I Can’t Afford to Own a Home. Thank God

"Did you hear that, honey? The value of our new home just went down 24% and we haven't even unpacked."

I want to own a home. Not now, but soon, and preferably in the Twin Cities, not the ‘burbs.

The other day, I went to Wells Fargo to run a credit report and get my latest score. I made some inadvisable decisions involving a credit card during the early part of college, turning a $1,000 Apple iBook G4 into a $2,700 ass-kicking by collections. I squared away all of my debts before graduating and over the past few years I’ve shown model behavior with my credit.

“It’s probably not as high as you want it to be, but you would easily qualify for a home loan,” the Wells Fargo personal banker said.

II took this woman at her word, but I laughed her off. I haven’t yet entertained the idea o buying a home.  but after I left, I started a mental renting vs. owning cost analysis. I’ve been renting apartments for seven years now, some more expensive than others. At a modest $350 per month average, I’ve spent nearly $30,000 on rent.

What do I have to show for it? Nothing.

The upside is I’ve never had to worry about being stuck somewhere or losing my ass in a sale. According to the Star Tribune, homes in the Twin Cities metro area lost 12 percent of their value in 2010. Ouch.

I guess I’d like a little, old place with character, and a big Southern-style covered porch. I want a two-car garage, a flat driveway and a basketball hoop. I want a fenced-in backyard for our dog to run around in, but I want my front yard to be open and inviting. I want to live in a cool neighborhood with little eateries, coffee shops and dive bars. I want to know I’m not paying for someone else’s mortgage on a rental property.

But, I also don’t want to panic with each tornado watch or pay hundreds of dollars to heat my home each winter month. I don’t want to worry about ice dams and shingles and watering the lawn or water in the basement. I want home ownership without the responsibility. Then again, who doesn’t?

The personal banker was right — my credit score isn’t where I want it to be. I could get a home loan, but I’d be facing higher rates. So, in a way, I’m relieved my credit score isn’t prime for a home loan. The last thing I need right now is to start thumbing through classifieds and checking out open houses, setting myself up to make an impulse decision I’m not ready for, not unlike that fateful iBook.

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Filing Taxes Isn’t As Thrilling As It Used To Be

It’s that time of year again — tax season. I began filing my W-2’s last night in what’s become one of the most joyous endeavors of the year for me. I’m not yet to the point where I’m paying in, so whenever late January rolls around, I start to plan out ways to spend that sweet check signed by Uncle Sam.

Last year, I was responsible with my return. I put the whole thing in savings to help fund a cross-country move. The year before, I re-upped my golf equipment — new irons, a driver, a bag, shoes. This year, I was planning on a car down payment.

I’m halfway through filing but I keep running into an error with H&R Block’s online filing service. Here’s hoping this won’t lead to an audit or something. I’ve already passed the section that determines which income-based credits I will receive, and unfortunately, my income is too high for several of those. I found myself wishing I made less so I could get a bigger tax return. I’m not saying I support tax evasion, but I certainly understand it.

The cruel part is H&R Block’s program shows your federal and state return through each step of the interview, and each time you move onto a new page, it adjusts to your most recent answers. Last night, my federal return peaked at $1,784. That was after my first W-2 statement. After I entered my second W-2, that amount dwindled down to $903. I felt like I lost $800 — money to which I was never entitled, but money H&R Block never should’ve promised.

Everyone deserves a tax return. It’s like the government’s giving you a high-five and saying, “Have a 42-inch LCD TV, on us.” Thanks, government.

I agonize knowing my lucrative tax returns are probably coming to an end, which is significant to a guy who, at age 26, still gets a stocking on Christmas and an Easter basket on Easter. Soon, I’ll have to save up before filing so I can pay in. This is among many moments and events that remind me, in no uncertain terms, that I’m getting older.

Crap.

 

I’m Back in the Saloon (Again)

That's a mix of Blue Steel and the no-look pour.

I’m doing everything I can to hang on to the job title “bartender.”

I’m something less than part-time right now — most accurately, an on-call bartender — but even after a particularly taxing week at work, I can’t wait to shoot down to Mankato tonight to spend a couple nights slinging drinks to college kids.

I’ve written about my affinity for working at South Street before. I’ve since put in a few shifts only to find I’m getting older and college kids are staying the same age. More depressingly, the only people I know in Mankato anymore are those I get to work with at South Street. It’s good to see them, but it’d be nice to serve an old friend now and then. Apparently, they’ve all graduated and moved away.

My most recent shift at South Street was about a month ago on a Sunday night. Business was slow and I didn’t see a single familiar face, save for my girlfriend’s. I had to work at 9 a.m. the next morning and didn’t make it back to Minneapolis until about 5 a.m. All told, I drove 160 miles to work a five-hour shift for just $43 in tips. On the way home, I started thinking maybe I should hang it up. Maybe the thrill is gone. Maybe it’s time to put the bartender shtick behind me.

But I can’t quit it.

It’s graduation weekend in Mankato, and hundreds of mid-year grads will pretend this is their last night in town before they set off for an adult life with full-time expectations. Sure, they’ll visit for homecoming, but they’re putting college in the rearview, thinking about bigger and better things. Who can blame them?

I did that. I did that twice. I graduated, then stuck around Mankato to dabble in graduate school, then moved to Portland and came back again. Now, I get to Mankato whenever I can, usually to work the same job that carried me through college. Maybe I’m the loser. Maybe I’m the one who should grow up. Maybe I should put bartending in the rearview.

But why?

I love the sense of community I feel at South Street or any bar, for that matter. My parents owned a sports bar during my formative years, and though the crowd was drastically different than South Street’s, I admired the way my mom and dad would float throughout the bar, saying hello to regulars and always meeting new people, organizing events like the Bogey’s Golf Tournament or the Bogey’s Super Bowl Party. I started working at a bar when I was 12 years old, filing dried-up cheese and ketchup off dinner plates for $3.25 an hour. Forget college — maybe working at a bar reminds me of my childhood.

Maybe I have nothing to apologize for, because I’m now closer to 30 than 20 and I don’t want to end up a bitter middle-aged man who too hastily let go of the things that made him happy. If anything, I’m lucky. It’s not like I’m trying to sneak my way into the Minnesota State University intramural basketball league or the Gage dormitory, for that matter.

I’m trying to play some loud music while pouring a few drinks with my friends, maybe while having a few of my own. There are worse ways one can make a buck.

The Latest Episode in Our Attempt to Acquire a Dog

See where we're coming from? Look at this thing.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I desperately want a dog. I assume that’s typical of a couple 20-somethings whose idea of a wild Saturday night is making to the Weekend Update segment on SNL.

In our last episode, we were looking at a German wirehaired pointer, but that breed simply grows to be too big. We’d done a pretty good job purposely forgetting about getting a dog until we were at lunch with my grandma the other day. She encouraged us to do so, because if nothing else, the dog we were considering adopting may be put down. Our hearts sank. We recommitted to getting a dog. (We also found out the Blue Earth Nicollet County Humane Society has a no kill policy.)

As we resume our search for the perfect dog, we face the following dilemmas:

  1. Cost. Always a concern and everyone we know has warned us of the hidden costs of pet ownership.
  2. Permission. We haven’t been given the green light by our landlord, but the bigger concern is our …
  3. Wood floors. We live in the bottom floor of a duplex. Our neighbors above us have a pomeranian-papillon mix that weighs no more than 15 pounds, but they also have carpet, so scratching isn’t a concern.
  4. Furniture. A friend let us use her furniture when we moved in and she’s asked for it back should we get a puppy. Understandable. No one wants puppy urine dried up on their furniture, especially when it’s someone else’s puppy. So, new furniture — nothing Craigslist can’t fix.

Kix was born Aug. 29 at Cowpound Kennel in Peever, SD.

Our breed du jour is the labradoodle. A coworker has recommended a breeder in Peever, SD, which is about an hour from where my girlfriend grew up. My coworker implored me to say I’m from South Dakota and not the Twin Cities to get a better rate, which makes me feel more like I’m buying contraband or black-market weapons, not a harmless puppy.

The upside: Labradoodles can be hypoallergenic, which is critical for my girlfriend. And just look at that puppy. Makes me want to wear a wool sweater with a labradoodle stitched on it. Is that so wrong?

Of course, getting a labradoodle entitles you to join the Cult of Labradoodle Owners. I’ve done some unofficial polling to determine labradoodle owners are more obsessed with their dogs than any other breed’s owners. It’s awesome and terrifying, but most importantly, great blog material. Is it sad I’ve ignored all the hang-ups of dog ownership for the fact it might just be good topic matter? I could be a crazy dog blog guy. That’s a good look.

We’re shifting things around and trying like hell to make this happen, and soon.

Stay tuned.

My New Driver’s License and a Five-Year Retrospective


I finally received my Minnesota driver’s license over the weekend. My South Dakota driver’s license expired on my 26th birthday in September, meaning I now have one less link to my home state. That’s a little dramatic, I realize, but I’m proud to be a Minnesotan and I feel validated now with this new driver’s license.

When I first saw my new license, I was compelled to compare it to the old one. I noticed — as you might, too, from the picture above — some major differences:

I’m shrinking — At age 21, I listed myself at 6-2. At age 26, I listed myself at 6-0. The second height is accurate and the first one isn’t. The truth is I always wanted to be taller. I guess at age 21 I was still holding out hope I might grow to be a small forward instead of a portly point guard. I’m happy with 6-0. It’s so much cooler than 5-11.

I survived college without becoming obese – Look at the first ID — I had jowls! At 21?! Despite all my best efforts, I now weigh 10 pounds less than I did the day I began to legally drink. That’s one hell of an accomplishment, considering all the beer, tater tots, nachos and pizza I put down in college. (It might have something to do with the fact I shrank two inches, too.)

Also shrinking: My hairline –  Look at that hair. That lush canopy of bangs. Look at that naive 21-year-old who thinks he’ll be gray before his hairline ever recedes, not knowing five years later, the race between graying and balding will run neck and neck.

That’s MPLS to you – OK, I’m a little annoyed with the state’s decision to use “MPLS” in place of “Minneapolis.” Clearly, there’s plenty of space. I don’t know if this is a technique to dupe counterfeiters, but as a former bouncer, I’d be more suspicious of the condensed, text-message version of Minneapolis. Sort of makes me miss my South Dakota license, which was patient enough to spell out all 10 letters of “Sioux Falls.”

I still write like a child – Are we done with handwriting yet? Can we just type everything now? Anyone can make out the “A” that starts my signature, but from then on, it’s a crap shoot. The government should have me writing coded messages, because no level of foreign intelligence could decipher that chicken scratch.

Wear and tear – You can’t see it by the picture, but my South Dakota license was falling apart. Most of the laminate on the back has curled up in the corners and the front side has several air bubbles. As the ID became less necessary, it started to look more like a fake. I’m holding on to this South Dakota license as a reminder I put it to good use in college and the years following. It’s something of a relic. New Minnesota license feels, frankly, like my adulthood certificate. New Minnesota license and I have yet to share any good times the way South Dakota license and I did.

Most importantly, this makes me a Minnesotan, right? I know, I know — I’m really a native South Dakotan, an expatriate who learned the language and tried to fit right in. This Minnesota license doesn’t mean I’m going to start watching hockey or drinking Grain Belt or wearing electric orange snowmobile jackets. Nonsense. But it does mean I can say “we” and “us” when referring to Minnesotans.

Jeez, that’s good enough for me.

Where My Dog Owners At?

This is Spencer.

Last Saturday, my girlfriend and I took a day trip to our college town — Mankato, Minn. — to visit her sister, see friends and check out some old haunts. We had a few hours to kill once we got there, so I thought it’d be wise to, of all things, check out a pet adoption center.

Idiot.

We’ve been toying with getting a dog now for a few months. We’ve got a place with wood floors and a fenced-in yard. So often, we find ourselves resorting to our favorite TV sitcoms and dramas for entertainment. An old, boring couple at ages 26 and 24, we’re ready to spice things up. We think, anyway.

There were 20-odd dogs at the palatial Blue Earth Nicollet County Humane Society, a brand new facility unlike any you’ve ever seen before. An employee took us from kennel to kennel to offer a brief bio on each dog. We went in thinking, hypothetically, if we were to ever get a dog, we wanted something smaller. Dare I say, a lap dog?

Then, we met Spencer, a German wirehaired pointer. He’s a four-year-old with a calm demeanor. Sweet. You’d want to borrow him for your Christmas card photo.

We couldn’t just impulsively adopt a pet, so we left the shelter only to spend the past week weighing the risks and rewards to owning a dog. We’ve looked through a few books to learn more about the breed and checked out websites offering advice on the adoption and acclimation processes. I called my college roommate who’s owned a GWP for a few years now. He had nothing but good things to say.

Here’s the thing: Beth and I have never owned a dog. I grew up with pets while her family never had pets. (Allergies.) I was wary of dogs my whole life until about last year, when the idea of being slobbered on or matted in dog hair no longer bothered me. I appreciated cats growing up because they were so low maintenance. Dogs, on the other hand, require a guardian to take them for exercise. Dogs don’t use a litter box. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know here. Dogs are a responsibility.

The biggest question is this: Am I ready for the responsibility? There’s no more up and leaving town if we have a dog. Planning vacations means planning a dog-sitter. Things are going to get ruined, too. Am I really ready to pick up someone else’s poop? That’s just part of the deal, I guess.

But the rewards? Endless. A reason to go outside and play around. Someone who will go bananas whenever you come home. Someone who depends on you. Someone to play catch with.

Something’s holding us back, though. We can’t point it out. So preach, dog-owning readers. What do I need to know as a first-time dog owner? If you’ve adopted a dog, what was your experience like? What were some of the surprises?

When Wii Were Young

Our Nintendo Wii must’ve sat idle for five months before the other day when I downloaded Super Mario World. I’ve knocked the Wii for requiring so much physical exertion, but the fact I can tap into a database of hundreds of video games from previous Nintendo systems makes it something of a time machine.

I mean, right now, somewhere in your community, there’s adults playing dodgeball. Somewhere, a father is telling his son about his little league glory days while a mother is telling her daughter that Justin Bieber’s got nothing on a young David Cassidy. It’s no secret we hold tight to our childhood convictions even decades after we should’ve grown out of them.

I don’t like to use the word “nostalgia,” because it seems to belittle and bemoan a very practical want for the simple joys we had as kids. Let me just say my latest foray into Super Mario World has been just as delightful as the first go-round, but sadly, just as hard. I’ve been stuck in the Forest of Illusion for a week now. (The irony is not lost on me.)

Video games were an important part of my childhood. I grew up in a neighborhood where I was the youngest boy. Most of the other boys were at least two or three years older. It’s a miracle I ever stuck with sports after all those backyard games of 5-on-1 softball and tackle football games where I thought I might dislocate my face. These memories explain why I was better at defense in softball and played offensive line in varsity football.

It was video games that leveled the playing field on Gibson Avenue. My lack of size and strength didn’t matter holding that Super Nintendo controller, so when it came time to play Street Fighter II, that’s where I got my revenge.

Sometimes, I imagine what it would be like to earn my current paycheck as a kid in grade school, with no bills or reasons to save. I would blow the money on Super Nintendo games, baseball cards, Lemonheads, Garth Brooks cassette tapes, the latest pair of Air Jordans, a Schwinn to replace my lame-ass Huffy. I’d take my family to Valentino’s all-you-can-eat Italian buffett. I’d buy batting gloves for little league baseball, but also for my Super Nintendo, so my chunky little hands wouldn’t slip off the controller after hours of gaming.

Instead, it’s rent, my car lease and car insurance. It’s cable and Internet, my cell phone bill and US Bank for that $40K they loaned me for college. It’s groceries and toiletries. Now and then, it’s a meal out or a movie or a T-shirt.

It was just eight dollars to download Super Mario World on my Nintendo Wii, and I can honestly say it’s one of the most fulfilling purchases I’ve made in awhile. (Second only to the driving range balls I’ve purchased to see my girlfriend experiment with golf.)

As we get older, there’s this movement toward more dignified activity as what should find fulfilling as an adult. I’m not interested in seeing plays or spending $100 on dinner or hiking. Nonsense. I’m a big nerd and I always will be. (I mean, I blog, after all.) Playing Super Mario World isn’t just enjoyable because it triggers pleasant memories from my childhood. Hopping on Yoshi and stomping on Koopas and Goombas is just as fun now as it was back in 1993.

I spent plenty of Friday nights at home a a kid, cooped up in my upstair bedroom, plowing through the latest Super Nintendo game I was renting. Sixteen years later, as grey hairs are starting to multiply and 60 Minutes has become a highlight of my week,  I plan on spending my Friday night with a mouth full of Lemonheads, sipping Diet Mountain Dew while in hot pursuit of Bowser.