The Desert Homestead Blog
Urban and rural sustainable homesteading in the desert southwest

Oct
07

I’m still mulling my options in terms of employment. When my company let me go, they gave me the option of keeping it if I would relocate to … well, a midwestern industrial state. A state that — if you can believe this — receives mountains of frozen white stuff from the sky for six months out of the year.

Yeah. After nearly two decades in the desert, that’s quite a leap.

However, the job market here isn’t all that great (is it anywhere?). I’ve been pounding the pavement literally and virtually, and have only had one nibble thus far. A nibble that would garner me $20K less per year in salary at best.

The pros of relocating are a guaranteed job at a comfortable salary, albeit for an unknown length of time. In about seven months I could have the property paid off, and in 15 I could have all my debts paid off. I have a friend there who would let me rent a room from her, so housing costs would be pretty minor. And The Boy would continue living in the condo and paying rent, although not the full amount of the mortgage.

The con, of course, is that I couldn’t work on The Ranch for pretty much the entire time. Sure, I could fly out for a week or so, but there’s no way I could get the house done in time for the July deadline.

Boy and others have suggested I take the job and continue looking for one here, moving back as soon as I have one. That sounds good on the surface, but it’s not exactly easy job-searching long-distance. Potential employers like to meet you face-to-face.

I’ve given myself another week to vacillate, but I’m going to need to make a decision at some point. If I were to take the offer, I obviously wouldn’t be entitled to the severance they gave me (I haven’t cashed the check). So I’d need to start working within the next two weeks in order to pay my bills on time.

Oct
06

The call came last Thursday morning. I, along with two dozen of my colleagues, had just been laid off.

I’m not alone, of course. The US unemployment rate has been hovering around 10% for quite some time, and some states — like Nevada — are as high as 14%. Some claim the figures are even worse, as they don’t take into consideration those workers who have simply given up and are no longer looking.

With such grim statistics, it’s easy to throw up your hands in despair. But don’t panic yet — there’s plenty you can do to cope with the situation.

1. Take a deep breath and be grateful. Losing one’s job is disheartening, to be sure. Anger, anxiety, and shame are just some of the emotions you’ll feel. But it isn’t the end of the world; as cliche as it may sound right now, things could be worse. You had a job before, which means someone, somewhere felt you had the skills and personality that make you a desireable employee. What else do you have? Your family, your friends, your health, your brains … you haven’t lost any of these. Focus on what you do have, and then move forward.

2. On a practical level, the first step is to take a look at your finances. Make a bare-bones, worst-case budget. How long can you last without income? What non-critical expenses can you eliminate? Do it now — not tomorrow or “next month, if nothing’s come up.” Realistically, you don’t know how long you’ll be without work, and every penny you save today will help you go that much longer.

Look at your assets. If you received a severance package, good for you! But don’t blow it on maintaining your current lifestyle or on “feel-good” purchases to cheer yourself up. Ditto for any savings you may have. Make it last as long as you can. Look at what hard assets you may have that you could sell or cash out. This means everything from boats and televisions to IRAs or CDs. It may not be necessary to do so right now, but if it makes the difference between feeding yourself or going hungry, it’s nice to know you have the option.

Check out your state’s unemployment programs. Be warned that these are usually subsistence level and unlikely to be close to what you were making before. However, every little bit helps.

Finally, consider what bills could be delayed or deferred. Student loans often allow a hardship deferment, and while it may hurt your credit, some unsecured debts such as credit cards can remain temporarily unpaid if need be. A ding on your credit report is better than losing your house.

3. Take a day off, but no more. Often the first reaction to a job loss is “Well, I’ll take a week/month off, then start looking.” This is a mistake for a couple reasons. First is the time factor. You have to search for a job, apply, and get interviewed. Then the company needs to decide on the best candidate, give you a start date, then it’s two weeks or more before you see your first paycheck. You see the problem: best-case scenario, you’re looking at a month or more without income. Can you afford that?

The second reason to hit the ground immediately is purely psychological. It’s easy to be lulled into a routine of sleeping in, watching TV, and generally feeling sorry for yourself. As you watch the days go by and your bank account dwindle, you’ll feel increasingly hopeless and melancholy. Taking control of the situation by actively pursuing work combats your chances of slipping into this gloomy rut. Schedule a specific amount of time every day to work on your job-hunt, set goals, and do it.

4. Polish your resume, if you haven’t already. Update it with your most recent work experience. If you have multiple areas of expertise, consider making several resumes targeted to different fields or industries. Don’t limit yourself to the traditional chronological style; there are some fabulous templates available for Microsoft Word, for example, that focus on specific skill sets or highlight key accomplishments. If your local unemployment office offers resume assistance, take advantage of it. In fact…

5. Use every career-building program available. Unemployment offices can offer advice, career counseling, lists of available jobs, job fair information, and more. Local colleges often do as well, as do several non-profit agencies.

Don’t forget to go online to job-search. Visit:
* Monster.Com
* Dice.Com
* Jobs.Com
* Jobing.Com
* Careerbuilder.com
* Craiglist employment section for your locality
* Job-Hunt.org
* Jobs.Net

Again, don’t limit yourself in your search. Many skills, such as trouble-shooting or project management, can translate to entirely different fields or industries. And don’t reject low-paying jobs out of hand. If it’s offered by a company you’d like to work for, this could be an opportunity to prove yourself as a valuable asset, and move up fairly quickly.

By the same token, consider temp or contract work. One of my best jobs came as the result of a temp gig. I ended up being hired full-time by the contracting company after only a few months, stayed with them for over five years, and they signed on as my biggest client when I left to start my own company. Again, it’s an opportunity to prove yourself … or at least make a few bucks while waiting for a more suitable position.

6. Network, network, network. Most of the jobs I’ve had came as a result of word of mouth or because of references. Join Facebook and LinkedIn, and connect with friends and former colleagues, employers,and clients. Give copies of your resume to everyone you know. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for referrals or recommendations. People like to help others, and if they were satisfied with your work, they’ll feel good about helping a good employer get a good employee.

7. As an addendum to #6 above, don’t burn your bridges. You may feel that you were treated poorly by your former company; you may disagree with their decision to let you go. Even if you’re right and they were wrong, keep your mouth shut. First, it’s not going to change anything. Your old company is not going to hire you back because you told everyone how dumb they were, or because you returned your Blackberry after running over it with your car. But by remaining civil, you may be able to get a recommendation or even a referral from them. Most business circles are pretty small — getting a good reference from a former employer might be the nudge you need to get in the door of another company. And getting a bad reference might keep that door firmly closed.

But more importantly, disparaging your former company leaves a very poor impression on potential employers. After all, we all know “that guy”, the one who can’t keep a job but constantly moans about how it’s not his fault … in every case, they just “done him wrong.” No one wants to hire “that guy” — don’t give a prospective employer reason to think you might be him. Be professional and take the high road.

8. Keep busy. All of us have things we put off for lack of time. You don’t have that excuse anymore, so now’s the time to weed the yard, clean the baseboards, go to your kid’s recital, or take down the Christmas lights. In addition of getting the actual task taken care of, you’ll gain a sense of accomplishment and feel useful. This is critical for keeping your spirits up.

Also, consider that every obstacle can be an opportunity. Have you ever thought, “What I’d really love to do is _____?” Maybe this is your chance to do just that. Don’t lose focus on your job search (you do have bills to pay, after all), but spend a little time each day checking out your dream career. Want to be a forest ranger? Make custom cabinets? Start an interior design business? Learn programming? Do some research. Maybe you can’t do it immediately because you need more education or more experience. Maybe it’s in a completely different field from your own. In that case, consider becoming a volunteer or intern to gain that experience. Like it or not, you have the time — use it wisely.

9. Take care of yourself physically. Get enough sleep, but don’t spend entire days in bed. Exercise, even if it’s just a walk around the block. Don’t self-medicate with food or alcohol. Your physical condition has an enormous impact on your mood, so be careful to maintain good habits.

10. Have a support network. As time passes, you’ll inevitably have moments of despondency. Have someone you can talk to who will listen sympathetically, but won’t let you slide into complete discouragement. You don’t need either a Pollyanna who minimizes your fears, or a Debbie Downer who makes you feel even worse. Talk it over with them, and then let them talk you out of your funk.

An unexpected job loss is a frightening, stressful situation — in fact, it’s considered by many psychologists to be as emotionally catastrophic as the death of a loved one. Just remember that numerous others have been through it and lived to tell the tale. You can too.

Sep
27
Just a quick update on my work at The Ranch this weekend. I spent the whole time trying to get the drain set up for the bathtub. It shouldn’t be that difficult, but apparently it was.

First, the drain comes directly out of the flood in exactly the spot I wanted it to. That’s actually bad, because I needed an S-trap, which pushed the drain further back. I managed to make that work, except the drain kit for the tub uses that opening for the overflow, and the drain itself is set even farther back

So my tub has slid considerably from the original placement. That wouldn’t have been too bad, except then I had to screw the drain plug from the tub into the PVC drain coming up. The [expletive] thing kept leaking. Jiggling a bathtub back and forth while trying to use a Leatherman multi-tool to screw a drain just a little tighter is a bit of an adventure when you only have two hands.

Eventually I got it resolved, but it was a very frustrating process. No pictures this week.

Next weekend I’m staying home to work on the backyard. I’m having four tons of sand delivered.

Whee.

Sep
21
My credit card company recently started displaying my Transunion credit score when I log into my online account. It’s in the “good” range, but being an over-achiever, I was curious as to why it wasn’t in the “totally fabulous” range.  TransUnion helpfully provides the following:

Ways to "fix" my credit score

Yeah, you’re reading that right. Let’s translate, shall we?
  1. No adverse factor (you’re not a screw-up, so you’re unlikely to blow a lot of money in extra finance charges)
  2. Too few active mortgage accounts (You bought a house you could actually afford, instead of one way beyond your means. Are you a commie?)
  3. Total account balances excluding mortgages is too high (You have a lot of non-mortgage debt, which you can afford because you have a too-reasonable mortgage — see #2 above — but we don’t care).
  4. Too few recently opened bank installment accounts (even we just dinged you for having a lot of debt, we’re gonna ding you again for not taking on even more).
Sep
20

One of  my neighbors at The Ranch has access to a very cheap source for tongue and groove cedar. As a result, many of us are using it in our various building projects. In my case, I’m using it for the ceiling above my porch, within the house, and for the ceiling, walls and floor of my walk-in closet.

This past weekend, another neighbor who had experience using the stuff helped me put up the porch ceiling. My new chop saw (a Rigid 12″ miter saw) turned out to be a crucial component.  The key to making tongue and groove look nice and professional is to cut the cedar at a 45-degree bevel so that each piece overlaps at the tip where they come together. I didn’t take a picture, but here’s a quick drawing (you’re looking at it from a birds-eye view if you set the slat up on edge. The cut goes from the back of the slat to the front of the slat):

Bird's eye view of slat on edge

Anyway, my neighbor hadn’t known about this technique when he did his place, and the difference between his results and mine are amazing … the overlap makes the joins look very minor in comparison to the rather large gaps he has in his.

Anyway, my porch also has overhead recessed lights which we needed to wire up before putting up the ceiling. Fortunately they came with these little plugs that made it very easy. Just strip the wires and pop them into the plugs:

Wiring the porch lights

Here’s the end results of our work. Isn’t it gorgeous?

My beautiful porch! Yes, the lights are deliberately off-center. The front of the porch will have archways that will enclose the front a little more. When it's done, the lights will look centered.

While extremely tedious and time-consuming, it’s not difficult to do. I need to get a little more in order to finish the front edge of the overhang (you can see a tiny part of it in the extreme upper right of the photo above). I won’t be doing the ceiling inside the house for a while, but that will make a good winter project.

Sep
17

I recently joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). The way it works is that you prepay for a session — $247 for 13 weeks in this case — and then pick up your “share” of produce each week. This allows the farmer to have capital to grow his crop and a guaranteed market for it.

The produce available varies each week; if the crop is good, the share is larger and if the crop is poor, the share is smaller.  It’s all organic and locally grown, and the cost is generally less than what you’d pay for organic produce at Whole Foods or similar markets, although it’s more expensive than non-organic produce at a grocery store.

My share this week included:

  • 4 red potatoes
  • 2 small winter squash
  • 5 carrots
  • 1 bell pepper
  • 1 bunch arugula
  • 1 bunch basil
  • 2 yellow onions
  • 5 fresh green chiles

A week's share of produce

One of the fun things about a CSA is that you have to learn to cook with unusual vegetables. A couple weeks ago my share included amaranth greens (aka lambs quarters or quelites), which was a new one for me. I searched the ‘net and discovered that you could substitute baby spinach for amaranth greens in recipes. I decided to try the reverse and used them to make Quiche Florentine (see post below).  The Boy pronounced it “fucking awesome”.

You have to accept that not every new food will be this successful. For example, arugula is a spicy, peppery green I had heard of but never tried. A ‘net search turned up a recipe in which it was used in place of basil for pesto and spread on tilapia fillets and baked. The results were mediocre at best … I’d much rather use basil in the future.

It can be a challenge to come up with creative, tasty ways to use the vegetables, but I’m having fun trying!

Sep
17

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 small onion, choppped
  • 1 lb fresh amaranth greens
  • 1 8oz package cream cheese
  • 4 oz cheddar cheese
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 unbaked deep dish pie crust
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large skillet melt butter over medium heat. Saute garlic, and onino in butter until lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Add amaranth greens and cook until tender (they’ll cook down a lot). Stir in cream cheese and half of the cheddar cheese. Season with salt and pepper, and spoon mixture into pie crust.

In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs and milk. Season with salt and pepper and pour into pastry shell, gently mixing with amaranth mixture to thoroughly combine.

Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Sprinkle top with remaining cheddar cheese and bake an additional 35-40 minutes until set in center. Allow to stand 10 minutes before serving.

Amaranth greens prior to cooking

Same greens after cooking

Finished quiche

Sep
16

ZombieFit

The link speaks for itself.

Sep
16

I’ve been hit with a few unexpected expenses this past month that has pushed back my repayment plan slightly. First, my daughter needed to borrow $500 for textbooks because her financial aid payment was delayed. Then my roof came in at $700 more than anticipated. Finally, I spent $300 on a chop saw, since I got tired of borrowing my neighbor’s every weekend (and I suspect they got tired of me borrowing it, too!).

I also chose to do something that I’m still ambivalent about. I owe about $2500 on a credit card (at 22% interest, ouch!), and another $13,000 on my property (at 11% interest). I discovered that I could take a loan of up to $7000 on my 401K at 4.25% interest. If I put it against the credit card and property principal, I could reduce my total interest payments by $600 and still have everything paid off by the end of 2012 as I’ve planned.

Believe me, I know the cons of the situation. It’s a lot like taking out an equity loan against your house. Will you really put all of it against higher-interest loans, or will you splurge on a little something? Will you turn around and run those credit card balances back up? What happens if you have a real emergency and no longer have that credit line available to you?

Despite my reluctance, I decided to do it for one reason: I want to own my property outright. I don’t want any chance of losing it because I couldn’t make a property payment (at $300/year, property taxes are easy).

That said, I am paying off the credit card entirely first due to its extremely high interest rate, and then putting the rest of it against the property mortgage. So the property won’t be completely paid off immediately, but it will knock the balance down significantly, I’ll have it paid off by next year, and I won’t owe any more in total than I do now.

Another plus is that if I lost my job, I can take the tax knock and have the loan written off as an early disbursement. Not ideal, obviously, but better than trying to figure out how I’m going to pay next month’s mortgage.  And with the economy still as weak as it is, I’m not too worried about the fact that my 401K won’t grow as quickly with some of the capital out of it … it’s not growing right now anyway.

Altogether I’ll be right around $40,000 owed as of the end of September. Considering I was at $49,500 at the end of April, I’d say I was making decent progress. I’m still on track for having everything — property, car loan, school loan, and now the 401K loan — all paid off by December 2012.

I have to admit, though, the budget is much tighter than I’d like. I’m so impatient building the house that I sometimes spend more than I should (like the chop saw probably could have waited, but I really hate borrowing something repeatedly).  But my struggles with that can wait for another post.

Sep
15

I’m playing around with themes until I find one I like, so the appearance may change occasionally.