Saturday, June 30, 2012

How much money will I need to retire?

Geek alert:  this post has math in it.  A lot of math.  Can't help myself.  But I love it.

At my college reunion last month, I got to hear some of my former classmates talk about retirement savings strategies.  IRAs, Roth, Index funds, blah blah blah.  That's all important, of course -- I don't mean it's not.  But it wasn't THE NUMBER.  There was lots of talk about how to get to enough, but not any mention of how to figure out how much IS enough.  Am I putting the right amount of money into my retirement accounts?  Or, since I'm probably not going to change my retirement contributions much anyway, how much money am I looking at if I keep going as-is?

Isn't that what we all really wonder?  If I keep going as I'm going, what will the future look like?  Can I handle that, or do I need to change?

Some people doodle pictures.  I doodle math.  So when my attention wandered, I decided to try to figure out a formula to estimate, in broad terms, what THE NUMBER will be, to predict the future based on the past and the present.  I should caution that "estimate" is key here, because there are a gazillion variables in real life -- I'm not looking for perfection, just for a rough idea.

To get a handle on this, I decided to pretend I know 5 things for sure (and obviously, I don't know them all).  Here's what I pretended I know:  1) S,  how much I've already saved, 2) D for "deposit", that is, how much I'll contribute to savings in each year of the future years, 3) Y, the number of years before I retire, 4) r, average interest rates between now and then, and 5) w, my eventual withdrawal rates.

If by some stroke of luck I manage to nail each of those five numbers exactly on the head, then when I retire my monthly withdrawal from my retirement account will be what you get from this beautiful formula:
monthly retirement income = [ S*R + (R-1)*D/r ] * w/12.

Now, why couldn't they have showed us that formula during the talk?
Okay, maybe I know why.

Do you hate math yet?  Or are you like me and are chomping at the bit?  

If you're not a fan of algebra but you want to figure out how to do this computation with your own numbers, here's a step-by-step set of instructions with fake numbers tossed in. Only 6 steps, and the first is the hardest.
  1. Guess the average rate of return on my investments before I retire -- little r.  This is a huge guess here.  As a matter of fact, I ran the formula a bunch of times with a bunch of numbers, all centered around 0.08.  Then compute the total return, R, by using your guessed interest (r) and years to retirement (Y), using the formula R = (1+r)^Y. That ^ symbol means multiply by itself that many times -- most calculators have that button. If yours doesn't, just hit 1.08, "times", and then hit the "=" button for as many years as you expect to be working.  If I will work for 20 more years, that's R=(1.08)^20=4.66.
  2. Figure out how much your current savings will be worth in Y years:  that's S*R (your current savings times your total rate of return).  If I've saved $25,000, that'd be 25,000*4.66, or $116,500.
  3. Figure out how much your future deposits will earn:  Subtract 1 from R; multiply that number by your annual deposit D, and divide by the interest rate r.  If I deposit $100/month or $1200/year, I'd do 3.66*1200 (that's 4392), and then divide that by 0.08, to get $54,900.
  4. Add the numbers from steps 2 and 3.  That's how much money you'll have in your retirement account when you're ready to retire.   (Continuing, I'd get 116,500 + 54,900, or $171,400).
  5. Figure out your yearly withdrawal rate by multiplying step 4 by w (in my example, 171,400*0.04 = $6,856).
  6. Figure out your monthly withdrawal by dividing step 5 by 12.  (With those numbers, I'd be living on 6,856/12 = $571 per month). 
I figured it makes sense to compare that number from step 6 to how much money we actually spend now -- again, this is all for broad estimation purposes.  If I decided this number was too low (and I'm guessing living on $571 a month is too low, really), I have options -- I could wait longer to retire (change Y).  I could save more money (change D).  I could try to get a better interest rate (change r and therefore R).   Or I could invent a time machine, go back in time, and save more money up to now (change S).   Well, okay, maybe not that.

If this formula is more than you want to deal with, you can find other retirement calculators online.  Most of them tell you how much you should be setting aside now, not how much spending money you'll have eventually if you keep going as you're going now.  But they all do the calculations for you.  Where's the fun in that?

Friday, June 29, 2012

Calling it curtains

I'm just a little too brain dead for a regular post today.  Yesterday (the post-battle day) went beautifully, for which I'm grateful -- to the point of wanting to be grateful publicly.  But still, all that time-in and positive reinforcement took a lot of my brain cells.

Here's a sneak preview of coming Miser Mom blog attractions:  curtains.  As in, making them.

More later.  

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Battle I Picked

When you go through foster parent training, you hear this over and over again:  "Pick your battles".  You can't change everything about the child who comes to your home.  You can't even change several things at once.  You have to learn to let some things slide.  When you do pick a fight, you'd better make sure you win.

Yesterday, I picked a battle with my new son.  It wasn't fun, but it was important.

To set the context, I should point out he's 15 years old; he's been in more than 20 homes in his life, and not all of them have been nice.  (In fact, some of the homes he was in were distinctly NOT nice).  He's had to fend for himself; he's had rules change on him frequently; he's had to deal with abuse and neglect and with just about everything except consistency.  And he's been at our home for less than 3 months now.  If you feel sorry for him, good.  I do, too.

In spite of everything he's been through, he seems to really want a family (and I should add that not all kids who've been in the foster care system do).  He seems to want to be useful, as evidenced by all the chores he takes on around our home.  He yearns for more responsibility; he's applying for jobs; he saves his money; he's enrolling in the Vo-Tech program at our local high school.  My friends hear what he does around our home, and they ask, "Can he come to my home?".

So why would I pick a fight with this kid?

Well, partly because he sort of just takes stuff.  Or he asks for stuff and gets into a huff when people say "no". If a sister says he can use something of hers, he thinks it means he can keep it, along with everything related to it.  Tuesday night, he came into our bedroom while we were gone, without asking, and took my husband's laptop up to his bedroom to watch movies.  This is not at all unusual for kids who've been in and out of foster care, a focus on grasping things while you still can.  But in a normal home, we need to break him of this.  

It's also partly because, having fended for himself for so many years, he's learned to be a law unto himself.  So he will counter my statements that "I want you to do this," with "But I was going to do that."  For example, "You need to put the drill away in the drawer; you can't leave it on the floor."  "But I still need it; I'm going to use it tomorrow."  Typical kid stuff, but still it needs to be addressed.

So, things have been rolling along mostly great, but he took the computer without asking.  And he left my tools in piles in the garage.  And I figured it's about time that he knows that his actions have consequences.  I took him aside in the morning and explained that this means he goes for a whole day without using the power tools.   For most kids, I realize this is hardly even a punishment, but I knew that C-son was going to take it badly.

And take it badly, he did.  He stormed off.  When he came home, he wouldn't look at me.  He wouldn't talk to me.  He wouldn't do anything I asked.  He pouted, he sulked.  He claimed I yell at him and only him.  (J-son, nearby, helpfully offered, "Oh, no, she yells at me, too!").    (Okay, and I'll add, "yell at" means "accuse" because I don't actually raise my voice.).

I picked yesterday because, in fact, things HAVE been going well.  We've had a lot of goodwill that I can bank on, so I figured he could sulk and I could outlast him.  Also, my husband is coming home this weekend; this is both a good time to assert my authority and also have the luxury of falling back on a second authority when I collapse from exhaustion.

Because the goal for yesterday was several-fold:
  1. Enforce the standards.  Make it clear that he'll only get to play with my tools when he can follow my rules, not his.
  2. Outlast his petulance.  Show that, in the long run, I'm going to win any contest of wills.  I didn't ever get angry (as far as he could see), but I didn't give in to his moods.
  3. Get in his face and love him.  Remind him that even when he's angry and disobeying, I'm here, not leaving him alone, but rather snatching hugs and reminding him that he's part of the family.  Even when he's being nasty, we were practicing "time in".
  4. Keep promises.  When he was turning his back on me, I reminded him that when his brothers disobeyed, they lost privileges, but once they apologized and behaved, they got privileges back.  The same would be true for him.
It was not an easy day.  No, not at all.  N-son and J-son were a little cowed by it all, and they both jumped in to help where C-son backed out, I think because they were scared of what was going on.  It took pretty much all day before he finally came around.  

But eventually, come around he did.  I know this isn't the end.  In some ways, this is just the beginning.  Poor kid.  The first big battle in a contest of wills for this kid's soul.  God willing, we'll both win the war.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Leaky faucets

My dad says every plumbing repair requires three trips to the hardware store.  It's not actually true, but the mantra reminds me that it's okay not to know exactly what I'm doing when I'm near things that move water around.  Thanks to my dad, I'm a half-decent plumber.  For this, I should emphasize the "half" and slur quickly over the "decent". 

To illustrate, I'll show you the results of a non-repair my sons and I did over the weekend.  The shower is leaking, a slow steady drip.  Drives me nuts.  We had a plumber come last year who did his own half-decent fix.  A year later, half-decent has degraded a tad, and I decided it was time to introduce my boys to the wonders of a Wench with a Wrench.  (That's me.)

For most plumbing repairs, the first step is turning off the water to the fixture.  Here's C-son, demonstrating how to turn off the water to a bathroom sink.
Usually, the cut-off valves are very close to the faucets.
Unfortunately, in my very old house, the shower doesn't have any visible cut-off valve nearby.  So we had to turn off the water to the entire home.  In preparation for this, we first filled a bunch of buckets and jars of water just in case things went very, very bad.  It was a Saturday, and there was no way I was going to call a plumber in to fix thing$ on the weekend.  So we stocked up on water to drink and flush toilets just in case.

Then we turned off the water, using the whole-house valve.  I think every homeowner should know where this valve is, in case of emergency. 

To fix the leaky faucet, grab a wrench and unscrew anything on the faucet that seems remotely hexagonal.  Since there are so many different kinds of faucets in this world, it's hard to give more specific directions than that:  just have patience and a good wrench.
 Somewhere in all that metal, there's a small black rubber thing called a washer.  Hah!  It doesn't even wash anything!  It's really the "stopper", at least, provided it's still new enough.  That tiny little black rubber thing is the reason the shower leaks.  Take it out; take it to the hardware store (you can take the faucet assembly, too for the hardware clerks to look at), and have the clerks help you get a new washer.  It costs less than $1.
Then put it all back together, and everything should work fine.  If you're lucky.

Except in my case, the faucet assembly I took out (the cold water handle) wasn't the one causing the leak.  The hot water handle is our bad boy, and it's so old and stripped that I can't remove it without ruining it.  (In fact, that's why our professional plumber said he couldn't do better last year).  So someday I'm going to pull out the vise grips, manhandle that faucet out of there, and I'm going to need to buy a new faucet, but I didn't want to do that on a Saturday of childcare.

So we put the cold-water faucet back in, with a new washer for good luck.  We turned back on the water to the house.  The faucet dripped a bit, but no more quickly than before.  We didn't fix it.  That's the "half" part of the "half-decent".  But the "decent" part is that my boys got to learn a little bit about plumbing, and we didn't ruin anything, either.  Phew!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A visit to Grandpa's house

I've mentioned my dad a few times before.  Yesterday, we went on a trip to see him, a mutual helping day.  Dad got to help me amuse my guys for a day; he taught us all how to use a pop riveter (cool!!!).  And we got to help my dad with some heavy lifting chores.

C-son and J-son did a small construction project . . .
 While N-son helped grandpa fix a latch on the RV.
All five us us worked together to remove an old, damaged canopy and put a new one on.  That was both hard work, and a lot of fun.
 Afterward, the boys got to "drive" the RV.
The boys helped my dad bring home lumber from the store.  Then the boys got up on the roof of dad's home to clean sky lights.  Afterward, Dad bragged quietly to me that at 76, he's still better at going up and down ladders than my teenage boys, and I believe him.  Me, I stayed on the ground. I'm not a ladder person.

The boys also got to help Dad fill up his bird feeders.

And then my dad made steak.  A rare treat (and the way my dad cooks, "rare" is the right word).  A good day, all around.

Monday, June 25, 2012

$145, and homemade bean bags

After Saturday's "Death and Destruction" post, our family had one of the most relaxing and pleasant weekends I've had in a long time.  Ahhh . . . some highlights:
  • For me, quiet time reading Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" and then Martin Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park".  It was nice to be completely absorbed in books again.
  • For J-son, visiting his former foster mom.
  • For N-son, a bit of biking, a bit of playing with friends, and a lot of watching car races on TV.
  • For C-son, learning to sew.  In fact, he got good enough that I showed him how to do the fancier stitches.  He played around on my sewing machine for much of the weekend, decorating and designing two bean bags that he very proudly presented to me:
for "DAD"
for "MOM"
He presented these to me warm, in fact.  These bean bags can go in the microwave, where we can heat them up to use as heating pads. These are my first gifts from my new son, and I'm going to treasure them.

We also got two evening visits from my husband, who got to come home briefly from his army training (to see his new bean bag, of course, and also his happy family).  Next weekend, he'll be home for real -- his three weeks of "summer camp" will be over.

Another small seeming-miracle: we got the boys' latest round of medications with no insurance hassle. Dropped off the prescription, picked up the meds, just like normal people.  Woo-hoo!

What we did not do very much of was grocery shop.  We spent a total of $32 (basically, dairy and coffee), so that the 17-week average is $145/week.

Average spending per week is leveling off now.

The actual week-to-week spending is erratic;
low lately because of past CSA, bulk meat purchases, 
and my husband's current quarantine at army camp

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Headlights, Guitars, and Mommy Dollars

This is a post about death and destruction.

The "death" part (just so I don't worry people unnecessarily) is the slow-yet-seemingly-inevitable demise of Mommy Dollars.  I started this system two years ago as a way of rewarding N-son and J-son for household chores, for practicing some much-needed arithmetic, and for occasionally penalizing undesirable behavior.  And Mommy Dollars have worked great for much longer than I thought they would.

But structurally, the Mommy Dollar system is losing its effectiveness.  One important aspect was quick feedback -- immediate reinforcement.  Back when, I paid the boys each night and they bought TV times or bedtime snacks on a daily basis.  But now, they're staying up late amusing themselves and so the bedtime routine leaves little time for tallying money.  The less often we do this, the less important this money seems.

There is also the matter of their "real" allowance.  For about a year, the boys have also gotten an incredibly stingy allowance -- $4 per week -- in true U.S. currency.  And as they grow older, this money has come to seem more real to them than the orange, pink, and purple bills I'd been doling out.  (Go figure).

The real money comes with strings attached.  They don't get the allowance if they lied or stole anything during the week -- I won't go into many details, except to say that that has been a helpful rule in our household.  They're expected to give some of their money elsewhere (to church or a charity) and also to put some into savings, so the weekly "take home" allowance is truly pitifully small.  What can I say?  There's a reason I call myself "Miser Mom".

The other important rule attached to their allowance is that each boy has to keep a minimum of $100 in his savings account to cover "emergencies".  If they don't meet this minimum, then I deposit the entire amount of the allowance in the savings account, and they can't spend any of it, not even the usual pitifully small amount.  The Emergency Fund is mandatory.

The purpose of the Emergency Fund is to cover destruction and loss.  When N-son smashed the ping pong paddles at my father's home, he bought new ones out of his own account.  When J-son used his umbrella as a snow shovel (and surprisingly, it broke), he bought a new umbrella out of his own savings.  The brother who has not recently destroyed or lost things gets to spend his allowance; the brother who has recently been irresponsible suffers several weeks of financial abstinence until his debt is paid.  This system seemed to work very well, even if (or maybe even because) it is taking over the place of Mommy Dollars.

But lately, we have run into careless destruction, completely accidental, on grander scales.  N-son swerved his bicycle into a friend's parked car and broke a headlight: $154 for the parts to replace it.  C-son was carrying his sister's guitar by the strap (not by the body), and the strap popped off, and the guitar smashed into the ground, snapping the head off:  $320 to replace it.  The Emergency Fund is no longer adequate.

The short term solution is that N-son and C-son each paid a portion of the damages while their dad and I paid the rest.  But these instances, I think, are part of a long term trend.  My boys will have access to more-and-more expensive things.  I have upped their allowance to a whopping $5 per week (are your kids jealous?), but their Emergency Fund minimum will rise by $2 per week for the foreseeable future.  The boys will be saving more money, but they'll also have more money to lose.  

A new financial era in our lives begins.  The phoenix, perhaps, rising from the ashes.
Mommy Dollars, RIP.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Can't be beet (salad)

For most of my life, I haven't been much of a beet-eater.  When we started getting beets a few years ago in our CSA boxes, I really had no idea what to do with them.  My husband's borscht was delicious -- but only to him; the kids and I wouldn't touch it.

Two years ago, I chanced upon this salad (almost like a slaw, really) at a neighbor's pot luck, and my relationship with beets changed overnight.

Tangy Beet Slaw
  • a bunch of beets, peeled and grated.
  • an equal amount of carrots, peeled and grated. (Celery works, too).
  • an equal amount of apples, peeled and grated.
  • oil and vinegar
  • salt and pepper
  • garlic
  • hot sauce
Our CSA and my adventures in canning have both really changed the way I eat.  So by the time, earlier this week, a good friend called to tell me she had bags and bags of vegetables for us, I was ready.   There were two jars of home-canned peas.  There was cabbage.  There was squash.  And there was a giant bag of beets.

Did I say I was ready?  Maybe.  The Tangy Beet Slaw doesn't really can well (at least, I presume not), so I tried pickling the beets -- 13 jars worth.   

One of the trickiest parts of canning for me is the recipe aspect, not the canning aspect.  There was the year I made a large vat of salsa, and in order to bump the acidity up, added more lemon juice than I really should have.  If I were cooking a plain old dinner, that would be a one-night mistake.  But as it was, I spent the rest of they year using up the lemon-y salsa in carefully controlled ways.  It would have been nicer just to have really yummy salsa.

At any rate, I now have 13 jars of pickled beets that I haven't tasted yet.  I followed the recipe and directions at this web site called "Pick Your Own", which I use for almost all my canning advice.  Except four of those jars have hot peppers in the mix -- those'll be for me, not for my husband. I'm crossing my fingers on the taste on any of those jars, really.

And I'm still trying to decide whether to freeze, pickle, or who-knows-what for those squash.  Suggestions are welcome!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Chore Galore

We are well into the third week, here at Miser Mom household, of doing chores three hours a day, four days a week.  (Orthodontia has taken the place of the fifth weekday, and weekends have been full of other events).  Here are three reflections and lots of pictures on this process.

Reflection 1: Trash.
As in, cleaning seems to generate a lot of it, although, really, I know that what cleaning reveals is actually just how much trash we've been willing to live amid.  Our compost bins -- both the primary and the "back up" -- are both overflowing.  We've made several trips to the cardboard dumpster.  The recycling bins are full to the rims.  The Give Away pile is vast.  Our trash outlay has gone from one large can every other week to TWO AND A HALF cans this week. Shocking.

Pear tree: before.
Reflection 2: There's a lot of work to be done.
No, seriously.  A week ago I was worrying about running out of chores.  Silly me.  Now I see how much time we've spent on the home and how much there is still remaining ahead of us, and I wonder, "Why did this home not fall down around my ears in decay?"

Pear tree: after.
In one of his books, Dale Carnegie describes a man who confronts his grief over the death of his daughter by making a long list of everything that needs to be fixed around his home, and then spending a year doing it all.  Grieving, I'm not.  But the list I have always understood, and the year I'm beginning to appreciate in a visceral way.

Hedges: before.

The chores began outdoors.  Lots of weeding.  I wrote earlier about how surprised I was that the boys (led by C-son) got way, way into this task.   Weeding was followed by mowing and then (power-tool-delight) hedge trimming.  Followed by even more weeding.

Hedges: during.

 I've often grumbled to my husband that our yard was just too big for one or two people to take care of.  But with three boys and me working three hours a day (plus significant voluntary overtime), we had basically finished off my outdoor list in a week.

(Fortunately, as we all know, the garden is a sustainable source of additional chores in the future.  Nature provides.)

Hedges: after.
Once outdoor chores had reached the natural we're done point, we began indoors.  At this stage, I again worried I would run out.  After three days of this, no longer do I worry. 

What I realize more and more as I tour my home is that it's not the things we actually use that makes the mess.  It's all that stuff we once used, but don't anymore.  Dozens and dozens of cassette tapes, gathering dust on the CD shelves.  Cans of old paint.  Childhood toys.  The corners, the back of the closets, the nooks and crannies: these have all become fair game this summer.

Dog crate: before.
For my younger boys, N-son and J-son, I've been giving them the kinds of things that are hard to mess up.  Jobs that can't lead to, oh, for example, burning down the home or tearing large holes in the walls.  One of N-son's favorite tasks was cleaning out the dog crate; our dog had shredded his cushion into little pieces.  We left it that way for several months, calling it his "nest", but really, it was time to clean out the foam and put in something a little more aesthetic.

Dog crate: during.
Any activity involving squirt bottles works well with those two boys.  J-son cleaned all the dusty baseboards; scrubbed light switches, took fingerprints off of many walls.

N-son loves to have a go at mirrors.  He is passionate about squirting and scrubbing them.  The mirrors seldom look much different after he's "done", but while he's whiling away his time there (so to speak), he's happy and occupied.  And then I can turn him to other tasks where he actually makes a difference.

Dog crate: after.
But C-son, our new son?  Him, I keep giving harder and harder jobs.  The more I see him work, the more I think that of all my kids, he's going to be the one taking care of me in my old age.

I handed him sharp objects and had him un-caulk a previously sealed bathroom window.  Then he got out a ladder, protective eye gear, and cleaner, and scrubbed mold off of the entire room: ceiling, floors, and everything.  In a second bathroom, he's been sanding and prepping a cabinet, helping me get ready to repaint it.
They made him, they broke the mold.

The house is looking better and better, but the to-do list keeps getting longer and longer.  I did not realize until this summer that, really, I live in a mansion.

Reflection #3.  There is satisfaction in a job well done.  And even in doing the job.

Cinderella?  No,  N-son.
For myself, I had no doubt of this.  For my boys?   I was expecting surly resistance to this project.  Let's get the unmentionable out in the open:  the term "slave-driver" applied to a white woman supervising three black teenagers?  It didn't appeal to me.  And yet, I'm working them hard.

So, what do they think of all this?  Well, it's true that there are mornings where they start off surly.  Grumpy.  Huffy.  I remind them sometimes that they are not supposed to huff at me, but rather to say, "Yes, mom" when I ask them to do something.  I have had to ask N-son, "If I huffed like this [huff] when you asked me if you can have yogurt, how would that make you feel?"

One of his favorite jobs so far:
wiping the dust off of CDs.
But on the whole, they seem to have taken real pride, even joy, in their work.  Often, when they take a break because their tennis camp is about to start, they will ask, "Can I keep cleaning this when I come home?"   C-son is right now intent on knowing when we will be able to paint the cabinet.  All three of them are angling for the first shot at sewing curtains.

In contrast, the summer pool passes that I bought for our family?  We've only used them twice.  Not as much fun.  Go figure.

Ten more days until my husband comes home from Army training.  Two more months of summer.  We'll have enough to keep us busy.  And happy.  Chores galore.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Parsing past purchases: value and integrity

About a dozen or so years ago, I used to do a lot of travelling for my job.  And because I'm really not at all a happy person when I'm not focused on a task, just about every time I passed through an airport I bought another book to read on the next plane.  (Because I'm an insanely fast reader, I don't mean I'd buy one book per trip, or even one book per direction; I'd often buy one book per leg of the trip: 4 books per trip).

About the same time, about once or twice a month, I would go out for lunch with some friend of mine, usually to a fancier restaurant than I would ever go on my own (as you might guess, I'm pretty strictly a brown-bagger when it comes to lunch).

I remember both of these expenses very well because I had just come fresh out of my first reading of Your Money or Your Life, a book that really did change my life, at least in the financial sense.  The authors convinced me that, to understand my financial situation, I ought to spend some time keeping track of all the money I spent.  And I was surprised, once I started doing this, at where my money actually went.  The size of both of the above expenses were unexpected to me, although in different ways.

The big idea behind the book YMoYL is trying to align your finances with all the values and goals of the rest of your life:  the authors call this alignment "financial integrity" and lay out a goal of "financial independence" (meaning, reaching the point at which you no longer need the money from your job in order to support yourself).

The "integrity" part was probably the most interesting to me. I love my job and really see myself working at it for a long, long time, so I wasn't as hooked as others might be on the idea of financial independence, except in the abstract.  [Although, as an aside, after I married my husband I decided that I really want to get our family to the point where his job is gravy-money, and not something he has to be tied to.   And we're getting darned close to that point, so the book may eventually help my guy become a kept man.  Yes.]

But the "integrity" part has colored all my views of how I spend money since then.  Because, back in 1996, I was spending about $25/month on airport books.  Given my salary (minus taxes, minus professional expenses, etc), you might say that was about 3 or 4 hours of my life each month earning the money that I spent to amuse myself while I was on airplanes.  That floored me (but fortunately for everyone else involved, didn't floor the airplanes).

On the other hand, I was spending almost the same amount -- about 3 or 4 hours of my life each month  -- on staying in touch with friends.  As somebody who cares deeply about community, I realized that number was low -- way low.

And after that exercise, things changed.  I started yard-sale purchasing books (eventually I realized I had to store them in my suitcase, or I'd read them before my trip and wind up buying books in the airport anyway).  My travel book budget went from $300 a year to $15 a year.   But my lunches with friends got a corresponding bump -- I was spending both time and money on these friendships that were  valuable and precious to me.  And it felt right.

Off the top of my head, this is what I remember about the steps the authors suggested:
  1. Convert dollar amounts into something personally meaningful to you.  They suggest computing your "real hourly wage" (money you earn minus taxes and work expenses, divided by the amount of time you actually devote to your job, including dressing, commuting, and de-stressing), so that you know that, say, $3 = one hour of your life.  But you could I suppose convert it into ice cream sundaes or time on the golf course or some such equivalent.
  2. Write down everything you spend.
  3. Once a month, look back at your spending, and for each item (or collection of items), consider whether this was really in alignement with your values and goals.  Was this thing worth spending 3 hours of your life (or was it worth foregoing 3 ice cream sundaes)?  
  4. Would you rather have spent less (of your time or of your ice cream) on that?  Or -- here's the question that got me to sit up and pay attention -- do you feel you should be spending more on that?
Needs?  Wants?  For me, this is not quite the right question.  Alignment and integrity?  That's closer to what I'd like to do.

The danger in this approach is the smugness factor -- the tendency I have to start thinking of my spending habits as "The True Way", capitalized words and all.  (This is especially easy when I'm not actively coveting apple peeler/corers that I could just as well borrow from my neighbor).  After all, smugness is something I'm especially prone to as a professor/environmentalist/evangelical christian.  So my yearly massive outlay to our local theater is A Good-and-Righteous Thing, because it supports the local arts and provides cultural enrichment for the family, whereas my husband's sports drinks are a sign of moral weakness: a nutritional and environmental degeneracy.  Or something.

To which the moral is, keep my morals to myself.  Or, at least, remember this is a way for me to think about my own spending, not a way to judge the spending of others.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Parsing past purchases: wants vs. needs

A little over a week ago, my blog buddy, Dogs or Dollars, posed for herself the following exercise:
As we begin June, I am endeavoring to identify each of my purchases as either a want or a need. 
I've been mulling this over.  DoD admitted she had difficulty with the exercise.  Who wouldn't?  Perhaps my own life is even harder to shoe-horn into the two wants/needs piles than other peoples'.  For example, we are spending a pile-o-money each month on our adopted children.  Most people don't go around adopting hyper children from the foster care system.  Do we need these kids?  (No).  Do we want these kids?  (For the sake of argument, let's say "Yes").  So is the money we spend on them a need or a want?

What about the money that goes each month to charities and our church?  We don't need to give this money away (in the standard sense of "need"). But my husband and I both believe we have a moral -- even a sacred -- obligation to share what we have.  An "obligation" to do something sounds a lot like a "need" to do it.  And yet I'd hesitate to list this in the need pile.  (Theologically, this is messier still.  We're supposed to give to charity because we're so filled with gratitude that we can't help ourselves -- we just want to give.  So our charitable donations are things we need to want to do.  Yoicks.)

The question is so messy/mushy because there are so many different meanings of the word "need" or "obligation".  Here are some examples.
  • Immediate physical needs:  food, clothing, shelter.
  • Physiological needs:  exercise, for example.  If N-son is prone to overweight, do I "need" to pay to put him on a sports team?
  • Emotional needs:  There have been times when it just made the rest of my life bearable once again when I spent some money taking a vacation, or paying someone else to do a job I just couldn't face myself.
  • Spiritual Needs: as mentioned above.
  • Social needs:  On this front, I'll list lunches and dinners with friends as coming pretty darn close to "need", or maybe even "obligation".  For me, it's an important part of keeping a community strong and connected.
  • Legal obligations (like paying taxes and certain registration fees).
  • Societal obligations:  Maybe on my own I'd be willing to wear the same ratty clothes day after day, but in order to conform to the people around me, I launder my clothes.  We paint and repair houses and spend time (if not money) on yard work for similar reasons.
  • Moral obligations:  If I break my neighbor's vase, I have a moral obligation to pay for that.
There are also, I'll point out, "delusional needs", those desires masquerading as wants.  They're easier to spot coming from my kids --- "but Mom, I need money to buy snacks at the pool!" --- but I'm know I'm guilty of those, too.  (Pay no attention to that strawberry stem remover in the corner!)

I guess what I'm saying is that wants vs. needs is not some sliding scale going from 0 to 10, with 0 representing sheer frivolity and 10 representing life-or-death choices.  It can be a good exercise to try to plunk financial choices down along this scale, but it's not going to be an easy exercise.

Mathematicians would say this is not a "linear" question, it's a multidimensional one.  [As an aside, a college ranking book once listed Cal Tech as the least "fun" college in the nation.  One Cal Tech student, asked what he thought about that ranking, answered in true math-nerd fashion, "Fun is not linear."  Yes.]

As far as the question "Is this a want or a need?" goes, it might be more reasonable to ask, "In what way do I need to buy this?"  But even that, I think is the wrong question (at least for me).

More on this tomorrow.

Monday, June 18, 2012

$153 and yard sales

Food spending was down considerably this week:  $37, for sports drinks, cereal, and coffee.  (My husband got to sneak away for a few hours from his three-week army drill, in case you're wondering).    As for me, I used this week as a way to practice not going to stores.  This brings our 16-week grocery average to $153/week.

But food is dull stuff.  Yard saling is much more interesting right now.  This week I managed to corral the boys and get their waist and inseam measurements.  I also made my usual early-summer inventory of school clothes, which are now packed away for the summer.  Because boys' pants sizes don't do a good job of reflecting how they'll actually fit, I measure the pants and write both the width and the inseam length inside the waistband.  I make a little spreadsheet to help me know what I've already got (and therefore, what I'll need).   Here's part of this year's spread sheet (photo by N-son):
From this I can see I'm all set on "small" pants:  I have lots of 28" waist pants (the circled numbers following the 28 are the inseam length, but that seems not to matter too much).  On the other hand, if I find some cheap 32+" waist pants, I'll get them so N-son has something to grow into.
Above, you can see the whole spread sheet. On the right side, I've counted shirts. The takeaway for yard saling: we have lots of short sleeve shirts. We're hurting bad for long-sleeve shirts.

And I'll have to admit, I'm clueless about C-son's clothes.  Because he's 15 years old AND very new to our home, I'm reluctant to dig through his drawers to figure out what he has and (more importantly) what he doesn't.  I've asked him; he thinks he's set for the year.  I don't believe it, but I'm just going to resign myself to a few so-called-thrift-shop purchases this winter.

We are going to need shoes. Even though I had stored up a HUGE stockpile of shoes for the boys to wear, we're down to essentially zero. Style consciousness has arrived. Name-brand-necessity rears its head. The old, massive collection has been donated back to Good Will. $20 down the drain.
A carefully collected concoction of shoes,
now of no use to us.
I don't take my clothing inventory along with me on yard sales; I make a small shopping list.  The boys' sizes, clothes I'm searching for, people on my Christmas list.  I pack my bags with quarters and a measuring tape, toss the boys in the car, and go.  (This past time, I forgot the water bottles -- a mistake).

This Saturday, we hit a giant neighborhood yard sale. First acquisition, a pair of tennis rackets, $2.  Soon after, an applesauce mill, $3, and six canning jars, 25¢ a piece.
Canning jars, an apple saucer, and
(in the back) swiss chard and kale in a vase.
 For N-son, two pairs of church pants, 50¢ each.
 And then, to the boys' delight, we found "real" shoes.  Pair number 1:  $2.
 Pair #2: again, $2.  C-son is demonstrating that they fit.

A fun morning had by all.  With an outlay of $12.50, we've got a good start on restocking the winter wardrobe, plus getting ready for canning season.  

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Book to Read Together

Here is a fun idea I stumbled into a few years ago.  On a family vacation, I made this on a whim for my nieces and son, all of whom were on their way to becoming good readers.  This gave us hours of entertainment.

I made a small book with precycled paper (fold each page in half, ink side in and blank side out, and staple several pages together along the edge to make the book).  I also used a good, dark pen.  The title of the book was, "A Book to Read Together".

I asked the kids if they'd like to read the book with me, and they all agreed, yes.  So I opened to the first page and said, "Can you read this?".

The first page said in large, easy-to-read letters, "When?", which the kids dutifully read aloud.  So I said, "Well, right now.  Go ahead; read it!"  They giggled and said, louder, "When?".  I said, "Whenever you're ready!  Just take a good look, and read it!"  After a few iterations of this, I made an excuse to turn to the next page, saying, "Well, let's just read this next page then.  Anika, can you read this?".  She read, "Not now, later."  So I said, "Okay, then, I'll come back to you eventually.  How about you, Janelle?"

You can see how this goes.  The kids were in hysterics.  Here are what some of the other pages said:
  • I can't read that.
  • I'm bored.
  • You have a big nose.
  • Can we stop now?
  • Is it my turn yet?
  • Let's read this again!
It was fun coming up with responses to the kids ("Now, honey, that's not a nice thing to say to me.  You wouldn't like people making fun of your nose, would you?  Maybe we'll have another child take a turn at reading now.")  

This book is cheap.  It's easy to make and highly interactive.  After I read it through with them once, they took it over and read it with one another, taking turns being the "asker".  It was just too funny watching them.

The End.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A pound o' flesh

Today is a 10-year anniversary of sorts.  I've been debating writing about it -- on the one hand, it'd be easy to turn this into a "gee, I'm so amazing" kind of post -- which isn't really the point I want to make.  Ten years ago today, I donated a kidney to a coworker of mine.  It was my good deed for the year; after that, I was allowed to go around stealing candy from small children, tossing my trash in my neighbors' bin, and telling people "let's have dinner" without ever really meaning it.

Can I write about this without crowing?  Should I write about it at all?  If not today, it's hard to say when.  And I don't actually want to crow about it, because the truth is, there are a lot of people out there waiting for kidneys, and the other truth is, donating a kidney is really . . . not . . . that big a deal for the donor.  So for the purposes of giving you a peek into how I stumbled into this adventure, I thought I'd share my experience.  (I should warn you that there's a photo of a kidney having an out-of-body experience below; if you don't like those kind of pictures, you probably don't want to read this all the way to the end.

Chris (short for Christine) is a coworker of mine who works in another building on my campus.  In December of 2001, our employee newsletter ran a human interest story on her, saying that she was going to need a kidney transplant and needed a donor. That was my first indication that a living person could offer up a kidney.  (I'm a mathematician, not a biologist, and I didn't even realize we have two of these babies rattling around inside of us).

I read that she needed a new kidney and figured, "I keep bragging about how insanely healthy I am.  If *I* am not willing to volunteer to do this, who on earth would?".  I say this to show you how incredibly full I am of myself, because in fact, eventually I discovered about 5 people offered to be tested for a match.

Before I stepped forward, I did a bit of research.  First I went to the Johns Hopkins transplant website.  Not surprisingly, they were all aglow about how great living donation is.  Modern surgery techniques are much less invasive than in the past, there are amazingly high rates of success, blah blah blah.  I wasn't sure I trusted these guys to be looking out for the lowly donor, so I tried to think about who might be pessimistic about donation.  Ah!  My insurance company!  If anyone would have a cover-your-butt approach to donation, it would be them.

So I called my health insurance company and asked about what would happen to my health coverage if I just, say, happened to give one of my major organs to someone else.  To my surprise, they sort of yawned and shrugged their shoulders and said, "no biggie."

Next stop was family.  My husband was immediately supportive (he was faking it; he was a bigger wreck than anyone when the actual surgery was taking place).  My favorite line came from my daughter, who said, "Oh, guh-ROSS!  I do NOT want to be there!"  I promised her she didn't have to be around then.

Then I went to Chris.  And she took me to her doctor.  Between January and June, there was just a lot of testing.  First the two of us had blood tests done to check for compatibility.  Then there was lots of testing on me.  I should add that at every single step of the way, right up to the point of sedation, I was given an option to back out, and the doctors offered to completely take the heat -- to say that they'd found a physical reason why the transplant couldn't take place.

If you're looking for a completely selfish reason to donate a kidney, the testing is probably it.  I had blood tests, EKGs, ECGs, EEGs, cat scans, MRIs, mental health exams (donating a kidney?  What, are you CRAZY?) and I don't know what all.  All at no charge to me or mine.  It was incredibly reassuring to have official sanction for being healthy as a horse.  

For a variety of reasons, living kidney donations are much easier for the recipients than -- they don't say "dead donations" -- than cadaver donations.  One of the big psychological advantages for Chris was that we could put a date on the calendar and plan for it.  Many other potential recipients have to wait around for the telephone call that says, "there's been an accident.  Drop everything and come to the hospital now". Aside from the emotional advantages of knowing when-and-where the donation will happen, live donations seem to have a better likelihood of not being rejected.  Nowadays, there are more live kidney donations than cadaver donations, in fact.

And what about the donor?  A biologist friend explained to me that it's sort of a biological accident that we have two kidneys.  In utero, we have two of everything, but some things (like hearts) fuse along the middle.  Or maybe we have one of everything, and some things (like lungs) split.  I don't actually remember which it is, but the point is, there's only so much space in the middle of us, and kidneys didn't make it to that particular A-list.

Statistics are funny.  My surgeon explained that his hospital had done 500 kidney transplants, and then said "the chance of dying is 1-in-34,000".  (At his hospital, the past mortality rate had actually been 0-in-500; he had to look world-wide to expand the pool to 34,000 people).  He also bragged that kidney donors live LONGER than the average population.  He said this like I was supposed to be shocked or something, but my math professor instincts took over and I just stared at him until he finally added . . . "but of course, that's because they were healthier to begin with."  Yes, an uber-healthy non-smoker who's been screened for a whole host of congenital diseases and who happens to donate a kidney -- that person will live longer than a fast-food-eating, non-exercising smoker who doesn't donate any organs.  Go figure.  Given his cheeriness about fudging the numbers for his own benefit, I was happy to know my pessimistic research had basically said the same thing.

At any rate, the surgery itself was short and sweet.  They made a few tiny holes for their tools, one somewhat larger hole for the kidney.  They pulled the kidney out, dusted off the dog hair that had settled there (just kidding -- but really, doesn't dog hair seem to wind up everywhere?), and popped it into Chris.  Three days later, I was home again.  I was pretty sleepy for a few weeks.  Within a month, I was running my old distance (albeit more slowly), going back into work, and essentially back to normal.
Here's Chris and me, a few months after the surgery.  Because of her, I can finally be in two places at once.  Yes!  Super powers!  And ten years later, we're both doing great.

And a bit of a footnote.  The kidney in the photo above isn't actually mine.  After my own adventure, both my mom and my sister found out that they, too, had coworkers needing kidneys.  And they both shared a kidney of their own -- the photo above is my sisters'.  My mom passed away a few years later from Alzheimers (completely unrelated to kidneys, I'll add), but the rest of us are doing great.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Past-due patching

Every week, I listen to Garrison Keillor on Saturday nights.  That's when I pay bills and do mending.  . . . except when I just pay bills.  Somehow the pile of mending has grown to large proportions this past month. Scary mending pile. It looks daunting.

But in fact, this entire pile took less than 1/2 hour to go through.  Why don't I ever remember it's not that bad to do a bit of patching?
I used a stretch stitch to sew a pocket back onto N-son's bike jersey: 

C-son developed a mysterious hole at the nape of one of his t-shirts.  I just overlapped the fabric and zigzag stitched this back together.

J-son is hard on the knees of his jeans.  These had been previously patched, but he wore a new hole into them.
 Since summer is a cumin' in (laude sing cuckoo), I didn't bother with a second patch.   Instead, I cut the jeans above the hole.  The bottom, hole-y part will become patch material for the next jeans that need new knees . . .
 . . . and a quick hem turned the top part into summer shorts.
 Another pair of pants was missing a button and had a new hole in the knee.

A trip to the button jar cured the first problem . . .
And a trip to the scrap bag got me good material for a knee patch that matches surprisingly well:

These secret reservoirs of stuff, and their occasional success at fixing something, is what impels us to become hoarders.  It's darned hard to fight the hoarding tendency when it actually pays off.

Some fixes are so easy as to make knees and pockets and darning seem like rocket science.  I love replacing stitches in a regular seam, as I did for this small hole in the armpit of a blouse.  Thank goodness my sewing skills are better than my photography skills:

But some things are just too hard, even for me.  N-son fidgeted several large holes in his green knit shirt; I couldn't think of a way to patch this and still have it look good.  The sock was beyond redemption, as was a torn white undershirt.  The undershirt got cut into squares and became rags.  The other garments . . . alas, these went into the trash.
The tally:  5 fixed garments, 20 minutes, $0.   Hard to beat that, really.