Tuesday, December 16, 2014

An Un-acquired wisdom

I've become fonder and fonder of the financial musings of Jonathan Clements, whose articles appear in our Sunday newspaper.  Two weekends ago, he wrote an article entitled, "Money can also buy you unhappiness".  The bumper-sticker version of his argument?  Money begets buyer's remorse; we buy more things that in turn begin to weigh us down.

Here was one little three-sentence synopsis that I particularly liked:
As folks grow older, they often stop accumulating possessions and instead start giving stuff away.  You might view that as a rational strategy for those approaching the end of their life.  But I view it as acquired wisdom:  All those possessions start to seem like a burden that distracts us from life's pleasures.
Case in point is family heirlooms.  When I was in my early 20's, my then-husband and I toured the country, interviewing our elderly relatives about our family tree.  We helped them catalog photographs that had long remained unlabeled.  We wrote down stories about scandalous matches, eccentric aunts, persons with personality.  We cooked up family recipes.  We rescued some quilts, some photos, army medals, infant outfits.  It was a fabulous and timely road trip, because the keepers of these heirlooms -- our elderly grandmothers and fragile great aunts -- had amazing stories, and my then-husband and I were the last people to hear these stories and write them down.

And then we went back to our lives -- got our advanced degrees, our divorce, our first jobs.  But the stories we collected, those stayed with us.  As did many of the photos and other heirlooms.  I have carried these with me from home to home for two dozen years now, preserving them for . . . well, I wasn't sure for what.  Posterity, whatever that means.  

Now, with my children growing and moving out of the home, with my nieces and nephews likewise turning from larvae into human adult-like objects, I figured it makes sense to share all these beautiful objects that I just Do Not Want Anymore.   The acquired wisdom I have accumulated is that I want to un-acquire all these heirlooms.

A month or two ago, I gathered the photos/etc into groupings that seemed reasonable to me, and I took them all to a nearby frame shop.  I asked the owner to do with them what she will.  
Believe it or not, these photos look better when they're framed properly than they do in my old wrinkly plastic bags.  I like how great-grandpa's sharp-shooter medals came out.  And I like how grandma's cape, made by her mother a century ago, looks a lot snazzier ironed and framed than when it's wadded up in a ball.
 I have a nifty collage of photos of my dad as a toddler/child/teenager; this will be a gift for his new wife.
Did I mention great-grandpa?  He died in 1902, less than a year after my grandfather was born.  He died of an ear infection (can you imagine??), and left a widow to raise three children on her own.  Here is a little montage of photos of him from before he met my great-grandma.

I knew I'd be plunking down some serious money for all these frames.  It turns out I saved a bunch of money through my own indifference.  I told the framer just to be creative and to take her time.  She ended up using  her left-over materials from previous projects, and because she was in no hurry she could try out various ideas without having to commit to buying supplies.  Altogether, this cost about a thousand dollars less than I thought it would.

It was still pricey -- it's an expensive way to get rid of stuff I don't want.  But dang, does it look nice!

I am really happy to feel like I've preserved something worth preserving, and also to be giving my family a piece of their history.  But most of all, a la Clement's observation, I think that investing a bit of money to divest myself of a few possessions is evidence of an acquired wisdom.

So this is my most expensive Christmas yet: giving my heirs their looms, and giving me a bit more room.  A great gift all around.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Eating the elephant-mother-chair

About a dozen or so years ago, my husband and I "inherited" a giant recliner chair from his mom.

My husband's mom was a woman with all sorts of psychological problems; when he and I got married, I'd tell people:  "We both idolize our fathers and analyze our mothers".  She was a bitterly unhappy woman; his childhood memories are of her lying on the couch, complaining about the neighbors and threatening to kill herself.  He feared our family dinners at first, because his childhood dinners meant listening to his mom carping ceaselessly at his father, who bent his head and accepted it until he could escape from the table.

She was deeply suspicious of anyone unlike her (or anyone like her, for that matter).  When we were getting ready to adopt, the social workers tried to prepare us for negative comments and snubs.  To our surprise, I heard one and only one derogatory comment about adopting a brown son: my husband's mom asked, horrified,  "Couldn't you at least have gotten a Chinese one?"

Recovering from your own mother; there are so many stories there.  For my husband, the big-tough-army-guy, there were a few years of counseling.  There were the years he had to avoid riding his bike by himself, because her voice would fill his head.  There was a conscious effort to be unlike her in every way, both in good ways (avoiding racism) and in harmful ones (fearing family dinners).  When my daughter was in kindergarden, I wrote a note to her future self about my own parenting, saying something to the effect that I hoped to do the "least possible amount of damage."

We recover from bad parenting the same way we eat the metaphorical elephant: one bite at a time.  We share big elephant recipes with our imperfectly-mothered friends.  We chew on the gristle.  Occasionally, we find strong bones.  We gain strength.  We go slowly, thinking that this hulking beast will always looming over us; but one day, if we're lucky, we'll realize the elephant is almost gone.  If we're very lucky, we keep the best parts.

This recliner chair, like my husband's mom, took up more than its fair share of space in our living room.  And after years of hard use from my highly energetic, ADHD, and yes, brown sons, it started falling apart.

This past weekend, I decided to take the chair apart.  I used staple-removers, screwdrivers, and needle-nose pliers to pull out the staples holding the upholstery onto the frame.  There were hundreds of these staples, and I spent many hours focusing on staple, after staple, after staple.  Underneath the fabric was the wood-and-metal frame, and with more screwdrivers and wrenches, I carefully disassembled the skeleton of the chair into various pieces.

When I was done, I had a pile of scrap wood for use in future projects, a second pile of metal pieces that I will donate to Paul D. (who recycles scrap metal as a way of earning some money), and two garbage cans full of foam and fabric.  I'm feeling pretty guilty about those two garbage cans, actually, but I know it could have been worse.

It was wonderfully therapeutic, taking apart a chair.  At every single stage I had no idea what lay ahead; but the next immediate step was always obvious:  remove this staple, this staple, this staple.  Take out this screw, this bolt, that bolt.  One thing at a time, always a small sense of accomplishment, even as the chair loomed over me, seemingly unchanged.

Until suddenly, the chair lay in pieces at my feet, sorted into piles.  All that remained for me to do was to share the pieces I thought were worth sharing, toss the things I didn't want, keep the things I thought I could use.  And then to vacuum up the dirt.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Pre-travel toothpaste prep

Sometimes you gotta uglify something before you can pretty it up.  I felt a little obnoxious about putting a nasty, tsk-tsk sign in our shared bathroom.  But it was only there for a week.
The boys, they leave toothpaste blobs in the sink.  It yucks me out, but while we're home it's just me that gets yucked out, so I feel petty to be constantly carping about this.  In a few weeks, though, we'll be traveling.  We'll stay at other people's houses.  And in the past, some of them have gotten yucked out, just like I do.

Nagging is ugly, too, and besides feeling petty, it's proved singularly ineffective.  One problem is that nagging happens long after the fact, not at the moment of toothpaste yuck-ification.  But a sign right at the place of the dreadful act?  Would "pre-nagging" work?
The answer one week later:  yes.  We have a beautiful sink now.  I took the ugly sign down.  We're ready to travel.  

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Friday lovely as a Tree

This is the view from my bedroom window, at least as it appeared the day after Thanksgiving.
I don't often get to look out this window in the daylight in the winter, so my post-Thanksgiving window meditations got me all Sgt. Joyce Kilmer-y.

I love the look of trees in winter.  There are so many more branches than you'd think, so many more than you'd ever draw into a picture.  The trees are an amazing network of abundance.  My running buddy spent a recent Saturday morning unloading nine hundred (900!) Christmas trees off of trucks and into her nursery, and she tells me how surprised she was that the trees were not as heavy as she feared they'd be.  There's a lot of wood in a tree, but there's a lot of space in a tree, too.

In spite of their lightness, or perhaps because of it, trees are strong.  Even when their leaves are gone, there are so many boughs/branches/stems/twigs that the trees are almost hairy with wood.  They carry not only their own weight, but also the weight of what nature throws at them.  "Upon their bosom snow has lain; they intimately live with rain" says Kilmer, and you can see that the recent rain and snow has collected in these branches, that the ground under the trees is still grassy instead of snowy.  The trees, which look on God all day, lift their bare but water-logged arms to pray.

It's a lovely metaphor for my after-Thankgiving day.  In some ways, I did so much: so so much.  I canned turkey stock, prepared for my last weeks of teaching, ran a few miles with my husband, wrote letters, celebrated Tuba Christmas downtown with my daughters.  But it was also an airy day, with space for a rare mid-morming nap (when I could look at the trees though the blue-gray light of morning), a day when I could pretend I am retired already, a day when at times I teetered on the edge of being bored.

It was also a day of cleaning up.   The incredible collection of pots and pans, each one of them a reminder of a different delicious kind of food, gathered together in the kitchen for a giant soap-and-hot-water party.  (The dog of course got to help with the first round of clean up).  Even cleaning is not that bad when there is space for it -- space in the kitchen, and space in the calendar.  Like the trees, I'm soaking up this abundance around me, lifting my soapy hands to pray.

There's something wonderful about green leaves, but it's in the winter, when the crazy throng of leaves have fallen away, that you get to see the structure and skin of the trees.   It's the same aspect I love about a quiet weekend, when the meetings and memos have fallen away, where I can peer past the foliage and get a quiet glimpse of the intricacies in my own life.

Silver bark of beech, and sallow
Bark of yellow birch and yellow
Twig of willow.

Stripe of green in moosewood maple,
Colour seen in leaf of apple,
Bark of popple.

Wood of popple pale as moonbeam,
Wood of oak for yoke and barn-beam,
Wood of hornbeam.

Silver bark of beech, and hollow
Stem of elder, tall and yellow
Twig of willow.

by Edna St. Vincent Millay 
Counting-Out Rhyme

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Impersonal Finance

This is a blog post I've started about 57 times and then trashed 56 times.  I can't quite figure out an elegant or kind way to begin, so everything that follows is riddled with vast imperfections.  But perhaps this latest version is good enough to share.  Fifty seventh time is the charm, so they say . . .

Here's the general gist:  I love the personal finance genre.   But I hate the phrase "personal finance".

The "personal" that kicks off the phrase "personal finance"  can be selfish (at worst) and tunnel-visioned (at best).  The very word "personal" shoves us relentlessly into ourselves.  By implication, it distracts us from all of those obligations that tether us to noble aspects beyond ourselves.   The phrase "personal finance" seems so much smaller-minded than "philanthropy finance",  or "social justice finance", or "environment finance", or other (as far as I can tell) non-existent genres of finance advice.  If you want to read about financial planning that places you and your money in service to a Higher Cause, PF ain't it.  The phrase "personal finance" evokes images of individualism, not of connections.

So, are my favorite personal finance authors selfish, self-centered hermits?  No, not by any means.

My favorite authors are my favorite authors in large part because of how much they care about justice, or mercy, or ecological sustainability, or the transcendent.  As just one for-example, Joe Dominguez of Your Money or Your Life turned my life around.  He is probably the most widely read personal finance author of the past few decades, and he spent much of his life donating both his money and time to helping others.  But even in his book, the idea of being able to help others was seen to be almost an afterthought---a kind of a side effect---that comes from achieving financial independence.  The spotlight of his book shone on the idea of independence; the notions of charity and service stood to the side and got only a second-hand halo.

But what if your goal of finance is bigger than just personal?  What if it's not just about you and yours?  What if it's about more than just getting out of (your own) debt?  About more than (your own) retirement?  About more than (your own) independence?

I can't think of the phrase I'd use to describe what I actually mean; that's part of why this is version number 57 of this essay.  In my own head, the perfect phrase would describe that I want to use my money and time not just to take care of my own needs (although that's part of it), but that I also become a force for good in the larger world.  But every phrase I actually try seems too new-age-y.  Last week in church, one of the deacons mentioned that "genesis" and "generosity" have the same etymological roots, and I started mulling over the idea of "Regenerative Finance", imagining that I was tending my finances to be a fertile field for many, a kind of a compost pile of financial planning.  It might look like mucky dirt, folks, but it's really black gold.

The questions of "Personal Finance" and "Fertile Finance"--or whatever the heck it ought to be called--are probably largely the same.

What the heck, the answers are probably largely the same, too.  (Spend less than you earn; keep track of where your money goes; be prepared for emergencies).

But even if you wind up in close to the same place at the end, it's a different mindset to believe that your money is in service not just to you, but also to something bigger than you are.
  • Can you save money by showering at the gym instead of at home?  (The money for the showers at the gym come from somewhere, after all -- does that matter to you?)
  • How do you deal with people who "borrow" things of yours and don't give them back?  (The story of the person who has your waffle iron might be an important part of your final answer, just maybe.)
  • Do you donate money to charity now, or wait until you're retired/wealthy?  (Wisdom always has to matter on this question, right?  But I think it's important to keep asking myself the question over and over, to let it nag at me.  And sometimes to let it inspire me.) 
Which I guess leads me back to where I started, which is that I love the personal finance genre.  It's awfully hard to take care of the entire world if you can't even take care of yourself.  So here's a big Thank You to my favorite bloggers for being the voices that I love to read every morning:  for giving me inspiration and ideas, and for connecting me to a world bigger than myself.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Update on our (non) adoption

About three years ago, my husband and I went down to Haiti to visit a young teenaged boy that our friend met on a missions trip; we thought we might want to adopt him.

The adoption fell through, but my friend and I still send him some financial support.  Basically, we pay for his schooling and for his school clothes.  More on that, below.  

We just got a letter from the missionary who visited him most recently.  Here's that letter.

I was so blessed to spend time with [X-son] . . .  
Here is a photo of him and his mom. I saw him several times and tried to explain things to him. He would love to see you both. If it is all possible I would encourage you to go to Haiti and visit him. We had him to dinner at Club Indigo as well as saw him at My friend E's home.  
He is doing well. He goes to Mario's school. It is a Haitian school. A poor school.  I cannot promise the quality of education but he is happy. He lives with his mom. Life is hard. There is no running water or electric in their area. All water must be carried a long distance. There supposedly is a truck that brings water but if you do not have money to pay, you do not get water. 
He wrote you a letter and gave you a photo which I will mail to you. They are such a fine family. Just know he is disappointed but is happy. 
Thanks for all you do.
Here are some other random details.  Several people have asked us about adopting a kid who already has a mom -- what did she think about this idea?  Well, like many in Haiti, she has very little money and at many times didn't have enough to feed herself, much less her son.  When my friend first met X-son, in fact, he was living in an orphanage because she couldn't support him.  She would have been very happy for him to come with us, apparently.  (Actually, come to think of it, the majority of my children have moms elsewhere).

Figuring out how to get money to X-son in a way that it would do good and no harm was tough.  (You might just imagine that giving a big pile o' cash to a teenage boy could have one or two negative consequences, right?)  So we give money to a group that does missions work in Haiti--the same group that visited him and sent this note and picture.  They pay the school directly and  they help him buy clothes.   I'm going to ask them about ways to get X-son and his mom money for water (sheesh).

My friend and I, together with people on the ground in Haiti, had a long back-and-forth discussion about which school to send X-son to.  While he was living at Annie's orphanage and preparing for the adoption, he'd gone to an American school that was (apparently) quite nice.  But the director of the school told us that, once the adoption fell through, she thought the Haitian school was better for him -- for one thing, his English skills were weak enough still that the American school would require many more years to graduate; for another, because of the different curricula the Haitian school  prepared him for life in Haiti better.


How do I think about this situation above?  Obviously, it makes me feel like a total ingrate for complaining about anything at all in my own life, and simultaneously it reminds me to be glad for little things like (say) light switches that work and toilets and tap water.  Oh, and paved roads where I can ride a bike.  And paper.

I also get a guilty stab-in-the-heart for that last line: "thanks for all you do".  Because I sent less money down to Haiti this year than I sent to, say, our cell phone company this month.  Because the chasm between what I could do and what I do do stretches so wide before me.

But also, I am gladdened.   Because X-son does get to live with his mom again.  And even if life is hard, he does seem happy.  And the story isn't over yet; I get to remain a part of his life, which is possibly a little bit better than it would have been if my friend K hadn't introduced us.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Lightbulb Bureaucracy

LED lightbulbs are expensive at first, but save money eventually.

Well, that's the spiel, and I actually believe it, somewhat.  But I believe it with a bit of careful skepticism.  And so, here, I'm going to talk about how I administrate my lightbulbs (if that phrase makes sense).

I've been buying LED lightbulbs from our nearby hardware store.  Because I want at least 1000 lumens (the equivalent of 75-to-100 watt lightbulbs from the old days), the bulbs are pricey -- about $25 per bulb, on average.  (Yoicks!)   The theory is that LED light bulbs are supposed to last a VERY long time, and thereby save me gobs of money.  But the practice is that I already had one bulb burn out after about 7 months.  And fixing a $25 bulb every year or so could be expensive, even if the associated energy costs are low.

An LED lightbulb is supposed to last a long time.  It has some kind of a long-term warranty, which is useful if you actually keep track of details of acquisition and installation.  Keeping track can be tricky.

So here's what I do.

1.  I've started saving my lightbulb receipts in an envelope that I store together with my lightbulbs, not with the rest of my receipts.  Honestly, I think this is pretty clever.
I now keep an envelope like this . . . 
. . . in this box in my linen closet, which is where I store my light bulbs.

2.  I write the date on the lightbulb itself, using a sharpie, when I install it.
This is the most recent light bulb I've installed -- October 2014.
If it does burn out, at least I'll know for sure when I first screwed it in.
That's how I know that the lightbulb that burned out in my son's bedroom just last month was first installed eight months earlier (February 2014).

So when J-son came to tell me that the light in his bedroom had burned out, here's what we did.  I unscrewed it, and saw (because of the sharpie markings) that I'd installed it in February. I found the receipt from January, and my husband took the receipt and bulb back to the hardware store.

And just like that, we got a new lightbulb -- not exactly the same, but pretty much equivalent-- for free.  phew!

Moral of the story:   I'm going to start thinking harder about keeping my receipts where I'd start looking if I actually need them, not in a giant envelope with all my many other receipts.

Storing my receipts by use, instead of by date, might make more sense.