Creating your Dream Life: What are you willing to give up?

Do you have a dream? Maybe you want to open a restaurant, or start a business, or become a painter, or start a family, or write a great novel. Whatever your dream might be, I suspect that it may take a bit of sacrifice to get there. Maybe sacrifice is too serious a word. If not sacrifice, then a few decisions. What are you willing to say no to in order to say yes to your dreams?

I remember a conversation that Jeremy and I had, early on, when we were sitting in our first Brooklyn sublet, eating soft boiled eggs on the floor. We had no furniture, no jobs, no money and we were two weeks away from being homeless. It was all a bit Withnail and I and a tad depressing. We had big plans but we had yet to sell a book or launch a business.

With egg dripping off his toast soldiers, Jeremy asked me to list all the things that I really wanted (or wanted to do) that I was willing to give up:

  • Long stints of travel
  • A predictable life
  • A safe, healthy bank account
  • Saving for a house
  • Some beautiful possessions
  • A good work, life balance
  • An apartment with doors
  • Plenty of time outdoors

On another sheet of paper we wrote down the things that we refused to give up:

  • Each other
  • Seeing our friends
  • Closeness to our family
  • Good food
  • Writing and the success of the business

Our list has changed since then, it has grown and evolved with us. But it was helpful to have to keep us on track early on.

So what do you want and, perhaps more importantly, what will you give up to have it?

dream life quote

Are you a stranger? Excellent. Please come and stay at my home

Do you know about Airbnb? I had barely heard of them until a few months ago. Then suddenly they were all over the press like a bad rash. The company that lets anyone rent out their apartment or spare room was in some slightly hot water. Apparently a San Francisco blogger had her apartment demolished by a guest who had rented it for a week. Not only had she come home to a nightmare but the owners of Airbnb were doing precious little to help, commiserate or compensate her for the substantial damages. The trust they had built their company on had been eroded a wee bit.

Finally they helped the poor woman out, apologized for their less than gallant behavior and created a comprehensive insurance policy for their renters.

In the wake of the publicity, anyone who had heard of Airbnb was divided into two camps. On the one hand there were those who saw it as a teething problem, a glitch in an otherwise brilliant business. On the other hand, there were those who tutted and shock their head sagely. Wasn’t she being very irresponsible and courting disaster by trusting these strangers? Wasn’t she practically asking for something to happen?

Five years ago I imagine that I would have sided with the latter. I would have ranted about personal privacy (the only child in me rearing its ugly head), and what happens when trust merges into blatant stupidity. However, I suspect even then I might have doubted what was coming out of my mouth. This was coming from a girl who thought nothing of staying with friends of friends of friends abroad, whose home was always welcome to anyone growing up and who had stayed in numerous hostel dorms alongside teeming masses of backpack-clad strangers.

So what changed? When did I become an Airbnb convert? When did I become the sort of person who rents out my home to a total stranger? I blame my new liaise-faire attitude on two things: the cost of living in New York and my short but sweet experience of couch surfing.

So New York is expensive. We all know that. We all have a few hustles going and we try to earn whatever extra money we can. Renting your apartment in this city is as good a gig as any.

What about couch surfing? In essence it is the dreadlocked, touchy-feely sister of Airbnb. With couch surfing no money changes hands. You are simply welcomed into someone else’s house. You are offered a couch or maybe a bed, some potentially good conversations, a taster of a different culture and an insight into neighborhood secrets.

trust behind couch surfing

Jeremy and I couch surfed for 6 weeks across the American South West. We stayed in communes, in ranches and in one-bed room studios. The experience was revelatory. We were essentially total strangers but we were trusted with a spare key, welcomed to family dinners and taken on tours of wherever we ended up.

There was a little bit of faith but we also did our homework. We checked out our couch surfing hosts online, we chatted to them on the phone before we arrived. We made ourselves experts in judging what sort of person they were before we turned up on their doorstop. It became a habit and it turns out that Airbnb is no different.

So I may be fool hardy renting out my flat and if my place is trashed I’m sure there will be someone ready to tell me I had it coming. But, for the moment, I’ll use my judgment, make my rent payment and choose to trust people a little more.

Frugal Living: Limbering up for the extreme sport of penny pinching

An article I wrote recently went ‘viral’. I have yet to decipher the magical workings of freelance writing but somehow over 1000 people decided to comment on the piece. A couple weeks ago I would have thought the subject for such heated debate would have to be war, or health or even the sad story of Rupert Murdock. No no, 1000 people decided to voice their opinion on the controversial subject of ‘Extreme Couponing’.

frugal living

You may ask yourself what extreme couponing is all about. A month ago I had no idea. The title arrived from my editor who clearly feels that penniless writer = frugal living expert. Fair enough but I was sadly in the dark on the subject of extreme couponing.

After a foray into the world of TLC reality programming and some internet research on the subject, I quickly realized that serious couponing translated to penny pinching as an extreme sport.

The experts are not haphazardly cutting coupons from the Sunday papers. No, this is an organized, cross-referenced art form. In the spirit of research I looked into internet coupons, newspaper cut-outs and supermarket handouts. Laziness quickly overtook my impulse to save and I realized that it takes a stronger resolve than mine to make a go of it. I’m competitive by nature but I know which battles I can win and I know I would quickly be put to shame by the televised image of a women buying a shopping trolley full of goods for a handful of nickels and dimes.

I think my failure to really embrace the joy of extreme couponing may also have something to do with the fact that I live in New York. Despite the fact that I live in one of the most expensive cities in America, New York living does not translate well to dedicated coupon cutting. I bike to our local supermarket and our pint-sized apartment is not well equipped to handle bulk purchases of any kind.

So extreme couponing may not offer the way forward for frugal living in the city that never sleeps but there are other ways to live the NY high life on a shoestring:

1) Finding a great apartment. Don’t be shy. The topic of rent is as synonymous with New York as chat of the weather is in London. Tell everyone what you want and ignore anyone who tells you it can’t be done. Ask around…who has a rent stabilized apartment, how much are your friends paying, does anyone know someone with a great apartment who is moving out? Give yourself the time for the proper hunt, it may take a while.

2) Eating. I love eating out and we treat ourselves more often than we should but I will chuck my chopstick at the next person who tells me that eating out is as cheap as eating at home in the city. If it is then I want them to tell me which restaurant they eat at and where on earth they do their food shopping.

3) Partying. Embrace happy hours and free events in the city. In the summer, something fabulously free is happening every day of the week and you can always mingle with the after work crew or the late night stoop-outs for some cheap off-peak drinking.

4) More eating. If you have a hardy stomach and a penchant for meat and rice, street vendors are your ‘go to’ in the city. Look for the ones with high turnover and long lines. If you are close to Union Square skip the lines at Whole Paycheck and pay a visit to the guy with the big smile on 14th and 3rd.

5) Getting around. Dust off your old bike. It may be steamy and hot in the city but you will arrive at your destinations ‘glowing’ and basking in the knowledge that you have saved money on either subway riding or taxis. Just watch out for those pesky car doors, keep your biking excursions to under a few miles if possible and pack deodorant or an extra top for those 90 degree days.

For all the same reasons that I failed at extreme couponing, I regularly fail at living as frugally as I would like. Finally I have realized that it is a balance and all the mea culpas are unnecessary. Saving here and there makes spending the money when we want to all that much more of a treat.

In that vein I am off to ride my bike to our favorite seltzer and breakfast spot in Brooklyn. More on that next time…

New York, New York: Sinatra had it right

Spring has finally come to the big apple and it is time to forgive the city anything.

Brooklyn New York

When Jeremy and I first arrived on New Year’s Eve, we had sublet a beautiful but miniscule space in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. The snow had formed 4-foot walls down the semi-ploughed roads and we were paying three times our old rent in Chicago. It was a baptism of fire and there were times when we questioned our sanity. New York had been a dream, an east coast adventure and a chance to live in the pulsing heart of the publishing and business world. As we hibernated in our apartment and gave up on any sort of privacy we wondered if the city was too much for us, too expensive, too gritty.

Last Tuesday, teaching my first class on public speaking (here is the next one), I played a spontaneous speaking game with my students. In their own way each of them told us a story about their New York, the city they called home, good or bad. One hated and loved Times Square in equal measure, one told us about a crazy saxophonist on the subway with questionable personal hygiene and one told us about her apartment nightmare living with a dominatrix housemate.

This city is like marmite, you love it or hate it, and sometimes you do both at the same time, but once it gets under your skin it is hard to shake off. Today, sitting in our apartment with the sun shining through my window, I love it. I love the beauty of my neighborhood, the old Italian men who sit on their stoops every day, the morning coffee at my local café, the bookseller down the road who has used tomes scaling the walls and spilling out on to the sidewalk.

Central Park New York

Of all the cities I have been to, nowhere has the sheer diversity of New York. It is hard to beat the experience of all that variation than from the back of the bike. Brooklyn and Queens have great bike rides that I will tell you about some other time, but my New York story, the New York journey that I love the most is the one that takes me from our place in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, to the best bagel I have ever eaten on 107th st on the Upper West side of Manhattan. It is not a short bike ride but it is an ideal way to spend a Sunday in the city.

The rush of adrenaline as cars screech past me on midtown Manhattan’s 6th Ave, the intense gaze at each parked car for fear of a door flying out into my path, the joy ride up central park, the in-line skaters, the table tennis players in Tompkins Square Park, the mysterious Chinese gamblers in Columbus Park. On top of it all is the food. In my mind, cycling 15 city miles entitles me to some treats on the way. There are hundreds of places on route but here are a few favorites:

1. Ted and Honey – fueling up with a breakfast sandwich and an iced coffee in Carroll Gardens.

Ted and honey

Image: Cobble Hill Blog

2. Grabbing a few biscotti from a cart here in Little Italy after rolling over the Brooklyn Bridge.

3. The Pickle Guys – if you like pickles, my favorite is the somewhat controversial pickled pineapple but you’re never short of choice. If you’re not so into pickles and prefer your treats a touch sweeter, check out the lower east side location of the Doughnut Plant across the street.

Pickle guys

Image: Robbie Virus

Doughnut plant

Moishe’s bake shop – anything is good for a pastry picnic in Tompkins Square Park.

Moishe's bake shop

The grand finale of them all is the best bagel I have ever tasted. I realize that some people are partial to H&H but we were introduced to Absolute Bagel by a friend and I think my loyalty may already have been forged. An everything bagel, hot out of the oven, with a thick layer of white fish spread…it gets me on my bike every Sunday.

Absolute bagel

Image: Carnivore and Vegetarian

Tell me a story…do you have a favorite New York place, food mecca or journey?