Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Rags are All the Rage?

True story:  A group of students came over to my home for dinner a week or so ago, and after the meal was over, they had a question for me:  "Could we see your rag baskets?".

Another true story:  My friend TL tells me that her family went on vacation together recently, and that while they were gathered together in their time-share condo, they made a family decision to get rid of paper towels and use rags in their home from now on  ("Like you do," TL told me).

So I'm feeling particularly braggy about my rags right now.

Just in case YOU wanted to be the kind of trend-setter with a rag basket worthy of other people's curiosity and emulation, I figured I'd show you everything you need to get started, right here:  a basket, a pair of scissors, and a t-shirt.

A basket, a pair of scissors, a stained shirt.  
Step 1.  If you're like me, you haven't yet put away your Easter baskets, so you have a great start on creating your own "piece de rag-sistance"!   Think of this as a starter basket, upon which you can improve as your decorating style and available materials allow.  (And then, next Easter, your basket is already near at hand).

Step 2.  Ditch the fake plastic blue grass that your well-meaning friends gifted you with (I'm donating our fake-grass to a non-profit craft center nearby).

Step 3. Grab a pair of scissors and also one of those old stained t-shirts that's not good enough to take to the thrift store.  Cut off the sleeves and  then cut the shirt into rectangles.   Discard the odd-sized corner/neck pieces of the shirts, and then put the rectangles and the sleeves in the basket.

Voila!  You're done!  Congratulations!


Because we as a society have grown so accustomed to using paper to clean with, there might be all sorts of questions hovering around your head right now as you think about undertaking such a drastic project.   (Cutting up an old shirt and putting the pieces in a basket is a huge life transformation, after all).   So here are some imaginary questions with their real, Miser Mom-approved answers.

Q:  Where do I put the basket?
A:   I have a few of them around the home, the same way that most people have paper towels and tissue boxes around the home.  I even have one in my car.  But you can start with hiding it on a shelf near your other cleaning supplies if you're not sure you're ready to bring this "out of the closet", so to speak.

Q:  Don't you still need paper towels for those utterly disgusting messes?
A:  Since you were just going to throw the shirt away in the first place, you could use the cloth rag to clean the mess and THEN throw it away.

[Or, if you go hard-core, you could do what centuries of parents who used cloth diapers have done: rinse the rag in the toilet first, then wash the rag with a load of other disgusting rags.  But remember that you own the rag; it doesn't own you.  So do whatever you're most comfortable with.]

Q:  What kinds of rags work well?
A:   I love t-shirts for rags, because they generally tend to be absorbent and they don't unravel; corduroy pants don't cut it (trust me).  My husband remarked just the other night that he notices a difference between the polyester-blend rags and the full cotton rags.  Terrycloth is good for heavy duty rags, although they fray if you don't hem them.    

If a rag doesn't clean well for you, you are allowed to THROW IT AWAY, because, remember, that's what you were going to do in the first place before you decided to cut it up.

Q:  Doesn't it waste water to wash all those rags?
A:  First of all, even my family -- who use no paper towels or paper napkins ever -- almost never does a laundry load with just rags.  Tossing a few rags into a load of laundry that was already close to full-up with clothes or towels doesn't affect the amount of water or energy the machine uses.

But even if you occasionally end up doing an extra load of laundry, remember that it takes water and energy to make paper towels and tissues, too.  Even more, it takes energy to transport that paper around the world and into your home.  Washing rags still wins.

Q:  How cool are those t-shirt sleeves?!?
A:  Yeah, totally; t-shirt sleeves make GREAT rags!  If you stab yourself in the hand (like J-son did the other day), then a t-shirt sleeve makes a perfect soft wrap to go around your hand, and it doesn't come off like plastic bandaids do.

Q:  How much money will this save?
A:  That depends partly on how completely you convert over to cloth.  (The Miser Mom family still has tissue boxes for our guests and occasionally for ourselves, and, yes, we still buy toilet paper).  

It also depends on how much money you waste already on paper products.  According to CarbonRally, the average American uses 55 pounds of disposable, non-recyclable paper (paper towels, paper napkins, facial and toilet tissues) each year.  One article I found estimated that paper towel costs average almost $200 per year for a family of four; I'm not sure I believe that.  But even at a fraction of that cost, that's a lot of money spent on paper, spent just to be able to throw something in a trash can.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Checkin' in on K-daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Go-o-O-O K-daughter!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A halt to a Haiti Adoption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there's that.  Not easy, y'know?

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

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


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

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

Monday, April 7, 2014

The amazing trash-free Xeryp storage containers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Saving money vs. saving people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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