Monday, April 14, 2014

Checkin' in on K-daughter

When you write a check, write the account number on your check.  Not your bank account number, of course; that's already on the check; write the account number for the company you're paying the check to.

That's just a little piece of advice that a mother might give to her daughter, perhaps a little bit too late.

The reason for this little piece of too-late advice was prompted by an frustrated email I got from K-daughter, describing the aftermath of a Christmas-night visit we'd made to the emergency room.  On that particular visit, we learned the expensive way that her ankle was sprained, not broken, and also that she still needed to sign up for health Insurance.  In the time that's followed, K-daughter has learned even more about hospital bills and payment plans.  And all those new lessons led up to this email:
Apparently every payment I've been making to the hospital for my ankle they haven't received, which makes me wonder where my $400 went. I'm frustrated because you say I should take this as a learning experience, the only thing I've learned is how to get screwed out of $400 . . .  This has been a nightmare.... Things will start to get easier when? 
Hidden between the lines of this message are all sorts of questions that a mother might ask herself -- particularly a mother who is trying to raise a young woman who will soon stretch her wings and fly solo.  What does a mom do to make this better?

You can probably tell by the way I describe this whole experience that I'm not the sort to swoop in, take over, and fix everything for her.  Even if I were, K-daughter wouldn't allow it.  (At the end of this whole experience I asked, "do you need any money?" and she said "no."  Then I asked, "Well, would you tell me if you did?"  and she said, "Definitely not!").

I think there's a huge part of K-daughter that hopes that there's some secret-adult way way to just keep miserable things like this from happening in the first place.  Don't we all wish this, and don't we all half act as though we believe it?  If I just put away enough money, if I just get this car that doesn't break down; if I just get this job, if I just adopt a kid . . . then I won't have to worry about anything.   But neither of K-daughter nor I really believes that, least of all me.

No, I'm not the kind to take over and fix this one problem; I'm in this for the long haul. I'm not sure that K-daughter believes it right now, but someday $400 bills won't seem like catastrophes; she'll face bigger bills and even more paperwork.  And I want to get her ready to handle those on her own.

So instead, we had a discussion about record-keeping as it applies to paying bills.  We talked about the anatomy of check writing (yes, write the account number on the check).  We talked about keeping a check register (with the name of the payee, not just "ankle").  We talked about how banks keep track of checks for you, and that "date cleared" is different than the date you wrote the check.

We sat down together to call the Hospital to see where her checks were going; after all, the lesson is not supposed to be "you should expect to lose $400 randomly."  And as we got ready to make those calls . . .

       . . . we also noted that hospital visits come with bills from different places, and that paying a bill for "Dr. Tibia" is not the same as paying the bill for "Femur Hospital".   This is all the more confusing if -- as unfortunately had happened in this instance -- BOTH of them asked for partial payment of exactly $127.96 at exactly the same time, one by phone and the other by mail.  So, after we called and confirmed this guess with Femur Hospital and Dr. Tibia, we confirmed that yes, K-daughter has paid out almost $400, and yes, she still owes that amount yet again.

So I asked her if she needs any money, and she said "no".  Would you tell me if you ever do?  "Definitely not".  K-daughter is flexing her wings, even in stormy winds.


Let me close with a different kind of lesson that K-daughter got from me: how to make something of her own.  She's been having lots of fun lately with archery, and figured out how to make her own targets for cheap using burlap bags filled with plastic bags.  (And she laughed that she had to go to other people's houses to get the plastic grocery bags).

About a week ago, she asked to borrow my sewing machine. She thought she might need me to help her set it up, but it turns out she remembered from before.  And she made a quiver for her arrows, using a pattern of her own design.  The only help I gave her was to swap out the bobbin.

Go-o-O-O K-daughter!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A halt to a Haiti Adoption

Well, I guess it's official now.  We're not adopting a child from Haiti.

The background of this story is that we had a friend who went on a medical missions trip to Haiti in the summer of 2011, met the child X there, decided he needed a good family, and told us that ours was it.  We knew it was crazy, but figured we'd pursue it until we either ran into a dead end or succeeded.

We've adopted children from the U.S. through the "foster-to-adopt" program, but we knew nothing about Haiti.  We asked around and got the name of an agency who might help us, "Giving Hope Haiti".

Now, part of me wants to say, "And this was our big mistake . . . " because this whole organization sort of exploded last summer . . . if tales of corruption, lies, fake kidnappings, and the like intrigue you, you can even read a whole blog devoted to the misdeeds of Giving Hope.    But at the same time, I'm cynical/pragmatic enough to have figured we'd run into corruption and inefficiency along the way, and we had to start somewhere, really.  So we called a few parents who had worked with them (happily), and then in the fall of 2011 we contacted them.  We figured they were our best shot at moving forward.

We got to go visit X in Haiti in December 2011, and also to meet Heather, the now-infamous women who ran Giving Hope.  That was an amazing trip; Heather was bustling and bossy; the country itself was horrible/beautiful beyond words, and the boy X was . . . well, charming.

We gave the boy pictures of our family, and I explained that we couldn't promise to know how the paperwork would turn out, but we could at least promise to try to adopt him.  When children in Haiti are adopted, they change names.  This boy's Haitian name would have been slightly phallic in the U.S., so my husband and I offered him the new name "Xavier", which he loved.  (Hence, X, or X-son).

We returned to the U.S. a week later to begin the mountain of paperwork.  Fast-forward to May 2012, when the giant dossier was finally complete, notarized, and apostilled.  From then, the waiting began.

Somewhere between Haiti suspending adoptions for a while and our agency starting to unravel, our dossier sat still for a year.  In May 2013, we heard that Haiti's IBESR had received our paperwork and given us a number in return.  During this time Xavier ran away from one orphanage (where he'd gotten typhoid, beatings, and not enough food) and found his way miraculously to the orphanage of Annie.

For the last year, we've waited for news from IBESR; instead we get letters from Annie which are carnivals of exclamation points:  What a great kid!!! This new lawyer is our last chance!  We have to act right now!!  We've scoped out several new Haitian lawyers (three, in fact).  The most recent of these actually checked on the status of our paperwork at IBESR; several documents from our file and Xavier's file were missing --- a mistake on the part of Giving Hope.

Now, we could probably fill in those missing papers.  It's just time and money, after all.  But Xavier will turn 16 this September, and IBESR usually takes a year or two to process a complete application.  And after that, there's still another six-month wait for the child to clear USCIS (US Customs and Immigration Services).  So at this point, we're looking at bringing an 18-year-old man into our family -- one who doesn't speak the language and who grew up in an incredibly different culture.

So there's that.  Not easy, y'know?

But then Annie, the exuberant orphanage director, wrote to say that she's sorry to have to tell us that Xavier has to leave her place.  He's been having behavior problems -- stealing, lying, misbehaving -- and she can't control him.  (She also says she's sure he has a great heart and will grow to be a fine young man!!!  I love Annie).   Over the past month or so, the problems seem to be getting more deeply entrenched.

Our family had dealt with our share of lying/stealing/worse, so we know what it's like to live through that, and we have no idea how to deal with that issue on top of his age and assimilation issues.  So, he's too much for us.  Or we've done too little, too late.  We've declared it over.


Well, sort of.  We are still trying to suss out ways to support his education down there in Haiti.  He's in a good school now, and that seems to be something he's interested in continuing.  And we're talking about possibly heading to Haiti with our entire family on my sabbatical, about a year or two from now -- it's sort of a, "If he can't come to us, maybe we can go to him" idea.  But that's still tentative.

But the adoption . . . that's a no go.  Which is too bad.  

Monday, April 7, 2014

The amazing trash-free Xeryp storage containers

The Turkey Lady at our local market laughed at me as I handed her my rubber Xeryp tray, but she piled the turkey on top of it anyway.

Our Turkey Lady has been a cheerful supporter of many of our off-the-wall requests.  She supplies the giant turkey legs for our Pirate Dinner; she'll soon get us the turkey bacon for our April 15 Money Dinner; she sold us the hot dogs that starred in our Zoo Dinner as Octodogs.  (Well, hexadogs, but still.)  And, yes, she was the source of the 3 pounds of sliced turkey that N-son inadvertently gifted to the dog.

Our Turkey Lady has also been a witness and participant in my efforts to reduce the amount of trash we produce.  Lately, I've asked if she can place our sandwich meats and cheeses in glass containers that I bring, instead of wrapping everything in plastic and paper.  But the glass containers make it hard for her to weigh things, so she's weighed the meat or cheese on a plastic sheet and then used that to transfer the food (plus the plastic sheet) to our glass container.

But this past Saturday I brought her my rubber Xeryp tray, and she chuckled, but she obliged.  The rubber tray is light enough that it doesn't throw off her scales.
The Xeryp tray comes with a handy glass dome that we can place over the meat and cheese we buy.  When we place the containers in our fridge, these glass domes seal the sandwich fixings just as well as any of those zip-lock bags do (better, actually, because those bags are annoyingly hard for my family to seal correctly).  The domes are see-through, so I can easily see how much food is left.

And bonus, if you turn the containers over*, then these glass domes hold messier fare; they're good for storing leftovers and can even go in the microwave.  Isn't that clever?

* If you turn them over, then "Xyrep" becomes "pyrex".  Get it?  heh-heh.

[Note:  The lids of pyrex containers are not actually rubber; they are, in fact, plastic.  According to this 2008 news release, they are BPA free.]

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Saving money vs. saving people

This is one of those think-out-loud posts.  Definitely one of those I-don't-have-the-answer posts.

I know what the question is, though.  In a generic form the question is, "how do I plan for saving for my own wants, on the one hand, and giving money to charity, on the other?"  Am I saving money or saving souls?  Am I rich in dollars or donations?

It's a philosophy question, really, not a financial one -- although certainly the financial aspects poke and prod me to think about this in ways that are tangible and distracting.

For me, the importance of sharing is so important that it's already woven through almost every aspect of my family's financial life.  Automatic deposits?  When my employers pay me, they deduct a bit of money from my paycheck for United Way.  Checking account?  When I get my paycheck, I tithe to our church on the take-home amount.  Credit card?  Every month, my credit card bill contains payments for our three sponsored children around the world.  And that doesn't even include our annual summer give, or occasional random donations to our local food bank, or money we micro-loan through Kiva, or non-monetary donations like books and blood and food.

All this is to say, the question of how much to give to charity isn't hypothetical or rhetorical in this case; it's one that I bump up against regularly, the same way many people think about, I don't know, the cost of transportation.  It's just there.

I wrote above that charity is woven through almost every aspect of our financial life.  One of the biggest exceptions is retirement savings, because retirement is . . . well, it's just a mess of a 401K/403b/IRA gobbledy-gook of a financial code.  It doesn't have anything to do with giving; it's all about keeping.

I've known good-hearted people who were weak-minded enough to let charitable impulses wreck their savings.  That's not me.  In spite of all I think about how to give my money away, our charity:retirement allocation ratio is something like 1:4, so our giving still pales in comparison to our keeping.  We're solidly on track for me to be able to retire several years before my college officially allows me to -- in fact, I might keep working a few years longer than I need to just so I can earn the title "emeritus" and the perks that come with that title.

And all of this affords me the luxury -- and I believe, the obligation -- to think about whether and how to give more.  You can call it liberal guilt, or you could say I believe that the Lord of the Universe occasionally tells some of his rich young people to sell all that they have, give to the poor, and follow Him, or you could point to popular psychology that says people who share wealth are happier than people who don't.  I'm sure my real motivation is somewhere in the swirl of all of those.

My current dream-solution is a donor-advised fund, like these ones at Vanguard Charitable.  A donor-advised fund is basically money you invest in the stock market (in this case, an index fund), but you promise the money will all go to your designated charities.  In my head, it's the philanthropic counter-balance to a 401K.  If I opened up one of these babies, I could save for retirement needs in one account and retirement charity in the Donor Advised Funds . . . and so this one aspect of my financial life that seems still so self-serving could be a little more other-serving, too.

BUT, the fund requires a $25K deposit to open the account in the first place.  And every time I think we might be getting to the point where we might get close to pulling that much money together, other life things pop into the way and gobble the money up.

So for now, I just keep looking at our savings account, with its pile o' money roller-coastering up and down.  And I pretend in my head that I'm putting all that money toward charity, but in practice I keep spending it on silly things like dentists, or schools, or taxes.  I'm not even really sure that a donor-advised fund is the right thing for someone like me to do . . . but at least I get to keep thinking about it out-loud, even if I don't know the answer.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Miser mom's birthday bash

After spending so much of my life too young to really be able to truly appreciate the richness of all that life has to offer, I have finally turned 48.  Finally!  

An event so momentous and long-awaited clearly deserves some kind of formal celebration, and my family cheerfully marked this moment with all due solemnity.

To wit: we had another Zoo Dinner, sort of like this one.  Some family traditions just have to live on, right?

The menu included the now-familiar boa constrictor (a pesto stromboli), feasting upon multiple nearby potato mice.  Hsss . . . eek!

Of course, it wouldn't be a Zoo Dinner without the now-obligatory ham-bear-gers . . .

 . . . and the Octo-dogs (which were hexa-dogs, because it was easier to cut six legs than eight.  But shoot!  I forgot to take a picture of those!)

Some of the celebrants were animals, too.  We had a panther ready to pounce on the food:
 But fortunately, he didn't attack his sister, the zebra:
 As usual, we turned the chairs around so the backs faced the table.
 That's so we could eat through the "bars" of our "cages".  Look!  Do you see my birth daughter?  She's moved back to our town, and I'm so happy she could join us for this happy day.
Panther Boy (J-son) wanted me to show how flexible his hands are.  The more he eats, the bigger he gets, and the harder the Zoo Dinner becomes.  But at least for now, he's content in his little cage.

So far, many of the gifts I've gotten have been re-gifts, and much appreciated re-gifts at that.  My daughter gave me a large cast-iron skillet that she'd found while cleaning out her dad's home.  My dad gave me two books about women in science from my mom's collection. K-daughter went a different route:  she got creative and painted me a beautiful picture for my office door.  And even though none of these gifts were expensive in the usual sense, boy, do I feel rich.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Is it bigger than a bread jar?

In my on-going quest to reduce trash, here is one of my recent happy discoveries: a bread jar.

It was originally, I think, intended to be a flour jar or cookie jar, but I use it to store home-made bread.  I can slice the bread, toss the slices and all the crumbs in the jar, and then watch the slices of bread disappear as people snack.  No stale bread in our home anymore.

When the jar empties out, I use the crumbs in fruit crisp or other dishes.  Then I bake some more.  

Friday, March 21, 2014

The dog ate our lunch money

This is the odd story of why I have started paying my sons to eat sandwiches.

The background to this story is that the boys have started attending a new school, which I will here call the Quaker Local School.  (Doubtless there will be a post in the future explaining why a Miser Mom who hates spending money and an Army Dad who is active in the military put their sons in an expensive, pacifist school, but that is irrelevant to why I pay my sons to eat sandwiches or why the dog ate them instead).

The new Quaker Local School isn't part of our city's school lunch program, so our old free lunch program is now completely gone.  And so my husband -- who is NOT a miser -- explained to me that he put $200 into the lunch accounts at the school.

And then the lunch accounts ran dry.

And the boys have been at the school for, like, not very long.

The money ran out because the boys eat a lot, but even more, because they spend a lot.  Given their own middle-school version of a corporate expense account, they were gleefully buying all sorts of food for themselves and also for their friends who forgot lunch money, and so their lunch money ran out.

Then my husband -- who is STILL not a miser -- explained to me that he put even more money into their lunch accounts, but he put a $5 cap on each lunch.

It was at this point that our usual harmonious marriage, with our yoked-oxen approach to rearing children, became just a little more, um, discordant.

She: "FIVE DOLLARS??!!!   Let them learn to make and pack their own lunch!"
He:  "They're at a new school; don't make them stand out and seem weird!"
She:  "It's the Quaker school.  Everyone else has frugal moms, too!"
He:  "They already have so much difficulty keeping track of homework and backpacks; why load them down with one more thing to remember?"
She:  "Making your own lunch is a valuable life lesson.  They need to learn to do this now."
He:  "They already have trouble keeping up with their other life lessons; this will be just one more thing to nag them about."

And so on.  There is no agreement.  Even though clearly I am right about this, I can see that mere logic and moral certitude will not convince my husband.  And I have a rule for myself that I try not to drive people crazy with my own little miserly way of living.

So instead, I just offered a proposition to the boys.  We did a little math lesson: $5 for lunch each day means how much per week?  $25 per week means how much each month?  If you were a grown up and you had $100 each month, would you want to eat that money or spend it on other stuff?

Then I offered to buy them sandwich-making stuff.  And because of the don't-drive-them-crazy rule, I can't override my husband and force them out of the school lunch program, but I can bribe them.  So I offered them sandwich stuff AND a cut of the savings.  The boys bit, so to speak.

To kick off the make-your-own-lunch program I bought too much, really: $30 worth of sliced turkey and cheese.  My husband was delighted at the quantity of food, but horrified that I would force my children to bring lunch to school.  ("I'm not forcing them!" I protested, "I'm offering them the choice").

Monday morning dawned, and J-son gamely came down and grabbed some leftovers for his lunch.  N-son decided to revert to grumpy teen-ager mode, though, and he balked:  "Dad put money in our accounts!  We don't have to bring lunch!"  Later, when I had left for work, he changed his mind just far enough to make a turkey-cheese sandwich for breakfast.  Then he left all the remaining turkey and cheese on the counter and walked away.  And the dog, figuring he'd won the lottery, found the rest and ate it.

When I got home, I had choice words for the son who'd fed $30 worth of turkey and cheese to the dog.  But I also had a crisp one-dollar bill for the son who'd packed instead of purchased.

That one bribe was all it took to win them over to my side, really.  Since that day, both boys have gamely rolled out of bed in the morning, put together a home-made lunch, and brought it to school.  Along the way and on their own, they've learned the joys of easy-to-grab leftovers.  They've asked for lunch boxes (I told them to wait for yard-sale season to start again).  They've got a start on a frugal habit that will hold them in good stead all their lives.

And this why, each day that I come home from work, I hand each of my boys $1 for bringing a sandwich to school.  I cringe a bit at this, but I know the alternative is at least five times as painful.