Living Just Enough for the City- Thriving in Chicago Despite High Cost of Living

Chicago LivingI paid $150 worth of parking and speeding camera tickets today. Earlier this year I got a couple more $100 red light violations (courtesy of the new red light cameras) and both myself and my husband got speeding warnings earlier this year as well.

Let me just say, Chicago is a great place to live, really. But more and more, it’s become really hard to stay afloat here in the city limits. With the schools and crime in the news daily, no wonder residents have felt the sting of urban living to the utmost for many years. On the flip side, there is phenomenal access to opportunity- a thriving financial district, a beautiful arts scene, exciting night life & dining, plenty of platforms to jump start an entertainment or political career and the list goes on. This access comes with a price, however.

The conversation continues- Why is Chicago taxing its citizens with fines, fees and burdens that make living costs so high. Furthermore, many point out that these fines tend to disproportionately affect the poor. Welp, I can agree, high taxes, rents, fines etc. can make it hard for someone barely getting by.

We made the decision long ago that we would not be taxed, fined or run out of our city because of financial woes. It’s a place of defeat no one should have to tolerate. While it would be nice if ordinances changed to lessen the financial impact for Chicagoans, it just isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Until the laws change, we are basically self-insuring. Yep, that means we will have to take matters into our own hands and save money for little emergencies like towing and  red light tickets. I agree it shouldn’t have to be this way, but if the city doesn’t have our best interest in mind, we are going to have to do the unthinkable- have an emergency savings fund. Yes! Actually forgo eating out at times and spending every dime that comes in and put aside money for emergencies. It sounds strange, but so far it has meant the difference between survival and disaster for our clan.

It wasn’t always this way for us, believe me. There were times we were one street cleaning ticket away from the brink of destruction! But as the years have gone by, we finally came to the conclusion that if the city won’t care for us, we might actually have to care for ourselves.

Dave Ramsey, one of America’s favorite financial guru’s, suggests starting out with at least a $1,000 emergency fund. Once your debt is paid down that should increase to 3-6 months of expenses.

If you live in Chicago, here are a few doosies you should always be prepared to cover (have your emergency fund in place):

1) Rising property taxes- even in the “least desirable” areas, keep a stash of cash in case your bill goes up next year. This bill is due twice a year, so save your money monthly to cover the bill when it’s due.

2) Utilities- gas bills can be up to $2,000 a year! Especially if you live in an older home without updated energy saving doors and windows. The budget plan can space this cost out with monthly payments and usually no extra administrative cost or interest.

3) Car expenses- This is a HUGE one. I once got a $200 ticket for not have a city sticker! Make sure all your stickers (plates and city) are up to date. Pay close attention to tow zones, restricted parking areas (like the ones that convert for rush hour and street cleaning.) Pay any and all parking, speeding or red light tickets right away. If they add up, you will soon get a boot. Also, be aware of pot holes, if you hit one, you could get a flat. The city will reimburse you for the cost to fix it, but it can take up to 6 months! Ouch. Let’s not leave out gas. Illinois pays some of the nation’s highest prices for gas. I’ve pulled up to the pump after people who’ve put as little as $2.00 in their tank! It gets real here, folks.

4) Property citations- Grass not cut? Fence torn up? Garbage lingering in the alley? You could get cited by the city.

5) Owing the city- Having any outstanding bill whether it’s a water bill (these get massive for multi-units), child support or infractions, you become ineligible for things that can actually put you ahead in Chicago. If you want to contract with the city, obtain a business license, serve on a nonprofit board or take advantage of the $1 lot give-aways, you have to be in right standing with the city, period.

6) Property damage: due to vandalism and aging- If you live in a high crime area, you might be familiar with the the theft of copper from air conditioning units. I know several people this has happen to (including us) that caused permanent damage to their unit. In fact we’ve not had A/C since 2012!  I’ve heard of other stories where people lost electrical service due to vandalism. Besides that, Chicago is an old city with old structures. Old buildings just get old, so make plans to cover repairs for them. Another items to sock away money for monthly.

I am sure this is not a comprehensive list, but really a starting point to get you thinking seriously about protecting your income and preserving your sanity here in the “Chi.”

Can you think of any thing else your emergency fund might be helpful for to help ease the high cost of living in Chicago?

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Marriage Works!

Marriage Works!

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Celebrating 10 Years of Financial Partnership (& Marriage)

Kelvin & Aja Anniversary

This week, my husband and I are celebrating 10 years of marriage. This is major for me, as I was, very honestly, concerned about our prospects of making it. Not because of my husband, but really more of me. As somewhat of a “laid back” type-A personality (if there is such a thing,) I thought I’d scare my wonderful husband away after a while. Well, I am so happy to report that he’s is still here and willing to keep going :)

Our marriage has not been without trials, but I can say for the most part it’s been wonderful having such a gracious, endearing soul mate by my side throughout the past few years. What’s even more wonderful is that this man has not only been my husband, but also a supportive partner in many of our life goals, especially the financial ones. In 10 years of marriage, he’s totally bought into the vision of being debt free and building wealth, kingdom style. He’s faithfully gone to work each day to provide steady income and benefits for our family while I tried my hand at starting and running my technology consulting company. Yes, this man has been awesome and exemplifies covenant financial partnership at its best!

Before I get verbose and this post rambles on, I just want to make the point that marriage can be weathered when there is an end goal in mind. Our vision was to encourage others to pursue their dreams, build wealth and advance the kingdom of God by way of financial freedom. We had to decide very early on that we’d definitely have to live what we would preach.  I believe that is what kept the “marriage glue” effective throughout all these years. Our goals and our vision wouldn’t let us throw in the towel so easily!

After 10 years of marriage I am proud to say that we’ve been able to totally pay off our bills and begin saving and building wealth. It’s been a tough journey at times, but it’s been worth it to see the faces of our peers light up when they realized what we’ve accomplished. We look just like them- two eyes, a nose, two hands, etc.- totally human! Yet, the only differences between us are the decisions we’ve made and the effort we’ve put behind them. I am also proud to say that we’ve met a number of couples who’ve been inspired by us and have decided to take the leap together- to pay off debt, to build wealth and to advance the kingdom of God one small decision at a time. For this I am grateful, making this 10 year anniversary celebration that much sweeter.

If you’ve not yet sat down with your spouse to cast the vision of what your future together looks like along with the legacy you hope to leave for the next generations, I would encourage you to do so today. It could mean the difference between a marriage that thrives successfully and one that does not. In the tough times,  the vision will speak, guide, protect,  and encourage. Make the choice to weather-proof your marriage today, because the storms will come, it’s up to you to be ready for them.

Proverbs 29:8- Where there is no vision, the people perish

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Frugal Fridays- Resist the Urge to Dine Out with this Neat Hack

It’s Friday, surprise! You knew it was coming. It’s been a tough week and all you want to do is hunker down in front of the tube with a large bowl of _________ (your favorite snack goes there) and totally let go.

Around 8:00pm you get that feeling, you should have something more hearty to eat. Something that appropriately rewards your hard work and dedication to the work game this past week. The idea hits you: Take Out! Chinese, pizza, BBQ and Mexican are some of my favorite go to’s. But a month of this behavior for a family of 4 can get out of control quickly both financially and of course on the health front.

In an earlier post, I gave you some ideas about what to cook on these days. Realistically, there are time when it’s just not in you to do so. I have a back up plan for when that happens. We call it “box food.” Something so rare in our home, that it is literally reserved for special occasions and those infrequent times that someone in the Mac tribe doesn’t cook.

Here are a few items I’ve found to quench the Friday night take-out-itis:

1) Ethnic Fare from Trader Joe’s – We once spent $60 at an Indian restaurant. Whoa! TJ’s has a nice variety of items like paneer, chick peas, curry chicken and lamb, basmati rice and naan. One afternoon, we thoroughly enjoyed a full Indian meal from TJ at less than 1/3 the price of our restaurant outing. They have other ethnic foods if you are in the mood for Mexican, Italian or Chinese as well.

2) Frozen Pizza- I stash a box of 4 from Costco in our freezer. At $10.00 for all four pies, it’s not a bad consolation prize for the kids who really wanted the local pizzeria. They will thank me one day.

3) Organic Macaroni & Cheese- Again a rarity to keep our health on track, this has been a life saver time and time again. It has saved whining and complaining about the meal selection as well as trips to the restaurant.

What are some of your weekend or I-just-don’t-want-to-cook-but-I-need-to-eat-good hacks? Share!

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Bootstrapper’s Guide to Wealth: Tip #247

medium_4084706293In my 20s I sat around fantasizing about the day that my start up would get a crazy valuation along with an injection of cash to the tune of millions. I even went so far as to envision my first IPO (because of course I would have many IPOs.) I read books on venture capitalism, private equity and hung out with folks from Harvard Business School who assured me of how easy it was to get a few billionaire dollars or so under management at my very own private equity firm (which I’d launch after my first few IPOs, duh.)

Even though I found it difficult to manage my own check book,  stay out of overdraft status at the bank, pay bills on time and the like, I thought it was totally possible that’d I’d be a CEO millionaire in charge of hundreds, no wait- thousands of employees. Yes, life would be grand. I expected this to happen around the age of 25!

I still believe in that dream, but the delusion I bought in to get there was severe to say the least. I can still have a million dollar plus net worth with many employees, but it took me a long time to realize that I would have to have some character traits worthy of such a responsibility.

I woke up one day and realized that the way I dealt with my personal life- relationships and personal finance alike, would be detrimental to my plans for greatness. That’s when we started on the long, arduous (yet totally worth it) journey of becoming debt free. Yes, we had to get our own lives in order before we could even think about doing anything else of substance.

Bootstrapper’s Guide to Wealth: Tip #247: Get your personal finances in order before launching into business.

photo credit: ‘PixelPlacebo’ via photopin cc

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5 Holiday Budget Items You Can’t Forget to Add

5budgetWe hear this mantra from all the personal finance gurus around the holidays: plan, plan and do more planning so you DON’T overspend. It’s hard when you are in the thick of things, but here are a few things I’ve always underestimated around the Holidays:

1) Mo’ Food- Between potlucks, food swaps and the kids being home and out with you more than usual (think about all the extra errands you will be running and the 2 weeks off from school they will have), you WILL need to feed your tribe more than usual. Also let’s not forget all the cooking you will do for Thanksgiving, Christmas (Eve & Day), New Years (Eve & Day.)

2) Digs- You will be going to Christmas plays and recitals along with visiting Aunt Betty. You will want tights for your girls and ties for the tiny gents. You will want to make a good impression at the office holiday party. Pick a few essentials and keep it moving!

3) Home Improvements- You may be having guests over and feel like this would be a nice time to update the paint color in the living room or add pillows to the couch for a cozier feel in your home. You can put kitchen gadgets in this category as well. Whatever you are thinking, try to plan early so you don’t succumb to over-priced holiday “deals.”

4) Additional Gas Money- Again with the road-tripping and excessive errands, you’ll want to add a few more dollars to the fuel pool during these last few months of the year.

5) Impromptu Giving- One of my favorites! If done right,  you could be ready to buy a stranger’s latte or pick-up a “Dear Santa” letter from your local post office. This is the season where we celebrate joy, love and goodwill towards our fellow neighbors. Don’t let impulsive spending sprees for others get you off track, however. If well planned, this could be the very best part of your holiday season!

DISCLAIMER: These additions should be done within reason and consider our current financial position. If we are knee-deep in debt and late on many bills, our additions should be limited or maybe even non existent. For the financially insolvent, the only line item should be: FIX FINANCES. Not fun, but I have to put it out there so we are all spending responsibly this time of year.

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It’s the Weekend Baby! Arrgghhh….It’s Monday Already?

Since I missed Frugal Friday, I will do a general weekend posting. The weekend is a tough one for me. Sometime it’s happy and relaxing and others it’s been pure toil and stress. Sometimes it is payday and sometimes it’s not. Most of the time, I attempt to clear my calendar and put a fun spin on my shopping/cleaning day. Since I work from home, that isn’t difficult. But what can be difficult is harnessing the total feeling of  “I’m done and DONE!” Meaning as of 12:01am Friday morning I am pretty much checked out and ready to spend time with the kiddies and do some of the things I missed out on during the week.

Well, sometime this doesn’t go over that well for me because that attitude has carried me into poor planning due to my tendency to totally check out on these days. Rest is a for-sure need, but I want to make sure this intense relaxation doesn’t ruin my life because of impulsive decisions I make to combat the “trauma” I’ve experienced during the week.

For starters, I’m making a list of things I can include in my Fridays to have more control and even more rest throughout the weekend. Here’s what I hope to become habitual parts of my life when the weekend starts:

1) Plan BEFORE payday- If it’s payday, I should have bills planned out by Wednesday or Thursday to avoid the payday “dash” to the store for groceries, etc. This happens about 75% of the time now. Really, my goal is to not even know payday is coming other than the fact that bills need to be sent off. There have been times when we were like, “Is it pay day tomorrow?” because we were not in dire need of groceries, car repairs, etc. that were sitting around waiting for payday. It is happening more and more, especially as my business income increases, but I’d definitely like it to be more common. However, the point here is to plan before the Friday deposit hits, not Tuesday morning.

2) Wake-up in time for prayer, writing and exercise- I’ve found that I can control my spending, appetite, temper and a load of other things if I make time for these self- disciplining activities. There is just something about mentally checking out because a certain day rolls around that is just unhealthy and unproductive. I’ve felt the sting of not having it together come the weekend all my life. Some have been better than others, but I’m ready for a new track record.

3) Reserve time for fun & rest- I started blocking my calendar Friday afternoons and so far, it’s been great. But this alone isn’t useful unless I’ve tended to items #1 and #2. Going out to do things I’m not sure I will regret or not on Monday is really unsettling (like spending a bunch of money, eating a bunch of crazy food and getting absolutely nothing done) makes me less likely to take my rest time. Not that I have to earn this in anyway, planning just makes it more within reason and  more enjoyable.

Join the conversation!

What is your attitude when the weekend comes around? Do you think you get too out-of-control on the weekends? Do these habits make your weekdays more stressful? What can you do to prevent or at least minimize weekend “check-out”?

I’d like to hear your thoughts below!

Photo credit: www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk

 

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A look back at the past and forward into the future

Lodena Pouncey

Lodena Pouncey (nee Banks) ca 1943

Might be a long one, but I know I need the reflection. And it’s totally relevant! Remembering the past to direct the future is definitely  a principle of increase.  This weekend was our family reunion.

My grandmother came from Starksville, Mississipi. She was a part of the mass exodus of blacks from the south to Chicago that started around the 1920s. She left the south, like many black folk, for the prospect of less Jim Crow, more freedom and the chance to acquire for gainful employment. When she made the move, she was young. I don’t know how old, but probably a teen. She came here with some siblings, with whom she remained very close until her death. They came and set up shop. Some stayed, some left, but she remained up North.

No matter what she was doing, she always made the time to go back south. She would hop in a car or van and make the 12 hour drive, sometimes alone, sometimes not, to Mississippi. She had to check on family and friends down south. I’ve heard stories where she purchased land, trailers for the land, let relatives live there and so on. Sometimes she’d go back and connect with nieces and nephews who where the result of her “adventurous” brothers. Let’s just say they were some fertile men! Now matter how far removed or the involvement of her bothers in their child’s lives, she’d take everyone in as family. Sometimes they’d come to stay with her in Chicago as well. My dad has memories of them always going down south even since his childhood. From Mississippi they’d bring things like pecans and chow-chow (pickled cabbage.) We have great cooks in our family, so also brought were recipes for delicious things like collard greens, hot water cornbread, and fried chicken. On the route home, Granny would always stop at a favorite gas station to get fried chicken and potatoes. She also fancied black walnut ice cream, I believe from the same place. By the time my siblings and I started going south with them, we’d pass through Boomland in Missouri for food and cheesy souvenirs. It was the highlight of the trip and still remains as such today. (This time around I really enjoy the pickeled Amish goods and jellies.)

This trip sparked a lot of reflection. It brought up themes that my grandmother must have dealt with going back and forth to her two homes: the one for survival and the other more sanity and sense of belonging. As we traveled down the highways, I noticed the Native American names for campgrounds, counties and the like: Pascagoula, Okatibbee, etc. reminded of the the displaced peoples who once took inhabited the land. It was still a very beautiful place with lots of trees and striking red mud. Until this day people still live on the land in a way that is much more attached than their Northern counterparts.

We drove along roads where Confederate flags were prominent. It made me wonder about what my granny and her family went through in the South during the early 1900s right on through the early 1960s. It seems like no matter how much money they made or how they advanced in life, there was alway the stinging pain of institutionalized racism that reminded them of what was yet to be accomplished for blacks. Thank God for where we are today. Although the struggle is not over, much has been done.

Along the Gulf of Mexico we could see beautiful beaches and rebuilt homes from the devastating effect of hurricane Katrina in 2005. There were 400 homes destroyed in Pascagoula, and almost 300 had been rebuilt! Talk about triumph and overcoming. Even out of the remnants of destruction and pain, a new, beautiful start is possible.

I thought about the legacy of being a good family member. One that would make it a priority to see and help family. To be there in times of need. Over the years many relatives had passed. At this reunion, one of my cousins had recently lost her mom. It was her first reunion without her. She reflected, cried and went through a lot, but the family was there with comfort and great stories about her to ease the pain with light hearted memories. That’s why family is important. We networked, told great stories about what we had in common, what we didn’t and how we were making  life better for ourselves and ultimately the world. We found out how to support each other’s hustle, children and pursuit of the American Dream through hard work, faith and selflessness.

As a youngster, I outwardly shunned these events, but as I get older, I relish them. My children love to go because of the nice hotels and pools. In fact, they think Mississippi is one big swimming pool! But, I like the idea of showing them the importance of family, connecting and belonging. In a world were rejection and dejectedness in inevitable, it’s nice to know that you can always go home and connect. It was a blast being with family this year and I am looking forward to many more to come.

July 2014

July 2014

 

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Not out of the water yet

beach

Chicago’s Lakefront

So this weekend was somewhat emotional, I have to admit. We are still in the throws of padding our “real” emergency fund (as opposed to the baby one of $1,000 Dave Ramsey initially suggests) and it’s been a lot harder than I thought. We decided to host a bible school student in our home this summer who is majoring in urban ministry. She has a heart for under-resourced neighborhoods and the youth that fill them. How could we say no to God’s work? Fortunately, because we are debt free, we didn’t have to. However renovating a bathroom and extra guest room did throw a little monkey wrench into our savings plan. Thankfully, our gut reaction is to go full speed continuing to build up that emergency fund and stay on track with other financial goals. We are not living pay check to pay check anymore, thank God, but we still have a lot to do in the way of finances.

This weekend was a beautiful one. The kind of weekend that would be perfectly spent at a nice pool or water park in the Dells or, better yet, Disney World. Yet, that wasn’t an option for us this because we are still focused on being financially grounded. It was somewhat tempting to start getting down about it. After all, haven’t we “arrived” financially?

Really, eliminating debt was just the FIRST step in our journey. There is saving, giving and living that has to be done still. In fact, I can see us hosting more students, more missionaries and more people who might have a heart to serve in this community. God knows they are needed. So while we didn’t make it to the Dells, I was grateful for the beautiful Chicago Lake Front, where we still had a great time and didn’t have to spend more than a few dollars in gas to get there. I’m more than sure that the “fun” factor wasn’t decreased just because it was a free outing. In fact, I think I can say it was even more fun because on Monday, we’ll still be on track, on budget and exactly where we need to be planning for the future, planning to help people and planning to make the lives of others better. That’s what financial freedom is really about!

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Spent- Looking for Change… a story about the financially underserved

Have you heard of this documentary? Check it out at http://www.spentmovie.com/. It’s narrated by millionaire film mogul, Tyler Perry, presented by American Express and features the story of people who “live outside the traditional banking system.” According to the film, they are people who’ve fallen on hard times due to poor choices and/or life circumstance and are thus faced with the expensive reality of being poor. They must spend money to cash checks perhaps because their bank accounts are overdrawn due to multiple NSF events. They spend money and are subject to high interest fees on payday loans or car title loans. They are hit with fees and fines that are typically associated with the nontraditional banking system.

The stories chronicled in this documented  really hit home. Living from pay check to pay check, one disaster away from catastrophe and the hopeless despair of being broke are all things we can identify with. What really strikes me about this documentary is that, at the end of it all, the solution to these problems are to serve these people in the form of better financial products. The bulk of these products include loans, credit building methods and better access to capital for entrepreneurs (loans.)

I think the attention to the issue of borderline poverty is noble. But why is the answer to financial woes borrowing money? The newly introduced marketing lingo like “financially underserved” ties directly back to American Express’ pre-paid credit card product “Serve.” American Express has a history of capturing the markets of the financially erudite. These people were typically more inclined avoid the downward trending borrowing cycle by using  charge cards, not credit cards. But why the sudden interest in people in the “underserved” areas of banking and credit? It seems to me that if someone can’t qualify for traditional loans, the only way to serve them would to disburse funds at subprime rates. Could that be the motivation here? I’m not sure.

Does anyone see a conflict of interest that a credit card company is providing solutions to the “unbanked” in the form of more credit? This beautiful, sexy credit may have a social mission and moving documentary associated with it, but at the end of the day, you still have to borrow to make ends meet. Only Amex’s solution is to borrow with the swanky, socially conscious,  technology driven methods that they of course endorse, support and underwrite. I could go on, but I’ll leave the remainder of the discussion you…

 

 

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