Building a financial safety net

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When I was younger, I argued that maintaining a full-time career while what you would really like is to stay home with your children – not out of immediate necessity, but out of concern for possible future happenings such as illness, death, or divorce – is akin to living your life out in a bunker instead of being out in the fresh air and smelling the flowers.

In the meantime, I was doing something that was more like walking the tightrope without a safety net underneath. I had moved to a remote, inaccessible area without reliable transportation means, counting on my husband to always provide for our family and effectively making sure that, in the foreseeable future, I would not be able to contribute to the family income. Having no car and no driver’s license, I depended on my husband entirely for every errand and every little grocery store purchase (there being no facilities within walking distance at all).

I didn’t realize it back then, but I was setting myself up for some pretty unpleasant consequences should something go wrong.

Those who have been following my blog know what happened next: over the course of a few years, unemployment, underemployment and unwise financial choices had brought us to a full-blown crisis, while I couldn’t do much more than wring my hands and try to cope with anxiety and panic attacks. I did do some remote work, but even that was extremely difficult with patchy network access.

While I’m still a big proponent of making decisions out of love, not fear, and while I don’t regret for a second being a stay at home mom to my children (which in fact I still am), I would give my younger self one piece of sound advice:

Make sure you have a safety net. Don’t travel down a road that gives you no possibility to do a U-turn in case the you-know-what hits the fan. This doesn’t mean you are a wimp or lack faith. It’s simply common sense.

If I were to break it down into practical points, I would tell her:

1. Keep on building up your credentials even if you think you won’t be needing those. You never know.

2. Think twice (maybe more like ten times) before you move to an area where you would have extremely limited mobility and no services. Even if it’s your quintessential rural dream with rolling hills, olive groves, and herds of goats. If you purchase a house, take into consideration how easy or difficult it might be to sell it later on.

3. While role division in marriage makes perfect sense for many occasions, two heads are better than one. For a long time I used to think I’m displaying loyalty and trust towards my husband by leaving everything concerning the family finances entirely in his hands. In fact, I was doing none of us any favors. My husband was fallible, as was I. Neither of us was perfect in any regard, but it’s always so much worse when you feel pressure to do what is “right” rather than what works practically.

4. Build up your savings. That’s a tricky one with zero income, I know! But in case you come into some money, like after selling a house, stash some away right away and don’t allow it all to be frittered on stuff like food and rent (ask me how I know).

I guess it all boils down to this: don’t put yourself in a situation where you are disproportionately, entirely dependent on another person for all your basic needs. Even if that person is your spouse. Do not place yourself in a situation where you would be unable to help yourself if need be.

I have a friend whose husband, a really nice, hardworking man suffered an accident on the job and has lost his livelihood. Insurance doesn’t come up to scratch. He is undergoing a long and grueling process of physical rehabilitation. However, my friend is keeping afloat because she lives near supportive family and there’s every necessity readily available in the vicinity. The you-know-what has certainly hit the fan for them, but they had not placed themselves in a situation where they wouldn’t have the tools to cope.

I shudder to think what would have happened to me in a similar situation a couple of years ago. I would be left stranded in the boonies with a bunch of tots, unable to help my husband or my children or myself. I count myself lucky to have been able to move to a better, safer place.

Being safe doesn’t mean being a wimp. On the contrary, the wimpy choice is sticking one’s head in the sand and refusing to consider tomorrow.

Finding the balance: working from home with your kids around

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Stay-at-home moms are on call all the time. There’s always something to do at home – it’s more than a full time job! Between settling sibling fights and washing another never-ending stacks of dishes, it’s no wonder most moms of little ones are ready to collapse at the end of the day.

If you throw in home education and extracurricular activities, you get an even busier life.

And if you are also trying to set up a home business or establish yourself as a freelancer? While it may seem (and is often true) that working from home is a family friendly option, enabling parents to still be there to take care of their kids and save time and money on commute, it does come with challenges of its own.

Many work-at-home parents still have hired childcare, which basically makes it no different from any other job – they do have set office hours, it’s just that their office happens to be right where they live. But if you, like me, choose to work from home so that you don’t need to hand your children over to anyone else, your hours become very fluid. You may find yourself locked up in the upstairs bathroom having a video call with a client because that’s the only place where you can be sure of privacy and you really, desperately need those three minutes right NOW.

It may seem extremely difficult, next to impossible, to find time when you seemingly don’t have any, and I’ve had to become very disciplined. I don’t remember the last time I have watched a movie. I only read for pleasure on Shabbat (as a copyeditor, I basically read for a living during the week). My friends (the ones I have left) often complain that I don’t return calls. I often get up early and go to bed late, and I still have to struggle with guilt for having to do some things during the day when my children are awake and need me.

I have implemented early bedtime, even for Shira who will soon be 11, and have also gotten my kids used to the idea that I’m not always available for whatever it is. We have a home office, but I don’t use it because I can’t leave little ones unsupervised during the day. So if I do have work to complete during daytime hours, I settle with my laptop in the living room and my children know that I’m there for any emergency, but not for fixing sandwiches, reading stories or helping them make beaded bracelets – not for the next hour or two, anyway.

The older kids are encouraged to have quiet time while the baby is napping so that I can work. This includes both my own books and my paid job, though my books often find myself having to wait as I focus on a deadline for a paid project.

I still think I have got a pretty good deal. I am there when a child is sick and needs extra care. I choose my own hours and decide how much work I can take up (the more I do, the more I get paid, but one can only do so much). I run errands whenever it is convenient, I have no commute, and I can always take time off for family occasions.

A few insights:

1. Simplify. Opt for less stuff, less commitments, and simpler meals. Clutter is your enemy, especially when the whole family is home every day and all day long.

2. Avail yourself of any help with kids and/or housework you can get. If you live near family that is willing to help, so much the better for you. Don’t worry, no matter what you do, there will still be more than enough work left over for you.

3. Avoid the guilt loop. While my husband walks into our home office to take care of his stuff and make phone calls without interruption, I have often felt guilty for saying no to sitting on the carpet and coloring because I’m working to a deadline. At other times, I’ve felt guilty for neglecting the deadline and sitting down to color.

You can only do your best. If I find myself struggling with feeling I have not done enough, I look back at the end of the day on all the things I’ve done for my family – from cooking meals to giving baths, from wiping noses to paying bills, and earning the money to pay those bills, too – versus the “me time” (usually a stolen 20 minutes to work on a book, some crochet at the playground, and texting a friend for a bit) and I realize I have absolutely no reason to feel guilty. In fact, I even can and should become my own cheerleading team, applauding all my efforts and appreciating what has been achieved.

Should you turn your hobby into a business?

There are many success stories of people who have turned their passion into a successful business venture, and it can be extremely tempting to imagine yourself doing just what you love and making money from it.

Except, you know, it never quite works this way.

Let me explain for a moment, OK? I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade. In fact, I’m a big fan of playing to your strengths, choosing something you enjoy doing and finding ways to make it into a source of income. It’s just that you must be aware of the changes that come once your hobby is no longer a hobby, but a real business with commitments, deadlines and clients.

I love writing and am absolutely thrilled with building myself up as the author-publisher of my own books. I also work as a novel editor, which is in the same field. It’s all fantastic, but sometimes I miss those good old times when I would curl up with a pen and notebook and dive into my imaginary world, spinning tales whenever and however the whim would hit me, and not worrying about how many people might reauulistically buy my book, when would be the most advantageous time to release it, or how many days I have until deadline.

Nowadays, I do still have that creative happy place, or I wouldn’t be able to write, but I also need to take care of formatting, cover, marketing, and tax information. I need to be consistent and disciplined and can no longer allow myself to jump from idea to idea.

Is it worth it? Absolutely. But it’s a mistake to think that doing what you love means doing what you LIKE, all day and every day.

I also believe some things are meant to remain hobbies, healthy creative outlets that offer us a place to de-stress and unwind with no pressures and no expectations. One such hobby for me is crochet, and people often tell me, “Wow, I’ll bet you could sell that stuff!” – which is very flattering, but considering how long it takes me to make every item, as well as my love for working with quality materials, it would be impossible for me to so much as break even. And I bet I’d soon be unable to look at my hooks and yarn out of pure disgust.

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Making one crochet pillow is fun. Making twenty crochet pillows for a craft booth would probably be enough to put me off crochet for a good long time. So at most, I would consider giving a community class in the basics.

Another thing to consider is the initial cost. I know people who have wanted to start a homemade body care product line and are now stuck with boatloads of shea butter and beeswax nobody wants. Fiber artists naturally need to buy yarn for crocheting, knitting, felting, etc. Writers and other entrepreneurs often spend money on expensive courses and conferences.

My insight could be summed up as following:

1. When you consider turning your hobby into a business, know it won’t always all be fun and games. At some point, and my guess is that it will happen sooner rather than later, your business will involve doing things that must be done rather than ones you enjoy most.

2. Leave something in your life as a hobby, something for pure enjoyment and fun. We all need things like that. Not every hobby is meant to grow into a full-blown business.

3. Consider the wisdom of any initial investment. As tempting as it could be, many businesses fail. It’s better to start small and grow gradually, investing your profits (however small they might be) back into the business.

Freelancing – pros and cons

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Do you have what it takes to work as a freelancer? And, most importantly, should you do that?

Work-life balance is something many people struggle with immensely. Even before I was married, I knew I didn’t want to be part of an unceasing rat race that would not leave me time to raise my children in a calm, unhurried way.

A simple, quiet life was a priority, and for years I had thrown myself wholly into the sustainability lifestyle – making, growing, bartering, salvaging, fixing rather than buying, raising livestock, and living out in the boonies. It was a rigorous life, but I loved our adventures, which included a boxful of chicks scattered over the living room floor, and goats chewing on the laundry I hung out on the veranda. I learned so many valuable lessons that I still profit from every day.

The thing is, though it is doubtlessly possible to do more on less and stretch every little bit of money, and you definitely should learn all those great skills that will enable you to become more self-sufficient, you still need some money to get along in the modern world. A time comes when you just can’t retrench further. You tighten and tighten the belt until it snaps.

I had come into my marriage (as my husband did) with traditional gender role expectations. We had trusted that my husband’s job would provide for all our needs. A string of unemployment, underemployment, and some very, very unwise financial decisions did away with that illusion. For a long time, my only thought from morning till night, the only prayer on my lips, was “What can I do to bring in some money? God, help me earn money for my family”.

My number one challenge was having shot myself in the foot to begin with. I lived in a remote place with no transportation, no steady phone signal, and no stable Internet access. Basically, it was like I had burned all the bridges and made sure in advance that I would be extremely hard-pressed to earn money if I ever needed it.

I am not bitter. It was a lesson I thoroughly deserved, and I learned it well: always leave room for plan B.

I had started to rally bit by bit, making some money from articles I wrote, publishing my books, and taking on clients for proofreading and editing services. What really enabled me to fuel the whole freelancing thing up, however, was moving here, where I have steady Internet connection and the ability to work with Google Docs.

I was lucky enough to soon find a good client with a steady work stream on Upwork (that was before Upwork started with their greedy policy of charging for connects), and for the past several months, I have been working with them almost exclusively in the position of a copyeditor. I also continue working on my own books.

Although I feel incredibly lucky to be able to work from home at this season of my life, setting my own schedule and choosing my own hours, I still have to deal with some challenges, the biggest of which is a blurred line between work and home.

I don’t have my own office space, and if I did, I wouldn’t be able to just barricade myself there with a houseful of kids. I work in the living room, in the epicenter of all the action and mess that go on here daily. Because I home educate and don’t have help with childcare, I can be interrupted any moment to deal with a sibling fight or a spilled drink.

On the flip side, I sometimes check out the work chat app at odd hours and places, because most of the people I’m in daily contact with are in very different time zones.

I think that every person who thinks of setting themselves up as a freelancer should remember the following:

– Work from home is still work. It’s not a free pass, and you need major self-discipline to get anything done.

– Freelancing, at least initially, won’t make you rich. The main benefit here is flexibility. Don’t despise humble beginnings and be prepared to work your way up.

– Learn to set limits. Be realistic as to how much you can do in a certain period of time, and know how to deal with clients who want the job done by yesterday.

– Take care of yourself. Freelancing with small children in the house may often mean working early in the morning and late into the night when everyone is asleep, skipping meals and showers, and dodging calls from friends. Burnout is a real thing, and there’s only so much one can handle.

Despite any challenge I might face, I am tremendously grateful for the technology that brings our world closer together and enables people to work remotely with more ease and convenience than ever before.

Making money from home – revised

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Re-reading my previous post on making money from home, which I wrote almost two and a half years ago, I thought some updates are in order.

Following the birth of another baby, a house move, and many frumpy days spent in a maze of boxes and/or with sick little ones, I was reaffirmed in my wish for work that could be done in the comfort of my home, with a steaming cup of tea and in pajamas, depending on no one’s schedule but my own. Moving to an area with a fast, reliable internet connection was a godsend, and I am now able to play to my strengths more than before, focusing on what I’m good at: writing, editing, proofreading and translation – all of which is a perfect fit for a work-from-home solo entrepreneur.

My holy grail is still writing and publishing my own books, both fiction and nonfiction. I will keep at it, and if I could, I would do nothing else. But it’s extremely challenging to make one’s way as an author, and when you’re starting on a little to nonexistent budget, you are prone to get stuck. So part of my other-source earnings will be funneled as an investment in my books, with the darling wish of someday being able to work on them exclusively.

For more income streams, I registered on freelancing websites such as Freelancer.com and Guru, but soon saw these places are absolutely flooded with people from developing countries who are willing to work for ridiculously low wages and swarm upon every project within minutes. Getting noticed was extremely difficult without several “pay to play” options (on Freelancer, they offer paid certification tests) which I consider greedy and unethical – since the host website receives a mediator cut from every project acquired through it, I don’t think it’s fair to try and get more money off people.

Being trilingual, I’m also registered on several crowdsourcing translation platforms such as Gengo. I’ve made some legitimate earnings through Gengo, but their pay rates are low, their work volume very unsteady, and their ratings often arbitrary, with senior translators appointed for reviewing without really understanding the nuances of the language.

I tried doing transcription through similar crowdsourcing platforms, but quickly realized that, again, the pay is extremely low (unless it’s transcription + translation), plus you need a quiet work environment to listen to audio files – with four kids at home and me working on the living room couch, trying to get everyone to be quiet enough for me to listen to audio is stress-inducing and just not worth it.

Recently I discovered Upwork and so far I am loving it. Hands down, it’s the best freelancer website I ever came across. They are committed to only accepting qualified people providing in-demand services, so not every profile gets approved, and the traffic is a lot less crowded. I had to apply three times before I was accepted. There are many tests you can take for free to prove your qualifications, and choose whether to display them on your profile or not. You can check out my profile here.

I would like to stress that my objective is not to make as much money as quickly as possible, but just enough to allow me to stay home with my family without struggling financially. It isn’t easy to find the perfect balance, and I will probably keep going back to this topic in months to come.

Random ramblings on finances

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This post has been brewing at the back of my mind for a long time, and though it’s going to be long and rambling, I do feel that I need to share it.

Before I was married, my husband and I had it all figured out. We would raise our family in a peaceful rural setting and live a very simple life. We would give up the luxuries and extras that come with a second income in favor of having a stay-at-home mother who is always there for her children.

It worked well enough for a couple of years, but then our family hit a rut of unemployment and under-employment, and our financial situation was further worsened by unfortunate decisions that made us lose a lot of money.

I had become an expert on pinching pennies, buying second hand clothes, frugal cooking and baking, doing all I could to minimize the electric bill. We had a vegetable garden, chickens and goats that provided us with eggs and dairy products, and we gleaned what we could from the wild-growing bounty in our area. We ate through the stockpile we made in better days. We stopped going to weddings and other festive occasions because we couldn’t afford to give the presents in money that people expected. As a matter of fact, we could barely afford the gas to get there and back.

Saving money helped. It helped a lot, and it taught me that it’s actually possible to live, and live well, on an income far below average. But it wasn’t enough.

There comes a point when you just need some cold hard cash to pay your taxes and utility bills and to buy some basic groceries, and no degree of frugality can get you around that one. You need some sort of income… And, at that point, we had none.

I was incredibly frustrated. First off, I spent way too much time griping about how things are not the way they are “supposed” to be. Then, when I began to look about me and see what I can do to bring in some money, I saw flexible and convenient positions opening just a short drive away, but they might as well have been on Mars for all the good it did, because I had no car and no public transportation in the area. I didn’t even have the smooth uninterrupted phone and Internet connection needed for most telecommuting jobs.

I did what I could, of course. I got more serious about my writing, both fiction and nonfiction, approaching it for the first time as more than a hobby. I published and sold books and articles. I began providing editing and proofreading services.

Finally came the move here, which allowed us to cut down on gas and car use, and gave us a roof over our heads (we live in a house that belongs to family). We still retained our own house, and were lucky enough to get very good, responsible renters and a steady trickle of income. I now have a reliable Internet connection, which has enabled me to set myself up as an independent contractor with several translation, transcription and proofreading agencies. I am still right here at home for my children, but I now see I can do a lot more than I thought, and it’s incredibly empowering .

A few insights:

1. Being a wife and mother, and running a home, is a full-timeĀ  occupation. I really don’t need anything else to have my hands full, but I realized I can juggle if necessary. If I didn’t have to think about money at all, I would just focus on my family and my fiction writing.

2. Looking back, I would probably think twice before agreeing to live in a location where I would be utterly and completely unable to get anywhere and would depend on my husband for every little errand, including the post office, the doctor and the bank. It eventually led to feelings of extreme frustration and helplessness. Remote rural living in a cheaper area can potentially save a lot of money, but when it comes to makingĀ money, you can find yourself stuck with no options.

3. It is no use to sit around and mope about how things should have been, what you could have done differently, what your spouse could have done… Just get up, shake off the dust and move on. I wish I had realized this sooner, and had been more flexible and less dogmatic. It would have saved me a good deal of grief.

So what next? The future is foggy, but things are infinitely better already. We have a steady roof over our heads. We live in a place where we are close to everything we need. And it’s still rustic enough that I can hear roosters crowing every morning. Life is good.

Saving and survival in hard times

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Our family has been struggling with financial difficulties for some time now, and what has enabled us to survive, stay out of debt and keep our heads above water are, among other things, these money-saving strategies:

1. Food: we keep chickens for eggs, have a herb garden, and grow and gather some seasonal produce, but naturally, this isn’t enough for all our needs. We have learned to choose the cheapest and most nutritious foods we can get, and cook long-lasting, economical meals such as soups and stews.

We stockpile and try to venture out shopping less often, making do with what we have in the house. The less you pop into stores, the less you will buy!

Another useful strategy is, whenever you find a defect in any store-bought product, don’t pass, complain. If you word your complaint right, you might get not just a refund, but all sorts of coupons and gift cards as compensation. Lately we have complained about a bag of wormy rice, and got two bags of rice and a bunch of canned goods as a gesture of goodwill.

2. Utility bills: reexamine your electricity and water usage and scrimp as much as you can. We have a solar water heater and I try to make do with it even in winter – we still have enough sunny days to shower every other day or so. Shocked? A daily shower is a privilege, not a need, especially in winter (in summer, we have plenty of hot water from the solar heater to shower every day). Wash full loads of laundry, line-dry your clothes, turn off lights and appliances, and wear extra layers of clothes rather than heat your house.

3. Gas: gas and car maintenance are expensive. Stay home as much as you can. Schedule all your errands for one day. Try to get people to drive over to see you, rather than go to them.

If you live in an area with reliable public transportation, consider going without a car. We can’t do without a car, unfortunately, and furthermore, we’ll have to upgrade in the near future as we grow to be a family of six and a standard 5-seat vehicle is no longer enough for us. Of course, we’ll sell our current car to help fund the next one.

4. Clothes and shoes: hand-me-downs and thrift stores will keep you clothed for next to nothing, and often you can get very nice brand-name gently used clothes that will last a great deal longer than cheap new clothes you might have bought at the mall.

5. Housing costs: if you rent or are paying a mortgage, it’s a huge, stress-inducing drain in hard times. Many people have been able to downsize to a smaller, cheaper, easier to maintain home, without any material reduction of comfort. We are lucky enough to own our home free and clear, but unfortunately, the local taxes are killing us. We are praying for an opportunity to sell and move to an area with lower local taxes.

6. Health: we have reexamined our health insurance to get a more affordable plan that covers nearly as much. It’s still a huge expense, and we might have to give it up altogether if things don’t improve soon, because it’s absurd to have a health insurance and starve, but for now we’re holding on.

At the same time, keep yourself in as good health as possible, because depression and physical weakness make it more difficult to handle a financial crisis. Eat as well as you can, get your sleep, be out in the fresh air, and take exercise in the form of walks, riding a bicycle, or working in the garden. It’s healthy and free.

7. Shopping and entertainment: just close your pocket and don’t buy anything you can survive without. Limit your entertainment to free stuff – walks, hikes, bonfires, friendly get-togethers – and moreover, stuff that is within walking distance or a very short drive, because gas costs money too, remember? Swap books with friends or use the library, reexamine your mobile phone and internet plans, and if you still have cable TV, cancel it.

8. Alternative money making sources: as important as saving is, sometimes you also need to think how you can earn a little extra. My husband fixes computers while he’s getting his company established, while I write fiction and nonfiction, do freelance editing and proofreading, translate, and do occasional nutrition counseling for people who are prepared to make it to my neck of woods.

It’s hard when you’re on a tight budget, but it’s possible to survive and even thrive by judicious management. Read more on frugal living strategies here.