travel, hike, eat. repeat.

my adventures are often on a budget… and always clumsy.

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

happy halloween!

Here’s a thing about me that very few people know: I didn’t celebrate Halloween until I was in college.

The first time I carved a pumpkin I was 18, and it was my freshman year at Nebraska. I mentioned this little tidbit in casual conversation to a cute boy in my honors English class, and he showed up at my dorm room a week before Halloween saying he had a surprise for me. He said to grab my coat, and he drove us up to one store or another. We picked out our pumpkins and a carving kit. We set up shop (newspapers) in my dorm room and went to work. I have no artistic skills whatsoever, and I’m sure I made a giant mess. And I think my smile threatened to swallow my face whole. (He turned out to be gay. Everyone who knows me is laughing right now!)

That same year, or maybe the next, is the first time I dressed up and went out for Halloween. Of course I don’t remember what I dressed as, but I know my junior year, I went as the very cliche school girl Brittany Spears in her video, “Hit Me Baby (One More Time).”

Pouty Brit Brit?!… thank goodness I’ve gotten better with age!

Every year in college, and in the years since, I’ve dressed in something cliche – a cheerleader, one of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” and even Tom Cruise in Risky Business. None have been my finest moments…

…but they’ve all been fun.

I had a very conservative, Southern Baptist upbringing. My church believed Halloween to actually be the Devil’s Holiday and strongly discouraged parents from allowing their children to participate in the typical trick-or-treat, haunted houses, carving, etc. shenanigans. Instead, I did “alternative Halloween” every year – a fun, brightly lit, family-friendly event at church where we got candy while singing praise music. I remember there being cardboard mazes, and hay rides around the church grounds. I grew up liking our version of Halloween, but I never really knew the other side.

So I guess you could say that by the time I hit college and experienced what my peers had been doing for years, I went a little crazy. Those pictures are embarrassing! But really, I’m as glad I experienced an all-out, wear too few clothes in the cold, embarrass myself by performing the “Single Ladies” dance at a party after a few too many drinks version of Halloween as I am the alternative one with which I grew up. All those experiences make me who I am now.

Happy Halloween!

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farm fun before hurricane Sandy came a’blowin’

“Hay, bear!” <;– har har, I'm dork!

Brrrr, it’s freezing in DC! Last night I forced myself out in the pelting rain and 50mph gusting wind that was Hurricane Sandy to walk the hound, Theo. I looked real special in oversized men’s pajama pants, a Nebraska sweatshirt, snow boots and my snow jacket zipped and snapped and velcroed up to my nose. I thought it might be overkill until we actually stepped outside – I could have used gloves, and another layer of clothes. Theo shivered and bolted ahead, dragging me along through puddles and mud. Fallen branches snapped as we hustled through our walk, and leaves blew every which way in my face.

On the bright side, we never lost power here, our roof stayed in tact (no leak… that we know of!), and to be honest, having yesterday and today to work from home has been nice. Today I’m shivering in my giant papasan, a space heater on next to me, as I write this. I’m reminiscing about my wonderful pre-Sandy weekend. I feared Sandy would bring rain and clouds and a chill into the city before the actual storm hit, but Saturday the sun shone all day. It was a perfect fall day, and I spent it at Temple Hall Farms in Virginia with Zan and two of my closest friends (since we were all 17!), Whitney and Matt.

I overindulged in pictures, y’all. I couldn’t help it. Temple Hall has a “maize maze” (I love corn mazes!), a pumpkin patch, hay rides, a giant bouncy…. THING, camels and so much more. On top of all that fall goodness, it’s just crazy beautiful out there. The entire setting burst with fall colors and smells, and I soaked up every bit of it.

It looks like winter is sneaking its way into the city, crawling in one falling degree at a time. Join me in remembering what could have possibly been our last great weekend of fall?

Temple Hall Farms is located in Loudon County and is open through November 6 (you still have time!). Admission is $12, or $11 if you print this $1 coupon from their site!

It’s natural for them to be different sizes!

Climbing haystacks with the best of the 6 year olds! From me (left) – my hotstuff boyfriend, Matt & Whitney

We really got in touch with our inner kids!

Children of the corn… right or left?!

The Diva Camel – she posed, y’all!

Let’s bounce, scare the children and pretend we’re the Fierce 5 gymnasts!

Scenes from the pumpkin patch kids

Obsessed with perfectly imperfect gourds

;

happy hours, Champagne Day edition

Pop the bubbles, it’s Champagne Day! To celebrate, here’s a list of happy hours that feature bubbles on a budget here in the District. Let me warn you – this bubbly happy hours guide does not represent Champagne happy hours! Champagne bottled bubbles perfection that comes exclusively from that beautiful, I’ll visit some day, region in France – not to be confused with any and all sparkling wine. Let’s go visit together?

Read more about the roots and grapes of Champagne at One Classic Wino. And now, the list, the list!

Dickson the speakeasy by any other name, this hidden gem has $5 drink specials, including Prosecco. 5-7:00pm and all night Mondays

Poste this self-described “moderne braserie” in Penn Quarter (near the Spy Museum) has a beautiful courtyard, truffle frites (!), and a selection of $5 wines, including bubbles. 4-7:00pm

Co Co. Sala also in Penn Quarter, offers a glass of Prosecco, along with 3 housemade chocolates for $9 at their “Chocolate and Bubbles” happy hour 4-7:00pm

Veritas at this Dupont wine bar, you’ll score 20% off all wines by the glass, including 7 bubbly options, every single day 5-8:00pm

Ripple sandwiched between sports bars,this upscale wine bar and restaurant makes gourmet grilled cheese and offers select wines by the glass 50% off at their short but very happy hour 5-6:30 & 10:30-midnight Sunday through Thursday

Urbana with $5 sparkling wine and half-priced pizza, it’s worth the trek 4-7:30pm

¡get saucy at El Chilango!

El Chilango, you muy sexy beast! I loved eating here. I love tacos, and El Chilango serves up some darn good ones. I love chips and salsa, and El Chilango’s verde salsa sells itself, even at a fairly steep $4 price tag. The only thing this small, hole-in-the-wall, ‘off the U Street beaten path’ doesn’t serve up is margaritas. That said, they’re in the process of obtaining a liquor license, so hopefully that will be remedied soon. And when they do make margs… I have a feeling they’ll be muy bueno!

Zan and I started our evening last Friday at Vinoteca, where I freaked out over the size of wine glass pours (one bartender actually poured wine back into the bottle when she poured a wee bit too much!). Despite the ramblings of this neurotic woman, we had a great time at Vinoteca and enjoyed all the wines we tried. Tipsy and hungry, without time or patience enough to head somewhere for a sit down meal, we wandered across the street to check out the new taco place, El Chilango.

This joint opened recently between 11th and 12th streets on V NW. Their front room seats barely 20, and they have an unexpected back area (also where their coolers are), that sat a large party the night we were there. I don’t know if that’s a regular service or a special occasion feature.

There are pictures of famous Mexicans lining the wall, and the other decor is what you’d imagine of Mexico City: vivacious, exciting and colorful. Spanish music plays over you, and Spanish is spoken freely.

The food is good. It’s legitimate and authentic and has enough of a kick to keep you wanting to order another horchata. At $7.50 for 3 tacos, the price is fairly standard for DC tacos. However, they do tack on a $.75 additional fee for mixing and matching your taco selection. Zan & I both agreed the chorizo is the best taco, and we tried ’em all. The best part of this place is the salsa bar (not pictured). Load up on ’em all but beware the habanero relish – it’s as spicy as it sounds (and delicious!)

The down side: their chips aren’t homemade. For such legitimate food, that was a disappointment!

The last few weeks I’ve been ooh’ing and ahh’ing and trying to run away and elope with Dulcinea, the small taco/Mexican restaurant across the street from Howard University…and in truth, Dulcinea is still my favorite Mexican in the city. But if someone asked, “Hey, wanna grab tacos at El Chilango?” you wouldn’t hear me say no.

You know, with all these great taco places popping up faster than flip-floppers in an election year, I might just have to hold a Battle of the Tacos, or a Taco Tour!

St. Arnold’s breakfast makes a believer out of me

Belgian waffle with powdered sugar and homemade whipped cream $7

The Drug Opera $10

I like to make my own breakfast; I don’t like to go out for breakfast. I know, I know, it’s weird… and neurotic! Everyone loves going out for breakfast! …except me. That said, I love to brunch – you know, with bottomless mimosas and a big group of friends. But when it comes to just going out to eat for breakfast, I’d rather spend my money on dinner.

Zan loves going out for breakfast, and he has been sorely disappointed with my lack of interest in it (“babe, I can make scrambled eggs even better, right here, for free, and we don’t have to put on pants!” = our conversation every Saturday morning). So when I woke up yesterday morning hankerin’ for a Belgian waffle (I blame it on friends discussing them the night before!), he practically whistled and skipped on our short walk to St. Arnold’s Mussel Bar.

The Belgian bar on Connecticut Ave. is a local favorite for their namesake, mussels. However, they’ve expanded their hours and menu to include brunch. It’s a narrow space with a shallow patio that’s open when it’s a little warmer. Service is friendly and quick.

You won’t find fresh squeezed juice here or a lengthy list of eggs Benedict options. St. Arnold’s offers a handful of options, including a waffle burger that I saw but couldn’t imagine how to eat! You can also get a regular burger, a Belgian breakfast, a traditional English breakfast, complete with bangers (I just wanted to say bangers), and several more options. All of their food is made fresh in house.

Z & I decided to split “The Drug Opera,” a grilled (thick) ham and Gruyere sandwich on crostini, topped with 2 fried, over easy eggs, served with breakfast potatoes and a side salad. We opted to sub out the potatoes for their famous hand cut frites (I was dying to try them; I’m such a sucker for great fries!). We ordered a Belgian waffle with powdered sugar and handmade whipped cream to share, as well.

The waffle is perfectly done – it’s so fluffy, you barely need to cut into it with a fork for it to separate. The whipped cream is light and has a zesty, lemon note to it. And y’all. The sandwich. Oh, that Drug Opera sandwich. It’s as incredible as the individual ingredients. I’m still daydreaming about it today. The frites are impressive – not too salty, well-seasoned and truly homemade. The garlic aioli served alongside them is nothing short of addictive.

We skipped the alcohol and truly enjoyed breakfast out. I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.

cuStudent Loans social media representative emails me

Where the storm ends (taken at The Reservoir, DC)

Something completely unexpected happened yesterday. Kenneth, the guy who handles cuStudent Loans‘ twitter account (@CollegeRC), emailed me with tips and helpful information about improving my credit and consolidating my private loans, all from reading my blog posts!

Working with Sallie Mae these past four years since I graduated hasn’t been easy. I honestly didn’t know that I’m in an interest-only repayment plan for 4 years until I started doing all this research. How could I not know that?! At first, I blamed myself. But the truth is – when I called Sallie Mae 3 years ago to talk with a customer service agent, to try to figure out how to get my payments to a manageable place, it wasn’t explained to me what was happening. I was told the lowest plan had me paying xxx dollars. My repayment terms weren’t explained to me at all.

Y’all, it’s highway robbery. Doing all this research has made me feel vulnerable, weak, completely alone and dirty – like I’ve been involved in a shady deal. That’s what the whole student loan industry feels like right now.

So when Kenneth emailed me, it completely took me off my guard. I’m still wary of cu’s program, especially of their 1% origination fee, but receiving incredibly personalized, kind customer service with tips that made me feel like someone in this industry cares went a long way in making me reconsider their offer.

I’d like to share with y’all his full email, because I think the advice and tips he offers are great and solid for any graduate with student loan debt! After reading it, I’ve already looked into consolidating my federal loans and requested an official credit report (I use Credit Karma but requested a report from Experian, as well).

I hope you find his advice helpful, as well!

-C

Hey Cyndi,

When it comes to enhancing credit for a consolidation, here are some things you can do.  After a few months, credit can increase as a result.

1.  Get a copy of your credit report and check for errors.  Our application uses Experian, so you want to make sure this report is updated: http://www.experian.com/ You may be surprised about the amount of errors, or loans double counted that should only be listed once.

2.  Make sure your federal loans are consolidated at http://www.loanconsolidation.ed.gov/  This will help to organize repayment into one monthly amount due.  Federal consolidation also offers more flexible repayment plans, and you may be able to have the monthly payment amount reduced by extending the loan term.  Stick to the repayment schedule consistently.

3.  If you have any Credit Card Debt, maximize payments and eliminate them as quickly as possible.  However, keep your credit card accounts open after paying them off.  Do not cancel the cards at zero balance, because having established credit on open trade lines creates credit “capacity” and actually improves your credit score.

4.  Any new credit card balances should be paid off in the first months statement.

Keep in mind the cuGrad consolidation does have a cosigner release option available after 12 consecutive full principal and interest payments are  made.  If the primary borrower can be approved for the loan on a stand alone basis, the cosigner is then released.  This may be helpful for you as you look to potentially add a cosigner to get approved.

I saw your new blog update and you brought up some great points.

Since this program has no prepayment penalty, I’d recommend making prepayments as aggressively as possible.  This is a good strategy to mitigate future rate variability, because if a large portion of the loan principal is paid, it would lower the amount of interest that could accrue if rates did go up.

Please let me know your loan ID after you start the application so I can follow up: http://www.custudentloans.org/our-loans/cugrad-private-student-loan-consolidation/

Thanks and have a great day!

Ken

banana zucchini chocolate chip muffins

I have near two dozen fresh picked apples sitting on my kitchen counter from last weekend’s visit to Stribling Orchard. I should be baking with apples! I blame it on being a little appled out. When Zan took me apple picking earlier in the season, for my birthday in September, I went a wee little bit overboard, baking apple pie cookies, apple cake, apple strudel muffins… basically everything short of apple pie, itself (how’d I miss that?!). I need to get over that, though, because I have half a dozen more apple recipes I want to try, and these fresh apples don’t stay good for very long! (I don’t think I could have said “apples” more in that paragraph!)

In my apple hiatus, I wanted to try baking with bananas. When I went to Boston a few weekends ago, Mel made banana bread, and y’all won’t believe this, but it was my first time ever having it! And I loved it. So when I got home, I searched my pantry for what I could make with what I had: one brown banana, a zucchini and chocolate chips.

That’ll work!

I used this base recipe for zucchini chocolate chip muffins and made it my own. I’ve put the original recipe here, along with my changes, in italics. These are the best muffins I’ve quite possibly ever eaten. They’re moist, chocolatey (without *all* the guilt) and have stayed delicious for the five days I’ve managed to keep them around. In fact, I’m eating the very last one as I type this!

(banana) chocolate chip zucchini muffins, All Recipes

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 3/4 cup all-purpose, 3/4 cup whole wheat
3/4 cup white sugar 2/3 cup white sugar, 1/3 brown 
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon omitted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup vegetable oil 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 1/4 cup apple butter without sugar (I get mine from Stribling)
1/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract always +a drop or two more
1 cup shredded zucchini I use a cheese grater for this
1/2 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips Yeah, right! 1 cup regular sized!
1/2 cup chopped walnuts omitted

+ One ‘bad,’ browned banana, mashed until near smooth – mix into zucchini (there should be liquid in the bowl)

directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (175 C). Grease 12 muffin cups, or line with paper muffin liners I use a pinch of sugar and flour to keep them from sticking
  2. Combine flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon (if used) and salt in a bowl.
  3. Mix egg, oil/apple butter, milk, lemon juice and vanilla in another bowl
  4. Stir wet bowl ingredients into dry bowl until just moistened.
  5. Mix in your zucchini/banana bowl
  6. Stir in the chocolate chips and walnuts, if you’re using them.
  7. Fill muffin tin 3/4 full
  8. Bake for 20-25 minutes Mine were perfect at about 21-22 minutes!
  9. Eat warm with milk. Mmmmmm!!
  10. Share with friends, family, coworkers, etc and enjoy how much everyone else loves them, too!

**The original recipe makes 12; mine makes about 15, depending on size.

breaking down the LIBOR index rate

LIBOR (acronym, proper noun) – London InterBank Offered Rates, see also, “bane of my existence.”

Having essentially knocked Wells Fargo out of the running as a lender to consolidate my private student loans (remember? they need me to apply with a cosigner, and right now, I don’t have anyone to who can do that for me), I’m back to cuStudent Loans.

cuStudent Loans offers only a variable interest rate, as I mentioned in my first post on this topic. When they receive your application in full, they review your credit and offer you an interest rate between 4.25-6.75%. That base rate is then COMBINED with the LIBOR index rate to give you what you actually will pay every month. In the simplest terms (for me, I’m a finance dummy), LIBOR is the international market standard for short-term interest rates. Yep, that’s it! It’s published by the Wall Street Journal. (Here’s a good article on LIBOR.)

Currently, LIBOR rates are at a historic low. We’re talking .22% in September.

Say I had already consolidated with cu and they gave me an interest rate of 5%. For September, I would have paid 5.22%. Pretty amazing.

Base rate 5%
+
LIBOR index September .22%
=
Interest rate for September 5.22%

The downside to having this variable rate, that includes the LIBOR, is that rates haven’t been and won’t always be as low as they are right now. This math is also NOT PERFECT — cuStudent Loans gives you a quarterly rate – so it would really be the average of 4 months you would pay. This is just an example.

You can see a full chart of LIBOR rates dating back to its inception in 1989 here.

The historically highest rate is 9.125%, reached in November 1990. (Please feel free to correct me if you catch something I missed!) By my findings, it has only reached 9% one other time – 9.063% in September 1989.

That’s a long time ago. There are only a handful of times since 1989, that LIBOR has reached 8%, as well.

The trend, in my rudimentary analysis, seems to be the rates rise from 1-2% to 5-6% over a few years, then dip back down. Those highs of 8 & 9% and historic lows we’re at now are rare.

Now, let’s do the math again.

Base rate 5%
+
LIBOR hypothetic rate 8%
=
I pay 13%

That’s a big number. Sadly enough, though, when I broke down the numbers of what I’ll owe Sallie Mae over the next 17 years, even at 13-14% during higher interest rate times, I’ll be paying less than what I would through Sallie Mae. But what if shit hits the fan, and I hit cu’s interest rate ceiling of 18%? That means my combined base rate + LIBOR index can never be above 18%. I will never pay more than that.

Well, my payments would be $650. That’s $90 more than I will pay with Sallie Mae at the peak of my repayments. That’s bad. ON the other hand, I’m scheduled to pay Sallie Mae $465 for six years. Judging by the LIBOR trend, I 1) will most likely never hit the ceiling and 2) if I ever did, it’s hugely unlikely it would be sustained for any amount of time.

In the end, FOR ME, the math comes out on the side of consolidating, even with a variable interest rate.

Total amount repaid to Sallie Mae over the next 17 years (not including the 3 years I’ve already been paying): $93,500

Total estimated amount repaid with cu consolidation (my math): $72,000.

I got there by assuming a payment of $400/month over the 15 year repayment term with cu. That’s more than I will pay with interest rates as low as they are right now and probably less than I will pay at some points in the next 15 years. In the end, maybe I’ll only save $10,000 and end up having to pay $13,500 because interest rates hit higher marks. Or, maybe I’ll get lucky and save even more than I estimate.

For me, the gap of $21,500 of potential savings is worth the risk.

**Please feel free to leave me tips or advice or correct any math mistakes you see. I’m open to constructive criticism and learning more about these topics!

//quote on top is courtesy of Mel at thethingtheymade.blogspot.com. Thank you for being a friend.

falling for fall

I went apple picking this weekend. Zan, his brother and sister-in-law and I went out to Stribling Orchard in Markham, Virginia. Stribling is a 200 year old orchard, situated in Virginia wine country, near the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can’t ask for a more stunning view. It’s the only orchard I’ve ever been to, but I’d still put money on them having the best treats. We overindulged on hot cider, apple cider donuts, apple cake and, of course, apple pie. I was tipsy and silly off sugar, before we ever had a drink. The apples were pretty picked over, but we still managed to bring home too many.

We followed the orchard visit with a trip to Naked Mountain Winery, less than two miles down the road. Besides enjoying the fun name and their “drink naked” slogan, we also loved the wine. Their tasting is $7/person for six wines or $12/person for 11. We opted for the classic tasting. Each of us had a different favorite – mine is their Viognier. We all enjoyed the Cab Franc so we got a bottle of it and a charcuterie and cheese plate to enjoy on their open-air patio.

I felt so alive at the orchard, reaching and jumping for apples just a little too far out of our reach, and at the winery, laughing with people who have quickly become close and special to me. It was a perfect fall day – the sun shining, making the crisp air feel almost warm standing in just the right place, the company warming me to my core.

Fall has never been my favorite season – that’s specially saved for the sunshine and sundresses of summer, but this year, there’s something special about it. The leaves are taking their time changing, making sure we can’t miss the beauty of it, and the weather is calm, holding back, providing us a few more weekends to retreat into the sensational colors, flavors, sounds and smells of the season.

How are you celebrating fall?

do you understand your student loans? (private consolidation pt 2)

My loans are a hot mess.

The last week I’ve been touting my responsibility, how I’ve never missed a loan payment, patting myself on the back for learning about private student loan consolidation and working to go that route – all. for. nothing.

Did I mention my loans are a hot mess?

Let me explain.

After my last post on looking into private student loan consolidation, I received a lot of feedback. Everyone said the same thing: do not do anything with a variable interest rate. I did my research, too. Major articles on private student loan consolidation: Forbes, Student Loan Consolidator & Faith & Finance.

I quickly discovered how precious few lenders take on private loan consolidation these days. I came up with three: cuStudent Loans, the one that conditionally approved me to start with; Wells Fargo & SunTrust – both of which offer fixed and variable plans.

I applied for both Wells Fargo & SunTrust. FYI – both are very open about wanting borrowers to have cosigners. Even if your credit is good, you may not get approved. And that is exactly what happened to me. SunTrust denied me outright (zinggg outch!), and Wells Fargo asked me to submit with a cosigner. The depressing truth of it is… I don’t have anyone to ask to cosign with me.

Y’all, when I say I come from little, I mean I come from nothing. I don’t have a single family member with credit-worthiness to cosign for a loan for me. After dwelling in bitter rage, hating all the privileged people with families who can help them and throwing myself a giant, massive, ice-cream fueled pity-party, I got over myself and kept on researching. I’m not the type to give up.

And I’m glad I didn’t.

(I promise, I’m getting back to that point about my loans being a hot mess!)

Today I logged into my Sallie Mae account and did some fishing. I mean some deep water, middle of the ocean, delved into that website and dug up the biggest, grossest stuff I could find. And it really seriously made me about as nauseated as catching a real fish actually would! Here’s the low down…

I’m currently paying $390/month for my private student loans. I repeat, that does not include my federal loans. I thought that was already insane enough! When applying and researching consolidation, I was basing all my math and decision-making on that number. WRONG! I didn’t understand my repayment terms. In reality, I owe another 17 payments of $390. After that, are you sitting down? I will owe 71 payments – SIX YEARS – of $564. Then I get a wee little break for five years and pay the low low price of $445 all before trailing off for another five years, paying $310.

And did I mention they’re all at 9.75%?!

Before you all judge me and call me crazy for ever taking out these loans, remember when I said no one in my family has any credit-worthiness? I’m a textbook example of a first-generation student with no know-how or access to information about higher education financial aid. I had no clue what I was doing. I fought and clawed my way through college, financially. I worked 2-3 jobs at a time every semester. I thought I was doing the right thing and, at the time, was proud that I could get approved for enough money to stay in school. How’s that for the pull yourself up by the boostraps American Dream?!

So with all this information, I’m reconsidering the only consolidation option currently available to me – cuStudent Loans, where I’d have that dreaded variable interest rate. The next step in this process is reviewing, analyzing and understanding the LIBOR index rate and how it would dictate my payments. If it hits historical highs in the 15 years that I’d be in repayment, would my payments be above the $565 Sallie Mae has me paying for six years? Stay tuned…

Unless, of course, anyone wants to cosign on a $50,000 loan for me?! …That’s what I thought 🙂

Protip: print out, read and know your repayment terms on your loans.

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