Monday, June 30, 2014

The Geography of Nowhere

Here's a book I read that I'm not sure what to make of:  The Geography of Nowhere, by James Howard Kunstler.

Kunstler describes in great detail how we've built up our neighborhoods/cities/shopping areas with cars, not people, in mind.
The suburban streets of almost all postwar housing developments were designed so that a car can comfortably maneuver at fifty miles per hour--no matter what the legal speed limit is.  The width and curb ratios were set in stone by traffic engineers who wanted to create streets so ultrasafe (for motorists) that any moron could drive them without wrecking his car.  This is a good example of the folly of professional overspecialization.  The traffic engineer is not concerned about the pedestrians.  His mission is to make sure that wheeled vehicles are happy.  What he deems to be ultrasafe for drivers can be dangerous for pedestrians who share the street with cars.  Anybody knows that a child of eight walking home from school at three o'clock in the afternoon uses a street differently than a forty-six-year-old carpet cleaner in a panel truck.
Kunstler is opinionated; you can tell with just about every paragraph -- actually, just about every sentence -- that he thinks urban & suburban planning has gone completely in a tragic direction.  He points out that we, the people who drive these cars and move through these areas, are conflicted about our automobile-ridden culture, but that a huge part of us prefers a pedestrian-dominated landscape:
For instance, there were quite a few art galleries in [the town of] Woodstock filled with paintings that in one way or another tried to depict small town and rural life.  Some of the paintings were very accomplished; some were amateurish.   Some obviously tried to capture a contemporary scene (often of rural desolation) in a contemporary way; others blatantly resorted to clich├ęs (covered bridges in the snow, et cetera).  But they all had this in common: not one included an image of a car.
. . .  Yet the village of Woodstock was jam-packed with cars . . . Every half-million-dollar vacation home, ancient or modern, had three or four of them parked in the driveway, as did the few working farms that remained in the area.  It was much easier to spot a car in Vermont than a cow.
So, what's my problem with the book?  After all, I try hard to drive my car as little as possible, and I love my own largely pedestrian lifestyle.  But Kunstler is prone to hyperbole, exaggeration, and insult, and his presentation is so one-sided that he makes traffic engineers into almost Disney-esque villains, sneering bullies who promote evil for evil's sake.

The diatribe is also largely unrelieved by any reasonable action a reasonable person could take to remedy the situation.  Okay, I could sit around and complain about the way that neighborhoods are designed, but will complaining make the world any better?

At the same time, I was struck by the pictures he paints -- for example, by the car-less Woodstock pictures he describes.  Or by his eerily accurate forecasting of what I see when I tool around town, going yard saling on my bike.   Old neighborhoods with narrow streets and homes right up at the sidewalk have a vibrant community life, but in modern neighborhoods with wide streets and houses set far back from the street and far apart from each other . . . well, they're practically ghost towns except for the glow of the television sets.

The biggest irony of this for me is that the woman who described the book to me is a friend of mine with a severe, progressive, degenerative disease.  A few decades ago, she and her husband built their own log cabin; she put up drywall by herself at 7 months pregnant.  Now she's confined to a motorized wheel chair, slowly and irrevocably losing control over her whole body.  And so, in order to get out of her house into any kind of community, she relies on friend or family to pick her up from her far-away home, and drive her places, using (of course) a car.    In fact, my visit with her this past month made up the majority of my own car use in June, and I'm so glad I could have the chance to drive her around.

Conflicted. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Why Miser Mom won't retire (yet)

At random intervals over the past several years, I've mentioned that I've been sort of pushy about getting my husband to retire.  To wit, in a week, he'll go part-time, sort of like a phased retirement.  So at some point, you gotta wonder:  if it's good for the gander, is it good for the goose?  Why don't I keep making retirement noises for myself?

Well, I'll start with the usual mutterings.  Perhaps they sound more like excuses than reasons, but they're actually sort of true:
  • Praise.  I tend to be good at what I do, and I get a lot of pats on the back for that.  It's really hard to turn my back on pats on the back, if that makes sense.   Ain't nobody going to give me gold stars for being retired well.
  • Money.  As in, as long as I am lucky enough to be married to the guy I love, who is not a black-belt tightwad like his wife, then we actually need to earn money to pay for frivolous things like packaged cereals, cable hook-up, and store-bought clothes.  [Random aside: I've been harboring fantasies again about getting rid of our refrigerator.  You really have to pity my husband for being married to me.]  We'll need a more money in our retirement fund to support us in the lifestyle he's accustomed to.  
  • Health Insurance.  There are many ins and outs to this, so I'll just say that medical insurance is a small factor.
  • Love.  Most of the time, I love my day job.  
    • I get to work with a huge variety of people, most of whom are really sweet and well-intentioned.  
    • I get to hang with amazingly smart people.  It's heady to see different aspects of the world through the eyes of people who are steeped in economics, astronomy, choreography, literature, sociology, and more.
    • I get to do a lot of different things -- teach, do research, work across my college on a bunch of different committees. It's nice to have structured variety.
  • Absence of negatives.  I don't have a lot of dis-incentives.  My commute (unlike my husband's 80-mile commute) is 2 blocks.  My boss is not manic.  Etcetera.
But there's more.  There's a little secret I'm going to let you in on -- sshhhhhh!  The truth is . . . we're gearing up in a serious way for me to retire, too.  

Now, this isn't going to happen as soon as my husband retires, for all of the reasons I mention above, plus one more (which I'll describe below).  I've run the numbers a bunch of times, and I figure there's a really good chance we'd be financially ready for me to leave work just four years from now -- which happens to be when I've worked at my college exactly half my life, and also the date the boys graduate from high school.  I got serious enough about this plan that I actually visited our HR department to ask some nuts-and-bolts questions about post-retirement life.

The HR department popped my bubble.  "You're not allowed to retire then," they told me.  "You can resign, but you can't retire, because you won't be 55 yet."  And 55 is a few years beyond four years from now for me.

So, what's the difference between "resigning" and "retiring"?  Well, if I resign, I wouldn't get our retirement health benefits . . . but those are honestly so pitifully yucky, I don't care.  If I resign, I wouldn't get life insurance . . . but with all the kids grown up and a nice nest egg, I wouldn't need it anyway.   If I resign, I wouldn't be an emeritus professor . . .

. . . and that is the real rub.  Because the benefits of being "emeritus" are exactly those things we frugal people say that money can't buy, plus some of the things that make money and power such a draw for us all.  If I resign instead of retiring . . . 
  • I'd lose access to campus facilities (the library, the gym, the email list, the free food events).  
  • I'd lose my "institutional affiliation" -- without that, there are lots of times it would be hard to keep doing the math I love.  (That's because journals, electronic arXivs, and professional meetings often require that some institution certify you're not a nut job pretending to be a mathematician; if I resign, there's no one to swear I'm legit).
  • In a significant way, I'd sever a connection to the people on my campus.  There are all sorts of quasi-social/quasi-professional activities that are open only to employees (and "emeriti" professors count as "employees" for most of these, but people who resign clearly do not).  
It's this last reason that's the kicker.  If I wait just a few more years -- . . . um . . .  I mean, if I work just a few more years -- then my guy and I have a bit more cash cushion.  Even more importantly,  we get to keep all those structural ties to the community where I will have spent more than half of my life, and where I've spent all of my professional life.  

Money might not be worth staying at a job you hate.  But a strong community is worth staying at a job that I like.  So I'm going to retire . . . some day.   When I'm old enough.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Thrifty Thursday -- water bottle sock

So, when I head out for a very long run (anything over 7 or 8 miles), water becomes, y'know, important.  I'm very happy that I've finally found a nice 16-mile route with not-many hills, one with stretches of shady roads, and a few places I can stop along the way to refill my water bottle.  Before I found this route, I'd bike the route beforehand to plant water bottles along the way, then bike the route again after my run to pick up the empties.  So this new route is a huge improvement!   Still,  I'm looking forward to the day when I'm back to running shorter distances, so I don't have to carry my water with me at all.

Fancy runners nowadays will purchase "hydration systems" that go on their back or on a belt or that attach to a glove -- these can cost anywhere from $16 to $80, depending.  And of course, I don't want to pay that kind of money if I could find a way around it.

I somehow managed to snag (for free) a small water bottle, about 3/4 the size of the kind that goes on my bike.  Even at that size, carrying the bottle is a bit of a pain -- literally, at times, because the bottle gets slippery and hard to grip.  That's why other runners purchase gloves to hold the bottle.  Here's my own little solution:  a sock!
 I found an unmatched (un-loved?) sock that had some ribbing at about the right height, and cut the sock off there.  Then I cut two long slits, just wide enough for my hand to slip through one slit and out another.
 Here it is from the other side.  Very easy to carry, and cost me . . . let me see . . . nothing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Rich in Socks

N-son is hard on his socks.  Actually, he's hard on all his clothes, staining everything and wearing holes in the knees of his pants in the usual boy way, but also performing peculiar acts of mutilation, such as chewing holes in the neck and sleeves of his shirts.  Socks are merely another casualty of the general clothing carnage.  Heels and ankles develop un-darn-able holes so regularly that my husband (the Lord of the Laundry) has stocked up on socks, much in the same way that every August, I put up jars of tomatoes for the long winter ahead.

One consequence of N-son's vast collection of socks is that our home has become the Where's Waldo? of the sock world.  Take a gander around our living room; and you're likely to see random socks . . . under the couch . . . in the train set . . . next to the dog bed.  Ditto for just about any other room, including of course N-son's bedroom.  There are good socks and bad socks, whole socks and hole-y socks, clean socks and ewwww.

Early this week N-son and I cleaned his room.  This was not the "productive-seeming-busy-work" kind of cleaning, where I send N-son to his room to rearrange and re-stack his piles while I work on math.  No, this was an intense, three-hour mommy-son-bonding version of cleaning of the room.  At the end, N-son complained that it was so devoid of junk piles that "my room echoes now".    It was that kind of cleaning.

At one point, we tackled the sock drawer.  I began with this little mantra on avoiding clutter.
How many pairs of socks do you actually need?  I think seven pairs ought to be enough.  If you have seven nice pairs of socks, we can throw away the socks that have holes or are totally gross, okay?
We spread all of his socks out on the floor and began sorting.  We counted out sets of "nice" socks . . . one, two, three, four, no--let's put this one in the "toss pile", five, six, seven.  Phew!

Then N-son picked up another pair of socks, and a look of dismay crossed his face.  "What's wrong, honey?" I asked.  "I like these socks," he said, "but I already have seven!"  His sorrow was evident.
Darling.  That's okay, darling.  You can keep them.  When you have enough socks to get by, you can get rid of the socks you don't like.  But also, if you have enough nice socks, and then you have even more nice socks, that's what it means to be rich.  You have enough, and a bit more. 
N-son, I told him, you are rich in socks.
This was exactly what he needed to hear.  These socks, he loves them, and they are his.  To be rich in socks; it's a good feeling.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Triathalon Reactions

The Ironman I'm training for is two months from today.

What am I thinking about this?  If there's anything that really wigs me out about the triathalon, it's this altitude map:
That is, I not only will I have to be able to bike 112 miles forward, but I'll also have to be able to bike a full mile straight up.  (And then get off the bike and run a marathon, but for some reason that doesn't seem quite so scary to me).

Here's what people my age say when they find out I'm going to try to do an Ironman.  They say, "I know you can do it!"   They always say this immediately before or immediately after they say, "I could never do it!"  I do not know what to make of this.  Are all my friends incapable of logic, or do they believe I have super powers?

Here is what my college students say when they find out I'm going to try to do an Ironman.  Especially if they do any athletics themselves, they ask me my running pace.  I tell them that I generally try to run at a 10-minute-per-mile pace, and this impresses them, but mostly because of what they see as my incredibly advanced age.  They say things like, "I've heard that that's a really decent pace for older runners."  My students are adorable.

I'm now to the point that I have done an Ironman in one week, broken into manageable (for me) chunks.  Not sure yet about doing it all in one day. . . and I'm still wigging out about all those bike hills.  Yeesh.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Chores for children; a meditation

Preparing a syllabus for a math course at the same time that I give my kids a bunch of chores has made for some odd (but maybe useful) connections in my head.  Thinking about goals and assessment and all that other gobbledy-gook-academic-speak started the wheels spinning in the old noggin.  If I had to list a set of assessable children's chore goals, here, in a rather mish-mash list, is why I make my kids suffer:
  1. Because I actually want something done around the house.  Expect excellence.
  2. Because I want to keep the children (productively) occupied and out of my hair.
  3. Because I want to teach the kids skills that will be valuable to them (and possibly--but probably not--to me).
Obviously, different goals require different kinds of chores.  Here's a bit more unpacking of these three categories.

1.  Get something done, and do it right.

Every kid ought to feel like a valuable and productive member of the family, and every kid ought to have a special role in the household.  Here are some of the tasks I've assigned to my kids over the years that I expect them to do unsupervised, and to do well:
  • put laundry down the laundry chute (starting at age 18 months)
  • put away the silverware from the dishwasher (starting at age 2)
  • wipe down the stairs
  • pick up dog poop
(That last one seems gross, but it was my own assigned chore when I was a kid, and I remember feeling like it made the dogs my dogs.  My sisters fed the cat and emptied the trash baskets, but the dogs belonged to me!)


2.  Busy work.  But productive-seeming busy work.

Spreading mulch falls into this category, and so does pulling weeds (although I actually have to do occasional supervision on the weeds chore, because the boys are happy to overlook weeds and trample the cilantro.)  One of my favorite busy work chores is "clean your room" . . . the boys can spend seeming eons moving the mess in their room from one pile to another pile, reconnecting with lost toys, or trying to fix some electronic gadget that has come to pieces.  Sometimes the room actually looks better afterwards, and sometimes not.  But to me what really matters is that I got to spend a bit of time beating down the heaps of emails, and the boys weren't merely sitting on their butts in front of Sponge Bob.

Other chores that fall into this category:  cleaning mirrors, cleaning windows, sweeping the sidewalk, washing the car.


3.  Developing skills.  

This is the hard one, because this is the pain-in-the-neck category where involving kids takes more time and effort than shutting them out and/or just doing it myself.  There is a pay-off, but it can be several years down the road.  This area includes
  • cooking meals,
  • carpentry,
  • painting,
  • mending clothes, and
  • household repairs in general.  
I'm incredibly grateful to my own parents for forcing me into this last category, probably amid much grumbling on my part.  I feel a bit like I've deprived my kids because I've given into their willingness to skip some of these hard lessons.  So while my kids know their way about the kitchen and the sewing machine, they know very little about plumbing or wiring, and they only know dribs and drabs about electric drills, or about screws and nails.  

********
I left out one important reason to involve kids in chores, actually:  Chores can be fun!  
I mean, I know chores are not always fun.  But sometimes the stars align, and my kids and I all get a real sense of satisfaction from a job well done.  

In fact, all of the pictures in this post come from an idea I started as a joke, but N-son got really into it.  One weekend about three years ago, he invited his young friend over to our "Chore Camp", which included specially designed camp t-shirts, a fancy agenda, and fun events like vacuuming the car and cleaning the garage, and an Awards Ceremony!   Whoop!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

How many millionaires does it take to change a light fixture?

It's funny the way that math turns into real life.  I spend so much of my working days teaching students about exponential functions, blathering on about things like the amazingness of compound interest, and then sort of surprisingly, my life becomes one of those real-world examples.

A few weeks ago one of the little counters clicked over from '0' to '1' in our financial net worth tally, and so my husband and I are now millionaires.  Well, at least we are on paper (or perhaps more accurately, in a spreadsheet).

We didn't get to our million by being brilliant investors (in fact, my first dozen years at my job, I had mistakenly allocated my retirement mix to something like 40% or 50% bonds).  We didn't get here by extreme saving (for most of our working lives, I put aside a pretty standard 15% of my salary; my husband put aside much much less).  If we'd been brilliant or extreme or both, we'd have arrived here long before.  Maybe it ought to be a little embarrassing even that it took us this long.

But at any rate, ours is a story about how a married couple can bumble along, largely ignorant of financial markets, making the occasional investment mistake, but as long as they get the general idea right (set aside money regularly in their retirement account, and aim for mostly stocks), eventually they start to get rich.

Our home is paid off (we paid off the mortgage last year), and that counts for a good chunk of our net worth.  The stock market recently has been going gang-busters, and that explains why we are (perhaps temporarily) rolling in around in the big bucks.

Not surprisingly, this paper-wealth has made very little difference in our day-to-day activities.  My guy will be dropping down to part-time, but what makes that possible is not that we're living off our investments; it's that we've paid off the house and the tuition bills.  Even more so, it's because the process of paying off home and school has given us ample practice at living off of what is essentially one salary.

So how many millionaires does it take to change a light fixture?  Just one, although it helps to have a kid who can yell down the stairs to tell you when you've switched the right circuit breaker off.

I've spent much of the week pulling out these much-hated incandescent ceiling fixtures in our basement and bike-room.  In theory, they're great and energy saving.  In practice, they flicker and hum, and replacing the bulbs has been a [curse words omitted].

This past week I have mumbled words of thanks to my dear old dad, who taught me basic wiring long ago.  In fact, the several reasons I waited so long to get around to this job had little to do with the fixtures themselves:

  • I needed to be able to get to my tools (so cleaning out our hardware shelves helped a lot).  
  • I needed to find a time when turning off the power in the house wouldn't wig out my family (so this past week, while my guy was at army camp and J-son was visiting his former foster mom, was ideal).  
  • And I needed to get new fixtures that would work well and not be expensive, so I had to make a trip or two to our not-so-nearby Habitat Re-store.  

Twenty-five-dollars worth of supplies, eight hours of cleaning/organizing, and 1 hour of actual electrical work later, we now have five new light fixtures, ready for the LED light bulbs.  Come to think of it, the LED bulbs are going to be by far the biggest up-front expense, although they'll save us money and frustration down the road.

But we can afford the expense now.  After all, we're millionaires!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Nuts and Bolts of decluttering (plus Nails and Screws, too)

It has long been my theory that what makes our homes so messy and cluttered is not all the stuff we see lying around; it's the stuff we don't see.  The dirty socks on the floor are on the floor because we actually wore those socks.  The laundry basket of clean laundry is an homage to a wardrobe that is well appreciated.

No, it's the rest of the clothes, the ones crammed into the back of our closets and dressers, that are the hidden problem.  It's the t-shirts we don't wear that make it hard for us to find the blouse we do like; the mis-matched socks and not-quite-right bras that take up all the space in our drawers (so to speak).  The mess that we can't see is not only what makes it hard to find the things we actually like, but it is also what makes it hard to find the space to put away the stuff we often use.

And so, now that summer gives me a bit of breathing room, I've spent a bunch of this week working with N-son to perform the magic trick of making the evil invisible objects appear before our very eyes, in hopes of making them disappear for good.

One major task was a cabinet that held assorted hardware pieces.  Ooof.  I don't have "before" picture to show you; you can use your imagination.  (I googled "messy hardware shelf" and didn't see anything as bad as mine!)   The work-bench area of my garage was such a mess of dirt and dangerous objects (nails and sawdust and random tools), that instead of working there in the garage, I boxed up all the hardware supplies from the cabinet and brought them into the dining room for sorting.
I set N-son to the task of sorting the hardware.  To make it easier to see what was going into each pile, I used pre-cycled paper (the back of flyers, etc) to write a description and picture of each category of thing.  This allowed us to spread things out in visible, well-labeled piles over a large open space.
We had a special bin for "Rusted, Bent, and Broken" nails and screws -- those will go to a guy I know who recycles scrap metal for money.  I also tried hard to cull excess hardware; I'll donate it to Habitat Re-Store, which is like Goodwill or Salvation Army, except for building supplies.
 As for the rest of it, the stuff I actually want to keep for future use, I took a tip from Erica of NorthWest Edible -- she organizes her spices in canning jars in a drawer.  Spices and hardware are sort of the same, right?  So I put my nails, etc in canning jars . . .
 . . . but instead of canning lids, I used paper.  It's easy to draw on, so I could label the contents of each jar easily.  Some objects (like "toggle bolts") have such weird names I just drew pictures.
 And here are the jars in a drawer right next to my hardware shelf.  MUCH MUCH neater.
Whoop!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bird Seed Ornaments (Christmas in June?)

For me, summer is the perfect time to think about Christmas presents, both because I have lots of unscheduled time and also because yard sales are in full swing.   For my kids, having way-too-much-time on their hands makes this a perfect time for what I call "X-mass-production" -- an assembly line approach to producing gifts for my large extended family.

Kids' gifts, as far as I'm concerned, should conform to a few important rules.

  1. The gifts should be mostly kid-made.  None of this going out and buying a bottle of cologne and writing, "love, your son" on the tag.  If the kids don't earn the money and then purchase the gifts themselves, they at least have to be major participants in the creation of the gift.
  2. If possible, the gifts should be useful/desirable to the participants.  I try so hard to avoid clutter in my own house that I consider it foul play to export knick-knack-y items to other people's homes.  So plastic ornaments, "art work", and other so-called-treasures are right off the list.
  3. Consumable gifts rock.
  4. If the gifts aren't actually useful or edible, at least they should compost easily.   
Rule 1 is inviolate for me, and it increases in severity and intensity as the boys get older.  Rules 2, 3, and 4 interchange in intensity, varying on the year.  In the past, I had the boys design "stained glass" soap dispensers, home-canned pickled peppers, home-canned peach-ginger jam, and oobleck.  (Oobleck, by the way, totally failed on #2 and #3 but at least seems to be biodegradable).

This past week, we created bird-seed ornaments in anticipation of our Christmas 2014 celebrations.  The "X-mass production" worked incredibly smoothly, as you can see from these photos:
K-daughter and N-son scoop the mixture into the molds. . . 

. . .  and J-son makes holes with a chopstick.
We used a recipe from this link, although we quadrupled the amount from that page:
  • gently boil 2 cups water and 4 packets (10 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin with 1 cup corn syrup.
  • When all is dissolved, whisk in 3 cups flour.
  • Add 16 cups birdseed; mix well.
The original link suggested using cookie cutters as molds, but we don't have those at my home.  (Yes, I know, bad parents!)   Instead, we used our incredibly large stash of canning jar lids.

The original link also suggested spraying the molds with "Pam" (or its equivalent), but I've given up on spray oil because of the disposal problems, so we had a small bowl of oil (you can see it in the photo with J-son above), and we just dipped the canning jar lids in that.  The kids scooped and patted the mixture into the molds and then added holes that we would eventually use for the string loops.

We arranged these on a screen that no longer fits any of our windows; we let these dry for about a day or two, and then added string loops.  In some cases, the holes we'd added were too close to the edge of the ornaments, so the holes broke, and we had to tie the string around the ornament.  If we ever do this again, I think we'll try to embed the string directly into  the ornaments.
The finished product: bird-seed ornaments.
Our recipe made 3-dozen wide-mouth jar lids worth of ornaments (the original, non-quadrupled recipe, would make about 9 ornaments).

Come December, our lucky family members will get to unwrap ornaments that they can hang on outdoor trees.  They'll feed the birds (or squirrels), and then our presents will fade back in the ecosystem.  Perfect!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Jobs/Apartments at Miser Mom's Summer Camp

Thursday's Financial Curriculum Summer Camp at Chez Miser Mom focused on techniques for finding jobs.

We began with a presentation by K-daughter, currently gainfully employed as a lifeguard at a local pool.  We asked her how she searched for her first jobs.  She talked about walking through the local mall, filling out every single application she could find.  She also talked about asking her friends about jobs they knew about.  Both techniques led to early jobs.

Then we asked the boys which method they preferred.  They decided their friends didn't know about jobs, but they were also reluctant to think about filling out forms.

We then looked at the local classified ads to think about jobs the boys might consider, both now and in the future.  As for now, the boys found an ad for a Car Wash Place that had a telephone number.  J-son did a few role-playing sessions with me and K-daughter, where we traded off roles of employer and applicant, and then J-son called the Car Wash Place.  He was happy to tell me they said they would call him back when they had more information about jobs.
As for me, I was impressed by the number of ads looking for CDL Truck Drivers [= Commercial Driver's License truckers] in the paper.  There are some darned good salaries being advertised, and a heck of a lot of job ads.  I'm definitely going to keep an eye on that as my boys get older, even though I've sworn to myself that as long as they're under my roof, they'll ride bikes and not drive cars.  Maybe they can go straight from two wheels to eighteen wheels?
J-son is entranced by Zillow.
After looking through the classifieds, we talked about persistence.  In the previous week, the boys had turned in an application to volunteer at our local science museum; I sent them over on foot to check up on the status of that application. They came home bouncing with happiness: they're at the top of the list for next year!  (Or maybe for this year; they're not quite sure).  Whether or not they actually get this volunteer position, I'm glad they've had the experience of filling out forms and following through -- it's one small lesson among many that we'll be coming back to over the next few summers.

********
Friday's Financial Curriculum Summer Camp  was Zillow day.  This was a total win.  Ostensibly, this was a "how do you rent an apartment?" day (pointing not-so-subtly at the day I hope to boot these boys out of the nest into a place of their own), but it turned out to be one of the most engaging "camp" days we've had so far.  The boys had incredible fun playing on computers, lots of point-and-click entertainment.  They loved zooming through the "street view", trying to recognize streets they've biked past with me.  They loved looking at the pictures of rooms and houses.

Nigel also loves Zillow.  Can he find an apartment near his sister's house?

We got to talk about the difference between "rent' and "deposit' (reminding them of deposits they'd put down on watches and umbrellas in the days of Mommy Dollars).  We got to look at maps of the city and talk about location.  We spent a bit of time talking about costs of rent and utilities.  But mostly, they just has a ton of fun playing around with the computers.  Way fun.

*******
I know that none of this will sink in permanently from this one week we've spent in our home "summer camp".  Skills like looking for jobs, or finding a place to live, or even grocery shopping -- these skills take practice, and that practice includes making mistakes, having successes, and learning from both mistakes and success.  My boys are 14 and 15.  I'm starting them on this process now, in the hopes that as I repeat this in the future, it'll get easier and easier.


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Food shopping at our Summer Camp

How do you figure out what food to buy?  There are so many ways to get food from the field into your belly.  There's the "wander through the aisles and buy whatever catches my eye" method, the "run to the grocery store for what-I-just-ran-out-of" method, the "make a list and stick with it" method, and the pantry principle method, among many others.  

Here at Miser Mom's Financial Curriculum Summer Camp, the Head Counsellor has been working hard to have the campers think ahead about what we'll need and how we'll buy it.  Last Friday, we set menus for the week and planned who would make each dinner when.  Monday, we made shopping lists.  On Tuesday, I divvied up the list by children and then took them to Market so they could price out and purchase food on their own.
Each boy had a copy of this entire list; each boy had to price out the unit cost of every item on the list, but he only had to buy the items by his name.  [The 'X' items were things they knew they needed for cooking but we already had at home.  You'll notice this list is very heavy on the dairy side of things; it doesn't reflect all that we eat.  We get a giant box of vegetables from our CSA every Tuesday, and I have a giant stockpile of of baking ingredients at home, so we don't buy those ingredients at Market.]

This was a really good lesson for both boys.
N-son is an introvert who gets nervous in crowds, so just asking people for the price of their food or talking to them about buying stuff was emotionally hard on him at first.  Here is at one of our favorite stands -- the Turkey Lady -- asking for hot dogs and the price of bacon.  You can see he's holding it together, but it isn't excitement and happiness (yet).

Another challenge for N-son was just keeping track of many objects -- his list, the pen, his money, his shopping bag, and all the things he had to put in it.  At first, he kept asking me to hold things for him, and I had to gently tell him that learning how to hold onto things is part of shopping.    But as he went along, he got the hang of it.
In fact, pretty soon, N-son was helping J-son with his list.  J-son is both more sociable and more coordinated.  His difficulties are lack of focus and trouble reading (he has severe dyslexia), so he had a hard time paying attention to what he was actually supposed to buy or price out.  N-son helped his brother zero in on what was left on J-son's shopping list.

I usually make my Tuesday-morning shopping runs in just a half-hour--that's the time it takes from when I leave my front door, backpack on my back and bike at the ready, to when I hang the bike back up and put the milk in the fridge.  This week, shopping took about 2 hours instead.  So it was a good thing to do during the summer.

This was also one of my more expensive grocery runs -- we shelled out $55 in total.  The high expense is partly because truly low-cost strategies for getting food mean I normally don't do "one-stop shopping" like we did this Tuesday.  Cheese at market is about $7/pound, so I don't buy cheese there myself except in very special situations (like this one).  Instead, I make a trip every couple of months to the store that's right on the farm; I get a giant block of cheese (local, organic) for less than $3/pound.  But for fairly obvious reasons, I didn't want to overburden the boys with all the "advanced techniques" I usually use.  

But the high expense is also because I've ceded menu control to the kids, and they chose to make very meat intensive or cheese-intensive meals.  So our shopping experience is not yet done; today's summer camp experience will choose a time for reflection and analysis, with the hope that this will lead into future menu planning.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Budget day at our Financial Summer Camp

Monday, we had only one hour of "camp".  The whole thing sparked lots of conversations.

We began by looking at a budget form available from
We asked (out loud, not writing anything down) questions about categories.  What's the difference between rent and mortgage?  What kinds of utilities are there?  Notice how many different car expenses there are! 

This all was just warm up, though.  Then we whipped out pencils for a worksheet I'd made for them.
I really can't decide whether the fact that I make nerdy financial worksheets for my kids to work on during the summer makes me the Worst Mom Ever [c'mon, really?!?] or one of the most helpful moms I could possibly be.  Or both at the same time, perhaps.  At any rate, the skills to practice with their Monday afternoon worksheet included how to read a chart, think about food costs, and an introduction to Excel spreadsheets.
 *****
Consider the data from the USDA on “Cost of Food at Home atFour Levels, U.S. Average”.  [note: I'd printed this out on pre-cycled paper for them.]

  1. If you were to move out into your own apartment, which category would you belong to?  Underline this line.
  2. Do you think you would eat according to the “thrifty”, “low-cost”, “moderate cost” or “liberal” plan?
  3. According to this, how much would you expect to spend each week on food? 
  4. According to this, how much would you expect to spend each month on food?   [Add this number to your budget].
  5. Our family doesn’t fit into one of the USDA categories.  We have one male 61 years, one female 48 years, one female 22 years, and males who are 14 and 15.   What would the USDA expect us to spend each week on food?  (Give a range from thrifty to liberal).
  6. We spend approximately $150/week on food.  Does this match what the USDA expects?  Why do you think this is?
  7. Compare the expenses of young (19–50 years) families with two people to old families (51–70 years) families with two people.  According to this data, who spends more?
  8.  Be creative; guess some reasons why your answer to #7 might be true – that is, why would older people spend less money on food than younger people. 

 ******
 I like that these questions had a variety of activities.  Some steps were as easy as circling numbers; others had a bit more work.  At step 6, I whipped out Excel and showed them how it could add numbers quickly (although J-son, to my surprise, decided he wanted to add the numbers by hand just to make sure he could).  

I also liked our guesses for the last question: why old couples spend less on food than young couples.  My guess was: "they eat less".  But J-son said, "they know what they want already", and K-daughter -- who'd joined in because this was fun (?) -- said, "because they know how to cook".

As a follow-up, the kids prepared a shopping list of everything we might eat in the upcoming week.  We’ll go to market today, and we'll compare our shopping list to what this data says.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Time Management Day at our Summer Camp

On Friday, the first official day of our Financial Curriculum Summer Camp, I did my early morning bike ride and then I rousted the boys out of bed at 8:30 a.m.

We began the day with a little 20-minute video:  Admiral McRaven's Commencement speech.  There's nothing quite like having a Navy Seal tell my teenage boys that, "If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed."  (There's more; our family really liked it).

We made beds; then we made waffles; and then we began "Camp".  I pulled out blank calendars I'd made for each of the boys, and we entered details for the week.  We talked about the importance of
  • communicating schedules with other people;
  • writing down events planned for specific times;
  • having a separate, but nearby place, to record things you need to do;
  • making plans for things you hope to do.
As an example of planning, we each listed six meals we'd like to cook (2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, and 2 dinners).  We decided who would cook what when; we wrote that in our individual calendars and on our family calendar.  

Next, we listed an order for our "to do" items for the day, and then tackled those chores.

And the boys, they've begun to groove to their chores.  "Grooving" as in, early in the morning, I had to gently mediate between them over which of them was "allowed" to finish edging the walk.  N-son got to edge the walk and dump the extra sod pieces in the compost . . . 
 . . . and J-son helped fence in the garden and mulch under our tree.
And when I told them it was time to stop to come in for lunch, they said "we're not hungry; can we just finish?"

*******
We were supposed to be done with camp at 1:00, but we all made such good progress that we finished by 12:30, and I "released" them to do whatever they wanted.  That "whatever-they-wanted" seemed to be mostly electronic entertainment -- playing games on cell phones.  It's so easy to lapse into mental junk food, isn't it?  I'm glad I've put together a bit of a program so they're not e-entertained all day long.

******
Already, now that it's Monday morning, I'm glad that I kicked the summer off with a family calendar meeting.  J-son has made a few successful plans with friends (he's at a sleepover now), and he's already had to turn down a few invitations because of already-scheduled events.  I've had several good meals cooked for me and the rest of the family.  

Friday, June 6, 2014

Financial Curriculum Summer Camp (for teens)

Yesterday was the last day of school for my sons.  Today is the first day of Army Camp for my husband.  Ergo, I go into a much more active "Mom-mode" for the next week or two.

My sons (ages 14 and 15) are too old for most day-long summer camps and not old enough for most jobs.  They also (especially J-son) can get into very unhappy trouble when they get bored or left to their own devices.  Combine all this with the fact that their mom is not just any mom, but a hyper-organized, ultra-frugal, task-oriented machine, and you've got the perfect conditions for the creation of our

Financial Curriculum Summer Camp!

We kick-started the camp on Wednesday, actually.  On that day, per their request, I printed out an application for volunteering at our nearby family science museum, and the boys filled it out.

A glimpse into filling out forms at the Miser-Mom household.
(See below for a frugalist "search-and-find".)
The exercise gave me a lot of optimism about the rest of the summer camp, actually.  I've had my boys filling out their own school forms for several years now (I make a "master sheet" of information to help), and so they were way more independent at this than I thought they'd be; they grabbed the "master sheet" and got going.   N-son in particular took initiative in getting out our church directory to copy down names and addresses of people he thought could be references.   The few categories they needed help with were "when you'll be available" and "past experience".

Here's the rest of the curriculum.  I expect to add in lots of household/yard chores, plus lots of exercise opportunities, and I have no idea whether we'll be able to keep to this schedule.  It'll be fun to see how it goes!

Wednesday, June 4:
            Volunteer Job Application:  fill it out

Thursday, June 5:
            Volunteer Job Application: hand it in

Friday June 6: 
            Time Management
            Fill in a calendar; add both scheduled items and “to do” lists
            Plan six meals (two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners) 

*******

Monday, June 9:  Budget day!
            Introduction to a budget
            Create a food budget
            Make a weekly grocery list

Tuesday, June 10:  Market day
            Shop for groceries and record actual expenses
            Intro to Excel (the fast way to add and multiply)        

Wednesday, June 11:
            [break: help sister pack up her dad’s garage]

Thursday, June 12:
            How to find a job
            Classified ads, online applications

Friday, June 13:
            Finding apartments:  Intro to Zillow and Craigslist


********
Search and find:  How many of these Miser-Mom artifacts can you find in the photograph above?
A bread jar to avoid plastic bags; a canning jar used for a water glass; a scavenged white-board that we use for weekly menu-planning; yard-sale purchased shoe the size of a steamer ship; a bowl full of potatoes and other veggies that the boys can nuke for after-school snacks.  Just out of sight: in the orange bowl, a homemade muffin; on a chair on the other side of the table, a pile of t-shirts waiting to be made into t-shirt bags.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Windows, weeds, and year books

J-son came home from the Quaker Local School on Monday just bubbling over with excitement.  "They had extra year books," he told me, "so they gave us one!"

"Well, that's really nice of them," I replied.  "You got a yearbook?"

"Yeah!" he agreed, "They gave us a yearbook!  And so we have to give them $20!"

****
N-son repeated the story later, both parts of it:  "They gave us a yearbook", and "we need $20".   It turns out each boy got a yearbook, and so the total cost is $40.

Now, I'm not exactly sure what I would have done if they boys had come to me before they had yearbooks in hand.  I can understand wanting mementos of an institution and its community that has shaped your life, but the boys have been at the school for only 5 months.  And we're gearing up to pay for them to go back again next year.  So I'm guessing I might have offered to go halvsies with them, but I probably would have tried to talk them out of it first.

But the fact is, the boys did not think to ask; they just acted.  And this isn't the first time that a school "gave" them something that came with a hefty price tag (that's the boy's interpretation; not the school's interpretation, of course).

So the boys are paying for this themselves.  And since they don't have the money for this in their accounts right now,  I decided to introduce the boys to the horror of debt.  The part of the scuzzy Pay Day Loanster/Credit Card Company/Pawn Shop Owner is played by yours truly.   That is, I handed the boys each a $20 bill to pay off the school, but I am charging them $1/day in interest fees until they pay the entire amount back.  That's like, an annual interest rate of 1825% -- sheer highway robbery.

The boys are paying the money back by doing menial chores for not-very-much money.  The part of the stingy Sweat Shop Owner/Task Master is likewise played by yours truly.  Fortunately, I already had a long list of summer chores lined up, thanks to my experience supervising high-energy boys during previous summers.
N-son washes the dining room window.
He's outside; I'm inside.  See how clear the window looks now?

And -- maybe because of their previous experience working hard for me -- they've gotten to the point where I don't have to supervise them closely.  That's a blessing all around.  They've pulled weeds, washed mirrors and windows, swept leaves, and washed walls.

As of this morning, they've each earned $11, but they've also each accrued $2 in interest charges.  With any luck, I'll have a really clean house and a tidy yard -- plus debt-free sons -- by the time next weekend is over.

******
There's another lesson in this, of course, one that is harder to learn.  Who among us hasn't had the experience of saying "yes" to something and then finding out how much it costs?   There's the friend who invites us to a big gathering at a restaurant, who after we express interest says, "and that'll be $50 per person".  Or the coach who tells you your son is really good; he should go to this tournament, and after you sign up you discover the entrance fee is $150.

Learning to ask the cost beforehand is a lifelong skill.  In the times we fail at that, learning to gracefully but politely say, "Thank you so much anyway, but in this case I think we'll . . . wait until next year/share a yearbook between us/give the books back instead" is another important skill.

And if both of these skills fail you, well, at least you can fall back on window washing and weed pulling.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Money well wasted? (medical version)

This past month, I blew a bunch of money on un-necessary medical tests to confirm what I already knew:  I'm fine.  But the whole experience raises a lot of questions in my head:  how much money should a person be willing to dole out just to be "on the safe side"?

Here's the background info.  Last year about this time, I started feeling short of breath.  Now, I had run a marathon in March, and I was starting up my bicycle training, so "short of breath" didn't mean I was out of energy or anything; it was just that when I was sitting quietly, I noticed sometimes I had to make a conscious effort to breathe deeply.  I decided to check it out with my doctor, who said she figured it was probably pollen allergies.  She suggested I take allergy meds, but she also offered to get me a chest X-ray to rule out [goodness-knows-what].  In my true Miser-Mom way, I declined the chest X-ray and went for the allergy meds.  Those little drugstore pills worked all the way through pollen season, and then I went back to being a normal medication-free person.

Fast forward to May 2 of this year (pollen season lying heavy on us again).  My left ear got stopped up for a day, and then it started ringing.  After a week of ringing ears, I decided to visit my doctor to get my head checked out.  She was breezy about the issue ("this type of thing is always just ear wax") until she actually looked in my ear.  Then she said, "Uh, oh; this isn't good.  There's no ear wax at all."

She got really somber and started all sorts of other tests (mostly checking to see if I had symptoms of a brain tumor, like blurry vision or delayed reflexes).  Seeing none of the scary brain-danger signs, she said, "we'll try antibiotics first.  You'd like to do that before you do an MRI, right?"  I agreed.  But then she also said, "and I think you should see an audiologist.  I know you're frugal, and so am I.  But if it were me,  I'd see an audiologist; wouldn't you?"  And so I agreed.

After the week of antibiotics, the ears were still ringing.  So I went to the audiologist, who did her tests, and who pronounced my hearing "above average" and said she couldn't see anything wrong with me.  "Sometimes ears just ring; we don't know why".  And shortly after this visit, when the pollen started dying down a bit, my ears recovered.

******
So, that's the background story.  I spent a bunch of money to have a bunch of doctors tell me "you're fine"; if I had just waited a month I wouldn't have spent any money and I would have been just as fine.

Now, there are a few reasons why I was willing to spend this money.  First of all, having allergies is completely new to me.  (My running buddy TL tells me, "You know; it's kind of reassuring to know you actually have human weaknesses.  I mean, you pull a pair of used shoes out of somebody's trash pile and run a marathon in them, and never get injured.")  So I don't have much experience with illness, and I don't -yet- have a tradition of waiting until June for nasty symptoms to disappear.

Second of all, this is the time of year that my daughter's father discovered --- too late --- that what he thought was just a cough was in fact stage 4 renal cancer.  And as much as I don't mind toughing it out on my own behalf, I feel compelled to make sure my daughter doesn't have to deal with yet another out-of-the-blue horrid illness.

The short version is, I guess I did the right thing.  Maybe.  But I also feel like my body is crying "wolf" on me.  I feel like I ought to know better -- I'm training for a friggin Ironman Triathaon, for goodness' sake!  So all the questions that the doctors have to ask about diabetes and high blood pressure, being overweight or smoking, etc make me realize how completely healthy I really am.  I'm danged if I'm going to make May into my annual "worry-the-doctor" ritual in future years.

******
Here's an even more expensive way to look at this issue.  The wealthier I get, the more I am able to practice the notion that frugality isn't just about not spending *my* money frivolously; it's about not spending *anybody's* money frivolously.   So when my doctor says, "Insurance will cover that", I don't think that lets me off the hook --- I still need to make my own judgment about whether the cost is worth it.  From this point of view, my little ear-panic wasted my community's resources to the tune of something like $300.  Doesn't that make waiting just one month before bugging my doctor seem all the more reasonable?