Live like a rich person without being rich

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Living in NYC compresses everything. Not only is your personal space compressed, living over and under and moving among the seething, teeming hordes of city-livers, but less tangible things are also compressed – the speed of your career trajectory, or the length of time it takes you to develop social survival skills.

Something else that I’ve noticed is that the distance between rich and poor is extraordinarily compressed compared to other cities. Not in terms of income gaps, which are wider than anywhere else in the US, with the wealthiest of the wealthy living a dream existence, and the poorest of the poor rotting and reeking on the streets – but in terms of exposure and some level of understanding.

The distance between me and homelessness isn’t as far as I once imagined. It happens to many people, those without connections, family, a stroke of bad luck, bad health, a creeping addiction, a tinge of mental illness.

Similarly, the distance between me and the uber-wealthy isn’t as far as I once imagined. As my income has tripled since I moved here (though I am extraordinarily far from wealthy), I am beginning to understand the preferences of the rich, the choices that rich people make. From working hard in a hot, stinking city, I understand the need for a house in the Hamptons. From seeing other people in beautifully cut, crisp clothing, I understand the need for a luxurious wardrobe. From moving from a flimsy one-bedroom to a slightly more solid one-bedroom to a decent two-bedroom, each apartment a bit better than the last, I understand the need for centrally-located, luxurious accommodations.

I am sure I’ll never be disgustingly, excessively wealthy, but I do believe my income and place in life will continue to improve. It will require hard work and sacrifice of my personal time, and perhaps some portion of my happiness, but it is doable.

Selling your time and your body to the capitalist system is very odd to consider from a distance. The truly wealthy live off the production of the rest. The trust funders, the investors, the financiers – they are all in close proximity in NYC. Even if not directly, we work to support them daily.

I understand and accept the way things work here, however begrudgingly, though finding a loophole in the system to a life either filled with interesting and exciting work, artistic passion, a life of my own in some way, a life where I feel like I’m on the winning end, is my ultimate dream.

I don’t think it’s an impossible dream. Finding a way to create that amenable balance of things, or create a pleasant and enjoyable quality of life (I hesitate to use “lifestyle”), must be something I can accomplish. It absolutely must be.

So, as a starting point, I think I will find out what things would improve my quality of life, how much they cost, a budgeted aping of rich-people luxuries, but must be executed in a thoughtful and feeling-rich way – quality, not quantity.


A quick list of things I want to investigate in future posts in this series:

  • A second/vacation home (and necessarily, a way to spend long amounts of time there. I’m willing to compromise and work from home for some of it)
  • Vacations
    • Long weekends
    • Two weeks+
  • Culture: theater, arts, ballet, live music
  • Beautiful personal objects
  • Delicious food
  • Creating art
  • Part-time work or part-time work from home work at least
  • Independence
  • Society
  • More, as I think of them!
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We looked for a new place to call home, we didn’t find it (pt. 2)

The first thing I should admit is that it was a huge financial mistake to take a week-long vacation. It was a decision I made on a whim, after getting my first sizeable stock payout and a raise from work. A was not really into the idea and instead of slowing down and listening to him, I went ahead and splurged. We hadn’t been out of the city for 2.5 years so I felt it was high time for a vacation and well-deserved.

My stock payout felt like lottery winnings, in that unreal sense that tiny little black pixels on a screen =/= actual money. I used half of the payout for useful things, like paying off some credit card debt and putting aside a month’s worth of rent and daycare expenses as a buffer, but the rest of the cash was burning a hole in my pocket. Bought in short order: New TV to replace our boob tube circa 1998. A weeklong vacation out of town.

After booking an Airbnb for 6 nights and renting a full-size car for a week, I almost immediately regretted my decision. A tried gamely to be okay with it but I felt guilty and selfish for wasting all that money on something pretty useless.

Better things we could have spent money on: paying off more debt, buying nice work clothes, saving money for moving expenses, getting new pots and pans, having fun in the city we live in (NYC is largely unexplored for me, since we mainly just go to work and hang out in our neighborhood).

So, with that basis of context, it’s not a surprise that Portland, Maine did not end up being the land of dreams for A and I. It wasn’t a terrible trip, and it was somewhat relaxing, but Portland is definitely not the place we want to live.

Leaving NYC behind

Fantasy

A dreamy car trip, wind breezing through the windows, beautiful vistas of trees and countryside, fresh air, tiny little northeastern villages and roadside diners.

Reality

Intense anxiety while navigating the twisty, speedy deathtrap highways of NYC with a baby in the backseat and no insurance coverage for accidents in which we are at fault. Finally hitting the open road of I-95 North – not a very picturesque stretch of highway. Occasional glimpses at medium-sized towns in CT, RI, MA, but nothing I’d describe as beautiful or charming. Lunch at Boston Whole Foods was a highlight.

A tiny house on Cape Elizabeth for a week

Fantasy

A quaint little house perched near a rocky beach, waves crashing, audible through the windows. Lungfuls of pure salt air. A mournful lighthouse standing in solitude. A cozy place to rest, read, decompress. Dusty little antique shops, maybe some seaside seafood shacks that we can meander to for every meal. Buy some copper kettles and old books. Fresh, farm-to-table food and quaint little diners full of interesting characters. Just like, tons of cozy-creepy vibe everywhere you look.

Reality

Pulling into Portland, pretty little townhouses, a harbor, and a bridge. Turning onto the bridge and driving down to Cape Elizabeth, the landscape becomes suburban. Strip shopping centers that close early, houses with yards. A and I feel immediately, intensely uncomfortable. We joke about turning right around and heading back to Brooklyn. It’s not really a joke. It feels like we’re back in the suburbs of Atlanta, a place we worked hard for two years to move away from. We decide we’re being ridiculous and determine to enjoy the stay.

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We finally pull into the driveway of our tiny house, which turns out to be someone’s converted garage, right next to someone’s actual house. It’s okay inside. There’s a few spiderwebs in the corners and the loft bed is three feet away from the ceiling and the sheets are pretty humid and the mattress is two twin mattresses pushed into one, so good sex is pretty much off the menu. There’s a Pack N’ Play for the baby, which we set up in the living room, and we head out for lobster. There’s a lobster shack just down the road, although actually it’s just slightly too far and dangerous to walk there, so we have to rig up the car again. The line is 45 minutes long and the restaurant closes at 8 PM.

We wind up living the suburban life for the next week. We drive everywhere, have to wait for restaurants to open and get to the store before it’s closed. The lighthouse is just down the road, but is ensconced in “an exclusive neighborhood”, which we stroll through out of boredom. We go to the beach a few times and it’s pretty nice. We get slightly tanned. The seafood is undeniably delicious, but after a lobster roll, lobster BLT, and lobster pasta, I’m so done. We do make it to some local diners, which are full of old guys who make googly eyes at the baby and hit on the waitresses. The diners are probably our favorite part.

We do relax at home and read – in creepy levels of deafening silence. We try turning on the radio but it’s like we’re in Nashville judging by the available stations — country, country, oldies, evangelism. Our TV gets one channel successfully, occasionally two. At night the lack of light coming in through the garage window-cum-stained glass appliquéd tiny house window is totally disconcerting.

The air was definitely fresher, though. The state park near our house was full of beautiful little glens and trails, and walking on the rocks next to crashing waves felt amazing.

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It might have been a snap judgement, but it seemed like the Northeast is called New England for a reason – some sort of variant of English culture seems to permeate everything. People stick to themselves. You can order a full English breakfast, only it’s called a Maine breakfast, and it comes with an egg, beans, toast, and is totally delicious. I mean, I’ve never been to England, but Portland seemed very different from NYC in a very distinct and Englishy way.

Also similar to England (?), Maine seemed to be populated by Scandinavian-Irish stock who were the farmers and the fishermen and a certain type of dark-haired English-y person who were the owners of very large vacation homes.

We got to meander around downtown Portland, which felt almost scrubbed-clean and devoid of population compared to NY. We hopped a ride on the mailboat ferry which services the populations of neighboring islands that lack road access to the mainland. I spied a group of hardworking local men on the mailboat eyeing us up in a not-too-pleasant way, and realized we stuck out obviously as not being from there.

Portland is not our home

The Fantasy

While walking the streets of Portland, I begin to feel the dawning of a deep sense of belonging, and of being home. I look at the houses and happily imagine our lives flourishing here. We’d buy a converted loft warehouse with a metal spiral staircase and a rooftop balcony looking out on the harbor, or we’d find an 1800’s farmhouse inland and begin laying in the garden and fixing the place up. We would snuggle into the soil of the town and our roots would take hold. We’d be able to live affordably enough to pursue things which truly interest us, art and writing, and our children would grow up in a lively household filled with culture.

The Reality

Portland is a small, practical, mainly conservative, working-class city with a tiny population of urban, liberal creative imports from places like Brooklyn, and another small population of homesteaders with a slow-living, hippie kinda vibe. A and I are not searching for the lifestyle of any of these communities. I guess we’d come closest to “liberal urban creative import”, but that has a certain yuppy-ish connotation neither of us are comfortable with. Slow-living hippie homesteader sounds nice in fantasy, but the reality of living an isolated, rural life is not something I think I can currently handle. Portland’s population is also almost entirely racially homogenous which made me feel uncomfortable in ways I can’t put a finger on.

Coming back to NY

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We drove back overnight so the baby would sleep the whole way. Finally making it back to the NYC highway deathtrap in the early hours of September 12, two lights were streaming upward from the Twin Tower site in downtown Manhattan. Cars zipped in front of us, unmarked white delivery vans were honking their horns and puttering along, late night revelers blasted deep basslines that reverberated out of tinted windows.

The amount of total relief I felt as soon as I saw the skyline took me by surprise. Feeling a small rush of adrenaline and realizing “hey, I live here, this is my home” was one of the best feelings I’ve experienced in a while. Groggy with lack of sleep, stumbling out on the curb in front of our building at 5AM, seeing our little street already full of people – a girl saying goodbye to her visiting mom, a jogger, a man outside with his dogs, a couple early morning pacers – I was immersed in a place where things were Happening. People were living. We were Doing Things, even though it is often a very tough slog.

That sense of belonging dawned on me then, and even though NY is barely affordable and we wear ourselves to the bone keeping up with the daily demands of living here, I am happy to call it home (for now).

I’m sort of glad we went to Portland, even though I also deeply regret wasting our hard-won resources for something that didn’t turn out to be fruitful. I never want to move there, but I’m glad I saw that for myself. New York is our home, for now, for better or worse. Next time I get a stock bonus we’ll know how to spend it the right way. And next time we go on a vacation we will know what to do differently.

We looked for a new place to call home, we didn’t find it (pt. 1)

Early last year, I wrote about escapist fantasies of owning a country house in Spain. This year, A, our baby, and I were able to take our first vacation in two and a half years, and we decided to visit Portland, Maine.

I chose Portland for the proximity to NYC yet distance away from NYC crowds, the relaxing beaches, because we’d both been curious about what the rest of the northeast was like, because of Stephen King novels set in Maine, specifically that signature creepy-cozy vibe, because a few lifestyle bloggers (ok, one blogger, Soulemama, guilty pleasure) of whom I’ve been a longtime reader live near Portland, and:

Because it seemed like an affordable, pleasant, pretty place to live. No escapist fantasies necessary.

The Blissful, Domestic, All-American Dream

I could imagine a life with myself, A, our daughter and potential future kids, living in an old downtown Portland loft or a cozy little three-bedroom house, working at small companies in creative industries, maybe a little side business for extra cash. Our kids would be safe and provided for, in good public schools while we squirreled away money to help with college. We wouldn’t be wealthy but we wouldn’t feel the wolf breathing down our necks like we do in NYC. We’d be comfortable. We’d have a yard. A charming wood-burning stove. I’d have a lovely garden full of flowers and vegetables. I could go to the seashore when I needed a little nourishment of the soul to watch the roiling waters. I’d spend all winter knitting, baking, and roasting. I’d make a few friends with other moms with kids my kids’ ages. A would get three big dogs and write a lot while the kids and the dogs played outside.

A feasible dream. Very doable! If we wanted, we could probably fulfill this dream by the time baby girl started kindergarten, perfect timing.

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Fuel for the fire

In Brooklyn, we can sort of afford a one-bedroom apartment and daycare at the same time. Renting a two-bedroom would be barely doable. Actually buying a condo, much less a house, with more than one bedroom is a distant and unattainable dream.

With a few years’ scrimping and saving, at our current income level, we could reasonably put together a down payment of 10-20% for something in the $200-300K range. In Brooklyn, that would afford us a one-bedroom condo in a cheap neighborhood. In Portland, that would get us a whole house. And a really nice house, at that.

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8 Anderson Street – $279,000

East End, Portland. 5 bedroom, 1.5 bathroom – Up and coming neighborhood, beautiful and unique architecture, tons of space, so cheap. Yes, please.

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71 Gorham Road – $175,000

Scarborough, ME. 5 bedroom, 2 bathroom. Classic, beautiful, just a little creepy in a good way. Cheap. Fixer-upper, but worth it?

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33 Sawyer Street – $207,000

Back Cove, Portland. “The authenticity of yesteryear. Beauty infused w/color and creative collaboration of old and new-wood floors, tin ceiling, huge original windows w/old glass, tall ceilings and more. … When at home enjoy the screened porch and open front porch, perennial gardens, sit in the yard and listen to the wind rustle the leaves or sit by the firepit. Contentment, peace, and joy…guaranteed.” Totally doable, and that description…

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12 Green Street – $275,000

Gorham, ME. 6 bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms. Out in the country. Total creepy-cozy vibe, massive, and massively affordable.

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6 Quartermasters Diamond Cove Ct – $387,000

East End, Portland. 3 bedroom, 2.5 bathroom. A comparative splurge, but lofted ceilings, renovations, and gorgeous old industrial architecture make it covetable.

Escapist Finance: Spanish Countryside Farmhouse Living

The Backstory

Ever since I can remember, I have been an escapist. In middle school, whenever life got a little too monotonous, predictable, stifling, claustrophobic — I’d run away mentally, immersing myself in books or spending hours gazing out my bedroom window and imagining what I’d do when I got older. I drew elaborate pictures detailing my dreams and searched for talismans of a glamorous future at yard sales, thrift stores, pretty boutiques. I collected tiny jeweled boxes and bangles and beautifully saturated fabrics, wishing they would magically grow bigger and whisk me away. Whenever I was unhappy I imagined running away to somewhere exotic and fulfilling, my future, my adulthood. I was certain that place existed and that I could and would get there. Maybe after high school. Maybe after college.

I’m definitely an adult now. I’m done with high school and college. I’ve even moved to a big, glamorous city and had lots of little adventures before and since. But to my surprise, the deep-seated desire to escape has never left me, not even a little bit.

I still crave that nebulous sense of Total Satisfaction and Complete Belonging, which is hard to pin down. I attach it to physical things, like beautiful objects and places in the world, like I have always done. I realize a lot of it is within myself, and I’m not sure how to unlock that, but something I can do, now that I am a big grown adult lady with an income, is figure out ways of making my fantasies come true — and in the process, hopefully figuring out why, and if I really do, want it to happen.

The Fantasy

I buy an ancient, gorgeous cottage in the Spanish countryside that needs a little fixing up. I move there with A and our baby/future children and we take our time renovating the house, tending to the surrounding acre or two of olive groves, almond trees, and peach orchards. I harvest treats from our rich vegetable garden and collect fresh eggs from chickens every morning. The kids get dressed in their uniforms and go to the school in the local town. A and I get to know all the neighbors and butchers, bakers, and shop owners in the town and slowly but surely establish a rapport, trading tidbits of information and goods. We get to know other families in the area and meet them for a glass of wine and some tapas in town on weeknights, or invite them over for a farm-fresh outdoor feast every once in a while. We sell our produce to local shops and at weekend markets. We build room for a studio and I begin creating beautiful, delicate yet earthy ceramics and huge paintings. A begins to write in earnest, forging a strong book, and then another. We support ourselves in this way, and our children grow up with a love for art, nature, family, and friends. We take trips every few months to other beautiful places in Europe, and when the time comes, our children set off on their own adventures, to college (affordable!), to travel, and to live.

Fuel for the Fire

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1. “Situated in a forest valley, and almost unseen from surrounding roads, the hamlet is only about 6 or 7 kilometres from the facilities of A Pontenova.” – Country house for sale – A Pontenova – $47,000

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2. “This very large village farmhouse has no end of possibilities. Standing on a total of 1100 m2 it could be renovated into a huge family home, or hotel or apartments.” – Aliaga Village House for sale – $96,000

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3. “The views across to the Els Ports national Park are breathtaking, and although these photos were taken very early on a misty morning in February, I think you can get the general idea.” – Lledo Finca for sale – $62,000

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4. “The climate in this area is a pleasant microclimate with mild temperatures, ideal for growing quality vines, citrus trees and many other different type of fruit trees.” – O Savinao Country house for sale – $16,000

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5. “If you are looking for a quiet, peaceful hideaway, but not too far from a village, here it is!
Just over 1 hectare of cultivated land stretching down to the river. There is an olive grove, and a large vegetable garden, and views across the countryside is beautiful.” – Finca in Rafales – For Sale – $74,000

The Reality

Choosing the Right Place — Looking at Google street view, watching YouTube videos, and reading Wikipedia entries only gets me so far. I’d have to visit the place, as well as local villages and towns first before deciding to buy property in the area. A and I have discussed becoming teaching assistants in Spain through a government-run program, which may be the most cost-effective way of staying in Spain and exploring various regions.

Buying the Property — First, we would have to save up enough money for a down payment, or for the cheaper properties, possibly enough to pay in full. Currently, A and I are only able to save tiny, tiny amounts of money. Maybe if I get promoted, we can start shoveling funds away, but that’s a very tenuous maybe.

Navigating the Intricacies of the Spanish Market — Could be time-consuming and complex. A and I both speak Spanish so we have some advantage, but it would probably be a nightmarish web of legalities and regulations unless we have tons of money to throw at a lawyer to line things up on our behalf.

Learning How to Farm — Maybe a finca is not the ideal purchase for us, unless we are willing to invest in farm equipment, learning the ins and outs of fertilizing, pest control, and selling product on the market. Maybe if we limit it to a few hectares, it will be doable, although properties of up to ~20 hectares are available for extremely reasonable prices with already established orchards/groves.

We Seem to Enjoy City Living — That is, I have never actually tried country-living, farming, or even intensive gardening. Maybe doing a longterm rental would allow us to experience the lifestyle before getting committed to it. Or maybe we would rather live in a city but have a cheap, fixer-upper country house to escape to on weekends/vacations.

Renovating: Money Pit, Smart Investment Idea, or Labor of Love? — Not sure we would even enjoy spending money on fixing up a country house. Maybe we’d prefer to spend money doing other things instead. If it’s an investment, the end result of more money could offset the temporary less money. If it’s a labor of love, it’s for good – it would be our house, our little hideaway in the world. But although that sounds romantic, I’m not sure if I’d regret it in the end.

Why Spain? — I am not really sure. I like Spanish food and culture, and have enjoyed traveling there in the past. I am especially attracted to medieval architecture, roman influences, and way Spaniards eat. Food is important to both me and A. I am also attracted to the fact that it is a non-English-speaking country, but that I still speak the language. I like that Spain is connected to the rest of Europe. I like that Spain doesn’t really have it together – although I would probably not like this if I worked there professionally. Working for myself in the midst of beautiful surroundings, eating well, traveling a lot, having access to a higher standard of living (in terms of healthcare and education) – these are things I am attracted to.

Coming up next: How much would we have to earn to live in Spain comfortably? What would our income, working for ourselves, look like? How much would we have to earn now to be able to save up for down payment and renovations? Hard numbers coming soon!

Turning Our Scrappy Apartment Into A Paradise

The apartment my boyfriend, our dog, and I share could definitely be described as scrappy. Maybe even ugly, or unpleasant. An Apartment Therapy tour would probably call it “Amanda’s Scrappy, Sort of Gross Mish-Mash of Cheap IKEA Furniture and Hand-Me-Downs (You Live In Brooklyn, Shouldn’t You Be Leaning More Toward the  Eclectic?)”. It’s a really sad state of affairs.

The weird thing is, I love reading Apartment Therapy and clicking through the tour slideshows. I love absorbing gorgeous photos of European apartments and villas posted on My Paradissi. I even love taking quick peeks in other people’s apartments when I walk my dog at night. Interiors and architecture stun me, and have ever since I was a little kid, carefully flipping through my mom’s coffee table books of Nantucket homes or ogling at interesting-looking houses in my hometown.

If you walk into my apartment now, you’d find it bare-bones and messy. We just moved in a few weeks ago and we’re on a strict budget (extra cash winds up going toward a nice meal out or a new shirt for work), so new furniture or aesthetic niceties have been last on our priority list.

can you find: the a/c? dirty laundry basket? blanket? shoes? dog?    Yes, that is our TV.

But we’re doing a little better now. The end of the month doesn’t see us scraping the bottom of the barrel. We have a tiny margin of cash that we can use for nice things, and we really should, with the surprise on the way.

I see a lot of potential for a beautiful, warm, comfortable apartment. I feel conflicted, on one hand — should we spend money on this, when what we have is functional? And on the other hand — I want to feel at home in my home, and I think we can do it without spending thousands and thousands.

The old bed frame broke, the sheets are ancient             at least we have a big kitchen

Out of all the rooms, I think the bedroom needs the most work. We don’t even have a bedframe since our old one broke, and our clothes are stored in plastic storage drawers. I picked up some curtains out of necessity, but (why did I do this?) got a different style for each window, and accidentally got one purple and one grey curtain for the second (you can see it slightly in the photo). I am still thinking of how to make our bedroom nice without spending too much.

In a dream world, I’d want our apartment to look like one part countryside Spanish villa and one part warm Japanese minimalism. Something like these two styles combined:

from myparadissi.com muji!

 

They both have beautiful wood and textiles in common, as well as plants and green things. They both feel warm and welcoming to me.

I want to make my house feel like this but I don’t really know where to start!

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The one real thing I did do this weekend, that I’ve been wanting to do as soon as the weather was warm enough, was plant a garden! Yellow heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and plum tomatoes, lettuce, basil, and mint. I planted them all together in a leftover wine box on my fire escape. I don’t know if they’ll grow well together, or if I should have potted some of them separately, but I dreamed of eating home grown salads this summer, and I hope my plan will work! I want to add on more pots of lettuce, radishes, peppers, maybe in window planters, and several indoor trays of microgreens.

The summer is coming, and the surprise will be here at the very end of this year. I have to prepare for it and make our apartment into a welcoming, warm, loving home. I have so many ideas that I want to try and little by little, I will.