that, I can tell you, is a rarity). Who needs four seasons anyway? (Not that we really get four seasons in Auckland; it just starts getting colder and wetter around May or so.)

Technical debt

I was recently introduced to this term. You know how building anything involves choices and compromises – after all, you can’t get anything that’s good AND cheap AND fast? And how building, tweaking and fixing software creates a many-headed monster over a time? Yeah. I’m over it. Where’s our technical fairy godmother and her magic wand?

Humans being shitty to other humans

As we all know, there’s been a lot of spectacularly bad news happening this month. It makes me so, so sad. That’s about all I have to say on that front.

Adulting, step 1: Looking at income protection and life insurance

Life insurance is one of those things I figured we didn’t need to worry about until mortgage/kids entered the picture.

But I’m starting to think that maybe sooner could be better (especially if we’re going to be taking on a car loan).

I’m mainly interested in the income protection aspect. Most standalone income protection don’t seem to cover redundancy, but some life insurance policies do offer redundancy cover as an add-on. That would alleviate my worry of major setbacks/hardship if T were to lose his job.

To be honest, I’m not sure it would have helped us this year, since the company let go T and a couple of others all within their 90-day trial period – which may not count as redundancy. But it would have helped back in 2008/2009…

And of course, life insurance is quite affordable as we are still young.

(Not that I’m worried about job security myself, but I already have life insurance through work now! Maybe it’s time to make it two.)

At the moment the two main options I’m looking at are life cover through his bank, and income protection cover through an insurer. Under the bank option we can get basic life plus redundancy, which is dirt cheap, and we could also add on temporary disability cover. The insurer option is pure income protection, including disability; it’s more expensive, but without getting into all the details, you do get more for your premiums. The disability cover could be useful in the event of illness, and to a degree, accidents. For injury, there is public ACC here to the tune of 80 percent of your earnings, although we had them refuse to cover T once a couple of years ago and that was a massive and costly pain in the ass.

This comment (on Reddit, no less) really hit me hard the other week:

A lot of people don’t realize how correlated events are. You are probably not going to lose your job, unless the economy goes really bad. If the economy goes really bad, that is the precise time when you cannot find any jobs because there are so many other people looking for jobs and few companies are hiring. That is also the time when you need to tap into your savings, but your stock portfolio will be decimated. You may want to borrow some money for the short term, but the equity in your home is gone too because real estate prices are all dropping and all your credit lines are cancelled because banks stop loaning money. Instead of “these things can’t all happen at the same time” it might be closer to “these things only happen at the same time”.

Now that we are above what I think of as the WINZ threshold – ie we earn/own too much, so that we’d have to both lose our jobs and use up most of what we have before being able to get assistance in the worst case scenario – it really is up to us to make provisions for ourselves.

Any advice on navigating the headache-inducing world of insurance?

Off the beaten track: 4 places that stole my heart

You all know I love me a little bit of justified tourist town action. But we also got to wander a little off the beaten track a few times in Europe…

Bracciano castle - NZ Muse

Lazio region, Italy

We worked on a farm north of Rome for a month, and during that time took a couple of short trips over to nearby town Bracciano, to the lake, and a day trip to Viterbo. It really was a chance to live like a local (and oh, the food. Stuff of dreams. Cheese straight from the local shop. Tomatoes off the vine. Gelato too, of course). Did I mention the castles?!

On my first trip to the beach with our host (just the two of us) I didn’t bother to bring a bikini top, since she said it was a topless beach. Awkward as I felt about it, when in Rome… but that was nothing compared to the awkwardness when we actually got there and almost everyone else was in normal swimwear, tops included.

Kranzberg, near Munich, Germany

Kranzberg, Bavaria region

We had an invitation to come stay from a host who lived in a village north of Munich (which is teeth-grittingly expensive). There, we gulped down litres of homemade apple juice, swam in waterholes, stumbled across our first nudists, and cycled about 20km to another nearby village. I hadn’t been on a bike in over 10 years; biking through the forest, flying over bumps and potholes in the trail, was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying (I can’t believe I’m doing this!!! / I’m going to fall off and die!!!).

Grindelwald, Switzerland

Grindelwald, Switzerland

High up in the mountains above Interlaken, Grindelwald came recommended by a friend. We arrived when a massive mountain race was on, and wound up in a dorm with a dude who organises marathons and ultras for a living. That dorm was particularly weird; there were double bunk beds, meaning you could wind up sleeping next to a stranger if you were a solo traveller. We chilled out (literally, it was a big change from the heat of Germany), stared at the mountains and the skydivers, bought beer and fired up the communal barbecue. I

By: Peter Köves

Maastricht, Netherlands

Maastrict was a charming little town that we stopped into briefly on the way to Amsterdam. There was so much good looking food here! It’d be a great place to spend a half-day or a day, just wandering around. Unfortunately since we were lugging around our packs the whole time, I didn’t much feel like taking photos. (I think we may have snapped a couple iPhone pics of a particularly weird bus we spotted there, but can’t find them now.) And our first mishap with getting on the wrong train occurred straight after this. Good times.

What are some of your favourite lesser-known destinations?

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A few weeks ago I came across what just might be one of my favourite Quora threads ever: What is the most unfair advantage a person can have? 

I tend to agree with #2 answer – not needing  a lot of sleep - as someone who is a fairly low-energy person most of the time. I’ve always been someone who needs a minimum of 8 hours a night and gets stressed out if I have more than a couple of things on (outside of work) in a week.

What do you reckon?

This week’s links

Blast from the past: This time last year we were heading down towards the Mediterranean, having covered Berlin, Munich, Prague and stopping in Switzerland too.

A lovely post about a couple struggling to compromise on what city to live in; her description of her partner struck me as being a lot like me (perhaps why I felt like New York and me clicked right away). “She is the kind of introvert that likes being around a lot of acquaintances and activity partners while doing a lot of not-talking to them, and New York works pretty well for that.”

Oh, how this Billfold piece on pillows cracked me up. Ours always get disgusting in a matter of months, so I am committing to replacing ours at the one-year mark (they’re about 6 months old right now) – how often do you buy new ones?

Here is a really insightful piece on selling yourself as a job candidate and how much social status counts for

From Tiny Apartment: Playing parents for two weeks is overwhelming

Sometimes wealthy people are seriously out of touch, as Donna Freedman writes

Seriously helpful: How to nab international clients, over at Make a Living Writing

A confession at Makeup and Mirtazapine: I used to be a bad feminist

Nicole and Maggie tackle the other side of the tiny housing movement 

My Pretty Pennies’ best tips for travelling with a partner (and here are mine)

A few things a wife should just let go, at Newlyweds on a Budget

For real: An interview with a computer engineer who’s also a poet

I think it’s nothing short of awesome that writers are starting to talk about what they earn

Ira Glass is everything. Here he is on writing, work and creativity

I also find that somehow, the way I’m built, the hardest part of my job is simply to shift from one task to the next. The new task is like icy water you have to dive into. The old task is a warm bath. It’s especially hard when I know the new task is going to be really difficult, as half of them are. I always have to brace myself.

 

Friday Five: Personal finance-flavoured reflections on Breaking Bad

breaking bad
By: Justin Taylor

We’ve just finished all five seasons of Breaking Bad, and I feel profoundly … well, something, I’m just not sure what.

I can’t remember the last time I watched a TV show that had such a strong emotional impact on me.

Breaking Bad was a frustrating watch. It’s outlandish and OTT, but within that framework, its genius is that it is precisely, painfully true to its characters’ natures – and thus, to human nature.

Watching Walt and Skyler’s relationship decay before our eyes was nothing short of heartbreaking.  Much like I only continued watching House of Cards for Claire Underwood once I lost all patience with the main character, I thought Skyler’s storyline was particularly well done (maybe because I often wondered what I would do in her shoes). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It takes forever to build up a relationship, but the undoing of one can be surprisingly, brutally swift.

But equally, the disintegration of Walt and Jesse’s dysfunctional relationship – doomed and screwed up from the very beginning – tore me up. Jesse did not deserve to go through what he had to go through. Small comfort: Aaron Paul seems crazy in love and crazy happy IRL (yes, I felt compelled to Google the hell out of him as soon as those final credits rolled).

And here are a few personal finance-related thoughts on the show (small spoilers):

  • We could never live in the US – as T says, “I get hurt too much”.
  • Money laundering seems … surprisingly straightforward. Just in terms of the nuts and bolts of it.
  • Never ride on the belief that you are irreplaceable. I can understand how bruised Walt’s ego was when he realised Jesse was making meth as good as his, but that’s how life goes…
  • Why is it so hard for people to realise that owner or employee, there are tradeoffs either way?! I was literally yelling at the screen when they complained about earning less working under Gus – hello, remember how much money you lost when you were running things yourselves and absorbing all the risk?
  • Life is easier with money – there’s no doubt about it. But getting too greedy is always the point at which it all goes wrong. Check that greed.

Anyone else a Breaking Bad fan?

Generation Rent needs habitable housing – it’s that simple

By: grahamc99

It’s painful to admit, but for a brief moments earlier this year I allowed myself to hope that T might do well enough at his last job that we might be able to afford to buy a house in a year or two.

Obviously those hopes went out the window with that job.

Our current place is only slightly damp, thankfully – no ceiling or closet mould, just window condensation – but it is fucking freezing. It most definitely would not meet the World Health Organisation’s recommended indoor temperature of 18-21 degrees. So, you know, like most everywhere else we’ve rented. /shrug

In nearly 10 years of renting, and moving on average every 18 months, the warmest and driest place I’ve ever lived was a studio under our landlord’s house in leafy Epsom. Dark and tiny, the tradeoff for insulation was having barely enough room for two people to stand up (the rest of the house where the landlord and his family actually lived, though, was reasonably large and very nice) so when the rent went up, we started looking elsewhere right away.

I absolutely refuse to raise my kids in this kind of place. I want to provide them with at least the standard of environment I grew up in. I really don’t think that’s asking too much. We lived very modest lives, but in a dry and warm house in a safe area.

It’s all well and good to say:

“Tenants are encouraged to find a property that not only meets their needs and lifestyle, but does not have any existing issues like [being cold and damp].”

but that totally ignores the reality of our market. That might work in other countries – not here. Nobody wants to live in a cold, damp place, but the majority of our rental housing stock IS cold and damp. Yet everyone needs somewhere to live. So the default question becomes not ‘is it damp and cold?’ but ‘how damp and cold is it?’ in an attempt to gt something toward the better end of the spectrum. Except for the very worst cases, it’s hard to gauge the extent of cold and damp during a 5-minute daytime viewing, especially during the non-winter months.

I’m getting too old for this shit.

I’m not sure what we’re going to do. I’m still hopeful that we might be able to buy at some point. (I’m not going to make any projections or commit to any goals here; T’s work situation has been so variable over the years that it would be frustrating and feels pointless.)

Otherwise, quality rentals are few and far between. Finding a place that’s insulated at all is the first hurdle. The second hurdle: can we actually afford to rent such a place? And the third hurdle … would we even get it? Granted, we aren’t at the very bottom of the tenancy ladder anymore. We’re not beneficiaries or students (oh, the times we house hunted when I was still in uni … how many places we missed out on!) But we are not particularly high income earners and in a tight market, when you have your pick of applicants, are you going to approve the couple making more, or the couple making less? I’m not delusional; the kinds of places we qualify for in Auckland are not the nice ones.

I think it’s really hard to grok the state of the market here unless you’ve experienced it firsthand. There’s the sheer fact that there’s so much competition (one showing per rental and always during work hours; houses almost always sold at auction, or blind tender).

And anyone who’s spent time abroad can testify to the dire physical state of housing here; there are countless expat message boards devoted to this topic. We’ve stayed in many, many apartments and houses throughout Europe and North America, thanks to friends, Couchsurfing and Airbnb, and all of them stunned us in a good way. Yep, even the supposedly crap places – and that includes the depressing grey Stalinist apartment block in Berlin that was astonishingly lovely inside – were miles ahead of anywhere we’ve rented here. Heck, we even have landlords who apparently would have no qualms about renting out meth houses. That is, to put it mildly, somewhat worrying.

And if you need a memory refresh, here’s another reason why renting for life isn’t a good option - here, tenants have very few rights/security.

Change may be on the horizon – at some point. I recently came across a blog devoted to examining the state of housing in New Zealand (hallelujah!). Student Elinor Chisholm is writing her PhD on collective action to improve rental housing in New Zealand.

The poor quality of New Zealand’s rental housing is finally getting the attention it deserves. People seem to agree that our housing is having terrible effects on health, and that it’s not right.

Not long ago a  scheme that sets minimum standards for rental housing was trialled. Criticism has mainly been along the lines of:

a) it’s going to raise rents

b) a lot of the criteria are shallow

to which my responses are:

a) I would be willing to pay more in rent if the property merited it, because I care about my health – I would be more open to renting for life if it didn’t put me at such risk of dying with black mould in my lungs. I suspect the savings on heating and medical costs (we did not need to use a heater at all when we lived in Epsom and didn’t get sick) would even it out. Maybe at the low income end, the government needs to increase Accommodation Supplement – but the current state of rentals is just not acceptable by any standards.

b) as a result, they are reviewing some of the criteria – but really, let’s not nitpick, let’s focus on the important stuff – namely, insulation and heating. I’d love to see minimum indoor temperature introduced as a criterion.

I mean, the fact is that the vast majority of houses in the sample failed: 90 percent, or let’s be generous and knock it down to two-thirds since 36 percent only required “minor” fixes to be brought up to scratch. And given that the surveyed rentals were volunteered by landlords, it’s probably not a big leap to conclude that the real number would be even higher.

Tenant horror stories often make the mainstream media, but how often do we hear about the horror houses we have to make do with? That’s why I’m so glad to see Elinor getting a platform on Public Address (which reaches a fair number of people).

“Horror renters” are a very small issue, about 0.6% of the population, that, fortunately, we deal with through the courts. Horror rental houses, on the other hand, is a huge issue – 44% of our rental homes. Our current system, with its lack of quality standards, and with its disincentives to tenants for taking issues of quality to the court, is not working.

I think it’s safe to assume the quality of owned houses here is overall higher than the quality of rented houses. Maybe it used to be okay to do your time in mouldy rentals before buying your own place (doing it up if need be). But as home ownership slides further out of reach for our generation, we need habitable rental housing to fill the gap.

Because, to borrow a phrase from this Medium piece:

“It shouldn’t be easy. But it should not be this hard.”