Wednesday, March 30, 2011

16 Days Wohoo!

The days are passing quickly now!

What I'm looking forward to: being a more happy relaxed mommy and wife. Happy mommy=happy family.

What I'm leaving behind: the drama.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

17 days left!

What I’m looking forward to: being intentional about how I spend my energy and time. Right now, most of my energy and time is spent at my job during the week. My family and myself get the leftovers. Time to flip flop that arrangement.

What I’m leaving behind: my coworkers. This is actually bittersweet for me. I have developed some close relationships with a few of my coworkers. They are now dear friends. There are some though that I’m only too happy to leave behind.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Days: 18

What I’m looking forward to:  being passionate about what I do every day. If I’ve learned anything about spending so much time at a job that I dislike, it is that there is something really mediocre about spending your time doing something that you’re not passionate about. It leaches your energy and leaves you in a malaise.

What I’m leaving behind: Sunday evening dread. If you’ve ever worked a Monday through Friday job that you dislike or even one that you enjoy that is stressful, then you know about Sunday evenings. Right about when the last rays of light disappear from the horizon and the night settles in, you get a sinking feeling deep in the pit of your stomach. You realize that your weekend has come to a close, and you must start preparing to spend most of your waking hours in a cubicle (or insert other workplace). You may have work stresses that compound the issue: tight deadlines, difficult supervisors, or crazy coworkers. Your mind starts to drift through all these things as the evening progresses. The happy blush of the weekend disappears and even though you’re weekend isn’t quite over, you’ve already had to make the mental transition back to work.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Easy Path

During my time exploring my options and deciding whether to quit my job, I spent a lot of time trying on each decision to see how it fit. I tried to imagine how life would be with either option. It came back again and again to the fact that my job while emotionally and physiucally stressful provided a generous and stable income with benefits. Even though I yearned to spend more time with my kids, they were both healthy and happy, well-adjusted kids. The easy path would have been to stay the same course with my job.

Yet, every time I imagined spending another ten years or even one year at my job, the more disheartened and less hopeful I felt. Every time I imagined life without my job, either staying home or working fewer hours at a less stressful job, the more excited and hopeful I felt about the future. But there were drawbacks too, financial sacrifices and career sacrifices that me and my family would need to make. Plus, it meant overhauling quite  a few aspects of our life from where we lived to my daughter's preschool to a new closer relationship with our budget. It wasn't the easy path at all. In the end though it was the right thing to do. The more I talked about it with my duaghter, the more I realized that she wanted Friday mom  on Monday through Thursday too. The more time we talked about it, the more my husband expressed his desire to have someone to take care of the house and girls to allow him more focus on his career.

Since I've made my decision and told some friends about it, they've expressed their desires to do something similar. Most people are stuck where I was for awhile. They are taking the easy path even if it leads to job disatisfaction or depression. I made a New Year's resolution in 2010 that I wanted to take more risks in life. Sticking to the easy, safe path may allow you to have some security and safety but it doesn't always provide the happiness and joy that most people desire.

It's not always easy to see the difference between taking risks and being foolish. Perhaps, they are even one in the same sometimes. Everyone has to decide for herself at sometime or another whether their present course is the easy path. You need to evalute whether the tradeoffs that you're making are really worth it or whether you just feel stuck and are coasting along.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Saving or Paying Off Debt

I think many people in debt run into this situation often where they have to examine whether their excess income is allocated to savings or paying off debt. As you go through your debt pay off adventure, you find your debts start to decrease. Perhaps, some of the urgency of paying off the debt dissipates as you watch the balances decline. Or perhaps, due to a change in life circumstances you find yourself feeling more vulnerable financially and feel the need to save more. Or maybe you’re fed up and tired of the debt hanging on you and want to pay it off as quickly as possible even though you’re savings is far from adequate.

As I’ve done research on the topic. Here are some of the approaches:

Save small and focus like mad on paying off debt
This is a view advocated by financial gurus like Steve Ramsey. He encourages people to save up a small amount like $1,000 to cover any small emergencies and then throw all your money at your debts. It has worked for many people. It keeps the intensity of the debt pay off high. You get an automatic positive feedback as you see large debts whittled down at great speed. It may have been a great strategy during the boom economy but it is hard to imagine a person or family right now for whom 1,000 in savings would be adequate. Many people are unemployed or facing potential layoffs. Few jobs are secure and those with some security often face pay cuts or reductions in benefits. Would you want only 1,000 between you and the abyss of financial insecurity? My other issue with this method is that having money in your savings account often provides people with a peace of mind that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Personally, I find that having 5,000 or more dollars in the bank gives me the feeling of security that my family can meet most immediate or short-term challenges.

Save big and then pay off debt
Others are now advocating that you save up anywhere from 3-6 months or more of your basic living expenses before you tackle debt
. For most people, especially young people just learning the basics of personal finance, this can seem daunting. It is hard making sacrifices with the goal of saving for some amorphous emergency that you can hardly foresee. I imagine that many people might simply give up on it all before they’ve even reached the 3 month savings goal.

Save some and pay off some debt
Here is my own personal finance strategy. Somewhere right in the middle. I think that every person needs to weigh their own personal situation, which may include factors like these:
· job security
· other sources of income in an emergency
· need for savings to meet personal financial security needs
· need to pay off debt

Here is how I analyze my own situation as we transition to a one income family:
Job Security—fairly high
for my husband. He has tenure. It is unlikely that he will be laid off in the next few years.
Other Sources of Income---low. We do not have many assets we could sell or other sources of income. I’m looking to improve that in the coming years.
Need for savings to meet personal financial security—high. As a one-income family, we need to have a sufficient cushion to meet our needs. The budget will be fairly tight, which is even more of a reason to have a healthy savings
Need to pay off debt---moderate. We have some lingering credit card debt that we would like to dispose of as quickly as possible.

In our situation, we have two factors that indicate we should focus on debt repayment: job security and need to pay off debt. However, the other two factors more strongly indicate that we need to beef up our savings first. My personal goal is to get our savings up to four months of living expenses. Instead of focusing entirely on savings, I’ve determined that the first $400 of income after expenses will be allocated to savings and the next $100 will go to debt. It will keep us focused on savings but allow for additional debt payments when we have extra money. When we have less than $400 of income after expenses, it will all be allocated to savings.

19 days! Happy dance.

Numero Diciannove

What I’m looking forward to: un-programmed time. There is nothing that pleases me more than a day without appointments, commitments or long to do lists. It is like a beautiful blank canvass. I’m the artist and get to fill my day with spontaneous activities or I get to plan something completely around my natural schedule.

What I’m leaving behind: spending money on things that I’d rather not spend money on like convenience foods and guilt purchases (little toys and trinkets for the girls).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Budget Holdouts

Everyone has a few of these. A couple of budget categories where you know you spend more than you should or maybe need to spend. There might be any variety of reasons why you do this. You may value whatever you’re spending on highly or believe that you cannot do without it.

For me, the two items that we haven’t cut significantly are our cell phones and our cars.
We’re stuck in our current cell phone contract until this summer. There is no way to reduce it right at this minute. But we’ve also been playing around with the idea (primarily before I decided to quit) of upgrading to smartphones. My husband and I both could use them for our jobs. I’ll no longer have a job soon and thus won’t need one. My husband would still really like one. The difficulty is that the data plans run around $25 on top of our regular plan. We could reduce our plan. We upped our minutes last time but have since found that we’re not using nearly that many minutes anymore. But we also cut our land line. We’re relying on our cell phones now for all of our calls. I’m going to try to reduce our bill from $89 back to $65 if possible after the summer. That is assuming that I can dissuade my husband from the smartphone. Hypothetically we could cut things further: use a prepaid service or maybe go down to one phone. Those are sacrifices that we’re not quite willing to make yet.

The cars. Well, last year our old 1995 Saturn was on its last leg. I was switching from working five days a week to four, which meant that my husband would be picking up our daughters two days a week. The old car wasn’t reliable so we decided to replace it. I did a lot of research and we bought a great late model used Mazda5. We took out an auto loan with a good interest rate. At the time, it seemed quite rational to take out an auto loan on the car. We wanted to get a good dependable car that met our needs. Quitting my job wasn’t on the radar back then. We have a little less than four years left on our auto loan. All together, we spend close to $450 a month to keep my car running and insured. That is no small amount of money by any means on our new budget. The reason that we want to keep two cars is that it would really limit my options for work in the future and limit what I can do with the girls during the week. I’m not attached to our car in particular. We could sell our car and eliminate the monthly payment. We may end up owing a little or might break even. But, we would need to pay cash for a used car. Even paying a couple thousand would be a strain on our savings. We may do this at some point if we determine that we need the monthly cash flow to make it work. We may even go down to one car for a time. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
What are your budget holdouts?

Twenty More!

Numero Diciotto

What I’m looking forward to: developing my writing. I’ve long been interested in writing. Ever since I was a child, I would plug away at an old typewriter and produce page long manuscripts. As an adolescent, I wrote stories. As an adult, I’ve produced some short pieces but mostly I’ve started and stopped writing several fictional novels. I participated in the last NaNoWriMo. I got all the way to 28,000 words before the stomach flu put me down for a week. It’s the farthest along that I’ve ever gotten on a novel. It made me see that perhaps I could actually finish one of the lingering novels that trail behind me.

What I’m leaving behind: bureaucracy. Ok, so I work in a large bureaucracy so maybe that isn’t a fair criticism. I knew what I was getting into---but that doesn’t change the fact that working in a bureaucracy is like trying to roll a boulder uphill all day long. I’ve always lamented that ¼ of the organization is actually doing the work and the other ¾ was put there to slow down or stop what the ¼ attempts to do.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Giving Notice to your Employer

The time is fast approaching for me to give notice to my employer. I must also let my daughter’s preschool know that she will be leaving at the end of April. For some reason, I feel more melancholy about her leaving preschool than me leaving my job.

In preparation for leaving, I’ve been doing a little research about the proper way to leave your job. I feel like you have to be even more careful when you’re leaving the workforce versus leaving for another job. There are several reasons. You don’t want to leave behind ill will with your supervisors or have them believe that you are leaving because you can’t cut it. You want to have good references and leave open the door to be rehired at some point. So here is what I think is a good course of action to prepare you to give notice to your employer.

1) Determine how much notice you want to give your employer. Although the standard is two weeks, you have the discretion to determine how much notice to provide. I believe that two weeks is far from adequate when you work in a professional environment and if you have unique work assignments. There are cons to providing a longer notice period: you could be asked to leave sooner or your supervisor could make your remaining time uncomfortable. However, I think that providing a month’s notice is a fair amount of time considering especially if you’ve been planning on leaving for awhile.

2) Start putting things in order. Start going through all of your personal files or records. Delete what you don’t want and save others. Update your resume. Save coworker contacts.

3) Keep the news to yourself until you’ve given notice. Human nature is such that if you’ve made this decision your first inclination is to shout it from the rooftops. Not a good idea. I’ve told only three close coworkers of my plans.

4) Prepare a letter of resignation. Keep it short and simple. Thank your supervisor and the organization for the opportunity you’ve been given. Provide your last date of work. And sign and date the letter. You may need to fill out other forms as well.

5) Plan how to convert your retirement accounts. I will need to rollover multiple accounts into an IRA. Start doing some research into where you want to set up your IRA.

6) Plan a date/time to sit down with your supervisor to give a verbal notice. I’ll be setting up an appointment with my supervisor and the manager to give my notice. I’ll plan out some speaking points in advance. I’ll also have the hard copies of my resignation letter prepared to hand over.

7) Prepare yourself for reactions. I haven’t quite figured out how everyone will respond to the news of my departure. My organization has been doing some serious downsizing or the last several years. There may be some relief. A vacancy means that someone else may not lose a job. It may also create a stressful situation for my superiors because there is no one to take over my work and no one can be hired to fill my spot.

8) Be strong and confident in your decision. Before you discuss your decision with your supervisor or coworkers, review all of the reasons that you’ve decided to quit. Granted you won’t want to discuss all of these with your supervisors or coworkers, but it will help to keep you focused on end game.

Lucky Number 21

Numero Diciassette

What I’m looking forward to: discovering what I miss when I spend all my time working. These are things that I simply never experience because I spend most of my daily waking hours in an office. I can’t quite fathom what they might be. Maybe it’s as simple as noticing the hum of daily life in my neighborhood during the day.

What I’m leaving behind: $400-500 a month extra in taxes that we pay on my husband’s salary because I bring in an income and cause us to fall into a higher tax bracket.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Numero Sedici

What I’m leaving behind: hours spent in relative solitude. The nature of my job requires me to spend extended periods of time working by myself. While that generally wouldn’t bother me, I’m a fairly introspective self-contained person. I do feel stifled by it.

What I’m looking forward to: getting in shape. It may sound like a cop out, but my job really gets in the way of exercise. I would need to wake up before 6am to exercise in the morning, and then I’m generally not able to exercise until after 6pm on the weekdays. That leaves Friday, Saturday and Sunday for meaningful exercise. I like the way I feel when I’m fit and in shape. When I’ve stayed at home before during maternity leave and when my youngest daughter was a baby, I was fairly disciplined at taking long walks every day and generally keeping active throughout the day. I’ll be walking my daughter to school one mile each way. That means if I walk her to school and then walk to pick her up, I’ll be logging four miles a day in walking. Not a bad start.

Grocery Shopping Tips

After a bit of a hiatus brought about by moving my entire household and a bout of stomach flu, I’m back! We’re finally settled in to the new place, and life is just about back to normal.
Awhile ago, I posted about how I’m attempting to keep my grocery budget to $600 per month. Admittedly, that has been quite a struggle for me in the past. However, it has started to get easier. This week after not really shopping last week and surviving on what we had at home and some takeout dinners, I psyched myself up to do the meal planning and grocery shopping. It was fairly effortless to keep my grocery bill under $150. Here are some of my tips for how to save on the grocery budget:

1) Focus your menu around vegetables. I primarily started doing this for health reasons but I’ve found that it also helps the pocketbook. Vegetables are relatively inexpensive per pound either fresh or frozen compared to meat or processed foods.

2) Pick your primary fresh vegetable and fruit store. Review the circular before you start menu planning. Highlight the deals on produce. My fresh produce store is Henry’s Market. They hands down have the cheapest prices on produce. They also have good deals on bulk staples like rice and beans. For instance, this week broccoli, potatoes, and grapes were on sale at Henry’s.

3) Plan your menu based on recipes or meal ideas that utilize the sale produce. Since broccoli was on sale, we’re having broccoli and cheese bake potatoes and broccoli cheese soup this week. This can take a little time if you want to find some new recipes but its well worth the time investment when you have a no-hassle cheap and tasty meal. Your meals need to be varied but quick and easy enough that you aren’t tempted to forgo attempting the braised asparagus and tilapia rolls for takeout. But don’t be afraid to serve the same vegetable more than once a week especially if you’ve incorporated it into a dish instead of serving it as a side.

4) Fill in your menu plan with other basic staple dishes. We have a few standby dishes that we eat with regularity. Spaghetti, chicken stir fry, and burritos often fill in on my menu plan. These are all really inexpensive and the costs of these meals are fairly stable since for the most part I can stock up when the ingredients go on sale.

5) Shop at more than one store. Henry’s is a good place to shop for fresh, cheap produce, but you could quickly eat up all those savings if you only shopped there. For toiletries and other staples like milk, bread and eggs, I hit up Costco or Target.

6) If you have kids, buy some relatively healthy snacks. We live in a busy, fast culture. It’s not uncommon to be jaunting out of the house in the morning not to return until lunchtime. A few snacks in a bag and some juice boxes can be a lifesaver when you’re out. You avoid impulse snack buying or worse buying something to placate whining kids. In an ideal world, kids would only eat fresh, unprocessed organic foods, but in the imperfect world we live in a couple of granola bars make a good runner up.

7) Keep a tally in your head on with a calculator in the store. I keep a rough estimate going in my head of what I’m spending as I shop. I round everything to the nearest 50 cents. I find that I’m quite capable of keeping track of everything when I’m alone. When I’m with the husband and kids, things get a little dicey as I’m distracted. Keeping a tally is a good strategy to avoid overspending. You’re not going to overspend at one store if you know that you still need to buy necessities at the next store. I may eventually resort to a calculator, but I’ll wait until I’m no longer working and can shop when there are fewer people out to notice. I may be a nerd, but I do try to keep it under wraps.

Everyone has to find a system that works for them. Some people love coupons and can save a great deal of money with them. I haven’t been able to get the couponing thing down yet. I believe the key to saving money on groceries or anything is developing a mindfulness of how you spend money and then intentionally spending that money.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Moving Day Came and Went

So the momentous day came and went. We’ve moved into our new smaller house. I also went on a camping weekend trip with the girl scouts, and two of the four of us got the stomach flu this week. It’s been a busy week.

And I love the new house. All the furniture fits just right. It’s snug and cozy without feeling small. We’re happy in our new smaller house. And better yet, it means I’m one step closer to realizing my dream of leaving the work-a-day world. The biggest tradeoff so far seems to be in going from two bathrooms to one. We now have to take turns and make sure that we’re not hogging bathroom time. Other than that, it is great. It already feels like home. My husband and I have moved a lot in the nine years we’ve been married. We’ve lived in two apartments, three houses, and even had a short stint living with my parents. I sincerely hope that we can settle in at this house for a good long time. But I understand now more than ever that a house is just a box where you keep your stuff and spend your time. If in two years, we need to move to a different box so be it. I’m happy wherever my family is.

It is invigorating to downsize. In fact, my husband and I were talking about how big and rambling our last house was. It was much more space than we needed. I would encourage anyone who is thinking about downsizing to think critically about how much space you really need. A 1,000 square foot house with a good floor plan is definitely adequate for a family of four people. That might shock people who are used to more spacious abodes. Think carefully about the space you live in and how you use it. Our old living room was huge. It was about 400 square feet, about the size of a small studio/efficiency apartment. Did we use the whole space? Heck no. All our small furniture was crowded in one area around the rug. It was nice to have all that space. It certainly felt spacious, and the kids enjoyed running around it. But did we need it? No.
One of my biggest concerns about moving into the new house was the girls having to share a room. It’s worked out just fine. We’ve adjusted bedtimes so that they both go to bed at the same time. I only have one storytime now and one room to visit to tuck them in.

Random Rant Starts Here:
So, here is the truth as I see it. We’ve been lied to. We’ve been told by the media, by our friends, our neighbors, and our families that we need more ______(insert anything). We always need to be upgrading to a bigger house, a fancier phone, a faster computer, more expensive furniture, a better car, and the list goes on. How many of us actually stop to think whether the money (translate time spent working) is worth whatever thing we’re supposed to believe that we need. What if you were able to look at what you had and say “This is enough. This is all I need. The only thing that could make this better is more time with the people I love”. How many people out there know what that looks like?

25 and 23 days.

25 days left
Numero Quattordici
What I’m looking forward to: volunteering more and getting involved. I took my daughter’s Girl Scout troop on a camping trip this past weekend. It was a lot of fun and exhausting. At the closing ceremony, the camp director asked how many of the girls had tried something challenging or learned something new or made new friends. All of the girls raised their hands for each question. I hope to do a lot more not only for in my community but elsewhere too.

What I’m leaving behind: working when I’m sick. Because of the nature of my job, there are certain expectations that I’ll be present at work regardless of circumstances. This puts a lot of stress on me as I have to decide how sick I am and whether I can “afford” to stay home from work to rest and get better.

23 Days Left
Numero Quindici

24 days was spent recovering from the stomach flu at home.

What I’m looking forward to: staying on top of the laundry. I know that this may seem kind of silly. It is something that I have never, ever been able to do. I always have either a pile of dirty waiting to be washed or a pile of clean laundry waiting to be folded. I often have many piles of both around the house. Even now, after I’ve unpacked nearly every moving box in the house, there are two large boxes full of clean laundry that sit in the hall unopened, unpacked. You may ask why I am looking forward to this. Well, I’ve found that I am the type of person who does much better mentally and emotionally when my house is in order. I feel better, I get more done. I’m much more able to relax at the end of the day when I have a relatively clean house than I do with a messy disorganized one. I’ve improved in keeping up the house, but I have yet to master the laundry.

What I’m leaving behind: being left in the dark and the last to know. The management where I work for the most part has little respect for the employees. We’ve twice in the past few months found out major news about our department from people outside our department. Very little information is shared, which leaves us for the most part suspicious and constantly looking for information (gossip).

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Downsizing in a Supersize Society

I’ve undergone quite a philosophical change over the past few years that has culminated in my family’s decision to downsize to one income. It started several years ago when my husband and I found ourselves very much in debt and living paycheck to paycheck even though we both had college degrees and decent jobs. I knew that the path we were on just wasn’t right. I knew we needed to pay off the debt but I wasn’t sure how. I read “Your Money or Your Life” as one of my first forays into my search for this new way to live. I learned some great principles and had some limited success. We stopped using the credit cards immediately and started trying to pay down the debt. The road was bumpy. Layoffs and other unexpected things happened but the real problem was that we weren’t focused on how we spent our money. We tried to budget but never tied our spending into the paper budget. Then, when we decided to try for another child, things got serious. I ended up on bedrest early in my pregnancy and suddenly my income was greatly reduced. We didn’t have savings and needed to borrow money from my parents to tide us over. It was just a thousand dollars but it was enough for me to realize how close to the edge that we were treading. I got real about the budgeting. We started sticking to it and saving money. When it came time for me to deliver we had saved over nine thousand dollars in the span of about six months. Since then we’ve lost a little steam. It’s easier to save when you have an immediate goal of something like covering maternity leave. But we’ve stuck to our frugal lifestyle principles. We did end up moving to a bigger house and buying a car. These were conscious decisions that we made after long periods of consideration about the real tradeoffs.

Now we’re taking a few giant leaps with our approach. We’re going to cut half off our income in one fell swoop. To me it now seems like a natural decision to do this. I see a million pluses and only a few big negatives. To me the ultimate goal isn’t what is left in the piggy bank at the end, it will be what beautiful experiences have I had in my life.

Not everyone sees things this way. For a lot of people it is about the piggy bank and the material trappings that represent that piggy bank: the big house, the cars, the clothes, the vacations, and the knick knackery. It goes against the tide to choose to have less (money and material possessions) so that we can have more (time spent with one another). I think it is hard for people to comprehend because we’ve been indoctrinated from an early age by the media to believe that more is always better. You always want to earn more money, have a more high profile job, buy a bigger house, and drive a fancier car. We’re always supposed to be advancing forward to more not choosing less.

I think it’s the easy way to measure your success in the world. I can easily see that my neighbor’s Mercedes is much better than my Mazda. But how easily can I tell that my marriage is healthier than my neighbors? I can tell that your little girl is wearing expensive shoes and mine is wearing shoes from Target. But how well can I see that your daughter feels safe and secure and gets all the attention and time that she needs? This is not to say that because I choose to stay home with my kids that suddenly all our problems will go away. That my marriage will be perfect and my kids will always be happy. I couldn’t disagree more. My daughter is just as well-adjusted and happy if not more than many of the children I know with a stay at home parent. This is just my rationale for why we’ve elevated monetary worth far above things like time, personal health, and relationships. From now on I have to acknowledge that I am using a metric to judge my success that is far different than many of my peers. When I cook a meal in my small kitchen or have to drive an old car for ten more years, I know why I’m doing it. I know that I traded those things in for a few more moments, a few more smiles and laughs, just a few more minutes spent with the people I love most in the world.

Days Left: 27

Numero Tredici

What I’m looking forward to: reconnecting spiritually.
When my church closed its doors two years ago, I was set adrift. I loved my pastor and my church family. I had a place and a purpose. My family and I have wandered a bit from church to church trying to find the right place for us. Over the past several months it has all fallen to the back burner. I feel the need to find a new church but also to reconnect spiritually with God. He is a bit like a friend that I’ve lost touch with. I know he is there and maybe I check his Facebook status now and again, but we’re not having conversations and I’m not feeding that relationship. I feel that loss. I need to find the time for prayer and meditation. It needs to be a focus and not just an afterthought.

What I’m leaving behind: the rush and busyness of working.
Any poor mother who wakes up early, rushes around to get herself and her children fed, dressed and out the door in time, drives to work through traffic, works for eight or more hours, drives back through traffic, picks up the kids (sometimes multiple stops), makes dinner, gives baths, tries to give the kids some quality time, and then attempts to pay some little attention to her spouse before falling to sleep exhausted knows what I’m talking about. This is all if everything works well and little girls don’t forget to finish homework, and coffee doesn’t get spilled on blouses, and there isn’t an accident on the freeway, and there isn’t a work meeting that evening, and no one gets sick, and there aren’t bills to pay. Ok, so you probably get the picture. That is what I’m looking forward to leaving behind.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reconnecting with Family

My husband’s biological sister contacted him for the first time last week. He heard several years ago that he had a sister but never knew her name or where she was. She tracked him down on Facebook. They’ve been happily chatting back and forth through e-mail ever since.

It has got me to thinking about my own family. My Mother is an only child. There is very little family left on that side. I think she has some cousins in Utah but that is about it. My father’s family is a different story. He has three sisters. There was a schism in the family a long time ago when I was a young child. It is a whole long story in and of itself. The short version was that there were allegations of abuse by his sisters against my grandparents. My father sided with my grandparents. His sisters eventually patched things up with my grandparents but my father never seemed to warm back up to them. Things really fell apart when I was about nine or ten and my cousin committed suicide. There were a couple of family holidays after that but then everyone just seemed to stop trying.

I have also two cousins and my cousin left behind twin boys when he died. I’m not terribly interested in getting back in touch with my aunts, but I might like to get in touch with my cousins and my cousin’s now two grown boys. It seems that all of them are on Facebook. It could be as simple as sending a brief message.

I am hesitant for a few reasons:

1) Although I know some of what happened in the past, I don’t know all of it. Part of me thinks that I might be better off without opening things up.
2) Getting in touch with my cousins would probably mean that I would have to get back in touch with my aunts.
3) I’m afraid that I might reach out and not have my efforts reciprocated.
4) I don’t know what my cousin’s sons know about the family or their father. I would like to tell them what little I remember about their father since they were small when he died and probably don’t even remember him. But…I don’t want to delve into that before they might be ready or even interested.
5) I’m not sure how my parents might react to me reaching out to family.

So, I’m a little unsure about what to do. Should I take the risk and jump right in?

28 days! Not the movie, the countdown.

Numero Dodici

What I’m looking forward to: walking my daughter to school. It was “walk to school Wednesday” today. I got to watch all the parents walking their kids to school as I dropped off my daughter and drove off to work. I love walking my daughter to school. It is something so small and simple but it means so much to me. I like talking to my daughter, being out in the cool morning hours, and enjoying the sights of the outdoors. I can’t wait!

What I’m leaving behind: buckets and buckets of stress. Today on the menu: a big community meeting next week and an unknown location and a budget shortfall of almost $100,000 on my project. Fun times.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The High Cost of Groceries: Supermarket vs. Fresh Market

Since I’ve been attempting to cook from scratch more and buy basic, whole foods, I haven’t been spending much time in the major supermarkets. I’ve been doing my main grocery shopping at my local health food store and supplementing with household items from Target and Costco. What I’ve discovered is that I tend to spend a lot less and get a lot of fresh food when I shop at my health food store especially when I focus on fresh vegetables and bulk foods like quinoa, split peas, and rice.

As I mentioned yesterday, I had to do a run to the supermarket because we were out of my favorite Kirk’s Castile bar soap. For some reason, I can only find it at one particular supermarket. I went into the supermarket without a shopping list meal plan with the goal to find a few easy to make or frozen meals for the week and get a few staples (I know it’s a big no-no). I was shocked as I perused the aisles at the costs of many things compared to my local health food store. Produce in particular is much higher at the grocery store. A carton of mushrooms costs no more than $1.5 to $2 at the fresh food store, costs $3.50 regularly at the supermarket. There are a couple of loss leaders but for the most part, the prices seemed to be at least a third higher than the health food store for produce that I typically buy.

It occurred to me that perhaps the price of produce is kept artificially inflated to encourage shoppers to buy more processed, cheaper goods in the middle of the store. Why buy mushrooms for $3.50 when you buy Mushroom-Roni for $1 a box? Certainly, the big supermarket chains are able to obtain produce as cheaply as my little fresh food market/health food store. I skirted around the over-priced produce and picked up a few things albeit for more than I would spend at the other store. Then, I spent a half an hour wandering through the other aisles and ended up buying things that normally wouldn’t have a place in my cart like canned fruit and pop-tarts.

I left a little dejected at spending $80 for not much food of marginal quality. It surprised me a little how used to making healthy meals from fresh ingredients has become so important to me. I was also surprised at how $80 didn’t really fill up my cart. I was a supermarket shopper for quite a while. I thought that I simply didn’t have the time to shop at multiple stores for different things. I thought that the ease and convenience was worth it. It is true that there are some things that you can’t get at my health food store. There are also some things that are more expensive, and I won’t buy those there. However, if the bulk of my purchases are supposed to be fresh produce, then it only makes sense to buy at the local health food store. That way I am also not tempted by aisle after aisle of processed foods like at the supermarket. From now on, I think I’ll stick to just buying soap at the supermarket.

I think that where you shop needs to be an individual decision and its based on a whole host of factors from what's available to how far away you live from the grocery stores. However, if you're like me and you've made it a goal to buy fresh, whole foods. Shopping at a store that sells these cheaply and processed foods for more, might be exactly what you need to help your diet and your pocketbook.

29 days to go!

Numero Undici

What I’m looking forward to: more time with friends. I’m looking forward to spending time with friends during the day but also having the energy and time to have friends over in the evening and the weekend. We may have a small house but I still plan to make it a comfortable place to enjoy time with friends.

What I’m leaving behind: the lack of fulfillment, the emptiness of my job. In the ideal world, my job would be a great engine for change and re-imagining of the built environment. In reality, it is just another administrative function of a great bureaucracy.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Selling Your Stuff. What to Keep and What to Sell?

Most of the personal finance gurus out there advise you to sell your belongings to raise quick cash to pay off debts or cover a big expense. As someone who frequents Craigslist for the buying and selling of items, it always made perfect sense to me. If you’re not using something and it has some intrinsic value (not everything will sell), then you should sell it on Craigslist or EBay.

Since we’re moving into a new house, we’re trying to decide where all our furniture will go. We’re currently trying to sell our dining table on craigslist. There is no place to put it in the new house. Since we bought it on craigslist originally, it is not a big loss to sell it again. We’ll have a good-sized garage to store items, but I would like to buy a nook-style dining table for our new dine in kitchen so hence we need to sell some things to buy some things. Since I’ve been spending some time lately on craigslist, I’ve also found a nice desk that I’d like to buy for the living room. It is compact and has a fair amount of storage. The real reason that I want it is that it would be a good sewing table. Otherwise, I really won’t have a place to sew. It is a good price for a wood desk but…I need to sell something else to be able to buy it. I’ve been thinking about what I might sell.

Here is where it gets tricky. How do you decide what items that you should keep in case you might need them someday? Furniture in my opinion is pretty easy to sell because you can usually find something similar again later unless it is something unique that you absolutely love. You can usually sell something for close to what you paid for it if you’ve kept it in good shape and you bought it used originally. I also have no problem selling baby/kid items. We’re done having kids so as soon as the girls are through with something it is either sold or given to someone with younger kids. I also don’t mind parting with personal possessions like books and things that are easy to repurchase or better yet borrow from the library.

My question is then what about other things? For instance, we have a washer, a dryer, and a refrigerator that we bought when we moved into our first rental house six years ago. The house didn’t come with any of these. We bought bottom of the line appliances new. We used them for four years. Then, when we moved to this house, we’ve only needed to use the washer. The other appliances were provided. Now, the new house has a refrigerator, a washer, and a dryer provided. We can bring our appliances with us and store them in the garage. But I hate to keep lugging them along if we won’t need them. We could sell them and get a couple hundred dollars. All are in good working condition. However, what if we move again and need appliances. We’d have to purchase either new appliances or take the risk and buy used and have to borrow or rent a truck to move them too. Either way, there would be a cost involved. I don’t want to be penny wise and pound foolish. Sell off my appliances and have to turn around and purchase new ones in a year or two. It would also be a waste to let them sit in the garage for another couple of years unused.

Should you keep something that you might need someday or let tomorrow worry about itself?

Trying to Save Money When You're Busy

My personal finance self-discipline tends to erode when I get busy. If there was ever a week for that to happen, it would be this week. My household is moving on Saturday while my daughter‘s troop and I will be at girl scout camp. We need to sign our lease on Tuesday, finishing packing our house, make floor plans for furniture placement in the new house, pack for camp, get all of my troop paperwork and supplies in order, and try to stay calm and collected throughout it all. Not an easy task for someone like myself.

I’d like to throw the budget to hell this week and just do what needs to be done to get through the week. I didn’t get to my meal planning and grocery shopping this weekend. I was, of course, packing. So now I feel a little stuck. I’ve got to get some groceries to get us through the week. We’re out of some of the basics like bread and milk. However, I know that I just won’t have a lot of time to cook this week. So what are my options: eat out (we did have a few quick cheap takeout meals this weekend already), try to come up with a quick meal plan and shop accordingly, or buy some prepared foods from the grocery store to fill in the gap between now and next week. My husband will probably need to eat out for a few meals while our household is in transition next Saturday. I’d rather save the eating out funds for that purpose. So, I think I’ll take the middle route. I’ll buy a couple of prepared meals and groceries for a couple of quick meals. I think part of frugality is knowing when to splurge a little during critical times. I hope it won’t hurt my grocery budget too much this month.

30 days remaining!

Numero Dieci

What I’m looking forward to: lazy summer days with my girls.

What I’m leaving behind: paying for other people to watch my girls when I would rather be with them.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Everything Coming Together

Our family's laptop computer decided to call it quits on Friday and refused to boot up. After a trip to the Genius Bar yesterday, it is back in business. It was less than a year old so completely under warranty. It also took less than an hour to fix even though the hard drive was damaged. Thanks Apple!

I've been feeling quite anxious over the past two days. There is a lot going on in my life right now. In one week, we move to the new house. I won't be there because I have a previous committment to haul a group of six girls to weekend girl scout camp. When I return next Sunday, my house will be in a new place. How strange that will be. I'm preparing myself to give notice at work at the end of the month. I'm looking for a new part-time job. And preparing for one of the biggest changes in my life to date.

As with any real big thing, there seems to be always those moments of uncertainty when it seems that everything will fall apart. That is where I am. In that place, where the mountain seems higher and steeper that my body has the ability to climb. Immediately, I'm stressed about getting the house packed. There are a million little things that need to be done right now. I find myself flitting back and forth between tasks and never really finishing anything. In the longer term, I'm just uncertain how everything will play out.

Right now, all I have is today. I can't worry about what tomorrow will bring or about the move next weekend. Heck, I won't even be there. I need to keep reminding myself that with any big task, everything happens one little bit at a time. Only one box can be packed at any time. Slow and steady wins the race. I just wish I didn't have rabbit DNA.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

To Work or Not to Work? That is the Question.

I’ve written about before how once I’ve quit, I’ll need to find a way to supplement our income. I’ve been envisioning that this would be a very part-time job wherever I can find one. Or I might just find that I’m able to cut expenses enough to make ends meet. I only need to earn a couple hundred dollars a month to close our budget gap. I’ve been looking all this time for a potential job that might be a little more than a retail job, one that might utilize my skill set and justify the many thousands of dollars spent on my higher education. I’ve applied to be an adjunct in our community college district. I’m not holding high hopes that it might pan out. I pretty much figured that when April rolled around I’d be sending in applications to whatever retails establishments that might be hiring in my community.
Then, today I saw a listing for a job that I think I would be keenly suited for. It’s for a great non-profit organization. What’s more is that I have a particular personal interest in the organization. I was so excited I started writing out a cover letter immediately. As I wrote the letter, I became increasingly excited about the possibility of working for the organization. It kind of threw me for a loop because just yesterday I couldn’t be more excited about leaving the professional workforce. The position is listed as part-time but there are no additional details about hours or schedule. I definitely don’t want to commit to something that is going to detract from my purpose, which is to spend more time with my girls. Perhaps, though if there was such a hypothetical position that would allow me to work no more than say two partial days (9 to 1:30pm) out of the home and maybe a few more hours at home, it might just allow me to have the work-life balance that has seemed so elusive. I would need to consider the costs of childcare for Lila for two days which would run about $50 day or $400/month for two full days at her current school. I could perhaps find something cheaper or offer to trade babysitting with another mom. I would still be able to pick up my older daughter from school in the afternoons. It might just be worth the tradeoffs. See how I get way too ahead of myself. I’m sticking my initial instinct. I’m going to send in my awesome cover letter (how could they not want to interview me?) and my resume. Then, we’ll just see what happens.

All of this did make me think that maybe there is still a spark, a drive somewhere down deep to work. I thought that it had all been extinguished by my experience at my current job. But maybe just maybe there is a little more left in me. With the right type of job and a better balance between work and family, maybe I might just get to have it all.

Countdown Continues: 31!

Numero Nove

What I’m looking forward to: supporting my husband’s career.

Ok, this is totally something that I never thought I’d say. I’m a thoroughly modern woman. I don’t believe that men and women have separate places. We may choose separate roles for a time but I don’t think this has anything to do with a man or woman’s capacity or abilities. My husband loves his job. He loves to teach. He has been gradually moving into more leadership roles within his school. He organizes his PLC, he has a coordinator, and he is considering running for department chair. What this means is that he has needed to devote more and more of his time and energy to his job over the past two years. This has happened at a time when my job has become more stressful and time consuming as well. We often have conflicting commitments in the evenings or important meetings or assignments due at the same time (often when one of the kids is getting sick). Once I’ve quit, the pressure is off for him. He can devote time to work without the push-pull between us, and I can relieve him of some of his household responsibilities freeing him for his work. I hope I’ve explained that all well enough. He can be the best teacher he can be, and I can help that happen.

What I’m leaving behind: the uncertainty and instability of the organization I work for.

We face budget cuts and layoffs multiple times a year. This is hard as an individual. Even if you’re not affected, it is extremely disheartening. I’ve seen young talented people have to leave because of it. I myself have faced potential layoff multiple times.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

32 days left! It’s like counting down to Christmas!

Yesterday was a welcome reprieve from the working world because I spent the day home with my daughter who wasn't feeling well. No countdown for yesterday but it also means one less day I spent working.

What I’m looking forward to: really exploring some of my interests to see what I’m really passionate about.

What I’m leaving behind: working for and with people who don’t value the greater good.

Start up Costs of Gardening

I did a rough estimate of the costs of starting up my garden this year with two 4’ by 4’ square foot beds and a plot of ground with a three sisters. My rough estimate is about $150. Here is how it breaks down:
Bed Construction: $25 lumber and screws
Soil: $100 Vermiculite, Compost, and Peat Moss
Plants: $10 3 tomatoes plants, 2 peppers
Seeds: $15 Corn, Pumpkin, Melon, Cucumber, Turnips, and Sunflowers
I would like to recoup the cost of the garden within the first year if possible. I went through an exercise of calculating the potential yield of my garden in money terms. I relied heavily on the Modern Victory Garden website estimates for the average yield per square foot for intensive gardening and my own knowledge of produce prices at my local fresh food store. I selected the prices that are on the lower end for regular (not organic produce) and what I might expect to pay in the summertime when produce is cheaper. This is a fairly hypothetical exercise. I just wanted to see if it was reasonable to assume that gardening could be cost neutral or maybe even result in some cost savings this year.

As a side note, I am not counting the cost of water. It is included in the rent in my new house so it would be difficult to factor in.

It looks like hypothetically, we could break even or have a small savings from growing a garden this year. We spend probably around $100 or more per month on fresh produce right now. If I could cut that in half during the prime gardening months of June-September that would save me approximately $200. It is likely that my garden would continue to produce past that time as I live in a mild climate. I think the startup costs are certainly justified by the potential cost savings. This exercise was good because it helped me to see what crops might save me the most money. I’m thinking that I might even forgo the eggplants and the carrots or plant 1 square for fun. I may end up building one slightly larger vegetable bed and a smaller bed or containers for strawberries and blueberries.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Gardening to Save Money?

I find my thoughts consumed lately by gardening at my new house. I think about the how I'm going to lay out my garden and what plants I'm going to grow. I can spend lots of time laying it all out on graph paper and consulting my square foot gardening book. It may be that this is my way of dealing with some of the chaos in my life right now with the move and preparing to quit my job. Taken separately they are each pretty big disruptions; taken together they're a lot to deal with.

In any event, it's still a fun way to while away my free time when I really should be packing or cleaning or some other necessary but inconsequential thing. Gardening is a hobby for me. I certainly spent more on my last attempt than I probably saved in produce. At my last house, I had a 4' by 8' square foot garden. I spent around $100 for the wood to construct the raised bed, the compost, vermiculite, and peat moss, and a little more for the seeds and plants. I was conscious of my spending at the time but I was approaching it as a hobby and not as a cost saving measure.

This time, I need to think a bit differently. I need to be saving at least as much if not more in produce than I spend on the garden in the new house. There just simply isn't extra money for me to spend on gardening. I'm still a little skeptical that I can break even much less save money this first year, but it's not going to stop me from trying. I'm going to try to save money by following these frugal gardening principles:

  • Construct the beds with free or cheap wood from craigslist. The type of wood is important because I do not want to be constructing a bed from wood that might leach chemicals into my soil. I'm hoping I can find some unfinished redwood or non-pressure treated pine to construct my beds. I'm constructing two 4' by 4' raised beds 12" deep. I found from my last experience that with the 4' by 8' bed it was a little difficult for me to reach the middle.
  • Try to find comparable soil ingredients from craigslist or buy in bulk. My greatest expense last time was purchasing the soil mix components. I bought them bagged from a local home improvement store. While it did provide a good soil, it did compact and left me with about 6-8 inches of soil in the beds instead of the 10-12 inches that I was hoping for. I'd rather have more soil of a little less quality. I think some of my plants didn't thrive because of the shallow soil depth.
  • Grow some things out of the raised bed. In addition to the raised beds, I'll be growing summer squash and three sisters directly in mounds instead of raised beds. This will save me some money since I won't have to construct extra raised beds for vegetable that need a lot of space.
  • Share seeds with others. I'm planning on sharing seeds with my family and any others who are growing small gardens. It can result in big savings since I don't need to front so much cash for seeds.

It will be a few more weeks until I can start work on my garden in the new house. Unfortunately, I'll still be working during the time when I need to get the beds ready and start planting. I'm hopeful that growing a garden this year especially since I have the time to tend and water it properly will save us money on produce. I can't wait to get my hands in the earth.