BOE And Savings Replenishment Update

It has been a busy month. With my seventy hour a week job and nursing a little sickness, I have had zero energy to write. I will be back in the swing of things next week, but until then, I wanted to give you a few financial updates that I promised would be coming your way.

I won my battle against the State Board of Equalization! They have finally acknowledged that I owe nothing else in terms of paying the tax on my car and are in fact, giving me back $21.00. Man does it feel good to not deal with those fools anymore. It was not without some misunderstandings and further miscommunication along the way. Once I was assigned to an auditor to review my case, he misunderstood what my appeal was about, thinking I was asking for a refund. That took a week of time to get right, at which point I followed up again only to learn he had put in a request to close my case. A few weeks later, someone else called me to say I was cleared, but that the wrong letter had gone out in the mail and my first notice would say I still owed money, but the one that would follow would correctly reflect my balance of zero. Man, how many time can one organization mess up?

Second accomplishment: I have fully reimbursed our savings to what it was before I had to pull from it to max out my Roth IRA in March. That is big, because it was a nice chunk of change. It feels great, but not as great as it would were that amount all in addition to what was there before. I don’t need to waste energy beating myself up about that, but it’s a good reminder not to fall into that trap again. Little by little, I hope to build it up this year and starting now I can focus on that rather than paying ourselves back.

I’m grateful for the lesson each of these things taught me and that two of the main financial regrets I have shared on here so far have been somewhat remedied. I now know to work toward funding my Roth IRA all year long, rather than waiting until the last minute and letting my savings take the hit. I will never attempt to sell my car the way I did this last time around and I will also never lease again. Both choices will save me money, time and peace of mind. What goals do you have this year for mistakes you’ve made in the past that you can make up for now?

Things I love

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I live in a noisy neighborhood. It’s fun, it’s bright, it’s busy…but with these things comes some difficulty sleeping in the early morning hours. Last month, we looked at swapping our spare and master bedrooms, just to avoid the light and sound that penetrates the windows of our space. It turns out our bedroom set wouldn’t fit comfortably in the smaller (darker, quieter) spare room, so we were stuck trying to find a different solution for ourselves. I knew it had to be cost-effective, so I started my favorite kind of task: finding a quality frugal solution.

When we moved into this place, it came with blinds on all the windows, which worked fine for a time. Over the years, they have started to break and become increasingly difficult to pull up and down. That’s Ikea for you. In addition to the blinds, we had curtains in our bedroom that were mainly for show. Inexplicably, a hole was burnt into one of them from what we’re guessing was the work of the sun and a hand mirror. Hole and all, I managed to sell the curtains on Craigslist. I threw the broken blinds out. We bought a cute pair of curtains from West Elm that were heavily marked down to $30 for two panels. We used them a few months until deciding it wasn’t helping make the room any darker or decreasing the noise around us.

I started a new hunt…for roman shades. I’m not sure I could tell you the exact distinction between roman shades and normal ones, but I think it’s in their sleek look and ability to collapse up and extend down with ease without a cord. Of course I looked at Pottery Barn first, where they sell ONE for $209. Moving on… I started my normal internet hunt in all my favorite stores, only to find most everywhere charged an outrageous amount for this style window covering.

Then I checked out Bed, Bath and Beyond. Man I love this store. Their return policy is unbelievably lenient, their prices are reasonable and somehow they let you take 20% off everything in the store every time you visit. Who does that? They were selling the size and color I wanted for $59 each. Which became $104 including tax after the mark down. They didn’t have them in my store, but shipping is free if you buy over $49 worth of merchandise. Of course I went into the store to order them because there’s no way to use the 20% off each item online. Then I sold the West Elm curtains at the price we bought them for. It is amazing how much more attractive our windows are when they are not blocked by our curtains and rod. Subtracting the amount I earned for selling our curtains, I spent $74 on the shades instead of $130 at full price. Even better, our Discover card is currently giving cash back for shopping at BBB, so we actually earned a little over $5 on the purchase. That puts the shades at $69. You feel me? There’s always a way to find a deal and often it’s as simple as selling the thing you wish to replace (broken or not!).

Now our room is so much darker throughout the night and in the morning hours. They have made our window frames much more attractive. The church next door to us is doing some construction at the entrance where the AA meetings used to congregate, so the attendees no longer gather right outside our window to chat. That’s helped us sleep better. We managed to get our landlord to move the recycling bins from our driveway to the backside of our building and put locks on them and now we no longer wake up in the night to the sound of homeless people stealing glass bottles. A combination of a little muscle work and some convenient coincidences has helped us solve the problems we were having with the location of our bedroom. Don’t give up if you are unhappy in your home. You can find free solutions to compliment them.

How I Made A Home Gym For Free

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On the first day of my current job I had to be awake at 5:30am. I got up, worked out and hopped in the shower. My energy was high all day and I only had a cup or two of coffee. That is the beauty of working out from home. You can squeeze it in anywhere, even on the most hectic days.

The average amount spent by Americans on a gym membership is $55 a month. That’s $660 a year. Not to mention gas, clothes and parking. I used to spend $312 annually. Now I workout for free.

For seven years I was a member of 24 Hour Fitness. I loved the facilities and having every weight loss tool at my disposal. I even used a personal trainer there at one point (that was part of my debt!) and took “free” classes. Four of those seven years, I lived in Hollywood and was able to walk to the gym most of the time–then I moved to my equally walkable neighborhood in Los Feliz and had to start commuting. Hollywood is about two miles from the village where I live, but in LA time, that’s fifteen minutes away. Then I would search for street parking (read: I never paid for parking in the structure), travel up four flights of stairs to the gym and spend anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour working out depending on my routine that day. This easily ate up an hour and a half to two hours of my day each visit. Even when I used to walk, I spent forty minutes round trip.

What’s easy to forget is that most people do not go to the gym everyday. On my best stretches, I would go five to six days a week, but that would only last a few months at time and then I would not go again for six months. This pattern repeated itself over the course of my entire membership. I can’t imagine how many dollars I threw away in the months I didn’t workout.

Then last year, I decided to end my relationship with 24 Hour Fitness in favor of creating a comfortable exercise environment at home. We realized we had the space to add a machine to our apartment’s back balcony. My original thought was that the investment for a used machine from Craigslist would be less than one year of gym payments–and then be free forever after that.

But by total coincidence, when my husband helped a friend move, he noticed that he no longer wanted his elliptical and left it behind–so he asked if we could have it. And just like that, within a week of my hunt, we got one for free! I remember the first time I stepped down from it after a workout and was instantly in my apartment. It was almost hard to process; that’s it? I just…step inside?

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Adjustable Weights

For my last birthday, I received a set of adjustable weights from my folks. This means that the entire set ranging from 10 pounds to 45 are in the same unit and you can detach pieces to do sets with different sizes. It basically condenses your system into one and saves a ton of space. Now I can do my weight routine while watching the news, reading something for work, or running around the apartment to clean up in between sets.

For our wedding, we had one of those registries that allows guests to donate to various funds; one of ours was for P90X. We used the money and bought it second-hand from eBay. I’ve never tried it, but my husband has and he loves it.

If you make working out a priority, it can be free. I didn’t even touch on the huge park that is steps from our apartment or the fact that a lot of you are probably joggers. Those things are free too! Start now and give yourself an attainable goal in which to cancel your gym membership. I bet you will see free or inexpensive opportunities arise in that time if you are diligent in the search. Maybe your dream wedding or birthday gifts aren’t exercise equipment; but I can assure you these things are more rewarding to me on a weekly basis than a fondue pot or piece of jewelry.

Another idea is to limit yourself to only spending one year’s worth of gym membership fees to invest in home equipment. I bet you can do it. Goodbye guilt for wasting money on weeks you skip the routine. Goodbye cute sports bra with matching leggings–you can work out in your pajamas if you really want to! Goodbye time suck, creepy guys watching you and waiting for machines. Hello freedom! Not only is working out from home a huge money saver, it saves time and we don’t have to use our car to lose weight. What a concept. A great step to consider for those who are looking to make a small financial change with big results.

 

 

 

Taking Scissors to Sunset: Dungeness Crab and Garlicky Yogurt Pasta

 

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Hello people! Time for another dose of a delicious recipe, Sunset style. For those who are new around here, I will have an ongoing post where I take a recipe from Sunset Magazine and try it out on a budget at home. I actually made this dish a few months ago before I had posted the first recipe and therefore hadn’t come up with the idea to have a partner in crime yet. April escaped me and I never got around to inviting someone over to cook together. So instead, I will give you one that I hadn’t planned on posting because there was room for improvement and I wanted to give it a second try.

You can find the original recipe here.

Ingredients:

2 cups of greek yogurt

Zest and juice of 1 large lemon

3/4 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. pepper

2 garlic cloves, crushed with 1/4 tsp. salt in a mortar and pestle

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 lb. dried pappardelle pasta or 1 1/4 lobs fresh fettuccine

1 pinch saffron threads

1/4 cup butter

3/4 lb. shelled cooked Dungeness crab

1/2 cup loosely packed small fresh dill springs

About 2 tsp. aleppo pepper, urfa biber, or ground ancho chile*

I put in bold the items that I had to buy, the rest I already had around the house. You could cut down on some of the costs with a little hard work! We actually have a lemon tree right outside our kitchen window, but there weren’t any ripe ones on there at the time. We also have grown herbs once or twice, but I killed them both times. So theoretically, one could have gotten their dill that way if they have a green thumb. I often have pasta on hand, and greek yogurt is great for such a variety of recipes that the only real painful purchase for this one is the crab. I found a small container of crab legs at Whole Foods for $8.99. The exact weight was slightly less than what the recipe called for, but it worked fine. It also wasn’t Dungeness, but I didn’t find that made a difference. For those of you who aren’t a Californian, it’s harder to find this type of crab. I tried last summer in Maine and they didn’t have it because it’s a West Coast crustacean. I think any kind will do.

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* These are the rarest of rare spices, apparently! The Sunset recipe suggests ordering them online at worldspice.com. I went to many a market in search for one of the three and came up with nothing. Then…the following week I was browsing my local butcher shop‘s spice wall and what do you know! Two of the three side by side. This is one of the things I would have done right if I could have. Instead I substituted with chili powder, which I had on hand.

The other change I would have made is to use the pappardelle pasta rather than the fettuccine. I think I used the fettuccine because I didn’t feel like going to Trader Joe’s that week.

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1. Combine yogurt, lemon zest and juice, salt, pepper, garlic and oil in a microwave-safe bowl. Set aside.

2. Cook pasta as package directs.

3. Meanwhile, pulverize saffron with a mortar and pestle. Add 1/2 cup hot pasta water and loosen saffron bits. Pour into a small saucepan, add butter and heat until simmering; keep hot. Microwave yogurt-lemon mixture until hot but not boiling, 1 minute. Rinse crab with hot water in strainer to warm.

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4. Drain pasta and return to pot. Toss with saffron butter. Add yogurt mixture, crab, half of dill and a little aleppo pepper and toss very loosely to mix slightly. Pour into a warm rimmed bowl. Sprinkle with remaining dill and a little more aleppo pepper.

I spent a total of $16 on this fancy-ish recipe that feeds up to eight in you make it in full. I halved it and it was two days worth of meals for two. That’s a steal! A tip: if you don’t have saffron threads, Trader Joe’s sells them for $5.99. That is the cheapest I’ve seen anywhere. Most grocery stores charge $20 or more for them.

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Enjoy! And if you try this at home, let me know how it turns out!

How Your Upbringing Affects Your Finances

Because Mother’s Day is upon us, I thought it might be appropriate to share how my parents taught me about finance by leading through example. I came from what I always considered to be a middle class family. I recently looked up the qualifying salaries for the American socioeconomic classes to learn that my parents’ household actually falls under the category of upper-middle class; though I can promise you it is not as fancy as it sounds. We lived differently than most of my friends.

My mom and dad have always shared one car. This was embarrassing to me in my teenage years because all my friends had their own cars. And if I’m honest, it’s really because I thought it made us look poor. I had multiple close friends who drove a Lexus to school. Looking back, that is absolutely nuts to me. When it came time for me to get my license, my parents added yet another driver to the one car and we all had to coordinate who could use it when. My dad has never driven much and always took the train to work and my mom stayed at home, so it wasn’t hard for the two of them to make it work before I started driving.

One time in high school, I was out with the car and my mom called to ask me to return home so that she could take my younger sister to Baskin Robbins. I was so annoyed. They wanted me to take time out of my busy evening of sitting in the strip mall parking lot for this? In this world of two, three, four car households, it is rare to find a family of five with one car. But my parents did it and continue to do so to this day. What I didn’t realize at the time is that this was a savvy financial move that saved them thousands of dollars over the course of their adult lives. I mean, thousands and thousands. One car means cheaper insurance. One car means one oil change every 3,000 miles. One AAA account. One battery that needs replacing; one everything. Last time I checked, one was smaller than two, three, four. When the time came for my husband and I to downsize to a one car household, it wasn’t a scary decision because I had such a great example of it working in my family.

I grew up in a modest four bedroom house that my parents bought in 1988. We had tons of friends living in the new development on the hill with their four car garages and country club memberships. I remember going to a high school party once and my friend’s mom had hired a valet. But there was no threat to “keep up with the Joneses” in my parents’ lives. They bought what they could afford at the time, in a neighborhood on the verge of booming and stayed put. When the 90’s came, the market went up and the house eventually became worth triple the purchase price. After refinancing and making double payments on the principal, they were free of a mortgage a decade early. This taught me that when I eventually own a home, I don’t have to be a slave to a mortgage either.

As I’ve mentioned previously, my parents paid for my college education. This didn’t happen by accident–they planned. They were also able to cover any emergency situation, live a comfortable life and travel a lot. I had been to Europe seven times before I even left for college. Can you imagine what that cost for a family of five? This inspired me to have similar goals of a comfortable cushion in case of crisis. It also taught me that relieving your children of student loans is the best graduation gift you can give them. My husband and I both hope to make travel a priority the way our families were able to for us.

My parents have never carried any debt. My mom used to cut out articles of credit card horror stories from the newspaper and leave them on my bed. It was effective and I managed to get through all of college without signing up for some cold hard plastic. But we all know how that story ends. I opened one after college, everything went downhill and here I am blogging about finance several years later.

They weren’t showy with the money they had, but rather lived like people who didn’t have much. They would sometimes reveal that they earned more than Mr. Blank’s family, but you would never know it by the lengths they went to keep up appearances. My mom would say that when someone drives a nice car, it usually means they carry debt in order to pay it off. Conversely, my parents buy their cars with cash and keep them for twelve years at a time. In the financial blogosphere, this is known as “running your car into the ground”.

My mom and dad are extreme examples of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” way of thinking. They feel no burden for the latest gadget. They hadn’t bought a new TV in almost twenty years until last December and even that took heavy suggesting on the part of me and my husband. We never had a microwave until I turned eighteen, and even then it was passed off to us, not a purchase. My dad does not have a cell phone. My mom has re-upholstered the same couch and chairs multiple times rather than buying new ones. While I haven’t inherited this particular quality, it has shown me the value of a dollar and consequently made me good at selling old things to buy new ones.

My parents’ wealth is a direct result of their refusal to succumb to economic peer pressure. Far too often, society thinks the opposite is true–that the appearance of wealth is wealth itself; when in reality, you are making yourself poor. It’s an unhealthy mindset that I have submitted to many times over and will likely be a lifelong temptation. I didn’t see the value of the way my mom and dad did things until fairly recently. As an adolescent, I found it socially isolating, as a twenty-something, I didn’t give it thought beyond how it could benefit me. Now that I am thirty, I KNOW EVERYTHING. What I’ve learned in retrospect is that they were incredibly wise in their frugality and it has changed the way I think about my future. In what ways have your parents influenced your view of money in adulthood? Happy Mother’s Day!

 

 

 

A Free Day In Savannah

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Jones Street

In early April, my husband and I took a trip to the South to visit Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. We both went in thinking we would favor Charleston, but I left absolutely in love with Savannah. If you are ever looking for a romantic getaway, this is the place. I would venture to say it is one of the most underrated U.S. cities. It is very possible to achieve one or more free days in this special place and here’s how I did it.

We arrived early on a Saturday afternoon, peak hours for the hustle and bustle of the city, which is my favorite way to experience something new. We searched around for our Air BnB apartment (major money saver!) while trying to find parking and were completely caught off guard by how many small parks there were. At first, we thought we had scored the best location EVER because our front door was steps from a park. As we continued to search, we realized there were parks everywhere. We later learned there is a total of twenty-two throughout the historic district. If you ever get the chance to design a city, I suggest you take this approach. It provides so much character and beauty.

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Wright Square

Let me start by saying that because of the parks, history and architecture, if someone told me that I couldn’t spend any money except for eating, I would still go. It is that breathtaking. I wanted to walk around everywhere I could all day everyday, but it rained on our second day. This wasn’t a huge bummer, only because we live in Southern California, so rain is always quite exciting. My only complaint is that the streets were quieter than the first day and I like it better when it’s busy.

Parts of Forrest Gump were shot here. It’s where Jenny lives at the end of the movie, and there is a scene showing her working in a diner. (I think I’m developing a Robin Wright theme on this blog.) The apartment we rented was directly above this diner and let me just say…they are very proud of being one of the shooting locations. It’s plastered all over the windows. I was very excited. It’s funny how we’ll go out of our way to see things from movies in other cities, but drive by similar things in LA photo 2without giving it a second thought. I don’t have any great photos of the park where Forrest sat on the bench and delivered his “life is like a box of chocolates” line. But just know that they removed the bench and it’s in a museum in town if you want to see it for $7.

The main street for shops was a Broughton, a block North of where we were, so we walked along that on the first day. Money saving tip: location matters! We did not have to use our rental car once our entire stay in Savannah, saving a lot on gas (and believe it or not Angelenos, meters are completely free on weekends). Try to book something that allows you to walk where you need to go. We stumbled upon this interesting store which can be best described as “Anthropologie on crack”. I don’t know if you knew this, but shopping is free if you don’t buy anything. There are a ton of storefronts and book shops in this city to explore.

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The Book Lady

photo 1Like Charleston, there is a lot of history in Savannah that you can learn about without having to pay for a tour. There is also a balcony where the Declaration of Independence was read. Flannery O’Connor grew up here and you can see her house, they also give tours, which we didn’t take. Apparently Walt Disney loved the look of the Hamilton-Turner Inn so much, he modeled The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland after it. The Mercer Williams House, featured in Midnighphoto 5t in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt is also located here. We considered taking a tour, but heard it was disappointing for fans of the book and considered a rip-off by most. I do want to read the book and return someday to take it anyway. Lastly, for anyone who was a Girl Scout, or has an affinity for the organization, it was founded here. Shockingly, there is also a tour for this (I think there is a tour for everything in this city), if that’s your thing. We were quite satisfied with a photo-op on the outside.

Forsyth Park is the king of all parks in Savannah, probably the size of all the rest of them put together. There are Spanish Moss along the perimeter, which is the classic  tree around these parts. The park is also surrounded by insanely gorgeous Georgian, Greek and Gothic Revival homes, to name a few. You could spend an entire day just exploring the architecture this city has to offer. I kept imaging what it would be like to live in one of those houses and look out on this picturesque scene from your fabulous window.

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Top left is The Mercer Williams House, bottom left is The Gingerbread House

I would return to this city in a heartbeat if the cause arises. It is well suited for any age group and very affordable on a budget. There are so many wonderful free things to take in. And if you want to spend a little money, I highly recommend taking a trolley around the town and do not miss Planter’s Tavern beneath The Pink House. We went there twice because it was the most special place in town. There is also an entire Riverfront to walk along with pirate boats, candy factories and tourists galore. Savannah should be in everyone’s top ten list of U.S. places to visit. I will never forget the precious time I had there. I miss it just thinking about it!

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Spanish Moss at Forsyth Park

The Value Of A Walkable Neighborhood

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As I’ve mentioned before, I live in Los Feliz, which is technically a village in Los Angeles. There are a lot of great things about this neighborhood that I love and will miss when I’m no longer here. Recently we have been considering relocating to a different part of town and that has got me thinking about the things I will be giving up if we do. The downside to a pocket of the city like this one are things like noise, dirt, minimal parking and a constant transient presence on or near your property. We also just finished months of enduring a construction project across the street with screeching mechanical sounds only to find out the church next door is undergoing an equally loud SIX MONTH PROJECT in their basement. And they start before business hours, so the sound of wood being thrown into a dumpster woke us up every day last week. All that to say, there are a lot of attractive qualities a suburb could provide–namely, we wouldn’t have to deal with any of the above.

But what I’d miss… well, where to begin. It’s hard to calculate the money saved by being able to walk to almost anything we need. But if I had to guess, I’d say somewhere between 1-2 billion dollars. Here’s how:

  • When I want to take the subway somewhere, I walk and in under ten minutes I’m on the red line, which takes me to both Hollywood and Downtown without having to transfer trains.
  • I have FOUR grocery stores within walking distance of my place. The one I frequent most is the quickest and flattest walk, which is really nice when I feel like getting out a bit. Trader Joe’s is the farthest and while I could walk, I never do.
  • My bank is in the village not once, but twice. If I walk North or South, I will hit an ATM or banker. This is insanely convenient because I never go out of my way to deposit a check or get cash.
  • I walk to the post office when I need to ship something. (There’s also a UPS within walking distance!)
  • There are both brunch and night life activities that I can walk to. People drive to this part of town just to go to one particular eatery that is always packed. We have multiple venues with live music, celebrity guests and stand up.
  • Griffith Park is a ten or fifteen minute walk up the street depending which part you want to go to. It is a gorgeous trek and there is so much to do once you’re there, including the LA Zoo and the Greek Theater, a major concert venue.
  • There’s just about every type of food to choose from.
  • I can walk to Kaiser. One of their largest LA branches is a few blocks from my place. When I went to the optometrist recently, they put drops in my eyes that made everything blurry for hours after. Thank God I was able to walk home and wasn’t relying on my car!
  • I’m one block from a Starbucks in case of serious emergency. I’m more partial to Coffee Bean, which is also walking distance, it’s just a bit further.
  • I’m one block from the absolute best shop we’ve found in town to buy bottled beer. They have so much variety and are constantly rotating new things in.
  • There are two movie theaters within walking distance, one three screen and a one screen. They show first runs movies and charge way more reasonable prices than most in town. ($6 for a matinée in this town is unheard of, people!) We also know the owner of both and his staff often lets us in free of charge. Who would want to give that up?
  • We have a very special local bookstore that we walk to all the time to browse.
  • All the major bus routes pass through an intersection one block from here. There is also a taxi stand if we ever need it.

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Almost everything I’ve listed would require me to drive if we moved to quiet neighborhood in the suburbs. You trade noise for gas money. I value walking places and even though they would be a short distance in the car, I know we are saving a lot in the long run. I love how busy Los Feliz is and that I can always count on seeing dozens of other people out and about when I walk somewhere.

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The rent is higher in this neighborhood than some other parts of town, but it is in exchange for the accessibility you get. How does one decide that the bad outweigh the good in these sorts of situations? Am I willing to give up all of these wonderful things for some peace and quiet and a little more space? Possibly. If we can find all we are looking for at the price point we want, then it just might be. There are pros and cons to every town and my next step is to try to determine if the money saved in this part, is worth the price in rent. What do you think? I’ll let you know what we decide.