Cutting all the small stuff leaves just the big stuff, or, My mortgage sucks

I could probably also title this post “What I value about where I live.”  We bought our first and only house in May 2008, probably at the height of the Seattle housing bubble, before early retirement was a potential future in our minds.  But even after a refi in 2011, we still spend about 40% of our total expenses on mortgage interest and real estate taxes.

If we sold our house, we would definitely take a loss, since even with the recovering housing market, our house isn’t worth what we paid for it (still pretty far off, actually).  We have considered moving somewhere cheaper within the Seattle area, and have considered metros/states other than Seattle, but haven’t looked very hard, honestly.

What I love about my house/neighborhood/city:

1. My house is within walking or easy biking distance (2 miles or less, but hilly) from:

  • two public libraries (most important!)
  • theaters
  • major grocery stores (Safeway, Fred Meyer, Trader Joe’s)
  • fancy special grocery stores (PCC) and farmer’s markets
  • community center
  • parks/playgrounds
  • Lake Union, Green Lake, Lake Washington Ship Canal
  • numerous gyms, a few yoga/pilates and martial arts studios, a couple of Crossfit boxes
  • good public schools
  • university
  • hospital, clinics, pharmacies
  • zoo
  • restaurants, pubs, cafes, dessert stores, banks, interesting retail stores

2. My neighborhood is close to downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods, with theaters, museums, music venues, ethnic markets, etc,  Also close to Puget Sound and a variety of other interesting and unique neighborhoods.

3.  Mr. LL can bike to work, and we are in a particular neighborhood that makes my 18.5 mile commute as fast and sometimes faster than my old 6 mile commute.  There is plenty of public transportation (like to the airport via the light rail).  Though I wouldn’t want to do it for my commute, as that would triple to quadruple my current commute time in my car.

4.  As an Asian American, and seeing as how my kids would be interracial if I had them, I like not being a rarity (particularly having lived in places where this was the case).  As an ESL teacher and language nerd, I like how many immigrants and  speakers of other languages live here.  I also like that Seattle is a welcoming place for LGBT folks, and that we have marriage equality in Washington.  I love that there are so many kinds of people here, because it also means there are so many more options and interesting things to do and learn about.  And if you are not so left-leaning in terms of your politics (a majority in Seattle), there are others like you here, too.

5.   Seattle’s outdoor recreation culture is thriving.  We have 3 ski resorts that are relatively close, along with many state parks, a few national parks, and lots of hiking opportunities.  The REI flagship store is here!  Lots of people bike, row, run, and take advantage of outdoor activities.

It would be hard for me to leave my house in my neighborhood in Seattle and go to some other neighborhood in Seattle, and I wouldn’t save as much money as if we left Seattle for a place with a lower cost of living, like Spokane.  That would be even harder!  We could retire earlier, though, if we could reduce our housing expenses and thereby increase our savings rate.  The question, I suppose, is how many more years are we willing to work in order to be able to stay in our house in early retirement?  We’re not sure, but we’re mulling it over.



Where we can still save

I think we are at the point where we are constantly trying to be more efficient in spending money.  I can immediately identify several places where we could still reduce or cut if we absolutely have to:

  • $175/month Crossfit membership (+ much more reasonable $47/month gym membership for Mr. LL)
  • $120/month dining expenses
  • $16/month magazine subscriptions (2 of which we could read at the library or check out on Zinio through the library)
  • $69/month for both cell phones
  • $19/month internet
  • $115-136/month outdoor recreation (hiking, camping, snowshoeing, skiing/snowboarding as determined here)

We can also continue to try to maximize our savings on electricity/water/natural gas, though our gas bill, for example, is at the point where we are only paying about $4/month for actual consumption (the rest is just the fixed fee to have gas at all).

Some of these expenses can be reduced by doing less of whatever the activity is, although some expenses are fixed and must be eliminated entirely in order to “reduce” them.  But either way, that’s $561-582/month that we could save or cut down on.  There’s also some partially redundant disability insurance that we could cut down on, but I won’t include that in the total.

Reasons/excuses why we have not reduced/eliminated these expenses:

  1. I have addressed Crossfit in other posts, but I love it and would be really reluctant to eliminate it.  Obviously if we had to, I would, but I feel I would really miss it compared to all the other expense cutting we have done, which haven’t actually even been sacrifices at all (don’t miss not going out to movies, having a Blockbuster Online subscription, going out to eat for non-social occasions, having house cleaning).  If it turns out that I can’t make it to 12 classes a month, though, I can drop my monthly fee to $140/month for 8 classes.
  2. We only dine out for social occasions – specifically post-hike dining, or pub trivia, which can’t be replicated at home, and at which we usually win a gift certificate for the following week.  We could do this less but would probably also see our friends less.
  3. Mr. LL has the two subscriptions that we could read at the library, which is kind of inconvenient already, since one of them is The Economist (which calls itself a newspaper).  It comes out weekly and is a fairly dense read (essentially all of Mr. LL’s leisure reading time during the week).  While we could check out magazines on Zinio, I wouldn’t want to read a magazine on my phone, and neither of us has a tablet.
  4. We could reduce our cell phone bill if we were willing to buy new phones, although I haven’t really looked into specifics.  Or we could get rid of our smart phones (although I had an old school Kyocera until 2011 – when I started texting regularly, I ended up spending as much as I do now for my current phone – $25/month for 300 min. and unlimited texting and data).
  5. We could reduce our internet bill to $9.99/month if we want to drop from 10 GB to 5 GB of data for the month with a slower connection.
  6. Seeing as how we want to do even more outdoor recreation in early retirement, I don’t see us cutting our outdoor rec budget, honestly.

Looking at my list of reasons/excuses, I can see that I really value fitness, fun social experiences, and outdoor recreation.  Of the remaining reasons/excuses, I can see I like convenience and entertainment (such as the music I am currently streaming via Spotify by virtue of our internet service).   I like being able to text, talk, and check email and internet on my phone, and am willing to pay a bit more to do so (although I haven’t closely examined the exact amount extra I would be willing to pay).   Considering the magazine subscription, if I could only read books at the library and couldn’t actually check them out, I would probably end up buying a lot more books, so it makes sense for Mr. LL to have his subscriptions.

However, knowing that there are these places to cut means that we are not so close to the bone, so to speak.  It is currently worth it to spend this money, but if something happened in the future that required us to give some or all of these things up, it would be painful but doable.

DIY: Pancake mix for camping

Normally we buy Bisquick mix so that we can make pancakes when we’re car camping, but I wanted to try making a mix that we could just add water to with ingredients that we already have in the kitchen.

Just-Add-Water Pancake Mix

  • 1 3/4 c. flour
  • 1/3 c. powdered milk
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1 T. baking powder
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1 T. meringue powder (optional, but provides some of the benefits of adding eggs, in addition to a nice meringue crust on the pancakes)

Mix all ingredients together and add between 1/2 and 3/4 cup of water per cup of dry mix when you make the pancakes.

The bulk food aisle

The bulk food aisle of grocery stores can often yield good deals.  It can also cost more.  I like to pick up certain kinds of foods like dry beans and oatmeal in Fred Meyer’s bulk food aisle, where I can get oatmeal for as little as $.59/lb (sale price).  You can also find  runner peanuts (for peanut butter) for less than the non-sale price of Fred Meyer natural peanut butter.  Sometimes if we are going camping, we can also get some dry vegetable soup that we can just add water to.  However, rice and flour are more expensive per pound than in their respective aisles at either Fred Meyer or Safeway.  Also, any bulk processed product (like dark chocolate almonds or dried mangoes) is often more expensive than buying the same thing at Trader Joe’s.

What is nice is that you can get as much or as little as you want for a fixed per-pound price.  Sometimes you cannot get as good of a price unless you buy many pounds worth of a food item.  If you know how much the same items cost at different places, you can save quite a bit.


Clipping coupons

One thing I do pretty regularly is cut coupons or add coupons to my member card for Safeway and Fred Meyer.  The vast majority of things that you can get coupons for are processed foods, which we rarely buy, but there are also toiletries that you can get great deals on, like toothpaste and toilet paper.  Both Safeway and Fred Meyer often offer coupons for foods like eggs, milk, ground beef, and chicken.  They also offer deals on more processed foods like canned tomatoes (for whipping up a batch of tomato sauce) and dry pasta.  Clipping coupons tends to require some vigilance, along with an awareness of usual grocery store prices, in order to get the best deals.

Recipe: Kneadless White Bread

Here is a bread recipe that I have adapted from Nancy Baggett’s book for no-knead bread recipes.  I have cut her recipe in half so it only makes one loaf, and I have fiddled with the flour and water ingredients, and incorporated leftover whey from yogurt-making and sourdough pour-off.  If you don’t have starter, increase flour by 1/2 c. and whey by 3 oz.

Easy White Bread

makes 1 loaf

  • 2 c. all purpose flour
  • 3/4 c. high gluten flour (like Sir Lancelot from King Arthur Flour)
  • 2/3 c. sourdough starter
  • 2 1/2 T. canola or vegetable oil
  • 1 3/4 T. sugar
  • 1/2 T. salt
  • 1/2 t. yeast
  • 8 oz. cold whey

Mix flour, sugar, salt, and yeast in large bowl.  Mix wet ingredients together.  Stir wet ingredients into dry.  Dough should be stiff.   Brush or spray with oil.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3-10 hours.  Then let rise at cool room temperature for 15-20 hours.

Stir dough, then press into loaf pan and let rise covered for 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 hours.  Remove cover when dough nears the top of the pan.  Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  When dough is about 1/2 in. above pan top, lower oven temp to 400 and bake for about 40-45 min.  Cool in pan for 10 min.

Recipe: Sourdough bread!

I finally had the chance to make a true sourdough bread from my homemade starter.  I have been using the pour-off from the starter for various things, including pretzel knots and sandwich bread (recipe coming soon!).  However, this is my first bread that I can say has a true sourdough flavor.  This recipe is adapted from Nancy Baggett’s Kneadlessly Simple, a book on no-knead breads.

San-Francisco Style Sourdough Bread

  • 3 1/2 c. (17.5 oz.) bread flour or all-purpose flour (I use all-purpose with Sir Lancelot flour as the extra flour)
  • 1 3/4 t. salt
  • 1/4 t. instant yeast
  • 1 T. vegetable oil
  • 2/3 c. sourdough starter
  • 1 1/2 c. whey

Stir flour, salt, and yeast in large bowl.  Whisk oil, starter, and whey in another container, then add to the dry ingredients.  You will want a very stiff dough, so add extra flour if needed.  Spray with oil, cover with plastic wrap, then refrigerate 3-10 hours.  Let rise at cool room temperature 18-24 hours.

Stir dough, adding extra flour if necessary.  Fold sides toward center then let rest 10 minutes.  Sprinkle with 3-4 T. of flour, and work flour into dough.  Dust with flour, then form dough into a round.  Transfer to an oiled Dutch oven.  Dust with flour again and cut cross-hatches (3 parallel slices bisected by 3 parallel slices in the opposite direction) across the top.  Cover pot and let rise 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours until doubled.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Reduce heat to 425.  Bake covered for 55 min.  Uncover and sprinkle top of dough with water.  Bake approximately 10 min.  Cool on rack for 10 min.  Cool thoroughly.

Note: You will really be able to smell the ripe starter doing its work after the second rise.  I got a big whiff of alcohol when I took the plastic wrap off!