Thursday, January 28, 2016

Winter paperwork clean out

Well, a new year has rolled around; the date on those bills and checks and paperwork that are coming in now all end in a "6" instead of a "5".  So it's time for taking care of the annual routine of "out with the old, and in with the new".

And so it's also time for a little "thank you" to a long-ago version of me, a version who decided to keep my financial records in one of these accordion folders.  Because that version of me who figured out how to keep papers, she totally enabled and gifted the version of me who wants to get rid of papers, too.

Okay, we're supposed to keep financial records for 7 years.  I err a tad on the safe side, but just a tad.  This past weekend, I pulled out my "2007" folder.  I moved the tax forms and the home repair receipts into a more permanent folder.  Then I pulled out all other papers and put them in my "to shred pile".  From there, with the help of a glittery silver permanent marker, I had my new paperwork folder ready to go.  Zzzzip -- just that fast and brainless.

I'll keep the 2016 folder on a nearby shelf, next to the desk where I pay bills.  Until taxes are done, I'll keep the 2015 folder nearby, too.  But all my other accordion folders -- the ones dated 2008 to 2014 -- those are tucked away on the floor of the closet in my sewing room, out of sight  and out of the way unless I really need to get them.

The categories I created, lo those many years ago, for dividing up the folder aren't perfect.  But they're good enough that it's not worth it to me to change them.  Here's the names on those 12 pockets:

  • ATM & bank statements
  • Auto
  • Charity
  • Credit Card statements
  • Insurance Bills
  • Insurance Policies
  • Medical stuff
  • Mortgage/House (even though we don't have a mortgage anymore)
  • Pay stubs and reimbursement
  • Pets & Kids (this category always makes me chuckle)
  • Tax stuff
  • Utilities & Phone

Thank you, long-ago me!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What she bought: spilt milk and soggy cell phones

This week, as is fairly usual during the cold winter months, my only shopping trip was to market.  I usually bike there, making it a stop home after I've helped serve breakfast at our local rescue mission.  But the snow we got on Saturday was so humongous that there are still entire streets that are anti-cleared:  not only are the streets still full of snow, but the ends are blocked by giant mounds of snow (taller than a person), where the snow plows dump snow from the main roads.  My bike isn't made for snow.

So I walked the two mile or so to the mission, carrying my backpack on my back. Walking was kind of lovely, especially on the way there, before the sun came up and the cars came out.  Then I walked to market, and I bought dairy stuff: a half gallon of milk, some cheese, two quarts of yogurt.  $17.

And if the story ended there, all would be good.  But that wan't the end of the shopping trip.  On the way back home, when I was super close to home, I decided to stop walking in the snowy streets along with the cars, and instead to cut across our campus, where the facilities crews have been going non-stop with heroic efforts to clear the paths.  I should have stuck with the streets -- dang, why don't I remember that ice is always a worse danger than snow?

At any rate, I hit a little patch of sidewalk that had been cleared, and then had some snow melt onto it, and then froze over.  Invisible ice.  Whomp -- I went down.  I didn't hurt myself or anything.  But about a half a block later, someone noticed that I was leaking milk; the glass milk jug in my backpack had broken.

Six hours later, I realized that my phone wasn't working.  I'm not exactly addicted to my phone -- in fact, the only reason I noticed is that I wanted to take a picture of J-son's newly pierced ears. The phone isn't cracked -- I don't think it was the crash that hurt it; I think it was sitting in milk that zapped the electronics.

Sigh.  I would sort-of love to have no cell phone, but I know my husband would freak.  Fortunately, we happen to have a back-up cell phone waiting for just such an emergency, although I vainly believed it would be my sons' emergency, not mine.

But it's gotta be said, right:  there's no use crying over spilt milk in my cell phone.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Cleaning up Christmas . . .

I really love printer paper boxes.

My little paper box collection (okay, my big paper box collection) started off several years ago as a throw-my-arms-around-and-thrash-a-bit attempt to find a storage method suitable for my sons:  easy access, cheap to replace after the inevitable destruction, non-toxic to our environment.  By trimming down one edge, I make a box that has good visibility but still has lots of space for stuff.

I'd tried a bunch of other alternatives of course, but they were only successful in the sense that they could tide me over until the next attempt.  But . . . cardboard printer boxes . . . wow.  They're just so handy.  And now I use them all over the house, storing everything from lightbulbs to bike gear to donate-able clothes.

Which is why, this year, instead of putting my Christmas decorations back away in the plastic fake-milk-crates I'd used for years, this year I switched to printer boxes.  (As the lids, say, they're "multi-purpose").  The only milk crate left is there because it keeps the boxes off the floor-- we occasionally get water in the basement -- and now that I think about it, I'll probably just switch that to a pair of 2-by-fours.

The fake-milk-crates, they're headed for the thrift store.  I'm sure someone can use them, and as Bea J. of the Zero Waste Home says, I don't want to hoard things that could be put to use elsewhere in the world.  I know other people don't love printer boxes the way I do, but they might use plastic crates.  Time for a material rearrangement of the universe . . . or at least a material rearrangement of the city I live in.

 And so, with the ornaments, lights, and timers packed into cardboard boxes (labelled, stacked, and stored in their cupboard), all that's left of Christmas decorations out and about in the house now are these cards, decorating our  cast iron tree.  It's still a Christmas tree for a few weeks, but the seasons are changing, and it's about to turn into a Valentines Tree.


Two more images from the Miser Mom Printer Box Photo Gallery.  Aren't these lovely?  (Okay, not lovely, but, y'know, they really do do the job).

Monday, January 25, 2016

Snow business and frugal forecasts

Saturday, the blizzard howled around our home while we watched Blacklist and Madame Secretary.

Overnight, the clouds parted and the nearly full moon shone down, making everything shine.

Early Sunday morning, I woke up with the sun and shoveled a path down the driveway to the street.  We have a garage out back, where our car gets to sit safely sheltered from the storm.  So the front driveway, I cleared just enough for pedestrian traffic.
A walkway from my front door toward the street,
in the early morning light.

The boys, I woke them just before 8 and sent them out to shovel -- not only a walkway for our home, but also driveways of three of our neighbors.  These neighbors, they paid the boys big bucks.  There's no business like snow business!
N-son walks down the sidewalk with his shovel,
on his way to helping a neighbor.
It's true there was a lot of snow for the boys to clear.  A lot.  The boys, they didn't finish shoveling until 3:30.  Aches and pains.   Some cold feet.

Not to mention, sore backs from throwing snow onto higher and higher mounds of snow business.

While the boys made piles of money busting their backs shoveling other people's snow, I got to sit back and be all "yay, me" while I enjoyed the fruits of frugality.   To wit,
  • Because we're down to owning only one car (that we keep in the garage out back), we could get away with shoveling a mere walkway in the front driveway.   Even that one walkway took an hour or more of work -- this was a LOT of snow.  We have the luxury of minimal shoveling at our own home, thanks to our minimal car ownership.
  • In fact, because we only own one car now, we offered up the other half of our garage to a friend whose New York lifestyle makes owning multiple cars difficult (but she owns them anyway).  As a result, my husband gets to drive around a sporty little rag top Miata this winter -- when it's not snowing, that is.
  • The basement is chock-full of food that I bulk-purchased or canned this summer.  No last-minute grocery runs necessary.  We've been feasting on home-made bread, waffles, hot soup.  Ymmmm.
  • The insulation and new gas furnace we installed in 2009 and 2012 cost a lot of money, but what those past costs mean nowadays is that from now on, our home is way more energy efficient and comfy than before.  Pre those upgrades, we spent $3800/year on heating oil and cooking gas; last year, we spent less than $700.  All this snow is just a reminder to me about how happy and comfy I am in this home; the blizzard was a little gift of gratitude.

Okay, maybe it was a big gift of gratitude, three feet deep and fairly chilly.  But what a lot of fun!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Family Phones update

If there's one area of personal finance where my husband and I disagree the most, it's phones. Me, I just about hate 'em.  When I was in college (that was back in the days when, if you wanted to talk on the phone, you had to stand next to the wall), I spent about 33¢ per month on long-distance calls.  But my husband, he got one of the first ever cell phones, back when these were called "car phones" and they came with a 5-pound battery pack that you had to lug along using a shoulder strap because the thing was so danged heavy.

So it's not surprising that my family has had pretty hefty phone bills AND that I continually try to find ways to bring those bills down from what I see as the stratosphere.

Just FYI, because of all our various kids, we've maintained about five different active cell phones for over a decade now.  For the most recent years that I've been keeping records, our average monthly cell phone bills have been
  • 2012: $274/month
  • 2013: $308/month
  • 2014: $315/month
  • 2015:  . . . dropping to "only" $200/month.
In other words, in the last four years alone, we've spent over $13,000 on cell phone bills.  To me, that's crazy.  To my husband, it's been a life-sustaining, vital expense.

Last summer, I wrote about how my husband finally decided to give up his old, reliable Verizon plan and switch to Ting.  Based on other bloggers' glowing reports, I was all excited to show him that frugal phone plans work, too.  (Yeah!  Goooooo, Miser Mom!)  But unfortunately, the switch was a little black hole of a disaster.  We just don't get Sprint service here at all (necessary for Ting), and the "bucket" approach to data turned out to be a "bathtub" of data for my guy.  All of a sudden we were paying boatloads of money for lousy reception -- the worst of both our worlds.

Fortunately for me, a bunch of different people commented with great suggestions.  The jackpot, as far as my husband was concerned, was the comment that came from Penn, who wrote: 
Verizon has now ditched contracts. So, if he still has a Verizon phone, you can actually do a "bring your own device." There's a variety of data plans. My husband and I share 1 gig a month (we monitor near the end but have been fine). We pay $20 each line for line access.
No worries about extended contracts, and his bill should be under $75 unless he uses a LOT of data. . . . 
So, he moved back to Verizon.  He doesn't swing $20 bucks for his line, but he does, as predicted, keep the cost under $75 -- just about $65, in fact.   (Although he's had one or two months where he had to institute a data-diet toward the end of the month to keep the bill that "low").

As for the rest of us, the boys and I share four lines.  (There are only three of us, but we've learned though repeated losings of phones on the part of the boys that it's just less headache having a back-up phone at home, especially now that we've ditched our land line).  And the cost for our four lines, using Republic Wireless? $53/month.  

So that's how we managed to bring the average cell phone bill down in 2015, and it looks like we'll be able to point to 
  • 2016:  $118/month.
My husband, he's happy with his current phone, so that's good.  And as for me, I look at that phone bill and I know it's not 33¢, but it's definitely heading in the Miser Mom direction . . . so I'll take what I can get.  Thanks one and all for your good advice last August!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

What she bought: the kitchen sink

So, our host daughter, Y, popped her head into my sewing room Saturday night and asked, "Is it okay if I put some duct-tape on the kitchen sink?"

This is not the kind of question I get every day, and I spent a couple of seconds with the gears in my head whirring around trying to perform computations and correlations:  duct tape?  sink?  Is there some natural connection?  I finally answered, "um, sure, but is there a reason you want to put duct tape on the sink?"

She said, "well, there's a leak, and so I figured duct tape would stop it."

Oh.  A leak.  Of course, duct tape is not the solution to a leak, so I got up from my sewing room, went down to the kitchen, and took a look for myself.  Sure enough the kitchen faucet had sprung a hole, about midway along the arm, so that when you turn on the water most of the water performed the correct duty of coming out the nozzle, but some of the water sprayed straight up toward the ceiling like a drinking fountain.  Cute, and possibly with practical uses for a creative person, but not really what I want in my kitchen.

My husband had the car that day, so I called and asked if, on the way home, he might stop at the store pick up an extra kitchen faucet set.  He did.

Sunday, I brought J-son down into the kitchen with me for a little plumbing lesson.  Stage one, clear out everything under the sink; stage two, turn off the water.

Except the shut-off valves on these old, old pipes are old and a little rusty themselves, and the hot-water valve just didn't want to turn.  J-son enthusiastically offered to use a hammer.  I equally enthusiastically rejected that kind offer -- oh, geez; that's JUST what I need!  (Anybody remember the time J-son "fixed" his bike with my mallet?  Neither the bike nor the mallet survived).

We tried a more gentle form of coercion, but when part of the hot water shut-off valve knob broke off in my hand, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor.  A new faucet installation might be within my ability, but a busted water pipe is beyond my meager plumbing skills.

Since, on Monday, I headed out for yet another math trip, I delegated the calling of professional plumbers to my husband.  It really is nice having him around to take care of things in the house!

The plumbers apparently brought along a faucet with them; it's a super super nice faucet.  I'm really too cheap to splurge on something like this myself, but I'm secretly (okay, not-so-secretly) delighted at the upgrade we've gotten.

It comes at a price -- that price being $750.  With that, we also got new shut-off valves under the sink, plus a one-year protection plan.  I was not around to negotiate on this; my husband assures me it was a good deal, and I try not to second-guess people who I've asked to take over a project when I can't do it.  So I'll declare this a success.

But  I sure do hope I don't have many more plumbing adventures this January!

(I've silently lusted after hose-handle faucets.  And now I have one!)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Toilet Tank Tuesday?

Y'know, I am not really planning to have a regular Toilet Repair segment on this blog.  No "Five Frugal Things Friday, Three Thrifty Things Thursday, and Toilet Tank Tuesday" routine for me.

But the thing is, I got back from Seattle to find that our host daughter, Y, was nervous about the upstairs toilet because it flushed slowly.  (This is a different toilet from the one I repaired just before I left for the math meetings).  I checked it out, did some hefty plunging, a bit of icky cleanup, and declared swift-flowing success.

Except that the next time the toilet was used for, um, substantial business, the slowness problem returned.  More plunging, more cleaning, more declarations of success.  Repeat this paragraph a few times.

That is why, on Saturday, I brought N-son and J-son into the bathroom for their first lesson in how to use a plumber's snake.  And the real lesson we all learned from this particular exercise is this:

Do not flush toothbrushes down the toilet.  

I mean, you probably knew that.  You probably also know not to brush your teeth in the toilet, so how this particular problem occurred, I do not even want to contemplate.  But at least now we know, just in case we had ever thought to wonder, what happens when a toothbrush gets dropped . . . well, never mind.  Back to doing math. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Bandana snack bags

You don't really care that I've been feeling the need for a cloth snack bag, but that truly is what I've been thinking about. I've been doing a bunch of traveling; I'm going to be doing more travel this spring; and I like to bring trail-mix-y stuff along with me while I travel.

I'd been packing my travel trail mix in random plastic bags, but I like this less and less -- not only for aesthetic reasons, but also because bags that seal (like zip-lock bags I inherit from other events) don't stand on their own, so the threat of spilled food is real.  

But my snack mix is dry enough that I figured it's transportable in a cloth bag. And when my husband handed me an old bandana he no longer wanted (printed long-ago with a "Happy Birthday" message from his coworkers -- ??!?), I figured this might be just what I needed: tight weave, small scrap of fabric, and if transforming a bandana into a snack bag doesn't work . . . well, the bandana was headed for the rag bag anyway.  Plus, I was just tickled by the whole 1970's motif of a bandana thing melding into crunchy granola thing.  Could this project be any more hippie without getting to the point of tie-dye?

So here's the bandana-to-granola bag transformation.

Step 1:  Fold the bandana in half and then mark a line down halfway.  I sewed a seam on either side of that line and then cut things in half again.

Step 2:  Four seams sewed, and already I have two bags!  I could have stopped here, but to make the bags nicer, I'll go a little further.

Step 3:  Start the gussets that will help the bag stand up on its own.  At the bottom of the bag, 1/4 and 3/4 of the way across, I marked vertical lines in pencil.

Step 4: When I folded the bottom crease of the bag against the side seam of the bag, I get these triangles.  Now the lines I marked go side-to-side (only half-way, because I only marked the vertical lines on one side of the bag).  

Step 5:  Sew the gussets, by sewing off those triangle flaps.  The bottom of the bag should be a square once those lines are sewed; I also then sewed the triangle flaps down flat to the bag, so they don't flop around and get caught in the trail mix.  Plus, sewing them down to the bottom square of the bag give the bag that much more stability.

Step 6:  Fold over the top edge of the bag and sew to create a channel for a shoelace drawstring (we just happened to have extra shoelaces kicking around). 

Step 7:  Admire!  Notice how nicely the bags stands up by themselves, even with nothing inside!

But of course, we all know what's going inside:  trail mix.  Yum!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Retirement Rest; Sabbatical Sleep

I wanted to do a post on how retirement is going for my husband, now that he's had a bit more than half a year to experience life-without-commuting.  But I realized that one of the all-by-itself big changes -- big enough that it's worth a mention all by itself -- is sleep.

Sleep, as in: being well-rested is one of the most Amazing, Life-Enhancing, Super-Awesome things there is.

My guy and I live at opposite ends of the clock in some ways. I've been reveling in the ways my sabbatical "lets" me wake up at 5:30 a.m. every day; even more significantly to me, it lets me put my head on the pillow at 9:30 at night, and I'm out like a lamp about 5 or 10 minutes later.   My husband, on the other hand, loves the late-night-roam-the-house-and-watch-the-late-show routine.  I'm guessing he usually makes it to bed around midnight, but I honestly have no idea.

When he worked, he did the late-night-roam-watch routine, AND he woke up whenever the alarm clock told him to -- often at 6 or earlier, a time he and his army buddies call "zero-dark-thirty".  And then, on his days off, he'd sleep until noon and wake up exhausted and wonder why he'd been so tired.  (His super-sleep-routine-conscious wife helpfully tried to explain various connections, but, y'know, being sleep-deprived impedes the learning process).  But now that he's not beholden to an Amtrak schedule, he gets up in time to walk the boys to the bus -- a ritual that means a lot to him -- which means he wakes up after  sunrise.  And even then, when the alarm goes off, he's not rushing to prepare for  meetings; and he's not keeping track of papers and clothes and appointments.  He's just brushing teeth and putting on a sweatshirt and jeans.  It's a much less brain-intensive kind of wakening, if that makes sense.

For my husband, the change in life that comes from change in sleep habits is way more dramatic than it is for me, largely because even when I'm not on sabbatical, I'm pretty anal about trying to stick to a healthy snooze routine.   (I don't always succeed, but I come pretty dang close, thank you.)  For my husband, though, the extra morning sleep is truly life-giving.  I can't think of the last time he had one of those sleep-till-noon-and-then-rise-exhausted days.  He's always had a lot of energy to take on crazy new ideas (Hello, Iraq!  Hello, IronMan! Hello, adopt-a-few-more-kids!)  But now he has enough space in his schedule and also in his brain to take over the more routine and boring old ideas, too:  cooking, supervising schoolwork, pediatric appointments, and such.

In fact, the lore about retirement is that it lets you sleep in, sleep late, and sleep all day if you want to.  But at least for my husband and me, what a bit of extra sleep means is that we're more awake than ever.  It's awfully nice.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

What she bought (or not), basket weaving version

So, I actually didn't do any shopping last week.  I was at the humongous math meetings in Seattle.  The closest I got to being inside a store was to go to the book exhibits, which happen in a giant room that seems to go on forever and ever.  Book sellers from all kinds of different publishers (although mostly academic presses) come to convince people to buy their stuff.  There are also all kinds of software vendors, and also math toy vendors, and even people offering massages.

But my favorite part of this exhibit hall isn't the books, etc; it's the art exhibit.  I grew up hearing people make jokes about easy college courses by calling them "basket weaving" classes, but mathematical basket weaving is actually stunningly complex and impressive.  I didn't get a close-up, but these were fabulous pieces.

There are a lot more than basket sculpture work; there are paintings and beadwork and prints and sculpture.  My own mathematical work looks (sort of) at how we look at lines -- in particular, how a bunch of straight lines can come together to make curved things, and how those curves look when you smoosh them onto flat things (for example, by taking photographs or looking at reflections in a mirror).  So two of the pieces I totally loved were these ones, below.

But buying them, well, even if I had been in a buying mood, the art wasn't for sale.

(In fact, I did amazingly little buying of standard travel stuff.  My college and my professional organization are kind enough to cover about half the cost of my airfare, hotel, and meals; plus, I'm on so many BigShot committees this year that I only bought my own lunch once and my own dinner twice, so my expense reports are going to be easier to write).  

Monday, January 11, 2016

Twisted resolutions

I love making really creative, convoluted resolutions that combine multiple goals in a sort of back-door way.  One of my most successful resolutions of years past -- successful in the sense that I'm still happily incorporating them in my regular life -- combined my goal of wanting to get back into shape and also spend more time with friends: the resolution was,  "Run gregariously".  Likewise, our family's "Special Dinner" series was my answer to finding ways to build traditions among a group of people who come from many backgrounds but who now lived together in one home.  They're fun; they're funky; and they worked.

So here, below, are three of my favorite twisted "resolutions" for 2016, along with a description of how & why I came up with these particular ideas.

What I really want to do (that is, the goal behind the resolution) is build up my upper-body strength: lift weights more often, do pushups, yadda yadda.  In the past, there have been times when I just *loved* lifting -- bur recently, as much as I love the idea of it, I somehow just never seem to get started.  So putting on my thinking cap about what was different then than now, it was that the love-lifting-times came when I had a natural clothing transition time that coincided with a lifting space -- for example, I was going from class to swimming, so I happened to be right near the weight machines right as I was changing from normal clothes into other clothes. In that situation, a small detour to the weight machine just seemed like a gift to my body and my mood.  What worked was a combination:  the swim was a signal, and the geography made the detour easy.

Hence, Exercise resolution #2:  "Stretch and do pushups before any shower".  

The shower is the signal, and stretching/pushups is something I can do anywhere.  Better yet, since I usually take a shower on those four days a week I go running (gregariously), I can do my stretching/pushups while I'm already warmed up and stinky.

Likewise, a huge desire of mine is to keep J-son out of jail/not let my family members strangle J-son have lots of regular "Time In"s with J-son.  I also want to try to take care of some deferred maintenance on the house before my sabbatical is over.

Hence, Home resolution #4:  "Weekly fix-it project with J-son".

This next one is already one of my favorite ideas of the year for being convoluted in its conception, even though I have no idea if this'll actually work.  I've mentioned once or twice that N-son has some mild physical issues because of a stroke -- one of these is that he slurs his words.  This slurring is both persistent and mild: persistent in that all of our family and all of his teachers know that it's often hard to understand him, and mild in the sense that every speech therapist we've taken him to says he's fine.  The most recent speech therapist noted it might be "laziness" -- rather, that he speaks well when that's his only task, but when he gets distracted with other thoughts (especially in crowds) he just relaxes his mouth a lot.  He needs some strength training, she suggested.   And on a completely different side of N-son, he's loving playing drums and also the new mostly-adult chorus he's joined, both for the music but also for the no-judgment camaraderie that his new social circles provide him.

Hence, Home resolution #1:  "Find affordable voice lessons for N-son". 

(Don't you love it?  Building on his current passion, but also giving him a backdoor to speech therapy . . . I'm so psyched about the potential for this idea.  We've already found some $1/minute lessons; but I don't think we want to put quite that much money into it if we can find a more frugal alternative).

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Talking with doctors about feet

So, last week I sprained my foot. Yowchers. And because I was getting ready to go on travels for a week, and the foot hurt like the dickens and didn't stop hurting, on the second day of pain and tingling, I made a quick trip to the doctor. He gave me the usual RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) speech and sent me on my way with his good wishes.

Here's my foot, elevated, in an ace bandage, next to my bottle of medication. (Those "M"s stand for "medicine", right)?

And just as an FYI if this ever happens to you, I'll add that it's really super helpful to work closely with a doctor on injuries like this. Notice the prescription (especially the last line) that the doc gave me.

Best doctor ever!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The ingredients of apology

I think I want to change J-son's middle name.  This kid.  He's such an amazing and friendly and competent and good-hearted kid so much of the time . . . and then for an instant, he slips.

Unfortunately, when he slips, he hurts and offends other people, and the damaged relationships have become a  Thing that we've had to Deal With here in our house.  And so, I've spent a lot of time by J-son's side Dealing With Things recently.  And every time a contrite J-son and I sit down together to work yet again on the process of healing, rebuilding, restoring,  I think:  my son's name should be "Redemption".  As in, "J-son Redemption MiserChild".   (Okay, so it's hard to describe this and keep all details anonymous, right?).

Of course, there is restitution and rehabilitation going on.  We're bringing in outside help, not only for their professional expertise but also, honestly, just to give ourselves a break.  But we've also been working with J-son on apologizing -- not a little kid's "I'm SOR-ry!", but a truly sincere, grown-up kind of public repentance.  In particular, we've been working on apology letters to the people he hurt the most.

In these letters, we banish the words "if" and "but".  We don't say "I'm sorry if I hurt you" or "I'm sorry I did it but . . ."  These words only serve to make the apologizer feel better, while infuriating the apologizee.

Instead, here are the many ingredients of each apology letter.  We worked the details out on a separate piece of scratch paper first because it's just so hard to keep all this in mind, and we then painstakingly wrote an apology letters that we could deliver.

  1. Say you're sorry.  
  2. Describe specifically what you did.  (Dang, but this can be hard and embarrassing to do, and just having to say these words out loud is tough.)
  3. Describe how it hurt the person, looking at it from this other person's point of view.  (J-son and I spent the most of our time here, because this is really hard.  He'd offer up something like "This hurt you because now you feel you can't trust me" -- but I'd bring it around to ". . . because you ought to be able to leave your wallet out in your own bedroom and now you feel like you have to lock it up."  That is, take it back to how it affects the life of the person you offended, not how that person feels about you as a person).
  4. Accept responsibility for both your actions and for the hurt they caused.  Say, "That's my fault; I shouldn't have done it, but I did."
  5. Explain that this won't happen again . . . or, more realistically, the steps you're taking to keep this from happening again.  Because honesty here is way more important than making promises you're going to break.

    Oog.  This is so exhausting!  And I'm so very proud of J-son for his hard work in confronting and admitting all of his mistakes, even while I sort of want to strangle the kid for causing all this trouble in the first place.  

    Okay, but there are two more steps still remaining:
  6. Explain why the relationship with this other person is important to you: (you're my sister; you're my friend; I want to keep making jokes with you; I want to be able to confide in you when I need someone to talk with).  
  7. Ask for forgiveness.  This seems hokey, especially to a depressed 17-year-old who's just been through the emotional wringer of steps 1-5, but asking for this other person to take this step of grace is danged powerful.  The request -- I hope you can someday forgive me -- is what remains to be released from Pandora's little jar, now that the other evils have already been let loose among us.  

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Bad Toilet Karma

In this Wednesday's edition of "what she bought", we give you a trip to the hardware store -- plus, while we're out, a brief visit to a print shop.  And as a bonus, we bring you a toilet repair tutorial!
The SPDM at the print shop.  

I think the Grumpies put a curse on me in the comments of one of their recent posts when they told someone "I think Miser Mom has a tutorial on fixing toilets".  I didn't actually have one, although a year ago I had written that my husband and sons found it surprisingly easy to replace the flapper valves.  Then, this past summer, the hinges on my toilet seats gave way.  The Toilet Curse struck yet again last Thursday as I prepared for the annual winter math meetings: the toilet started running constantly.  These toilets!   Although they are low flow (which is the positive, eco-reason we bought them), I am less and less impressed with their movable hardware.
The thing on the left has an arm that goes up and down with the float.
In a toilet that works, when the arm is up, the water stops flowing.
The open pipe in the middle should stick out a bit above the water (but here, it doesn't).

This time, the problem wasn't a bad-fitting flapper valve; instead, the long stem piece with the arm that goes up-and-down (you can see it I really know my plumbing terminology) didn't shut the water off even when the floater had lifted the arm up.  Hence, trip to the hardware store and nearby print store, where I spent a grand total of $63.44:  $34.34 on printing family letters, $20-ish on a new smoke detector to replace one that wigged out a few weeks ago, and $7.48 on the stem-arm-thingie.

Shopping haul.
Note that this means fixing a toilet yourself can be really cheap: only $7.50.  And I was delighted to find that if I just looked around a little, I could get a new "Toilet Fill Valve" (oh, so THAT's what it's called!) in a cardboard box instead of in plastic fortress casing.

From here, it's just a simple matter of following the directions, which actually are straightforward and well illustrated.  I love plumbing instructions!
There are even more detailed directions inside the box.

Okay, except that nothing is ever PERFECTLY simple when it comes to plumbing repair.  In the case of a . . . what's it called?  Oh yeah, in the case of a toilet fill valve, the hard part for me was getting off the old one.  The difficulty is partly geometry:  there's a "locknut" down under the toilet that holds the valve on, and it's hard to see it, and it's hard to reach it.
The nut that holds that stem in place isn't easy to see or to reach.
 There's also friction (the threads had gotten gunky over time, making it hard to turn the locknut), and there was even more geometry (the other end of this all is the valve itself, which is inside the tank, and you have to hold that still while turning the nut -- and of course, the inside stuff is a bit wet and slippery).
Once I grabbed the stem with the vise grips, it cracked.
No going back now: onward to install the new valve!

Taking off that danged white locknut took about 45 minutes, about 40 of which I futzed about by myself. Then my husband came by to help.  With my husband using the vise grips to hold the valve still, and with me using pliers and a bit of elbow grease to turn the nut, we got the nut the rest of the way off in only 5 more minutes.  So the moral of that story is: big pliers, a vise grip, and two people.

From there, it really only took less than 10 minutes to finish the job -- and that included cleaning up the mess.  And I could tell you how I did it, but the directions are in the box and they're really easy to read, and better than anything I could write.  

Monday, January 4, 2016

Family Photo Gift tags

Now that Christmas is past, my family is coming back home.  Or rather, my family's photos are coming back to my bulletin board.

A couple of years ago, I made gift tags with each of my family member's photos: tape a photo onto a bookmark-shaped piece of cardboard, punch a hole in the other end, and add a ribbon.  At the beginning of the year, I line the tags up along the bottom of my bulletin board, and so I get to see the faces of the people I love.

Over the course of the year, as I buy gifts for people, I take the tags off the bulletin board and tie them onto the gifts.  So my family slowly "disappears" during the year, and the faces I can still see are the ones I still want to buy presents for.

My family, who is frugal like I am (well, not quite as frugal as me, but they humor me), cheerfully return the tags to me after they open gifts.  As my dad's wife says, "I'm giving this back to you, because I want a present next year!" And then I put the tags back up on the bulletin board.

You know how you put a picture up on the wall or on a shelf or on the fridge, and then after a month you stop seeing it and sort of forget that it's there?  Here in chez Miser, we have all sorts of pictures like that around our house -- and in fact, when I painted our bedroom this summer, I took down a bunch of old photos that we don't at all miss now that they're not on the walls.

But because these gift-tag photos come and go, they're somehow different.  This time of year, with Christmas just behind us (or rather, still so far away), I've got the faces of people I love in front of me again, filling up space that was blank a week or so ago.  Happiness.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Financial Update Update

So, this isn't actually an update on our finances.  It's an update on how, every month, I give my husband a "financial update".  

I do this because budgets and goals and such seem to have very little effect on him; there are a lot of ways in which my husband is just as much subject to the vagaries of ADHD as my sons are.  So he'll say, "yes; we should certainly set aside money for X", but the next day he'll go spend a pile of money on Y, "because Y was on sale".  

But if forward thinking doesn't seem to sink in, constant feedback does.  For years, we've been sitting down together at the end of the month and I'll show him, "This is where our money went this month.  We gave this much to charity; we spent that much on child care; and then this many thousands disappeared into your credit card and cash."  Then I give a little "here's what I think is coming down the pike" speech, and I put away the spreadsheet until next month.

Last year, I wrote a post about our spending being "out of control", meaning that I don't in any way control my husband's spending.  In particular, I wrote about how I know what checks I pay, . . . 
. . . 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.
For some reason, that post struck a chord with my husband.  And this past summer, he decided that he'd start categorizing his credit card expenses in Mint.  And that's what I'm going to write about now: about using Mint to help understand where our money goes.

First of all, I'll mention a couple of huge drawbacks to using Mint as our primary financial feedback tool.
  • Mint can't "see" any of my credit union accounts, so the majority of the bills that I pay and donations that I make never find their way into Mint.  And since I like my credit union more than I like Mint, I mostly keep track of finances via my own excel spreadsheet.
  • If I want to do an update on "what we spent this month", Mint is out-of-synch.  For example, I'll say, "on March 17th, we paid your credit card bill of $3000".  But the purchases on that credit card bill were from January and February.  So there's this odd phase-lag when I say, "your credit card bill was really high this month" or "was really low this month", but my husband is thinking, "that's funny, because I haven't bought much" or "but I've just bought all those plane tickets for editors!".

    (Below I'll talk about why this lag isn't really all that important in the long run, but we definitely have to take the phase lag into account during our update sessions).
  • Mint can't split a transaction.  If we spent $100 at a store, and $30 of that was for home repair while $70 of that was kid's clothes, we have to categorize it as all one lump category:  all kid's clothes, for example.  So there's a lot of error built into any analysis.
  • Edit:   Daryl, in the comments below, notes that splitting transactions is possible, we just couldn't figure it out until now.  Thanks, Daryl!
  • Mint does its best to guess categories, but it often guesses wrong.  If you look at our yearly credit-card spending, Mint says we spent $12,697 for "Food & Dining".  Craziness!  If you look more closely, though, you'll see that huge amount includes things like "Amtrak: $106.00", "Holiday Inn: $294.96".   In other words, Mint guessed wrong a lot of the time.

    (During the last three months of 2015,  when my husband actually started going through his transactions and categorizing them more carefully, "Food & Dining" expenses were only $1353 for three months, less than our charitable donations, less than my husband's "entertainment" spending, and less than our reimbursed business expenses). 
  • The categories it chooses to lump together are not the categories we'd choose to lump together.  Case in point: we think exercise is fun, and belongs in the "entertainment" section, but Mint puts it into "health and fitness", alongside all of our family's medical expenses.  WRONG!  So my husband now has created a "bike" subcategory under "entertainment".  Also, his textbooks are "entertainment".  Actually, we declared that anything he spends for himself (not on the kids, not on household supplies) is "entertainment".  So there.  

All that said, there are a lot of cool things about Mint that my husband and I like, for probably quite different reasons.  One thing we both like are these cool "trend" graphs, that break down our credit card spending into various categories where we can compare them visually.
Mint's breakdown of our credit-card-purchased "trends" for the past 6 months,
with a LOT of error mixed into the analysis.

I like having all of our accounts (all except, alas, the credit union) visible in one place, so I can freak out (or not) about the impending credit card bills and simultaneously see how our investments are doing (purely voyeurism, because we're basically on autopilot with those right now).

My husband likes the spreadsheet and tracking aspect of this.  He's kind of a competitive guy, and for all his impulsivity when it comes to future events, he's sort of a maniac about tracking what he's done in the past.  He has spreadsheets of his bike mileage since he started riding, spreadsheets listing the 40 vehicles he's owned, spreadsheets of books he's read, and even spreadsheets of his broken bones.  Hence, categorizing things in Mint has a certain appeal for him.

And for me, I'm loving the feedback loop.  Even though there IS a phase lag between buying things and paying for them, in the long run, trends begin to appear.  My husband's credit card bills are starting to come down into a range that causes me a bit less hyperventilation.  He's much less likely to tell me, "but this was a special expense because . . . ", since he's realizing through his own work that special expenses happen basically every month.  

So the financial updates continue, and now it's even more of a team effort.  Happy 2016!