When being bad is good: the tax refund trip that rescued us

It’s August 5, 2011.

I’m sitting in a cafe off of the highway south of San Francisco sipping coffee. The front page I hold — a free copy of the San Mateo County Examiner — carries news of yet another market crash.

My husband sits across from me and snaps a picture of me holding the newspaper so we remember the date. He is under-employed as he has been for last two years, try as he has to find a teaching job in Michigan, poster state for economic collapse, its rusting shells of manufacturing giants physical reminders of economic turmoil and despair and hardship.

Why were we there, in Michigan, and then, the California cafe?

There are three reasons.

First of all, my mom had become sick. Her diagnosis with terminal cancer prompted Mark to turn down a good job offer at a university in Chicago. Instead, I found lower-paying work in the southeast corner of the state where I grew up, Michigan. We moved so I could be with my mom.

Weeks after moving, we found out I was pregnant with our daughter. I treaded water, tired and trying not to drown, occasionally projectile vomiting on the way to an assignment. It was hard to make a living for two adults and one forthcoming person in small-town digital (read: no money in it) media. My daughter’s pending arrival became the best kind of diversion, a light in dark times. My mom came up with her name — Laila June. While pregnant, I waddled with my mom to chemo sessions and walked with her and her dimwitted-yet-loyal Chihuahua Isabelle in the park down the street. Later, after Laila was born, I consulted the wacky weed doc when my mom’s pain intensified to the point she could no longer move. Gayle passed on grass. The grass wasn’t going to do the trick. One of her last procedures killed the nerve endings around her spine so she could no longer feel the pain caused by the tumors that would not stop.

Here’s the second reason we sat at that cafe: In the spring of 2011, probably because of the austere existence brought on by the chain of events that led us to Michigan, we got a big tax refund.

We blew it all on a last-minute trip to see friends marry under the Redwoods in northern California’s Big Sur region.

Highway 1

That August, as I sat in the California cafe, my mom had been gone just 10 months.

As for the third reason we found ourselves sitting in a cafe off of the highway — I don’t think I understood it fully at the time. We needed to invest in each other. We needed to escape the drudgery and to reassure ourselves that we could be happy again, individually and together. As life-affirming as those last months with my mom were, the eventual gut-wrenching loss turned my world upside down.  My mom died when my daughter hit six months, and my own long and torturous grieving process began. And in my experience, no matter how lovely a little bundle of joy may be, an infant’s first year of life throws a relationship totally out of whack. That was true for Laila — a healthy little buddy and the queen of the the chill baby set — and it was true years later for Eli — a little guy who came with two emergency surgeries, a deadly diagnosis and an ironclad will to live. Add to the already toxic mix for a married couple Mark’s under-employment — he raised our daughter, worked as a substitute teacher and at a deli. He enrolled in a community college to re-train in a health field, acing his science courses, only to learn the wait list for his preferred new line of work stretched on for years.

I’m sure it raised eyebrows in our inner circle that a young family standing on such tenuous financial ground would stash a 1.5-year-old with relatives, blow a comforting tax refund and make it for the West Coast. If it was a bum move, we didn’t care. Even with life’s bright spots in Michigan — good times with pals and my daughter’s first everything — we were living with a type of misery that wasn’t worth explaining to anyone and that only we could understand.

If California was a mistake, it was the best we ever made. Even today, with a good four years of perspective under my belt, with my own ongoing July spending freeze and minimalist dreams and focus on frugal habits and my contemplation of the fact that stress is a trigger that tempts me to swipe plastic, even with all of that, — I’m so glad we did blow that cash.

We booked it. We stashed Laila. We left.

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We pulled off the highway in San Mateo County and got breakfast on our first day in California.

Later, I jumped off a boulder into a cold and clear mountain pool and it washed away my misery. We drank good beer under the Redwoods and it strained the stress from our souls. The winds off of the coast whipped my hair and stripped away my grief and sorrow.

We discovered we were not only still in love, but that we liked each other. We could laugh. Life could be good again. Our friends are the best, that never changed. The world is big, and interesting, and wonderful, and experiencing it together and especially with our friends remained then and remains now one of our greatest joys.

Was it financially smart to move from Chicago to Michigan, my new husband passing up a solid job offer in favor of a my meager salary and proximity to my dying mother?


Then after she died, should we have rejuvenated our busted souls by taking walks in the park down the street rather than the Redwood forests?

Most likely.

Cash in the bank shouldn’t steer every decision. I don’t regret moves like these that salved hurting hearts- my mom’s, my own and Mark’s.

We were bad, and it was good. Was the trip a magic pill that solved all of our problems? No. But it sure helped.

Below, we drive down Lombard Street.

Have you ever taken a trip considered “a bad idea” given your financial circumstance at the time? What made you decide to go for it? Was it a mistake? Or, do you have no regrets? Why or why not? xo send me a note using the contact form at the bottom of this post or leave a comment below. xoxoxoxoxox

I like to write about cash money. I like to write at the intersection of money and emotion. Follow me top right via e-mail, on Twitter and Facebook as I figure it all out. In a world of Facebook braggarts and Insta perfection, I write about messing up.




Frugal lady, budget beauty: 3 skin products I love right now

Pale and freckled creature that I am, I’ve been slathering on moisturizer with SPF since the mid-1990s tanning bed heyday.

Continue reading Frugal lady, budget beauty: 3 skin products I love right now

3 ways to shed stuff and save

Mark and I have been brainstorming along the lines of de-cluttering our lives and saving cold hard cash, and here are a few things we came up with that we just might try.

1. Garage sale
It sounds so simple, so quaint: “Let’s have a garage sale.” Anyone who has held one of these events knows setting up a shop in a yard or garage can be a pain at best and an episode of “Hoarders” at worst. Mark and I have been like rolling stones these past few but we’ve gathered a whole bunch of moss: stuff. Kid stuff, sentimental stuff, stuff, stuff stuff. Also, in the past four years, I’ve had two kids and been in more pants sizes than you can shake a stick at. It’s not like I think pants are a hot seller, but I’m saying I have clothes to sell. Jewelry to offer up. Books like Infinite Jest that I’m not going to have the time to read any time soon, so I might as well stop kidding myself, sell my copy and visit the library if the mood to crack that one open ever strikes. We’ll pick a date for early spring and see how this goes.

Shed stuff and save.
Shed stuff and save.

2. 1-week spending freeze
The TLC show “Extreme Cheapskates” gave me this idea. For that show, on which people dumpster dive for gifts for spouses and wipe bums with washcloths to save on TP, a one-week freeze seemed pretty moderate. I saw the episode with a spending freeze a while back. Come to think of it, though, the guy with the idea also ate road kill to save money. Last week, my friend Erika suggested I read a blog post from a gent whose family does a *month long* freeze and give it a try. I don’t see how a month would be possible for my family, but I can envision a week of no spending. For a month, I suppose you’d have to stockpile throughout the year with that idea in mind. It would also help to live somewhere with good public transit and/or biking-to-work options. That does not describe OKC. Any way, I’m willing to try a one-week freeze, though we’d have to freeze some recipes and stockpile diapers to do it.

3. Experience over stuff
This is more of a philosophy, a pre-emptive strike on stuff. Mark and I have been budgeting a little bit each month for our personal discretionary funds — I’m talkin $50 to $100. That means he can’t hassle me when I show up with the occasional fashionable thingy. I can’t get sassy when he gets fancy and … OK, he doesn’t do anything fancy. The poor man just wants to have lunch with his friends now and again. Maybe instead of getting *things,* *I* could save up for an experience — and Mark and I could get to a movie together now and again. We could apply this theory in different ways beyond our meager personal budgets. Tighter budgeting all around yields more savings. We want to carve out cash from our savings for experiences — namely, vacations. Because while we want to save and have more peace of mind about our financial well being, we want to live, too. We want to get out into the world outside our home, where there are no laundry piles or dirty dishes, just fresh air to breath and new places to see and memories to take home.

Thanks for reading! My family is trying to save more and knock down around $40K in student loans and another $5-6K in other debts. I try to write about our effort every Monday in an effort dubbed Money Madness.

How much cash did a garage sale yield for you? Was it worth it or were you driven to the precipice of hell and back? What do you think about a spending freeze — would you try this or is this something you have tried? Are you a stuff person or an experience person? Let me know if any of these ideas worked for you. If you have another to add along these lines I’d love to hear it.