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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This week marks a year since volunteering in the Black Forest, and I’ve been amusing myself with memories of those last couple of days – dancing to Gangnam Style, the secretly hilarious and articulate guy who turned into the life of the party after a few drinks, crying when farewelling our youngest protege. Already everyone’s names are fading from memory; I’m almost tempted to dig out the emails to remind myself.
“I am happy whenever I see see him in his element, powerful and engaged, creating the ephemeral landscapes that surround live performers. I understand that the daily rhythm of regular mealtimes, bill-paying, and laundry-folding must seem trite by comparison, but how else does a family build a life? So I end up raging at him about the impracticality of his chosen career path, the lack of dark leafy greens in his diet, and the fact that we have managed to save exactly zero dollars for college or retirement. His eyes still gloss over, but less so: he is making strides. Somehow we truly co-parent amidst the whacked-out hours and gigs and general mayhem that hustling as a young family with two toddlers entails. We are in love, even still, ever more.
“But the thing about being a recovering shithead is that even after you’ve made substantive changes to the way you live your life, unsavory flotsam continually drifts to the surface. He never did anything with the intention of hurting anyone else, and assumed that he was only flatlining his own credit and complicating things for himself in queue. In reality, the pre-existing fallout from the years before I even knew him limits our financial options and impacts our marriage every day. I am always worried, now, that someone is looking for him. This makes us both so sad.
“How can I apologize to you for who I used to be?” he asks.
The person I replaced at my new job – let’s call her B – is doing a similar thing to what we did in 2013. Extended travel, that is (though she outright quit, and their trip is somewhat open ended, so no firm end date). So far it sounds like she’s doing a bang-up job balancing freelance work with travel and working a lot more than I was on the road, so after each update from her, everyone simultaneously sighs wistfully and utters the same phrase.
(“I was living the dream in 2013 too!” I want to squawk.)
Yeah, I know location independence is trendy. Everyone wants to be a digital nomad – cast off the shackles of a house and steady paycheque and work from some island beach. These are the same people who’ll rail against being a slave to their desk and miserable in the corporate world.
But that has never been me.
We live in climactic paradise (just about)
Location independence usually means spending a fair bit of time in cheaper countries, for obvious reasons. These are often hotter countries.
I am not a fan of heat, and T cannot handle the heat at all. (He struggles during Auckland summers, so that should tell you all you need to know. 20 degrees is HARD for him, and I’m only happy up to the mid/late 20s.) Having grown up in a super mild climate, we are both ill-prepared for real heat. Or real cold, for that matter; he can cope okay when the temperature drops, but I most certainly cannot. UV rays in summer and uninsulated rentals in winter aside, this is about as good as it gets for us.
Six weeks in Asia did us in physically and I can’t imagine spending months on end, in, say, Thailand (Chiang Mai was the expat hotspot for a while, is it still?). As B and her partner make their way around South America, they’re dealing with all sorts of temperature extremes, so while I oooh and ahhh at her blog posts and pictures, I’m inwardly shuddering imagining the conditions and thanking my stars I’m not there.
Yeah … We really can’t handle the jandal on the climate front.
Not having a home base long term would not sit well with me. It is really freaking draining having to periodically figure out where you go next, where you will stay, figuring out visas, all those logistics. By the end of our trip I was really worn down by that aspect. And I had planned outlines beforehand, so it’s not like I didn’t already have a good guide to work from! Filling in those gaps as we went grew exhausting. I don’t want to have to coordinate such basic life elements regularly.
I don’t want to work for myself
I know others who do, and mostly they struggle (I’m talking about my specific field) particularly in NZ. Realistically, I probably would not be one of the exceptions.
I really like my job – even the meetings! – and the fact I am working on something much bigger than myself. When I think about my career, what I want to do next and how I can best learn and grow, it’s in relation to organisations, not self-employment.The stress and uncertainty of freelancing is not something I would voluntarily choose for myself. And T’s work does not lend itself to nomadism.
I want the traditional stuff
Now that I’ve scratched the itch and ticked off most of the destinations burning a hole in my bucket list, I’m dreaming of a kitchen with a full stove, maybe even a dishwasher, building a pizza oven in the backyard. Dog and kids.
In an ideal world I’d have 2-3 months a year to travel, on top of having all the other things I want (this job, a house in Auckland, etc), but as the saying goes, you can have anything you want – you just can’t have everything you want.
The other day I decided to answer this question on Quora: Which one would you prefer: half a year travel or 6 separate one month-long travels? And while I started out thinking I would prefer another long trip, by the time I finished writing my response I’d realised that with one long trip under my belt, now I would actually rather take the shorter trips – if money was no object.
Routine can be tedious – doing the dishes, supermarket runs, taking the bins out every Thursday.
It can also be incredibly sublime – coming in to the familiar comfort of coworkers’ faces in the morning, cuddling up to your partner at night, chowing down on your favourite treats at the farmer’s market, familiar beaches with free parking that are never too crowded.
For me, a ‘normal’ life is where it’s at. I love to travel, but home is where the heart is.
Like moi, A Dangerous Business blogger Amanda Williams doesn’t aspire to a life of perpetual travel. In fact, she actually cut short her RTW trip when she realised she was no longer enjoying herself and finished the second leg separately after returning home to recharge for a bit.
(I don’t think I ever mentioned it here, but T hit a real low point about halfway through ours – on one particularly hellish Italian train ride, I was just about convinced I would have to dispatch him home and finish our trip by myself, which would have made the whole American road trip thing tricky…)
Here’s how she describes herself: I’m just a small-town Ohio girl trying to balance a “normal” life with a desire to discover the world beyond my Midwest bubble. My adventurous nature and inability to say “no” have led me to some pretty amazing adventures around the world, from swimming with sharks in Belize to hiking on glaciers in New Zealand to playing a concert on the Great Wall of China. I’m here to prove to people that traveling (and especially traveling as a woman) doesn’t have to be scary, lonely, or out of anybody’s reach.
What made you decide to embark on your extended trip? What’s the story there?
I’ve always loved traveling, and for the past few years I envied those “permanent nomads” who flit from place to place and get so see so much of the world. I was nearing the end of graduate school, and so taking off on a long trip right afterwards seemed like perfect timing!
How did you fund the trip?
The way most people do – I saved up money! That, and by the time I left I was making a decent amount of money from my blog and freelance writing, so I knew I would be able to work and earn a little money on the road, too.
What do you wish you knew before leaving? Any advice for would-be RTW travellers?
I wish I would have realized how burnt out I would get by traveling so quickly. By the end of 3 months in Europe, I was exhausted. I should have scheduled in more down-time for myself.
What is the most surprising thing you learned on the road?
I learned that the long-term travel thing really isn’t for me. I LOVE traveling and I love experiencing other cultures and picking out the little things that are the same and different from my own. But I was really missing home after about 2 months. Traveling non-stop for months on end just isn’t for me!
What was your favourite destination (or since I know this can be impossible to choose, what’s one place you would return to in a heartbeat?)
Sooooo difficult to choose! London is probably my favorite city in the world, but I also fell in love with Berlin on my RTW trip. Also, Vietnam! I went there during Part 2 of this trip (I ended up going home after 3 months in Europe, and did the Southeast Asia part of the trip separately), and really loved it.
You cut your RTW trip short after realising long term travel isn’t your thing. What was it like returning home?
It actually was a relief to book that ticket home after 3 months in Europe. I didn’t view it as giving up or anything – I just knew it was what I needed. It was DEFINITELY the right decision. And of course my family and boyfriend were really happy to have me home early! Plus, it gave me time to recharge and plan the Asia part of the trip.
Where are you at the moment? Do you plan to stay put – is this your ‘forever’ city?
I’m back in Ohio right now, building up my freelancing business and trying to carve out a career for myself that will allow me to work from anywhere in the world. This definitely isn’t my “forever” home, but it’s home for now. It makes a great base to take shorter trips from!
What’s still on your travel wishlist? Any confirmed trips coming up?
As for my travel wish list… it’s still huge! At the top are South Africa, Colombia, Norway, and Mexico. And as for upcoming trips, I’m doing some US/Canada exploring this summer, with trips to Niagara Falls and Alaska coming up in the next month. Beyond that, I’m currently considering a trip to New Zealand in November (it’s my favorite country ever!), or perhaps going back to Europe for some conferences. As always, who knows where I’ll end up!
I’ve had it up to here with winter birthdays. I wasn’t expecting much for my first at home in three years, but I never expected to find myself at the doctor’s that very night – thankfully I didn’t have anything much planned.
Seriously. I might start marking the occasion on January 6 instead. Or something.
This June was the warmest on record in years but I find that frankly unbelievable. Every year winter feels colder and longer, and so far this one has been bloody tough for me. After all, we followed summer around the world last year, and now we’re back in a crappy freezing Auckland rental – any single-digit temperature mornings are one too many in my books.
Being sick also means I haven’t been able to give my present (new running shoes) a whirl yet, so I’m pretty grumpy.
Upside of being sick: lots of meaty reads for you.
I’ve been trying to keep up with the Hobby Lobby stuff in the US (and failing) but reading lots of good stuff in the process – like this Forbes piece on how insurance is for insuring against calamities and how the US lost sight of that, and the Daily Beast on how the Supreme Court has been skewing pro-gay, anti-women
How an arranged marriage evolved into honest-to-goodness love, recounted hilariously: “When you’ve grown up with the idea that Indian love leads to a rational, calm, reliable marriage and American love leads to a passionate, fragile marriage, then the fact that your Indian parents have fallen in American love is not good.”
Finally, appreciated Indra Nooyi’s honesty the other week when interviewed by The Atlantic:“We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all. My husband and I have been married for 34 years. And we have two daughters. And every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact many times during the day you have to make those decisions.”
We’ve always paid cash for our cars, with the exception of our second car (a strategy I think we’re going to buck for our next car, which will hopefully last us a minimum of 10 years). Based on our automotive history, I have drawn the conclusion that every $1000 spent = 1 year of life.
Car 1: Red Mazda 626 sedan, $1500
I remember the bank teller looking at me all sideways when I said the cash I was withdrawing was for a car. “Half a car,” I hastily lied, to get him off my back. It served us for probably a little over a year before the gearbox totally gave up.
In between car: We also had a freebie white Corolla hatch worth next to nothing for a few months that helped bridge the gap between the first and second car. I don’t actually remember how it came into our lives/who gave it to us or what specifically happened to it.
Car 2: White Toyota Levin coupe, $3000
This was all T’s car – his chance to fulfill his desire to have a ‘cool’ car, and learn an expensive lesson in the process. Thanks to this car, we also learned how dang useless the police can be sometimes when it comes to car accidents. I’m really proud of T for going to court and coming out with the result we wanted (in a nutshell: the cops at the scene screwed up, basically tried to lay blame on him rather than the other party, and we refused to lie down and let them walk over us). This one didn’t quite make it to 3 years – maybe 2, actually.
Car 3: White Mazda Familia hatch, $1800
Left in the lurch and scrambling for a vehicle, we wound up with this little thing – again, all we could afford at the time. It is, I think the only car to break down on the road and actually strand us to date. This also remains the only car we’ve ever had that was in an accident where we actually wound up getting damages fixed at the other party’s expense. Unfortunately the engine and rust issues only got worse and eventually proved too much; we farewelled the car not too long after that incident (shiny new back bumper and all). I’d say this lasted us close to a couple of years.
Car 4: Silver Mazda Familia wagon, $4500
Our most expensive car – and the newest we’d ever bought, only being about 12 years old with barely 100,000km when we got it. Also the only car that ever managed to get through a warrant of fitness with no issues at all – you get what you pay for. It was still a pretty old car though, so that lovely streak didn’t last and after one or two warrants, we were back to the stressful cycle of expensive fixes every 6 months in an effort to get it to pass. It also has a weird ghost problem (to do with the tyres/steering/alignment) that nobody has ever been able to fix. Nothing that’s terribly off, just an annoying niggle – the pea to T’s princess, if you like.
It’s in a sorry state right now – rubber chunk missing from the steering wheel, no handbrake, no power steering, the ongoing tyre issue, and most recent and worrying, dodgy brakes. It’s coming up on four years, and needs to retire.
One thing that stuck with me from my recent training session on mentoring high school students was the strengths based approach.
It seems so logical. Focus on your strengths, rather than solely on tackling your weaknesses. Yet I realised I have not been doing this at all.
I don’t have the patience, I don’t have the natural bent, and I don’t have the desire, since there are no obvious benefits. I’m confident in tweaking code – poking around and figuring out what pieces to change in order to get elements doing what I want them to do. Writing code from scratch – not so much. Getting to the stage where I’d be good enough to do it in my professional life is beyond my capability – and it’s probably not going to be hugely helpful to me. Even if I want to go down the full stack marketing route later on, heavier back end coding skills beyond basic HTML/CSS are not going to be as important as commercial nous and/or analytics. If there is talent besides programmers that we are crying out for in today’s work world, it’s digital analysts! (Seriously, we’re hiring right now.)
I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of clarity about my immediate career path lately (this is my third job, and I finally feel like I’ve found my ‘story’ – a cue for me to tweak my LinkedIn profile soon, actually) and the way forward is not to try be something I’m not. My strengths are in content, not design or development. Focusing on that – particularly content strategy, building on my production and management base – is the obvious move.
In the next few weeks I’m going to have to create a development plan as part of annual reviews at work (a totally new process to me), so now I’ve really got to think about what kinds of specific goals to commit to and how I can get there.
Eyeshadow makes the best eyeliner. That’s for ease of applying, specific colours, and staying power.
Even old dogs can learn new tricks. Who knew my stance on pets would change so dramatically last year? A month hanging out with five dogs on a farm and I’m a goner. Or that I would embrace merino, overcoming my deep-seated aversion to wool. Seriously, merino is the most amazing fabric – despite all the pieces I’ve read (and written my fair share of) about various NZ companies doing amazing things with merino clothing.
I am probably always going to feel somewhat conflicted about my race. I never know quite how to feel when a shop assistant approaches me and greets me in Mandarin, or a random person (security guard/bus driver/passerby) chucks out a ‘Ni hao’, or an Asian person comes up to me on the street and starts asking me something in a language I don’t understand. Also, in a weird way I’ve finally come full circle; knowing Chinese would definitely be a boon at my job – though even if I’d been interested in learning it as a kid I don’t think I would have been very successful.
Aspiring to more is what defines me. I’ve been thinking about this (inspired by Natalie’s post) and decided that the one thing that best sums me up is I’m always looking to the future, thinking about what comes next and how to get there. And to that end, I’m also starting to think beyond my own little selfish bubble. With age, I’ve finally begun to truly understand how people become political. My top passions are still words, travel, and personal finance (and food might sneak in there too) but increasingly, urban issues are becoming a real priority for me. So much so I’m starting to wonder how I might be able to work in that space at some point down the line. I aspire to live in a world class city, and I feel like Auckland has made so many strides lately; we just have to start working on transport and housing. What we need are more sustainable choices – investing in transport beyond new roads, and bringing the standard of properties up to a basic humanitarian level.
Comparing myself to others is always going to be something I struggle with. I’m old enough to realise that this is not a part of myself that’s going to change. And the best way to slay that demon is not to try and squash it, but kill it with reason.
Mostly, whenever I fall into the pit of comparison, I wind up feeling pretty depressed. Yes, we are mid 20s with no debt, but also no assets to speak of and little hope of escaping the hamster wheel of grim, mouldy rentals anytime soon. I can’t help but feel like we’re never really going to pick up pace.
When I think about the people our age I know who’ve managed to buy houses, they’ve all had advantages in one form or another. Most have had parental help – parents who paid some or all of their deposit, either using cash or equity in their own houses. Some have lived at home for years rent free. A couple have had cars bought for or given to them. Some have one partner in the relationship who earns significantly more.
For our situation to change, I think we need two things. One, steady and reasonably-paid employment on T’s part – considering his stints of unemployment add up to a couple years, plus a few more months’ worth of reduced and lost income from injuries on top of that, maybe it’s a wonder we aren’t even further behind. As this Billfold piece wisely observed last month, we really need to start accounting for unemployment in the current environment, and adjust financial advice accordingly.
Two, a steady and reliable car. Going the cheap secondhand route has not served us well. After so many years and a handful of different cars, we’re still exactly where we were on the car front as when we first started out – treading water with maintenance and repairs, with nothing really saved for a better and newer vehicle. Debt-averse as I am, I’m increasingly open to the idea of borrowing for a decent vehicle that we can drive into the ground (10 years at least?) so depreciation doesn’t matter. Vehicle financing options here are still kind of unappealing, but the other day I saw what might be the best offer I’d ever seen – something like 2 percent on new cars? – so things may be changing on that front. I’d much rather pay 2 percent on a new car than 10 percent on a used car that could have had any kind of history, and T’s experience from his stint in car sales should help us in the negotiation stage.
But for my own peace of mind, I think I need to scale back on my expectations. In some ways, this year has worked out better than I expected, but in many ways it also worked out much worse. The long term goal remains buying a house and escaping the terrible Auckland rental market for all the reasons I’ve covered on this blog before, like health, stability, pets, kids – but I’m going to refrain from setting a timeline or any hard measures, because I honestly don’t know what the next few years hold for us.