Saturday, January 24, 2015

Surprisingly Fast & Easy Fixes

Not surprisingly, as a miser (mom),  I mend a bunch o' stuff.

Here are my two latest personal Miser Mom Mends:

Mend number 1:  Miser-Dog ate one finger off of a very expensive bike glove; I made a single denim finger using my sewing machine, and then I hand-sewed the makeshift finger onto the glove.  (Sticking a pen inside the finger while sewing made it easier to maneuver the fabric where I wanted it).

My husband enjoys making jokes that I'm giving him the finger!

Speaking of clothes that the dog has enjoyed too much, "Mend #2" is that I patched a pair of J-son's boxers that the dog munched on.  (Usually, the dog goes for *my* underwear, not other underwear, so I've been trying to tell J-son that this a kind of a canine compliment).  I like using t-shirt material as patches on the back side.
 On the "good" side of the clothes, the patch shows through just barely as scars.  Fortunately, very few people get to see J-son's shorts while he's wearing them.

But those two projects are NOT the fix-it projects I'm most proud of.  Instead, I'm just delighted beyond belief that I'm passing my proclivity for patching things along to my kids.  For example, J-son came to me one morning to complain that the pocket on his sweatshirt was coming undone.  I think he meant for me to fix his sweatshirt; but instead, I sat him down in front of the sewing machine, and in the space of 30 seconds, he re-fastened his own pocket by himself.  Yay, J-son!
J-son is Sew talented!

We've also had a bunch of problems with our low-flow toilets running frequently.  (Sort of defeats the purpose of low-flow, right?)  With all the crazy administrative work I'm doing for my college this year, I have a hard time figuring out how to get the hardware store so that I could fix this myself.  While I was in San Antonio at the math meetings, my husband got so frustrated with our toilets that he wrote to me:
If there is some new part we should order, we should do it soon.
Let me know if there is something I can do.
So I wrote back:
Go to a hardware store and just ask. We need a new flapper assembly. (You could take a photo with your phone of the inside of our toilet to show the clerks, but they'll know what I mean).

I know we'll need four, but get one to see if it works. If it does, buy more. If not, we're no worse off.

They're generally really easy to fix, I swear. It just takes time, which I don't seem to have much of.
So, do you know how much is cost to replace the the flapper assemblies on all four of our toilets?

It cost $8.  That's Eight Dollars.  My husband (wisely) disregarded my advice to fix one toilet at a time (which would have cost a whopping $16) and got a bag of five "universal tank flappers" for a mere $8. It turns out that taking pictures and showing them to the guys that work in hardware stores is a great way to figure out how to fix things in your home.  My husband fixed one toilet himself; then he delegated the other three toilet repairs to my sons.  Our family is living proof that there are some plumbing repairs that are so easy that a kid can do it.

So there you have it:
  • one $60 bike glove,
  • one $2.50 pair of boxers,
  • one $10 sweatshirt, and
  • four ($????) toilets,
all fixed for the price of $8, plus a bunch of (yard-sale-purchased) thread.

And we could still break one more toilet, if we had it (which we don't).  Hooray for mending!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

When spending is out of control

I don't mean what you'd think I mean when I say, "our family's spending is out of control".

What "out of control" usually means is "we're spending so danged much that Bad Stuff is happening, and we can't make it stop".   Fortunately, that's not the case for us.  Instead of racking up debt, we're doing just the opposite:  last year we actually maxed out our retirement accounts, opened up and maxed-out a Roth IRA, put money into Flexible Spending Accounts, gave a healthy amount of pre-tax money to United Way through my employer, . . . and even after diverting all of that money out of our possible paychecks, we still spent about $18K less than our take-home pay.

When I say that our spending is "out of control", I don't even mean that our spending is escalating in ways that freak me out.  Thanks in part to paying off our mortgage a few years ago, but also in part to my being a little bit obsessive about money, 2014 was our lowest spending year in the past few years.

No, all I mean by "out of control" is that I don't actually know what we actually spend our money on. That is, I don't have control over our spending.

I know a little bit about where our money went, it's true.  I know we spent more than 6.7% of our take-home pay on charity, which was more than the 6.1% that went to utilities (gas/electric/water/cell-phone/cable/internet), and that makes me happy.  I know that a whopping 26.9% of our take-home pay went to child-related expenses, thanks in large part to starting our boys at the nearby Quaker Local School.  I know that, with the mortgage long behind us, only about 5% of our take-home pay went to housing costs (mostly taxes, but also a few repairs and maintenance expenses).

But a full 51% of the money that left our checking accounts was either via cash or credit card.  And where that money went -- well, that's just a Big Mystery to me.  The majority of our spending is a giant gray hole.

Now, I know many people say that paying by credit card allows them to track expenses exactly.  But those people are not married to my husband.  My husband, I do not need to tell you, uses credit cards and cash far more exuberantly than I do.  (The ratio of him:me is about 4:1).  He uses his card for a dizzying mixture of business and personal, which makes categorizing expenses like "Pizza Place" a bit tricky (was that a personal pizza, or a professional pizza?).   Worse yet, his credit card statements come with mysterious charges to places like "Pmn Inq Dn" (that is a verbatim entry) or "Uncle Nick" (which is apparently a business expense, because it's some restaurant-with-clients thing).

Even more, each month brings a humongous tally of these charges, so trying to interview my husband in hopes of pinning each one of these charges into a particular category would become an inquisition.  I don't have the heart (or the guts) to grill him each month over the multi-page masterpiece of a bill that our credit card companies send us.

So, instead, I choose to live in a world where the majority of our family's spending is out of my control.

I regain control where I can.  Each month I tally where our money goes, and each month I do a report to my husband.  ("We spent X on charity.  We spent Y on childcare.  We spent Z on utilities.  We spent thus-and-such on credit cards and so-and-so on cash.  Here's how much we  have in our accounts now.  Here's are the big bills we have coming down the pike.")   Sometimes I add a caution about cash flow ("if you're going to get cash from the ATM, warn me so I can make sure we can cover it.").  Sometimes he decides he needs to get busy filing expenses that his employer should reimburse.  But generally, it's just a report.  No fingers get pointed.  The monthly finance report is actually a ritual we've both come to look forward to.

This year, I did an end-of-year report which included the observation about the 51%-gray-hole in my knowledge.  The percentage surprised my husband.  He knew he occasionally had large credit card bills (well, okay, pretty-much-always has large credit card bills), but he hadn't actually realized how wonkily those bills messed with my reckoning.  Since he's a bit of a fan of spreadsheets, he decided that he wanted to help fix this.

So I showed him how to go into Mint and mark up his credit card purchases.  This is the reason that I now know that "Pmn Inq Dn" is a reimbursable business expense, just like "Uncle Nick" is.  Playing with his recent expenses has become a bit of a video game for him.

We're going about the personal finance thing backwards, I know.  Traditionally, first you document every penny you spend; then you  use that to figure out how to spend less than you earn.  In our case, we did this in reverse order:  it's the comfort of knowing we're doing okay that has given my husband the confidence to finally track his spending.

It's a different way of gaining control of spending.
If this works.
I'm not completely optimistic that the new-found enthusiasm for labeling his expenses is going to persist.  But on the other hand, being in control isn't the ultimate goal, is it?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Flamingo Glove

One day when I was walking, I picked up a glove that had been orphaned on the sidewalk. It was bright pink.  As  I looked closer, I saw something about it that just tickled me.

Someone had decided to give two of the fingers -- just two, not all five -- a different color.  It was a beak!  This was a Flamingo Glove!  Wow!
Flamingo Glove looking at the snow.
I mean, how cute is that? I know, it would have been even better if the flamingo had eyes, but still, a beak. Hilarious!
I showed my new Flamingo Glove to all my friends.  And then one of them, before I could say "Look! It's a Flamingo!", said, "Oh, a texting glove."


How disappointing.

Sad Flamingo.

So I sewed on a button for an eye.  Because every Flamingo Glove needs an eye, right?
My Flamingo Glove is happy again.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


There's this bit in the middle of the book of Matthew that most people have heard before; it goes sort of like this:  Jesus is describing what God is going to say when he welcomes people into Heaven.  God says:  "For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink . . . " and the people God is talking to scratch their heads and say, "when the heck did I do that?", and God says, "when you did it to the least of my peoples."

Most of the times I hear that passage, I think one of two things:  Possibly I think, "Oh, yeah; we're supposed to get out there and take care of other people".  It's a weird kind of an almighty God that I believe in, one who can't/doesn't/won't (I'm not sure which) just snap fingers and make everything perfect.  Instead, for some mysterious reason, He delegates His work to a bunch of very messed up and imperfect human beings, and for some reason I'm supposed to be part of that ad hoc Food-and-Water Task Force.

Another thing I often think when I hear that passage is that God comes at me through some of the most down-trodden people I meet.  Put aside all those saintly glowing images of Jesus in clean flowing robes with haloes of light around him; if He were in central Pennsylvania instead of in Galilee, He'd probably hang with other construction workers outside the 7-11 in his stained t-shirt and work jeans.  And that's Jesus; the Father peers out at me through the eyes those who are, for whatever reason, currently unable to help themselves.  I think of that when I'm around people who are annoyingly incompetent: I think, "God's watching me now".

But lately, when I think about this passage, I think of how God realizes that most of our volunteer work seems senseless or pointless once we're actually doing it.  Long, long ago I used to volunteer with our local Hospice; my job was to sit with patients so that their families could take a break.  Most of the time, my patients would be asleep the whole time I was there.  Sometimes, there would be a visiting nurse who would shoo me into another room for an hour so she could work with the patient, and I'd sit in some living room or nursing home lobby, grading my calculus papers.  I was completely superfluous, not a happy feeling for a hyper-efficient-wanna-be like me.  So I completely identify with those guys asking, "when the heck did I help you, Lord?"

At any rate, when our local emergency women's homeless shelter sent around an email begging for volunteers so they could keep their doors open this week -- this week that happens to be the last remaining week of break so I'm not tied down by teaching/committees/meetings -- I figured it was time for me to go.   I am one of the worst people I know at staying up late: I pop out of bed at 5:50 a.m. each morning and hit the ground running (sometimes literally), but by 9:00 p.m. at night, there's this giant cotton cloud wrapping itself around the neurons in my skull, and by 10:00 p.m. I'm an evil zombie.  So I'm not a great overnight helper.  Still, they asked for me, so I said yes.

I've done overnights with this Homeless Shelter before.   Several years ago, N-son came to "help", too, and he loved it so much that he begged to be allowed to stay at the homeless shelter again.  (Some kind of mom I am, huh?)  So I know a bit of the drill.  We check women in at 7:30; lights out at 9:30.  Before my first time volunteering here, I would have imagined lots of noise and drama, but the truth is that most people just want to get to sleep.  It's cold outside; it's warm in here.

The women are a mix of everything you might expect.  Donna is a sweet but also a bats-in-her-belfry kind of woman, who asks me about all the noises in her sensory deprivation chamber.  A mother-daughter team explain to me why they're going back and forth from the shelter to the laundromat: "We're homeless, but honey, we don't want to look like we're homeless!"  There's the very very smelly woman.  There's a woman pregnant with twins, and she walks around looking a bit scared.  There's a woman here for the first time ever, who had to leave a bad situation, who is looking for reassurance that somehow this is okay:  "you know, I thought this was going to be awful, but it's actually pretty nice.  I've got a job interview tomorrow, so hopefully this will just give me a time to get back on my feet."

At 9:00 p.m. we close the doors.  At 9:30, lights out.  Shayna, the woman in charge of the shelter looks at me, and I guess she sees the neuron-cloud-zombie phase overtaking me, so she says, "Why don't you get some sleep?  I can take it from here."   I am, as I feared, completely superfluous again.  I pull out my mat, roll up in my comforter, and go down for the count.

But at 5:00 a.m the next morning, I pop awake.  There are loud sounds of snoring all around me.  I get up and start the coffee.  I put out donuts.  At 5:30 we start waking the women; they all have to leave the building by 6:45.  As they wake up, I stand behind food counter.  My job is to hand out sugar, but not too much sugar because apparently that can be a problem.  Yeah.

One woman needs help finding her Lithium and other meds.  Another one needs an outlet to charge her cell phone.  Two women ask for socks, which I find in a drawer next to mittens.  Another woman really really needs a tampon and some pads.  The woman with the job interview, she just wants to talk to someone who believes she's still okay.  And then one woman holds up her empty cup to me.

"You want coffee?" I ask her, pointing to the pots on the counter.  
"No, tea." She motions to the water cooler/heater behind me.  "Could you give me a cup of hot water?"

And that's it; the one moment I'd been waiting for all night.  Because to her, this was maybe just a cup of hot water; but for me, a tad wonky from lack of sleep and inclined toward the mystical, this was a Holy moment.

I know that spending one night at the shelter doesn't make me a hero; it didn't transform lives or stop homelessness or heal the lame.  Last night, I slept again in my own bed.  This morning, I popped awake to see the snow coming down outside my windows.  It's probably snowing on Donna in her noisy sensory deprivation chamber right now.   The night I spent at the shelter might not actually make any difference at all, but I'm glad I did it anyway.


Now that we're entering the coldest months of the year, emergency homeless shelters around the country are looking for help:  donations of toiletries and sanitary items, but also people willing to hang out and help, even for just one night.  See