Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Grasshopper questions

My honorary daughter and my step-daughter are both moving into the "real" world . . . or at least into the next stage of the Academic World.  K-daughter is getting ready to head out of the house for her junior year of college; my step-daughter will soon be starting grad school in another state.  And they have both had lots of questions for me.

As usual, being a frugal-yet-slightly-pushy sort of person, I have lots of answers.  Here are some of them.

What kind of food is the cheapest to buy?
Free food.   Seriously.  When you're on a college campus, there will be all sorts of events that use food to try to lure people in; take advantage of those!  (The art talk/lecture/schmoozy stuff that goes with the food is often really good, too).  If you're at all connected to the organizer, offer to stick around and help clean up --- and maybe to take leftover food home.
Okay, but aside from mooched food, which kinds are cheap-but-nutritious?
Potatoes.  Rice and beans.  Add in healthy oils.  Think of traditional ethnic cuisines (curries, chili, etc), and you'll see how you can eat delicious meals for little money.   Don't forget to bulk-buy your food to bring the price-per-pound down even lower.
What's the best way to cook these small squash that are sitting on the counter top?
Cut them in half and scoop out the seeds; place the squash halves like bowls in a baking pan.  Make a mixture of olive oil, tomato, nuts, basil, parmesan cheese, and salt.  Use this as a filling for the squash.  Bake at 350 degrees.  Even J-son, who normally hates squash, said this tastes good.
Should I start saving for retirement while I'm still in school?
Wise people can disagree, but I say "yes".  The mere act of setting up a retirement account is the hardest part (from a learning/psychological/motivational point of view).  But that money you put in NOW is the most powerful money you can put in.   And setting up a retirement account is actually easy:  take it from Waste Less Grad Student!
What kind of retirement account does a young adult use?
Get a Roth IRA.   
Another alternative is a regular IRA, and that wouldn't be horrible, but it's better for high earners, which you are not, at least not yet. The difference is when the money gets taxed: a regular IRA gets taxed when you take the money OUT. If you're not making much money, you're not getting taxed much, so you would rather be taxed on the money going IN -- ergo, the Roth IRA is better for you right now.
You've heard of a 401K; that's what an employer sets up. You'll get that once you have a job, which you don't now, so 401Ks will come later. [Geek talk: My step-daughter has a graduate fellowship, so she's earning a bit of money, but isn't eligible for a 401K or 403b]. 

But can't I lose all my money?
Yes, if you invest in my uncle's Ostrich Farm.  He tried to get my parents to invest in that, but they decided not to do so, and you shouldn't either.  
If you invest in an "Index Fund" -- which sort of, but not exactly, means "an account that has a little bit of everything"-- then the only way to lose all your money is if every company on the planet goes broke, in which case you've got bigger problems than losing your money.  Then it's time for the underground survival shelter with a year's supply of canned food and water.  
But shouldn't I wait until I have a real job before I think about retirement?
Eh, if the choice is EITHER (a) saving for retirement while racking up debt, OR (b) doing neither, there's something to be said for option (b), it's true.  But if you're 25 years old, every dollar you put aside now will be worth $15 when you retire at age 65*.  If instead you wait just ten years to start your retirement savings at age 35, the dollar you invest then will turn into a mere $7.50.  That is, by starting now instead of waiting until you're settled in, you double the power of your money.  
*[Geek speak:  I'm using a 7% annual rate of return to get these numbers.  This is probably too low, or too high, depending on approximately 437,569 different factors you might want to add into the explanation.  But as a back-of-the-envelope computation, 7% is good enough to tell the story right.] 
Even more important than the total amount of money in your retirement account is the amount of money it can spit out at you every year you're retired.  That $15 in your Roth IRA will generate a dollar every year, for ever and ever*.  So forgoing a single movie now means you're setting yourself up to see movies every year of your retirement.  Skipping a spring break trip this year means you've funded a yearly vacation during each of your golden years.  To get the same benefit, but starting ten years later, you'd have to give up two movies or two vacations.  This is a powerful time in your investing life (and many 50 year olds can tell you regretfully they wish they'd known this).
*[Same 7%; same caveat.] 
How do you hem a black pair of pants?
Turn them inside out, put them on, and pin them up to the right length while they're on inside out.  Carefully remove the pants so you don't disturb the pins or poke yourself.  Baste with pink thread to check that you've done it right.  Try them on again.  When you're happy, do the hem in a regular stitch with black thread and remove the pink thread.  

Saturday, July 27, 2013

How to NOT convert a spendy spouse

I've come to think of having a non-miser husband as just one of those puzzles that adds much-needed challenge to my life.  Some people have physical difficulties that mean they can't walk to work or do their own home repairs.  Some people have health problems that they'll have to spend money on all their lives.  Some people start their adult lives deeply in debt.  As for me, I have the challenge of trying to live a frugal life while surrounded by obligatory cable TV, Starbucks Coffee purchases, and Vitamin Water.  It's an added degree of difficulty, an extra adventure.  But it's do-able.

I've read many articles on "how to convert a spendthrift spouse" (and by read, I mean "read and re-read and annotate extensively in my own head").  But conversion, that's not my marriage.

For one thing, conversion (at least as far as my husband goes) just wouldn't work:  he's not going to change just because I happen to have a more sensible approach, because, really, why be sensible when you can have fun?

For another thing, both he and I have a philosophical and moral aversion to people getting married and then trying to "change" or "civilize" a spouse.  I could go on and on about this, but I won't:  I'll just say we both find it repugnant.

But there's a totally frugal reason for not trying to change a spendy spouse, and that's the point of this particular blog post.  And it's this:  one key tenet to a truly frugal life is being grateful for what you already have.  And as for me, I'm truly grateful for my husband.  Another key tenet to a truly frugal life is finding good ways to make the most of what you already have.  And there are lots of ways that having my (admittedly spendy) husband makes my life better.

Part of the trick for me is to take on the parts where I can take over -- to do what I call "preventative shopping".  By buying the boys' school clothes myself, by purchasing beef in bulk and having it near-at-hand in the freezer, by getting sandwiches and trail-mix together for long trips, . . . by doing all these things I can head off many more expensive impulse buys.

Another important ingredient is just to keep talking matter-of-factly about where the money goes.  We have a monthly financial update, during which I go over what we spent and what we brought in.  This has become a ritual that we both appreciate, because it satisfies my craving for rigor and accountability, and it gives him a chance to warn me about expenses he thinks might be coming down the pike.

But the non-conversion part of this adventure comes in learning to make the most of my husband's non-miser ways.  It's almost like a form of Frugal Jujutsu, using the power of my husband's expensive tastes instead of opposing them.

Here's an example:

My husband cares a lot about clothes.  A lot.  When he takes the subway, the toll collectors call him "Mr. GQ" -- and, in fact, he has a subscription to that particular magazine.  Whereas I spend downwards of $80/year on clothing for my boys and myself, My Guy will blow hundreds of dollars on a pair of suits for my pair of sons.  (They're teenagers; they will wear these suits perhaps a dozen times in their life.  Sheesh).

In contrast, I know zilch about clothes, except how to get them for cheap.  (Before I married my husband, my highly-colorful clothing philosophy was, "since I don't know what I'm doing, sin boldly.")   Left to my own devices, I could end up looking exactly how you'd think a cheap-o Miser Mom would look.  Even more, I could condemn my teenage sons to Middle School Ridicule Hell.  But when I combine my thrifty ways with my husband's eye for style, I get a bunch of stylin' sons, and a personal wardrobe that gets me compliments.

Here's another example:

My husband is impulsive.  Our lives have changed directions many times in the 16 years we've been married:  he's taken new jobs; he's suddenly enlisted in the military; we've adopted kids.  His impulsivity in spending a gazillion dollars on a Big New Something has faded over time (oh, thank goodness), but he'll still fritter away money on a gazillion smaller things that catch his eye in a bakery, grocery store, bike shop, clothing store . . . .

But his eagerness for all that is shiny means my husband shakes me out of ruts.  And I love him for that, because it's all too easy for a frugal, careful person like me to grow complacent.  So when I'm thinking of possibly taking on a big new project, and when any other ordinary person would be pessimistic or even cautiously realistic, my husband is the Labrador who has just heard the word "walk" and the rattle of the leash.  And so I've taken on bizarre big projects at work, and I've donated a kidney to a coworker, and I've adopted kids with him, and I'm getting ready for a triathalon.  And all of these with my husband being my most enthusiastic cheerleader.

There are more examples of course.

I could tell you how my husband is the athlete of the home, and how because of that he keeps me healthy and active when I'd otherwise be sitting on my duff doing math.   Or how he's the macho, take-control kind of guy a peace-nik like me is supposed to shun, but because of that he has raised our daughters and sons to be unafraid of hard work and physical challenge.  Or how, because he's a total cell-phone addict as well as a Guy kind of a guy, he becomes the point-person for talking with Customer Service reps of all stripes.

The point is:  spousal conversion is not the goal.  Having a happy (and financially stable) life is the goal.  And it's possible to be a black-belt-frugalist married to a Man of the World . . . and to have both of us be the better for it.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Family Re-frugal-union

I am on the road with family, back among my own, both literally and in the miser sense.

First, here is a picture of the splurge for this trip.
 It's a rented 15-passenger van to transport the 5 or 6 people from my own branch of this clan, plus their luggage, plus 5 bikes.  I suppose we could have made due with something smaller, but we really did manage to fill this baby up.  (Speaking of filling up, the tank took $100 of gas.  Wow!)

The bikes are for riding around through the Vermont hills.  We're also swimming in nearby lakes -- fab!
Eating with my large family is tons of fun.  Here's the front hallway of the home we're staying in.
Restaurants are right out, of course.  Note that we brought crock pots, cloth grocery bags full of food, several coolers.   We supplement what we brought with trips to nearby grocery stores.

We take turns cooking for one another.  My favorite meal so far was when my daughter and step-daughter pulled off a flawless taco dinner last night.  But right now I smell the bacon on the grill, under the capable hands of my frugal dad.  Mmm . . . memories!
Even with all the home cooking (or home-away-from home cooking), we're a fairly low-waste family.  We know we've come to the right spot when we see the family napkins . . .
 . . . embroidered with our names, so we can reuse them with minimal washing.

Several years ago, my sister bought a "memory book", and every year different people from the family fill in bits and pieces.  We've got stories of the 1940's from my dad and mom, we've got cute little pictures from my young nieces.
The prompt above says "My hairstyle(s) and hair colors during these years was . . . " and the response from one of my sisters is, "This is a family that cuts and colors their own or each others' hair. Dad has not paid for a haircut in more than 54 years . . . "

 We did head out to the local town one day so my step-daughter and husband could do some shopping and get fancy coffee.  I needed some colored pencils; the wonderful-yet-pricey bookstore sold some for $12.99/dozen.  Yoicks!  So I walked a half-mile (past waterfalls and parks) to a grocery store where I picked up a good set for $3.  phew!
And finally, here's a picture of some frugal gifting and re-gifting.  Here is what's left of my earrings; I've finally decided to go earring-less, so the family gets to split them up.

And what do I get in return?  A giant bag of torn jeans that I'll be able to tear up and make into a new denim rug.
Fresh air, family, good food, exercise, colored pencils, and a bag of denim.  What more could I ever need to make me happy?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Miser Mom's Ex-Wife

I married my husband in 1997.  Because we share everything, I figure his ex-wife is my ex-wife, too.  This post is all about her.

I'm going to do a bit of complaining here.  But before I start the whining and moaning about my ex-wife (and then move gleefully into the celebration that the whining and moaning is all over), I want to try to tell the story through her eyes as best I can.  I know that there's a version of this story in which I get to play the Evil Step-mother/Wicked Witch, and that's the version I want to tell first.

Imagine you are going through a divorce.  You have two children whom you love dearly and fiercely.  And you discover that your ex-husband is marrying an eccentric cheapskate: a woman who does not use toothpaste.  Who showers with a garden hose.  Who buys running shoes for $1 at a yard sale and wears them for years.  Who shuns air-conditioning.  Even in the best of situations, it's painful to share your kids with another adult of your ex-spouse's choosing; but now, imagine that your ex-spouse chose some nut like me!?

It is true I was not always this extreme.  Perhaps that makes it worse:  I am not sure it would be reassuring to see the general trend pointing in the "even weirder" direction.  I can not even imagine what my ex-wife thinks about all this stuff that I do . . . and that, I'll point out, is HUGELY to her credit.  I've never heard a single nasty word about me from her.   Not from her directly, not from our mutual acquaintances, not from her kids.  That says a heck of a lot more about her than it does about me.

To make her situation all that more tough, the man that the step-mother of her children happened to marry was her ex-husband.  This guy has a long list of redeeming qualities, but conscientiousness and slavish-attention-to-detail are not up near the top of the roster.  This means that the bulk of the scud-work (as opposed to the fun stuff) of caring for her daughters fell squarely back on my ex-wife's shoulders.  Teacher conferences?  All her.  Doctor's visits?  Her again.  Dentist, orthodontist, dermatologist?  Her, her, her.   Hair cuts?  Back-to-school shopping?  Birthday parties?  Well, it ain't him.

When he could, he went to their soccer games and races, which he loved.  I got to spend time after school with them, read them Winnie the Pooh, make them dinner, and to get them out the door many mornings.  But it was clear that the bulk of the parenting lay elsewhere.  For reasons of geography (his commute is insanely long) and temperament (even when he's home, he'd rather be riding the bike than checking homework), the father of our children sloughed much of the mantle of child rearing onto the shoulders of the women in -- and out of -- his life.  If there's a lifestyle description that fits both me and my ex-wife, it's that we're professional, feminist women with PhDs who somehow didn't escape antiquated women's roles in the parenthood department.

It's not particularly nice of me, when I put it all this way, for me to diss my sistah.  But I'm going to rant anyway, and here's my totally selfish, completely miserly rant:
I hate the kid bill!
hate hate hate hate hate.

The divorce decree stated something to the effect that the parents would evenly split all "reasonable expenses".   "Reasonable" is clearly in the eye of the beholder, and let's just say that I wasn't beholding.  Because my ex-wife took on/got stuck with all of the shopping, the definition of "reasonable" was all hers -- that in-and-of-itself seems reasonable . . . but I still hated it.  So every couple of months, we'd get the bill from her, totaling our half of what she'd spent on their kids.  A whopper.

It's hard to describe the difference in our spending, hers and mine.  How did I hate the kid bill?  Let me count the ways.  I hated the excessiveness of the kid bill:  the yearly clothing expenses for one of my step-daughters could have clothed BOTH of my boys AND my own birth daughter AND me for several years.   I hated the waste of it: there was so much we paid for that I thought no one should ever buy for themselves, much less for a kid.  I hated the lack of predictability: I never knew when the next kid bill would come, or how much it would be.  You can probably remember a time when you got a credit card bill and said, "holy cow!  I spent this much?!"   Now imagine that it happens every couple of months, but it's not you that's doing all the spending.  For an obsessive plan-ahead person like me, this was torture.

It didn't help matters that the girls attended a local K-12 private school (that both their dad and mom wanted them to go to).  This is the school that, when I told my friends where my step-daughters went to school, my friends' first comment was invariably, "Wow!  I heard that place is expensive!".  This was the school where, when my younger daughter was in high school, her clique of friends bought her a bracelet from Tiffany's so she wouldn't have to be the only one with nothing from that store.  Sweet.

Between the private school, the kid bill, and the late start at saving for college, paying for my step-daughters became the largest rock around which I had to steer our family's finances.   Their expenses were the reason my husband took far-distant (but well-paying) jobs -- and even so, their care and feeding consumed half of my husband's impressive take-home pay.   The tuition/kid bills became the reason I went from being moderately frugal to black-belt nutso.

The end of an era has arrived, however: the younger of the two girls has just graduated.  We just got the last kid bill.

I'll say it again:  we just got the last kid bill.   This means more to me than I could say, and not just for the most obvious of Miser Mom reasons.  It's only a minor coincidence that we got the last kid bill the same week that my Guy told his boss that he's going to drop down to part-time work from now on*.  After fifteen years of two-hour-long commutes each way, he will finally get to spend more time (albeit less money) on the sons who are still at home.
* Well, not exactly right away.  He's heading out 
for an Army school for three months this fall.
But after that, the part-time plan will kick in.

And for me, it means that I get to appreciate my ex-wife for the things that I really do admire her for, without wondering where her wallet has been lately.  She's so many things that I (and many other professors) would like to be: an award-winning teacher who my own students effuse about, a scholar whose work gets cited in the cross-disciplinary works I read, an avid athlete.  

But she's not a Miser Mom.

I have totally got her beat there.


My ex-wife often reads my blog.  If she does read this particular post, I want to say here:  thank you for sharing your daughters with me.  Thanks for your incredible civility and constant fairness.  I know it wasn't easy for you to cede so much of your children's lives over to someone who had a very different outlook on life, and I really, really, really appreciate how much you seemed to trust me in spite of all the crazy twists and turns that life in this particular house seemed to take.  I might not like the kid bill ritual, but I do admire you.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Miser Iron Mom training

News flash:  training for an Iron Man can be time consuming!

(I mean, just in case you were thinking of trying this for yourself.)

Before I got this crazy idea in my head, my default weekly exercise routine was basically
  • Run a total of 14 miles/week (2.5 miles 3 mornings a week; long run on Saturday).
  • Spend about 3.5 hours/week doing said running.
  • Rest (virtuously) 3 days/week.
Occasionally I'd take on an additional fun run, usually with my husband, but there was no pressure to do so.  And even when I kicked into high marathon-training gear, the biggest difference was that the week-day runs got a little more intense and the Saturday runs got longer.

Nowadays, in addition to the above running, I've added three more default components:
  • Bike a total of 70 miles/week (15 miles 3 mornings/week; long bike on Sunday)
  • Spend 5 hours/week doing said biking.
  • Swim a total of 6 km/week (about 4 miles: 4km on Mondays, 2km on Wednesdays).
  • Spend 3 hours/week doing said swimming
  • Lift weights 3 days/week to build strength and avoid injury
In total, my weekly exercise time has gone from a piddly 3-4 hours per week to a rather substantial 12-13 hours per week.  And that doesn't count the extra fun runs or training rides that my husband cajoles me into.  

I have no idea how (or even whether) I'll be able to keep this up when classes start at the end of August.  And I know that this routine is a base, a minimum, just barely enough to get me ready for the real training that will kick into high gear come spring . . . because as impressive as the above amounts seem, swimming is the only sport where I'm doing the full Iron Man distance in the course of a regular week --- and eventually, I'll have to do the whole thing on a single day.

Given how quickly the bike training has progressed, I've decided I don't really want to spend two years training like this . . . so I've moved the target date for the race up to next summer.  (Plus, this way, if I have to bail on the Iron Man because of injury or adoption emergencies, I can still fall back on 2015).

Here's the baby I'm aiming for, for August 2014.  It bills itself as the "most vibrant venue", and I have no the heck idea what "vibrant" means in this context.  But the timing seems right for an academic like me; I'll have all next summer to kick my training from a wimpy 12-hours/week into something respectable.


Friday, July 19, 2013


The subtitle of this post should probably be,
"How to make hunks of healthy food taste good".  

Jar-Jar-Beet Salad
The hunks of food in this particular recipe is beets, but it could be any solid semi-edible hunk:  a potato, an apple, a turnip, a sweet-potato, a pile of kale.  I chose beets for this post because the transformation from Ugh to Yum is so dramatic for me.  "Dramatic" as in, I thought I'd never like beets.  And mostly, in just about any form you could name, I don't eat them.  Beets are not my food.  But ever since I tried this recipe three years ago, I can't get enough of Beet Salad.  Ta Dah!

Here's the recipe for Jar-Jar Beets.

Mix together
  • peeled, shredded beets
  • another shredded vegetable* 
  • oil
  • vinegar
  • salt and pepper
  • garlic
  • a dash of hot sauce.
(*in today's version, zucchini, because it's coming out of my ears right now)

Don't bake it; chill it.  And then eat it.   And eat it.    and eat it . . . 

What make this recipe so good?  Let's dissect this recipe.

Love the food processor!
First, it tastes good because we cut things up.  Think about the difference between potatoes and french fries: size matters.  When my kids were young, they had a hard time eating apples.  But if I sliced the apples thinly (like potato chips), the kids would eat three apples in a sitting.  Slice sandwiches into "fingers", and the sandwiches disappear.  Chopping things makes them easier to munch on.  

Chopping things also increases the "surface area to volume ratio", meaning that even more of that solid, nerdy food can get coated in your favorite yummy dressing.  The beets become partly a vehicle for delivering the things our taste buds crave.  

Enter . . . the Dressing that contains those craved-for-substances.

Substances such as: fat.  Adding a bit of healthy oils just makes so many things taste yummier.  "Granola" is oats with oil (and some other stuff).  "Apple crisp" is apples with butter (and some other stuff).   "Mashed potatoes" is potatoes with butter (and not much else, really.   Dude!).    Noodles taste better topped with cheese.  Adding a bit of fat to something that came from something that grew in the dirt, well that can be enough to turn a vegetable or a starch into a meal.
The magic happens here

The vinegar adds a tang of acid.  People like cold foods that are slightly acidic -- wine and lemonade are common examples of acidic drinks; it's part of why so many people drink soda, and why a glass of water seems to taste better with a dash of lemon but not, say, a dash of pumpkin.  (Fruits and tomatoes are acidic; pumpkins not so much).  

For reasons I don't understand, hot foods don't seem to benefit as much from the acid influx:  when I'm baking a vegetable, the vinegar/lemon juice is the ingredient from above that I dial back, usually to the point of non-existence.  Tomatoes are still universally awesome additions, though.

Salt and pepper are (in the words of a lovely old Jennifer Berman cartoon), poster children for the "Fine Herbs and Spices of Ohio."  Salt is an incredible flavor enhancer, and I for one am very glad that it has recently been taken off the list of Very Very Bad For You condiments.  Yay, salt!

Garlic is on that list because . . . well, because . . . well, because any food that does not contain chocolate must automatically contain garlic, or otherwise risk perdition.  Garlic is the sacred essence of all being.  I mean, really.

The zucchini and the hot sauce?   They add the surprise bit of additional flavor and texture.  They represent variety, so they can vary.   When I make tomato salad it looks just like the recipe above, but with tomatoes playing the role of beets, and with nuts and basil taking over from zucchini and hot sauce.  When we make sweet-potato chips, the zucchini disappears and the hot sauce becomes paprika.  When we bake potatoes (sliced in 1/2 inch cubes), almost any kind of spice will work: oregano and basil for an italian mood, curry for those tangier nights, sage and thyme and chives when we're getting close to November.  

If possible, top the food off with a nice presentation.  (I love tossing this all in a jar; sometimes I manage to layer the veggies in stripes.  Mostly, not).

Even more important, give it a good name.  I am a huge fan of naming my food with appealing or funny names.  (True story: my husband recently asked me if "Swiss Chard" is really called that by everyone else, or did I just give it that location-based name?  I assured him that if I had named it, I would have called it "Chinese Chard" or "Chicago Chard" or "Swiss Salad".)  

Hence, when I bottle my beet salad into canning jars for storing in the fridge*, it gets the name, Jar-Jar-Beets.

*This recipe is not acidic enough to can in the sense of storing it up for the winter. For that, I pickle the beets, using this recipe plus extra hot sauce.

There you have it: a universal recipe for veggie salad:
  • chop it.
  • add fat (oil/mayonnaise/butter)
  • add acid (lemon or vinegar)
  • add garlic (or risk your very soul)
  • add salt
  • add other spices, and perhaps some other Stuff.
Give that baby a name, and serve it up proudly.  Yum!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Doing things the All-and-Nothing way

There's something to be said for slow and steady.

But slow and steady is not my life recently.  Instead, I've been energetically and exclusively focused . . . on  a variety of things.   Sort of like serial monogamy, but with aspects of my life instead of with romantic partners.

Last weekend, my boys went out of town and I had three days where I just threw myself into math.   (Remember, for me, math is fun).  For three days, except for a tiny bit of exercise and pauses to eat, the only thing I did was crank out pages and pages of math.  It was GREAT!

Monday was the 15th.  Math was over, but I moved about (running, lifting, biking, running again, swimming, biking, walking, dancing) for 15 hours straight, much as I did on June 15 but a bit less intensely because of the heat.

Another day was devoted just to the grand e-mail catchup.  Another day to committee work.

Last January, when my friend TL designed a marathon training schedule for us, she found one of the many programs that intersperses days of intense work with days of rest.  This summer, I'm discovering how much I like that system for so many different aspects of my life.

At any rate, today is mostly a rest-from-everything day, possibly meeting up with my best friend from childhood, so I'm not going to write much more now.  

Friday, July 12, 2013

Miser Mom's most expensive summer ever

When it rains, it pours, or so they say.  I'm writing this post as outside of my windows I see the rain streaming down all around the house, and I'm wondering how far along we are into those proverbial forty days and forty nights.   There are no doves with olive branches in sight; but on the other hand the house is sound and comfortable.  And after seemingly-endless stretches of blistering days, the cool rain is more pleasant than otherwise.

No, the rain-and-pour I was talking about is of the more metaphorical variety.  For a plethora of unusual reasons, 2013 is turning into the most expensive summer that Miser Mom has seen in her nearly-half-a-century lifetime.  In fact, it's so surprisingly expensive I'll try to share some actual (to me, astounding) numbers.

First of all, there's the normal stuff:  credit cards, pocket money, utilities, child care, blah blah blah.  I won't bother to detail that.  Everything below comes on top of the standard outlay.

$4000 - School District Real Estate Tax
This, we expected.  You could budget for this by setting aside a bit of money each month (and in fact, we do), but the bill comes due in July, and I actually pay it in July, so I count it as summer expense.

$3000 - Charity (Big Give)
Again, this is a planned-for expense.  Every year I save up my gazillion charity envelopes and sort through them to decide who to give to.  Normally, we dole out about $2000, but this summer I tossed an extra $1K into Kiva, and then I let K-daughter choose who that money gets loaned to.  Because the Kiva money is a loan, I suppose theoretically we could get it back some day, but the current plan is to re-loan it continuously.

$1500 - Family Vacation
This number is an estimate, and it is probably a tad high (I hope).  We're going to rent a giant van to take 5 or 6 of us (plus 5 bicycles) up to Vermont to join my dad and sisters for annual family get-together.  We'll have grocery and gas expenses, plus maybe a few frivolous outings (horseback riding anyone?).   

$4000 - extra adoption expenses for X-son
Nothing in Haiti ever goes smoothly, and the current adoption-to-be is just one more example of that truism.  The twists and turns of the adoption story deserve another post of their own; suffice it to say that our adoption agency needed to switch lawyers quickly and so they asked for more money, and we said yes.

$2000 -- the final "kid bill"
Again, this expense is a long story.  Let's just say for now that I'm quite happy to put the word "final" there.

$3331 -- a Prius battery
Okay, all you Prius-haters, you can laugh at me now.  All I can say is that these batteries are supposed to last 10 years, and my Prius is a 2001 vintage.  So I think I've had a Buy-10-Get-2-Free deal on this particular battery.

$2400 -- fall tuition for K-daughter
For her first two years of college, K-daughter had what is essentially a full scholarship, because she's a ward of the state.  (I consider her my honorary daughter, but the relationship hasn't been made legal.  We're just living together -- hah!)  But for her final two years, she's transferring to a 4-year college.  She just got a bill that says that after scholarships and Stafford loans, there's still $2400 she owes.  And because I really do consider her my daughter, I wrote the check myself.   

$5000 -- more tuition
Speaking of tuition, my younger step-daughter graduated in May (and, of course, got a sewing machine from me).  For many years, we'd partnered up with her mom to put money into a college savings account.  This bit of money makes up the difference between what we saved and what the college actually ended up costing.
And . . . that's it.  More or less. As far as I know.  Yoicks!

How are we coping with an additional $25,000 of expenses on top of our usual expenses?  Sheesh!

Well, of course we've saved regularly for some of these outlays (like the real estate bill and charity stuff).  Too, we have a bit more wiggle room in the budget because in February we finally paid off our mortgage.   And we're also taking advantage of windfalls (like summer training that my college is paying me to do, a bit of army pay, and an NSF grant I got).  

We're also deferring plans we'd made for other projects.  I'd really hoped to start up a Donor Advised Fund, but I had to admit that that's not realistically going to happen in the next year or two because we won't have the minimum deposit at hand. And we're also putting off saving for my next sabbatical (although we have other schemes in the works for that).

But because of the saving/windfall/lack-of-mortgage trifecta, we're going to make it through okay, I'm pretty sure.  Go figure.  And (with the possible exception of that giant battery), the stuff we're spending money on feels like a Good and Righteous Thing, the kind of stuff we really ought to do, you know?  It seems that both literally and metaphorically, I can say:  There are no doves with olive branches in sight; but on the other hand the house is sound and comfortable.  After seemingly-endless stretches of blistering days, the cool rain is more pleasant than otherwise.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

No-air-conditioning update

I've written a time or two about the fact that we have no air conditioners in our house -- not central air, not window units, just trees and a few strategically located fans.   (By "a time or two", I just realized that I usually write about this toward the beginning of July.  Go figure.)

Often, I can get pretty smug about our little set-up here in the Miser Mom household.  Having no AC means we spend a lot less money on electricity.  Whoop!  Not using that electricity means that we're not destroying the environment as quickly as we might.  Whoop!  Whoop!  And [here's the kicker . . . ] our "Seal-the-house-by-day-Run-the-fans-at-night" set up usually keeps the house surprisingly comfortable.

That last point is what usually has me so smug.  My friends know of my penny pinching ways, but they're Very-Happy-Thank-You to watch me from afar.  AC might be expensive, but living without AC is unbearable [or so they say].  But then when they actually set foot in my no-AC house, they're surprised.  This is not so bad! they say, In fact, it's surprisingly cool! 

And Miser Mom smiles her smug little smile.

Except that this year, I don't get to be so smug.  Warm and sticky, yes, but smug, no.  What usually cools our home are the relatively chilly evenings and nights.  That's when we open the windows and run the whole house fan, sucking in the brisk air and cooling down our living spaces.  What usually heats our home is the midday high temperatures -- but that's when we seal up the place and cover all windows, so we minimize the damage done.  And so we can usually keep the house about 10-15 degrees cooler than that midday high temperature that so overwhelms everyone around us.

Alas, June has seen a run of humid, thunder-storm-filled days and nights, with highs in the mid to upper 80s and overnight lows in the mid 70s.  And so our thermostat looks like this.

Yes, it's 79 degrees in the home, even at 5 p.m.  The humidity has us on mold alert.

We're still saving money compared to our AC-using friends; we're still being more green than the humming houses about us.  I'm not going to declare this as some kind of a failed experiment, mind you, because there's a big part of me that doesn't mind being warm and sticky if it means I get to be just a little tougher than those wimpy cold-air-addicts I see all around me.  It's just that I don't get to go around gloating.  Instead, my home is just the way you'd imagine a no-AC home would feel like.  Ugh.

We have some potential relief on the horizon later this week.
(It's the low temp that matters most to us, not the high temp).   Here's hoping that those low-60's nights help to bring the house temperatures down before the inevitable August onslaught begins!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Kid cell phone update

On July 17 of last year, I bought my teenage boys their first cell phones.  As I did so, I carefully communicated (and firmly laid down) lots of rules.  I should add that, in anticipation of getting real phones (!!!!), these rules were very readily agreed to.

It took only one day to learn our first important lessons of cell phone usage [to wit: ring tones cost a lot].
 (I owe a big thank-you to Kelly for warning me about potential reactivation fees!)

Two weeks later, we had our next serious talk about cell phone moderation, with a few new rules added in, to enhance "information and immediacy".

Now, a year later, the lessons are coming more slowly.  But the lessons are still coming.  For those of you contemplating some version of the maiden voyage of a cell phone plan, I thought I'd spin some tales of some of the rough waters we've encountered plus some of the yarns about smooth sailing.  With as many nautical metaphors as I could muster, here is my version of knowing the ropes and keeping the whole cell phone practice ship-shape.
The cell phones, one year later

The cut of her jib:
We got a pre-paid plan so that my boys couldn't possibly go over their limit by 1000 minutes in just one month (oog---as actually happened a few years earlier with one of my step-daughters on our family plan).  Our current plan costs the boys 99¢ for the first call of the day and then 10¢ per minute for any call to a non-Verizon phone.  I pay $10/month (usually several months at a time) and expect the boys to make up the rest.  This has put an upper limit on any damage the boys can do, and I highly recommend this for a first-time plan for exuberant users.

Taking the helm:
I set up electronic account monitoring two days after the boys got the phones, but I wish I'd done this before they had the phones.  For any novice sailor (or cell phone user), there are unexpected obstacles in those unchartered waters.  It's really incredibly helpful to be able to watch in nearly real-time what's going on.

Early on, I checked usage daily.  Even now,  a year later, I check the e-records somewhere between weekly and monthly.  I can give the boys feedback ("that *86 dialing is costing you a bunch of money!", "You keep dialing a number that is not on the Verizon plan, and you've paid 30¢ for that this week.")   E-monitoring gives us much more immediate feedback than we'd get any other way.

Testing the waters:
I set up the phones initially (I thought) so they'd be for voice only.  I explained to the rep who was selling me the phones and setting them up that I wanted voice only, and I had her turn off texting.  It was one day later that we learned that the rep hadn't also turned off picture messaging.  Bleah!  By that I mean, an expensive bleah!  We fixed that via annoying phone calls back to Verizon after the boys spent a pile o' dough sending each other silly pictures of themselves, not knowing that each picture had its own cost.

In for some rough weather:
Even after that, though, we discovered that there were all sorts of ways  that the boys were either knowingly or unknowingly (we're still not sure) blowing money on crazy non-voice things.  Ring tones ate up a bunch of their funds.  N-son blew through almost $50 in games one week when I wasn't monitoring the e-records closely.  As we said, we're not entirely sure whether he knew they cost money or not -- he said he hadn't realized it.

Batten down the hatches:
If you do want voice (and only voice), you need to push much harder on the rep than I did when you're setting up the phone.  Be persistent, and keep asking about ways that a kid might do anything that is not actually talking.  Do not trust the rep to actually turn off any feature that is potentially money-generating (for them) and money-wasting (for you).

Close Quarters:
From the start, I gave the boys the rule that they MUST leave their phone with me overnight:  I have physical control of the phone from 9 p.m to 9 a.m.   This has turned out to be an invaluable help, both for reasons that I expected (it keeps them from playing on their phones all night or calling people at crazy hours), but also for reasons that I hadn't anticipated (they tend to lose their phones, and this way I learn about it quickly and put pressure on them to find them quickly.  Also, they tend to damage anything in their reach, including phones: more on that below).

Under their own steam:
As the year has moved forward, the boys have indeed learned a lot about basic phone usage.  There are shoals and reefs we still have to steer away from, but generally they've learned quite a bit.  Overall, I'm glad with how far they've come in responsible phone usage this year.  The phones have lost some of their novelty, and so the boys aren't constantly using (or mis-using) them.

Keeping things ship-shape:
Phones are things.  And things break.  Things are especially likely to break if they come too close to my highly active sons.  And these phones have spent a lot of time with my bouncy boys.
The screen on J-son's phone is not supposed to look like this, but now it does.  N-son's phone is not supposed to have its battery exposed, but (as you can see from the first photo above), now it does.  Neither phone works quite as well as it used to.  That wear-and-tear is part of the reason that the boys leave their phones high and dry on my shelf nowadays, instead of carting the phones with them wherever they go.  I'm still trying to decide to what extent I should enforce my early rule that they pay for breakage of phones.   At any rate, it looks like these phone are nearly on the rocks.  

Has the tide turned?
N-son has managed to save $86 on his meager, Miser-Mom allowance toward a new phone.  [This $86 is on top of the $200 I require each boy to have in "emergency savings" so they can repair the inevitable things they break.]  He's planning to put it toward a Republic Wireless smart phone, for which I promised I'd pay half.  I'm figuring that once he gets his new phone, we'll have many more battles over time spent playing games than we had this year --- but also many fewer battles than if we hadn't had a year of voice-only learning.

(I'm also hoping he'll realize the importance of caring for that phone when he gets it, now that he's seen that my urgings to be careful with the old phone together with the broken status of the old phone seem to have some bearing upon one another.  But I might be too optimistic here.)

Stay the course:
J-son also has plans to purchase a smart phone some day.  His plans were blown a bit off-course when, in his words, a tennis racquet "got broke" (meaning, someone who looks a lot like him repeatedly bashed it into the ground until the wooden frame smashed into pieces).   The resulting hole in the emergency fund is just now being refilled, so the future phone upgrades are still that -- a hope for the future.

So, the voyage of the S.S. Cell-Phone continues.  I'm sure I'll have more lessons for us all in the future. Anchors, aweigh!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Bricolage -- an update

A year or more ago, I wrote about a new storage system I was trying out.  Best part of that system is, it has a very cool name:
 Bricolage : ":construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand; also :something constructed in this way".
The main ingredient in my own version of the bricolage storage system is printer paper boxes with one (front) edge trimmed.  I chose these cardboard boxes because . . .

  • They're cheap (but of course) -- in fact, I can get them from various offices around campus for free!  
  • They're versatile; we can (and now do) use them all over the house and garage.
  • They're easier than drawers and such (helpful to my son, who has physical difficulties using his right hand).
  • They're easily replaceable (my sons tend to destroy a lot of what they touch).  
  • When they do get destroyed, we can recycle them with other cardboard.
What they are NOT is beautiful.  I had visions of possibly covering/painting them with something.  Hasn't happened.  

But as Aristotle pointed out, every object has both form and function.  Even if the form isn't beautiful, how's the function?  Twenty months after I started this experiment, it's worth checking:  do the boxes actually perform as I'd hoped?

I declare SUCCESS.  To wit, here is an actual candid picture of N-son's bedroom.  Note the relative absence of things on the floor.

It is not actually the case that his organizational skills rise to the high standards set by his (somewhat obsessive) mother.  Note that both the "action figures" box and the "books" box both contain a bunch of books.  Tsk tsk.
But as I said, it isn't like we cleaned up anything for this photo.  It's very easy to get stuff off the floor and into these boxes.  When a real cleaning spree comes, it's easy to see if the boxes contain what they're supposed to.  And to my surprise, the boxes have pretty much held up for a year, with minimal amount of replacement needed.  Go figure!

If we need to relabel a box, it's easy to do that with a piece of folded-over paper and a binder clip (as I did with the "Special Dinners" box in my own storage closet below -- it's hard to see the label in this photo, but it works well in real life).

But speaking of putting them in closets, I've found serendipitously that these boxes fit perfectly into our existing closets.  Here's a box on the top shelf of our linen closet.
This next photo is supposed to convince you that I'm not really an obsessive neat-nik.  (Obsessive, yes; neat-nik, no).   The rest of the closet isn't nearly as tidy or well labeled, and that is just the way it really is.  So there.