Monday, December 22, 2008

Preparing for Baby Part 2

Interestingly, this holiday season has provided me with more time at home than I can remember for a long time.  Usually December is a month of running from task to task, from Christmas shopping to baking to gatherings.  This year we've been remarkably light in the gatherings arena, and due to doctors appointments and one giant snowstorm, I've been at home - either working or not - quite a bit.  

While that hasn't meant that we're completely ready for either the holidays or the baby - heck, it doesn't even mean that the house is clean - it has meant that our lives seem to be moving at a nicer pace than over most of 2008.  I've had time to plan and cook more, and I've even, as late pregnancy makes me more tired, fit in at least one nap a weekend.  

But now that I'm 3/4 of the way through my pregnancy, a sense of urgency is starting to hit.  It's time to get everything ready for the baby.  Over the last two weeks we've picked out paint for the nursery, ordered the crib and bedding (mattress still to come), and begun taking care of key items like pre-registering at the hospital, thinking about pediatricians, and so on.  All in all, we've spent the bulk of our $1200 budget at this point, but kept very much on track.  So far we've purchased:

  • A crib
  • A glider with ottoman (every single parent we talked to raved about their adjustable glider.  Since agreement about baby gear is rare, we took this universal agreement as a sign not to be ignored)
  • Paint for the walls and the ceiling - low VOC paint is more expensive, but worth it to not have the newest MoneyPenny inhaling volatile organic compounds in his or her new little lungs.
  • Chair rail for baby MoneyPenny's walls - a cheap but classy touch to go with a two-tone paint job
  • Baby bedding.  I skipped over the useless and not-recommended bumpers, and simply opted for a blanket, sheet and matching mobile.  Since we have curtains in the same fabric, which also matches the glider upholstery, that was enough.  For extra sheets, we've opted for plain ecru.
  • Cloth diapers.  While we'll use chlorine-free disposables for the first week or two, while we get used to round-the-clock baby care, we've opted for cloth diapers from in smalls for once baby hits 8 pounds
  • A coming home outfit.  Okay, this didn't fall into the land of necessity, but I spent $14 on a cute little warm and fuzzy baby footed onesie to go over a t-shirt and diaper on the way home.  
What's still left on the list?  Aside from those items that are on our registry and we'll purchase after our shower if we still need them, like a travel system and carseat bases, only a plastic pail for soaking the diapers, one with a lid to ensure safety, some wood for shelving, and the aforementioned crib mattress, not much.  Now it's just time to get to all the projects.  

The big thing I want to accomplish, aside from having a functioning nursery before our newest family member arrives - this is more because I know for a fact we have more time and less sleep deprivation now, rather than because the little one will need it immediately - is to de-clutter the house.  For the most part, we keep the house reasonably neat.  But we have clutter that has bred in the corners of all rooms, and we're trying very hard to get rid of it, a bit at a time. 

De-cluttering doesn't have to be expensive.  So far, we've just bought 2 plastic storage tubs - one for baby things, and one for maternity and other clothes for me.  What it has meant is that we have had to pack some things up for later, heartlessly toss other things.  It's about spending time figuring out what use and purpose certain things have in our lives.  

How's it going?  Slow, as you can probably imagine.  But it is going.  

More updates to come later. 

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best

A recent article on MSN Money hit my philosophy on the nose.  In short, don't assume someone is at the wheel, steer your own ship.  Question assumptions, even if they are being made by some very bright people.  

Our current economic crisis is proof that all the brains in the world doesn't necessarily make you sensible.  Even Alan Greenspan expressed 'shock' that things turned out the way they did.  Really Alan?  Because speculation and over-leveraging of assets along with many, many bad loans is likely to turn out well?  

I wonder what planet he's been living on.  But this is true of a lot of my thinking about the economy.  NPR did a segment on a Massachusetts family worried about foreclosure - on a salary of $150k (keep in mind, in this high cost of living area, the average salary for a working couple is about $98k, and that still isn't a lot comparative to the costs of housing and other key items in MA) they had purchased a home for $640k with only $10k down.  And now that there were two children, they were shocked that daycare cost $3k per month.  

Now, just to provide some clarity, without any savings for retirement, $150,000.00 annual income works out to a bit under $8000 a month.  Just their mortgage alone, assuming it's a fixed loan with an approximate interest rate of 6% is about $3837 a month.  Yes, that's right - almost 50% of their take home. 

Add to that the $3000 in daycare payments - and really folks, if you think you are going to be a working parent, make some phone calls and find out the going rates now for your area - and they have used up basically all their income. 

And I haven't even added in food, possible car payments, fuel, heat, phones, dr. appointments and other bills.  Even if these folks are socking away money in pretax savings accounts for daycare and health care, and overtime makes up some of the shortfall, their ship is sinking. Sunk, actually, as they are also carrying tremendous credit card debt.

I'm a planner.  I realize not everyone is.  I wasn't, many years ago.  It was only once I learned lesson after lesson the hard way about money, often worrying about how to pay a bill or where money was going to come from.  I didn't come to my approach to money easily or quickly.  

But I have learned a few things over the years:

 Saving is more important than any acquisition.  It's the thing that allows you to sleep at night, even when bad stuff happens.  I recently learned that there's about a 60% chance that my client won't extend me into February (I am safely employed through January) because of budget cuts.  Was an extra month off before Baby MoneyPenny comes in the plans?  No.  But can we live through it with our savings just fine?  Yep.  It's not how I dreamed of spending our savings, but hey, that's life.  I can absorb the potential unemployment without batting an eyelash.  Not forever of course, but knowing that a job hunt at 9 months pregnant is unlikely to achieve much, I'm prepared and okay with the time.

We also could absorb the recent news that our mortgage bank had incorrectly assessed our escrow over the last year to the tune of $2100.00 - not exactly small potatoes.  We have a choice to either pay the balance immediately, make a partial payment and see our mortgage payments go up somewhat, or absorb it in higher mortgage payments over the next year.  We could do any of them but will probably go for the second option.  I'm cranky about it, but we can absorb it.

Budgeting and planning aren't always fun, but they are always worth it.  Just knowing approximately what we'll spend in a given month, including all the various expenses that pop up throughout the course of the year makes things saner for us.  Sure, it's annoying sometimes to sit and enter receipts into the budget, and sometimes we miss our targets.  But overall, we hit more than we miss, and it's kept our savings targets on track.  

Never assume someone is right just because that's the conventional wisdom.  I remember a conversation that I had with a good, very bright friend of mine.  Essentially the discussion was around the idea  - one that many people I've met believe - that if they go to college and get good grades and work hard, they will achieve financial success.  Quite frankly, that's a pile of bupkus. Going to college increases your odds in a job hunt, and working hard is great, but there's no guarantees about anything.  Ever.   

Over the last years, many new homeowners got told that they could refinance their incredibly expensive ARMs when the rates started to rise.  And then they couldn't....and fell behind...and got foreclosed on - and then it happened more and more, and the investment banks started to fall.  Nobody questioned what they were told, and as a result, they paid the price.  Don't believe everything you hear.  Question everything - even authority.  No one is infallible or can see the future.  

What goes up must come down.  If there's a huge price increase, there's likely to be a decrease - take recent gas price increases and rapid drops.  The fact that everyone closed their eyes to the housing bubble and was so startled when rapid decreases in value started to happen.  Um, yeah.  So next time someone tells you to jump in with both feet before you miss an opportunity, analyze the basic assumption that it is a) one you can't afford to miss and b) one you want in the first place.  

Be an opportunist.  While the points above may make me sound like a pessimist, quite the contrary - I'm a very optimistic person.  I am always looking for an opportunity - to grow, learn, increase my income.  And in chaos, like we currently have in our economy, there's a ton of opportunity.  It just requires creative thinking.  Contractors are reinventing themselves as green builders.  Information technology specialists are teaching themselves to become bridges between business requirements and the technology that gets used.  Look for areas where might provide value - and ask if you can.  One of my favorite quotes has always been by Thomas Edison "Most people miss out on opportunity because it's dressed in overalls and looks like hard work".  Don't miss out.  

You can't see the future, but you can sure as heck do your research.  If you know you want two kids, find out what daycare costs.  Or what you'll be able to manage for a mortgage payment on one salary.  Ask other moms what they spend on things.  And then live like you are in that position already today - to get a feel for how it will work out.  

Plan ahead a little - you'll be happier for it.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Proactive Spending in A Bad Economy

Okay, things aren't getting better in the economy anytime soon folks.   Sure, everyone knows this, but sometimes I'm not sure that people really know it, if you know what I mean.    What I mean is, we're not going back to business as usual.   Not for a long time.   I think 2009 is going to be a long, tough year for many.  

The company I consult for went through a round of layoffs this past week, and more are coming. So far I'm safe, but we'll see how that goes.  My current goal is to make it to my maternity leave in March, and I think that's a reasonably safe bet.  After that, I have some prospects.  Still, things are getting scary out there. 

A result of the shaky economy and all the job cuts is an absolute reluctance to spend on anything nonessential.  But there are some things worth spending on if you can.  I call it 'proactive spending', or spending money in order to save some or be prepared for the worst.

Here's our list.

1. Firewood and heating oil
We're heading into the coldest months of the year in New England, and ensuring we can stay warm is a top priority.  Right now, home heating oil is cheaper than it has been in a while, so we're making sure the oil tanks stay topped off.  Same for firewood - that's up in price, but we're ensuring we have enough to last us a long time.  

2. Car maintenance
This is something to stay on top of when you are currently employed.  We're making sure all our maintenance is up to date  - we always do, but now it's even more critical.  And keep that gas tank full too.  

3. Insulating supplies
We live in an old, drafty house.  No getting around it, there's a lot of heat waste going on.   So while we've cut back on home improvements, this is one area that's still getting funded.  4 new basement windows are at the top of the list - we can feel the outdoor air blowing through the current ones in one area of the basement.  I'd love to do the windows in our bedroom as well, but for now we'll just caulk and seal as best we can.  

4. The pantry
I'm an advocate of a stocked pantry.  Now is the time to fill the pantry, freezer and cabinets with a bit of a stockpile.  A while back, Liz Pulliam Weston on MSN Money wrote a great article about the emergency fund you can eat.
How much and what you stock is up to you.

5. Retirement
I hear from a lot of people lately the desire to stop putting money into the uncertain markets. But just don't listen.   Save as much as you can, as often as you can.  Don't ditch those pretax withdrawals or the employer match.   You have the opportunity to get good stocks cheap.  Find a good solid mutual fund by reading ratings at and stick to it.  

6. Family gatherings
Christmas will be a little less generous this year, which is fine with me.  But we're still spending to see family (and friends!), even if that spending is more careful.  Relationships are worth it.  

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Great Expectations

Sorry for the slow month, folks.  I've been on the road for work and working long, long days this month.  A few days at home for the holiday week has finally cured me of jetlag and general exhaustion.  It took some time for my brain to switch back to the 'on' position.  

It's the holiday season again.  I love the holidays.  Friends, family, good food, beautiful decorations...I love just about all of it.  But there are a few downsides that appear over the course of the season.   The expense.  The number of commitments that can spring up.  The pressure from those beloved friends and family members to meet their expectations.  It's easy to fall prey to a nice helping of stress and guilt.  So here are some ideas to help navigate the emotional minefields that the holidays can generate.

1. Gifts
We put away money all year long for Christmas gifts in the form of a 'Christmas club' at our credit union.  I strongly recommend this, even if it's just a few dollars a month - takes a huge amount of the sting out.  Still, it can be a big expense for us, especially because when the holiday season wraps up, we're involved in 5 - yes 5 - holiday celebrations (all but one is varying branches of family).  Gift exchanges have just gotten a little out of control for us, so much so that I was thrilled when my great aunt, who typically goes overboard with her generosity, announced she was only giving to children in the family, and my siblings and I decided to use the same approach.  Slowly but surely, both from other's actions and our own, we're trying to pare down the sheer number of gifts we give and receive.  

Instead, we're trying to give the gift of time and energy, by inviting friends over for dinner, doing an activity together, and so on.  The key here is talk early and often....and stand your ground when you make a decision about who and what to give. Change is hard for people, and opting out of a gift giving tradition or scaling it back may take time and gentle persistence to accomplish.  

So if you have always spent $100 a person and want to only spend $25, start talking about it in say, January.  And if there's a negative response, the best answer is "Of course, you must do what you want, but this is what I/we are doing.  I'm sorry you aren't happy about it, but this is the right decision for us".  And remind that person that the $ amount spent doesn't equal the amount of love you have for them.  

2. Time
I know I'm not the only one out there who has shown up for a family holiday function and received a guilt trip about not being around more, or staying longer.  Boy does that make the holidays extra fun, no?  While I typically come up with a fairly pacifying response, what goes through my head is more like "Oh yeah? Really?  Well perhaps you would like to maybe go to work for me for a few weeks, or come clean my bathroom so I have more free time!  Between errands, housework and commitments on our time, I can't even find time most weekends for a nap, or to just sit and veg out for an hour!  So thpppppt!"

Of course, saying things like that is completely nonproductive.  Most of the demands come from the sheer desire for more time with you, which means you matter quite a bit to that person.  So a gentle response of "Look, I know you would love it if we spent more time, but right now we're doing the best we can, and while you probably don't mean to make me/us feel bad about what we can give, that's what is happening, so I/we wish you could just enjoy the time we do have together."  This is one of those 'lather, rinse, repeat' statements that may need saying far more than once.  If that doesn't work, a more pointed conversation about how the guilt trips make you want to actually limit your time with that person and are completely counterproductive may be necessary.  Above all though, try not to feel bad.  Most of us have limited free time - there's nothing to apologize for if you don't have more to give.

3. Commitments
Yeah, so everyone and their grandmother's uncle's next-door-neighbor is having a holiday gathering, party, gift grab or potluck dinner.  Oh yeah, and then there's the work stuff - not mandatory, per se, but sure as heck expected.  The holidays start to seem like a treadmill you can't get off, and in your head runs the thought 'Great, so now I've made everyone happy, except I'm exhausted and miserable.  Bah humbug.'

There's a great response to this one "Sorry, I/we can't make it."  Simple, straightforward, and to the point.  No excuses for someone to poke at.  Pick and choose the activities to attend.  I set the expectations at work that I have a limited number of 'Kitchen Passes' to choose from - so if the after-hours gatherings are too frequent, I go to some, but not all.  After all, my home and husband are important too.  

Same with holiday parties.  This year we were invited to a neighborhood party - we would love to attend and meet some of the neighbors that we haven't met yet, but since it falls on the same day as I've scheduled my annual baking day with  good friend as well as a family dinner, squeezing in a 3rd event is just not possible.  So a polite decline along with 'but we'd love to meet you all, and hope we can find another time!' fits the bill.  It's true, too. 

It's very freeing to learn that you can, in fact, say no.  A holiday where everyone but you gets to be happy is no good holiday at all.  

4. Travel
Whether you live 15 minutes or 15 hours from your family, the travel question gets tricky.  I was 33 years old before I got to spend a Christmas day at my home and stay in one place the whole day (divorced parents and expectations of visits from grandparents and other family).  I remember all too vividly how awful it was to rush from place to place, trying to stuff in yet one more bite of my second Christmas dinner in 4 hours in order to please my parents or someone else.  Quite frankly, it sucked, and for years I hated Christmas - because again, it was about making everyone else happy at my siblings and my expense.  

So a couple years ago, my husband and I created our own tradition.  We'll travel for any other holiday, but Christmas is at home.  Whomever wants to come to us is welcome, be they family or friends.  I cook, we open gifts, all is well.   Is this a hard and fast rule?  Mostly.  We may consider the occasional not-at-home Christmas over the years, but we're not committing to anything, especially now with Baby MoneyPenny on the way.  If we do decide to, it will be the exception, rather than the rule.  I learned it was okay to make the holidays fun for me too.  

That's not to say that making extended family happy isn't important, or that no one should travel on the holidays.  Some people feel it isn't the holiday unless it's spent at Mom's or Grandma's or wherever.  Fine.  But do yourself a favor and limit it to one locale and one holiday dinner, unless you and all the other people in your immediate family (spouse and kids) absolutely and unhesistatingly agrees to do otherwise.  No one will die if you see them on the 26th instead of the 25th, or if you spend most of Chanukah lighting candles and making latkes in your apartment with friends.  Sure, change is hard, and it's important to be fair to everyone.

But that includes you too.  I once read the statement 'traditions are great, everyone should get a chance to make some', and I think it's a good way to look at things.  And if someone is mad at you for changing theirs, ask yourself why it is more honorable for them to be happy, even at your expense, than for you to be?  

I love the holidays - but in many cases that's because I've learned, over time, what I am willing and able to give.  Do I always get it right?  No (see the thing about the 5 holiday gift exchanges above).  But I try - to do it right for family, my spouse, and also myself.  I'll happily meet the expectations I can meet, but I've given up (mostly) on guilt for those I can't meet.    I hope you can do the same.

So enjoy those holidays.  And when someone asks you to bring cookies or an appetizer to a function, it's okay to buy them if you don't feel like baking.  

Or volunteer to bring the wine.  Unless you live in Sonoma, it's unlikely that anyone will expect you to have pressed the grapes yourself.  


Sunday, November 2, 2008

About those HENRYs

Last week, CNN and Fortune Magazine, published a fascinating article about the 'HENRYs' - a demographic of High Earners, Not Rich Yet people.  These are folks with high incomes, sure - $250k to $500k, but interestingly, none of them consider themselves rich.

The article caught my attention on a variety of levels.  First, because it came out just a short time before election day, and something I hear over and over again is discussion about 'real Americans'.  This is often used in the context that both high earners, or those coastal-state latte drinking liberal elitists don't represent 'real America'.    And if they are one and the same, they certainly can't be 'real Americans'.  I'm not sure what that makes people who fit that bill, but we'll get to that in a minute.  

It also fascinated me, because, while not HENRYs, my husband and I do earn well above the median, and our habits were well represented in some of the featured families. In other words, our spending and lifestyle habits do somewhat mirror the HENRYs.  Not entirely - private schools are not on our list for one, but somewhat.  

Lastly, it's because of the label 'rich' and how I define it - not by earnings, but by net worth. This too, mirrors the HENRYs beliefs. So I thought I'd take some time to explore my thoughts on the article.

I'll start off by saying anyone in that earning category who describes themselves as struggling is not using their resources wisely.  If you can't make ends meet on $500k a year, you are probably overspending on big ticket items, like housing, cars, and so forth.  But there's a huge disparity, between what $250k can do for you in say, Moline Illinois, vs. Manhattan.  There's also far less likelihood that you'll make that $250k in Moline.  

So why don't these people think they are rich?  Top of the list is taxes.  As of 2006, the data cited in the article, a high wage earner in this bracket, who averages $287,000.00 a year gross pays $57k in federal taxes.  If you live in a state that also taxes income, take another 5-8% of that, or between $14, 350 and $22,960.  Add to that Social Security taxes, medicare taxes, and you are talking about $90,000 of that $287,000.00 average earnings gone before you see these folks see a paycheck.  Yep, almost a third of their average earnings goes out the door.  And in most cases, due to the AMT, or Alternative Minimum Tax, these folks never see it back, not even in the form of the deductions that so many of us view as standard to tax payers.  

So it's pretty understandable how the HENRYs get a little resentful when politicians talk about them paying more taxes.  After all, they pay a tremendous percentage more of their incomes in taxes than those 'real Americans' already.  And because the primary tax base is on income rather than net worth, folks like Ross Perot average just 7% of their wealth in taxes, vs. the 30+% cited here for these high earners.  In other words, we don't tax the rich in this country, we tax the high wage earners.  Warren Buffett keeps a huge part of his money safe, simply because he isn't pulling it out of investments.  

In fact via taxes, the HENRYs are subsidizing the lower earners in many government programs.  Is this fair?  Well, yes.  And no.  Barack Obama is right - when wealth is spread, everyone wins.  Rising tides, correctly managed, raise all boats.  Unfortunately, over the last 25 years the disparity in taxation means that the HENRYs have actually born a greater tax burden, percentage wise, than the conspicuously rich Paris Hiltons of the world.  

And that's just taxes.  Add to that the simple math that higher income earners often enter their fields after prolonged education, and there can be a fairly large bite of their income going to student loans.  If a law student graduates with $100k in loans, hardly unheard of, that's about $1000 a month just in loan payments.  

Higher earners also are often congregated in higher cost of living areas - those coasts full of us latte drinking liberal elitists.  This means that housing costs are higher, as are the costs of some things like child care.  In my area, near Boston, the monthly cost of  daycare runs about $1200-$1500 per child, and this is the average, not the high side.  For some folks with multiple kids, it can be cheaper to get a live-in nanny than to pay $3000 or more in daycare each month. And that federal dependent care credit is what, about $4000?  Gone in 6 weeks for a family with 2 kids in these areas.   

Let me also toss in another couple variables.  Sure, the HENRYs save a lot for education, especially college for their kids, as well as large amounts for retirement.  But they also can expect little back in the way of assistance - they will probably not be eligible for much beyond loans for college for their kids, and they plan for what my generation mostly expects - that Social Security and Medicare will be means-tested by the time they retire.  Meaning they will foot the entirety of their retirement by themselves.   

Because politicians and the media get a lot of mileage out of pitting the well-off against the not well off, and because there's no small amount of misunderstandings and even jealousy from the have nots to the haves, there's this idea that these people aren't 'real Americans'.  Real Americans, as we all know, wear flannel, drive tractors and pickups, and are the teachers, farmers, truck drivers, restaurant workers and small town people of our heartland.   Like Sarah Palin, right?  Except the little detail, oft overlooked,  that she, too is a HENRY.  

But where does that leave everyone else?  Let's be real here, a lot of people live on the coasts. Millions and millions of citizens. Are they not 'real Americans'?  Do they not pay taxes, raise families, work hard, donate their money and time, and vote?  I personally know quite a few people that fit the definition of HENRYs, or are close to it, and most of them work very hard indeed.   All of them love their kids, and want what's best for them.  And all of them do very much see themselves as Americans,  even if they don't regularly wear flannel.  

I know few 6-figure+ wage earners that don't work long hours, who aren't handed Blackberries to ensure they are perpetually accessible, and who aren't expected to be able to pick up and travel as required for work.  In other words, there's a trade off for that fantastic income.  Sure, they may be in offices with free coffee instead of working in the fields, but that's small consolation when you have a week full of meetings that force you to kiss your kids goodbye before they wake up and kiss them goodnight long after they fall asleep.  No one would pick that to be the case, but sometimes it happens.  And because HENRYs and similar folks are human, they just try to do their best.  I see a lot of them burn out trying to make it all work.  

I think the idea that these people aren't real Americans is pretty revolting, and does nothing but alienate neighbors and friends in a pointless class war where no one wins.  We, in our perpetual money hypocrisy in America, simultaneously celebrate the small business owners and dedicated who work hard to get ahead, and then resent the hell out of the fact that they did, in fact, get ahead.  

I think that the HENRYs have it pretty good.  Most of them aren't sweating next month's mortgage payment, or making a choice between gas to get to work and food on the table - and that makes them pretty blessed.  But I also think we need to stop seeing this group through rose colored glasses - they have some pretty big challenges too, and their taxes subsidize a lot of the support that those less fortunate than themselves receive.  

While there are people who struggle a lot more with many basic decisions, such as gas vs. food, or a parent sending a sick child to school because of a lack of paid sick time, and their needs must be addressed, the HENRYs aren't exactly popping out golden goose eggs that can subsidize all the lower wage earners needs.  We need to stop our regressive tax breaks to the truly wealthy to find some of the money that our federal government needs.  We need to get some of our corporations off welfare, and make them responsible for themselves.  We need to start looking at all our options, not just the easy targets who don't have the lobbyists to help them.  

HENRYs are that easy target.  They earn a bunch.  They don't have lobbyists and legal help to build them tax loopholes - they just aren't quite that rich.  They aren't the CEOs, they are the VPs. Or the men and women who employ some of those 'real Americans'.  

They are an integral part of America, and it's time we started treating them like it.

Want to meet the HENRYs yourself?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Preparing for Baby Part 1

As I pass into my 23rd week of pregnancy, the need to actually prepare for Baby MoneyPenny's arrival has become more pressing.  

So far, we've managed to order a glider and ottoman (a must-have according to the many sleep deprived parents I've talked to, who have spent hours pacing with a fussy infant) for the nursery, and order some cloth diapers from  We did custom order the fabric and wood style for the glider, but the total additional cost off the base price was $7, so we figured we did okay.  

We still plan to paint the nursery, and we need some nursery furniture. While Baby Moneypenny will probably sleep in in our room for the first few months, it's my desire to have him or her in the nursery by the time I go back to work after 3 months of maternity leave.  Which means a crib will have to be obtained at some point.  

That, and we created a registry.  I always have mixed feelings about registries, including my own. They seem to have become a symbol of greed - 'buy me stuff!', and yet, true to the mixed relationship Americans have with money, "Where are you registered" is one of the most common questions I've gotten so far, and I often hear complaints about those who don't provide a registry to 'help people choose'.  So I compromise by putting nothing on our registry that we aren't ultimately prepared to buy for ourselves.  

So far, I give us a B+ on not succumbing to tons of marketing.  We have thus far avoided completely a bassinet or co-sleeper - the bassinet top of a pack 'n play will do fine, and only if it doesn't will we then go seek something else out - realistically we could always put a moses basket in the middle of our bed too, although I'm nervous of the baby in the bed with us.  I'm guessing we'll be inundated by cute clothes and toys, so we've skipped buying those, although we will probably pick something soft and cozy out for baby to come home from the hospital in, and a toy to have too.  Books are something we want to eventually accumulate a collection of, but based on my observations of neices and nephews collections, birthdays and holidays will cover a bunch of that, and then we'll add to their collection of things to read over the years.  

As for gear, there are things that are either needed or entirely useful.  A carseat &  stroller, somewhere to sleep, diapers, wipes, and so on.  A place to sleep.  Clothes.   Baby gates.  

What we don't need are items like an $800 stroller.  A decent, well rated travel system and a couple carseat bases will do just fine.  So we won't be the most stylish stroller-toting parents on the block...I'm comfortable with that.  Over the last month, I stopped a few moms to ask how they like their strollers and then Sander and I took a look around together.   We ended up picking a system that is sporty looking and handles well, but relatively inexpensive.   

Same with nursery furniture - there are sites that offer gorgeous cribs that can run into the thousands.  But a nice-looking, functional piece of furniture can be just as good, if not better, seeing as kids often practice teething on their cribs, so they can end up looking like hamster cages after a couple years of use.  

Ditto this philosophy on expensive little baby outfits and other baby accessories.   While they are adorable and tempting, and I don't know that I'll be able to completely avoid temptation after the baby arrives, I'm trying to remain practical.  

And then there's the mom costs.  Nursing-friendly clothes.  A pump, if one should so choose.  And all sorts of other gear, some of which is even a really good idea.  I resisted the idea of a pump, as they cost between $200-$300, until I was offered one free but for the cost of postage.  New hoses, etc to the tune of about $30 will make it good as new.  Some of my maternity clothes are also nursing clothes.  

Our biggest decision left is what to do about a crib and dresser.  We need one of each.  We've been offered a few used cribs, and are considering those as options, and we've seen some new that we like.  We have a tendency to like matched sets, so this is the one area where our frugality and practicality have been challenged.  Our solution has been to defer making a decision for right now - the reality is, we don't need it yet.   

It seems that this is one of the best things that soon-to-be parents can do - defer making decisions.  After all, we don't know yet what will work for this new person entering our lives, and if our child is anything like us, Baby MoneyPenny will have opinions of his/her own.   Sure,  we'll need some stuff up front.  We'll get some ourselves, and we'll register for the rest, and if we don't get what we register for we'll evaluate what we need and want as we go along.  In other words, we'll be fine either way.  

I'll add another update when we're closer - we'll see if the resolve to remain sensible holds.  

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Living Within Your Means: 8 Days of Food Life

People are getting a lot more focused on living within their means these days.  One of the easiest ways to cut costs is to cook from scratch and eat in more.  So I thought I'd share a 8 days of food life in our home - what we eat and how much we spend from a Sunday to another Sunday.

So for 8 days,  I  kept careful track of what we ate and how we spent for it.  I spent money on food outside of the house twice - once on lunch with my sister ($48.92 - yes a lot, but we're both pregnant, which leads to thinking appetizers are necessary), and at Starbucks ($8.77).  All remaining meals were eaten from home.

This month's grocery bill has been higher than other months, because I allocated extra to stock up the pantry.  For the month of October, we've spent $498.43 on all food, paper goods, soaps, toiletries, and so on, aside from meals out.  Our pantry is full, and our chest freezer is beginning to be stocked.

$498.43 breaks down to $16.07 per day for 2 people for all food from home and non-food items.  That means that we spent $162.68 on food and non-food items for  the 8 day period.  Since about 40% of that can be attributed to non-food items, that means we spent $77.17 to feed us, or about $9.65 a day.  Because 23 of 24 meals in that 8 day period came from home, plus all snacks, that means we spent approximately $3.35 per meal to feed the two of us - and it's probably less, as there's still lots of food stocked up for future meals.

So what did we spend that $3.35 a meal on?

Day 1, Sunday: 
Breakfast - Cheerios with milk in the early morning for me, followed by coffee, scrambled eggs, turkey bacon and toast with Sander a few hours later (milk, sugar and splenda added to the coffee in varying quantities)
Lunch - leftovers from Saturday - keilbasa and veggies
Dinner - Chicken pot pie with mashed potato crust (not one of my greatest cooking feats), homemade bread

Day 2, Monday:
Breakfast - English muffins with low fat cream cheese and a banana for me, oatmeal for Sander, coffee for both of us
Snacks - Granola bars, crackers, apple
Lunch - Salads
Dinner - Homemade clam chowder and homemade bread, made on Sunday

Day 3, Tuesday:
Breakfast - Same as Monday
Snacks - Apples, yogurt, granola bars
Lunch - Salads
Dinner - Sander was at friends, I ate leftover clam chowder

Day 4, Wednesday: 
Breakfast -Toast with cream cheese, granola bar, oatmeal, coffee
Snacks - Apples, crackers, granola bars
Lunch - Leftover pot pie
Dinner - Pasta with parma rosa sauce

Day 5, Thursday: 
Breakfast - English muffins with cream cheese, bananas, oatmeal, coffee
Snacks - Yogurt, apples, crackers with the last of our hummus, granola bars
Lunch - Leftover pasta
Dinner - Catchall night, since I worked late.  Sander nibbled, I had the last of the clam chowder and some cereal for dessert

Day 6, Friday: 
Breakfast - Same as Thursday
Snacks -  Apples, oatmeal, granola bars
Lunch - Rice and beans with cheese (made on Thursday night)
Dinner - Breakfast for dinner - scrambled eggs, toast, corned beef hash

Day 7, Saturday: 
Breakfast- Cereal, toast, coffee
Snacks - Banana, beer (Sander, while he helped my brother in law roof their house)
Lunch - Pizza (Sander, provided by my sister and brother in law) and a burger, fries and a shared ceasar salad at The Cheesecake Factory with my sister for me
Dinner - Nothing really, I had some chips with homemade salsa, Sander had cold pizza 

Day 8, Sunday:
Breakfast - Cereal, bagels, coffee
Snacks - Bananas, whatever we could scrounge in the fridge
Lunch - Toasted cheese sandwich, chips and salsa, banana
Dinner - Autumn squash soup with ham and garlic croutons made from our homemade bread (soup recipe adapted from The Cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert - it's a house favorite)

I also made another double batch of clam chowder that went directly into the freezer, since we've been inundated with leeks from our CSA, and the recipe I use conveniently calls for leeks.

Was our menu glamourous?  No, not really.  There are some really 'wow' recipes in there, such as the squash soup and clam chowder.  But there was also a lot of simple items and leftovers too.  We're both gone for long days during the week, so our more intricate meals fall to the weekends.  But we do eat well, and reasonably healthy.  

Just by packing lunches, we save probably about $10 a day, or about $50 in the 8 day period I chronicled.  Over the course of the 5-week month of October, that adds up to $250 worth of savings, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Eating at home doesn't have to be fancy.  Try it for a week - plan some meals, prep the coffee pot at night, pack your lunch.  You just might like it.

Autumn Squash Soup With Ham and Garlic Croutons (a somewhat cheaper adaptation of the original) - makes about 6-8 servings
1 medium butternut squash & 1 small acorn squash
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 an onion, finely chopped
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
3 garlic cloves or 1 teaspoon of chopped garlic
32 oz (4 cups) chicken broth
Dash of nutmeg
Dash of cayenne pepper
1 cup 1% milk
3-4 slices of prosciutto or thin sliced ham, cut into thin ribbons
12-15 small cubes of bread, or slices of baguette
A sprinkle of chives, fresh or dried

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  Wash the squash, halve lengthwise, seed, and lay cut sides down on a lightly oiled pan.  Bake for about 30 minutes, until soft.  Turn the squash, turn off the oven, and let them brown and soften some more (about 10 min).  

Once the squash is cool, cut away the skin and place the squash in a dish, set aside. Note: bake your squash early in the day, and let cool for a few hours, then do the rest of the prep work just before dinner

Heat the remaining olive oil in a heavy stockpan over low to moderate heat.  Add the onion, potatoes, and 1/2 the garlic.  Slow cook the vegetables until soft, and golden, about 15 min.  Add the chicken broth and simmer for 30 min.

Scrape the squash into the pot if you have an immersion blender (these are great tools, I highly recommend the investment) or blend with a little soup broth in a food processor before adding to the soup mix.  Season the soup with salt, pepper and the nutmeg to taste.  Add the cream slowly and bring to a boil, stirring pretty regularly.  Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 min. 

In a skillet, melt the butter with the garlic.  Add the ham and bread cubes, and sprinkle with cayenne pepper - a little cayenne goes a long way.  Saute until everything is slightly crisp.

Serve the soup garnished with the bread, ham, and a sprinkle of chives.




Friday, October 24, 2008

Worried? Yeah, Me Too

One thing is fairly clear on the financial front these days - the worst is not yet over. I've known this for a while, but now even CEOs and the most optimistic of journalists are agreeing: more bad news is yet to come.

Why? Even though there's movement in Congress, nothing yet has been truly done to slow the arterial bleeding caused by the foreclosure mess. Layoffs are increasing. Many people are overleveraged on their credit cards and car payments - never a good thing in a rapidly slowing economy. And all of it is becoming not just a series of waves, but turning into a tsunami of epic proportions.

The reality is, there's not much most of us can do about keeping our jobs except to work really hard, volunteer for things, and, quite frankly, pray if you are so inclined.

But in the meantime, prepare. Stop unnecessary spending. Save. Save some more. Cook in. Invest in things that will save you money.

Will we all ride this market out unscathed? I doubt it. But since I can't control the future, I'm putting my energy into the things I can control. How hard I work. Saving. Spending time with friends and family. Cooking in.

The current economy is a scary place. Anyone who thinks we're just going to get over it quickly and move on with our lives is probably delusional. Things have changed. Maybe ultimately for the better - but it's going to hurt while we're on the way to this new place we're going.

Hang in there.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

When the Budget Goes Off The Rails

Recently, a few big whammies hit us, one right after another. First, I got pregnant. While I was thrilled, after a long haul with fertility issues, it definitely took me by surprise. I honestly wasn't expecting a positive blood test, so when it did happen it startled me. That was followed by the items I chronicled last month on the costs of maternity. Right on the heels of those changes came a forced pay cut - that I was informed of on my birthday, no less. A month or so later my car went dead on the way home one night. Then our washing machine died a sputtering, water-filled death this past weekend, and off to get a new one we went (it wasn't repairable).

Added together, along with some cost overruns on house projects, such as: our dangerously unstable barn came down this summer, but the dumpster rental cost more than originally quoted, and rising costs of fuel, food, and other was a tough few months.

I have to admit here, I hate surprises. Hate them. My idea of a personal hell is being thrown a surprise party. So you can imagine how much I like surprises that cost me money. Especially since we had already been working to squeeze in a few things that hadn't made it into the spreadsheets.

And surprises when I have an unpaid maternity leave coming in 5 months? I'd rather have a root canal, thank you very much. Without painkillers.

But the only way past a budget derailment, or series of them, is through it. So we fixed my car,which was fortunately not a costly repair, adjusted to the pay cut, and replaced the washing machine (I am secretly thrilled about my soon-to-arrive front loader, but still grumpy about the unplanned spending). We adapted to the higher grocery prices by compromising both on the budget and in what we bought.

We cut in other areas to compensate. And where we couldn't, we adjusted our savings expectations, and I worked some extra hours - which, given some upcoming deadlines, was necessary anyway. But instead of that overtime money being 'squoosh' in the budget, it started to make up a shortfall.

Watching more money go out than come in for 3 months straight has been painful. I was relieved when October 1st came, and we could start a new month. Of course, then the washing machine died, but we'll still be adding to savings this month, not taking from it. Sure, we had the money to take care of all the items I've listed in cash, which was nice. But it stung to watch all that hard-earned money go out the door.

Every now and then, life throws us surprises. Sometimes they are wonderful - meeting Mr. or Ms. Right is a nice kind. A longed-for positive pregnancy test. Realizing that, yes, in fact you can afford your first home, and then spending the first night in it, as just happened in the life of a friend of mine.

Sometimes, though, not so nice. These things happen to all of us - and for some odd reason, they seem to group together in short periods of time. Maybe it is that bad things happen in threes, as the old saying goes. Maybe we just notice the bad stuff more once one bad thing does happen. For whatever reason, I've noticed they pile up when they do come.

So what do you do when life throws your bank account a curve ball? Plow through. Deal. Get it - or all the its - over with. Repair, replace, as best you can. The sooner it's dealt with, the sooner you can move on.

Oh - and plan for the bad things. That's why you have an emergency fund, right? If you don't, you need one. See, bad things happen. To people as nice as you and me, even. Jobs get lost, cars break down, washing machines spring a leak and flood all over the basement on a Saturday afternoon, just as your tired, pregnant self is heading up for a nap (that never got taken). If you have a 10 year old car like I do, plan for it to crap out on you or need more maintenance than a new one. Plan for 1-2% of your home's value to be spent in maintenance and repairs every year. Most of these things, while never happening at convenient times, are truly predictable.

And then, after the mess is cleaned, and the repairs and replacing are done, breathe a sigh of relief. Sure, your bank account will be smaller than you would like. Maybe close to empty even. But because you saved for things to go wrong, you probably aren't paying off a high interest credit card as a result.

Things happen. You can't plan for everything. But if, like the Boy Scouts, you choose to be prepared for the eventuality that something, sometime will go wrong, when it does you'll be grumpy, but not broke and grumpy.

Monday, October 6, 2008

How to Prepare for a Loss of Income

Unless you've slept like Rip Van Winkle through the last few months, you know the economy is on very shaky ground.  

Job losses are climbing.  Retirees and soon-to-be-retirees are nervous and watching precipitous losses in their assets.  Small businesses are hurting.  It's not pretty out there, and it may well get worse before it gets better.

Losing your income is terrifying, even if it only happens for a short time.  But there are things you can do to offset the loss, if you start planning before the income stream cuts out. 

Sometime in March, unless it's a bit earlier than expected, I'll leave the workforce for 3 months to take care of our newborn.  As a consultant, this time will be entirely unpaid for me.  As part of a dual-income couple, and as someone who has worked since age 15, this is a little scary to me, even though we've saved and planned for the eventuality.   While I'm fairly certain I have a job to return to, with recent market swings, and the likelihood of a prolonged recession, I'll admit that I'm nervous.

So I'm taking some steps to prepare.   A maternity leave isn't a vacation.  It's staying home to take care of a helpless child, until such time as I'm healed enough and the baby is not quite so newborn and able to be cared for during the day by others, in my case, by family.  

Sander and I have been planning and saving for this maternity leave for a long time.  But that doesn't make walking away from a weekly paycheck less nerve wracking.  Still, we're mitigating the concerns we can control, such as:

Saving up
We'll have 3 months of living expenses, in addition to our existing emergency fund to live on during the time I'm out of work.  We've worked pretty hard to try and calculate what the time will cost us, and save accordingly.

Cutting back
We're not buying anything that doesn't need buying if we can prevent it while I'm out, but also now, as much as we can.  Over the last 4 months, some of our budgeting efforts got derailed by unplanned side effects of my pregnancy, a recent forced pay cut, and a large appliance dying on us.  While we're working hard to regroup from those things, the fact that we're cutting back as much as we're willing to is helping as well.  New things, unnecessary home projects, and other spending can wait.  Ensuring our savings will cover the lack of income is far more important.

Stocking up
Just as we're stocking up our cash reserves, we're also stocking up the pantry and freezer.  A 14.8 cubic foot freezer joined our household this summer, and it's meant to be a workhorse. Soon to be filled with local chicken, piles of pre-prepared meals, and other items for us, it's part of our overall plan to be as well stocked as we can, to reduce our outlay for groceries when the littlest MoneyPenny joins our clan.  

The freezer is not the only tool in our toolkit either.  I shop sales, and I track prices.  When I find a good deal, I'm not averse to buying very large quantities.  Over the next few months, I'll be spending a lot of time doing just that - to heavily stock our already full larder.   My goal is always to be able to eat for a few months from my pantry.  I intend to double that resource between now and then by shopping smart.  Yes, I've allocated some extra money in the budget now, while the income is flowing, but I'm also working hard to buy cheaply and in quantity. 

Putting our bills on autopilot
After we moved, I got a little distracted, and never signed up for auto pay for some of the new bills.  As a result, I've had to keep track of them - something I do relatively well.  But even now, occasionally I lose track of something.  Sleep deprivation from a newborn is not likely to improve that, so direct debiting our recurring bills is key.  

Paying ahead on a few bills
Now, this is something that I don't recommend if a) you don't have a fully funded emergency fund of at least three months of living expenses, and b) if you are one of those people who wants every cent of interest possible on every dime you have.  But if you are going to be out of work, a few months without a heat or electric bill might just give you breathing room, if only just psychologically.   Sure, you are giving up the money now, but now it's replaceable with a paycheck.  Later it won't be.  

Making new habits
The no-knead sourdough bread I've been making over the last few months has significantly reduced our outlay for store-bought bread.  We still do buy some, but not nearly as much.  And given rising prices, that's a very good thing.  Even with the cost of flour, it's much cheaper to make bread than to buy it, and I can bake a loaf or two a week of bakery-quality bread.

That's just one of the habits I've been working on now, so that when I am a tired and overwhelmed new mom, I won't need to think about it - I can just do it.

And it's not just bread - I've slowly been adding new, frugal habits, such as ironing vs. dry cleaning a larger portion of my clothes.  I hardly think I'll need to iron while out on leave, but I'll have a lot of nicely pressed clothes to return to work in.

Taking stock
Sander and I have had a lot of conversations lately about whether we really need certain things over the last few months.  I expect more will come.  We're thinking about what we're willing to cut now, rather than later.  Under the gun, cuts can feel more painful than if they are well thought through choices.  

We've tried to balance our cuts with some fun for spending that we know we won't be doing once the baby arrives, such as a spontaneous weekend getaway, or dinners out.  But within reason, and within budget is the key.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - living within your means takes planning and forethought.  If your means are about to get reduced, take some time to think about what you might do to increase your savings, reduce your bills, and cover the lean times now.  You will thank yourself later.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Domestic Bliss

The last two weekends for the first time quite some time, we have spent the bulk of the weekend at home with no plans.  Our goal - to relax, rejuvenate, and get some housework and projects done.  We still managed to meet some family for lunch, go to the local fair, and purchase some much-needed maternity clothes for me, but the focus has been on being home.  

With all the chaos in our economy, and uncertainty about what's next, I see more and more people becoming focused on doing things at home.  For many, perhaps, this feels like a sacrifice. They can no longer afford to take the economic risk of shopping for fun, or spending a lot on eating out and so on.  But if what one can't do can be looked past, there's a little secret to be discovered - a home-centered life can be really, really enjoyable.  

Not in the sense that there's nonstop excitement enjoyable.  Instead, it's the pleasure taken in small things: dinner together in front of the fire.  Roasting peppers and then freezing them for some future winter pizza night.   Sleeping in.  Catching up on reading.  Even cleaning and tidying up provide a sense of satisfaction that can't be bought.  

I'm not saying I enjoy cleaning bathrooms.  Honestly, if I never had to clean another one for the rest of my days I wouldn't be unhappy in the least.  But there is something nice about taking something not-so-clean and tidy and making it clean and neatly sorted.  

Today my husband is out in the garden - digging up our crop of sweet potatoes, which, fingers crossed, will be on the table for holiday dinners and cold winter nights, and pulling out the rest of the dying vegetable plants.  We'll plant garlic in a week or two, mulch over everything, and tuck the garden in for winter.  I have a little fall lettuce growing, but that's about it for us until it's time for the grow lights to go up in February.

Meanwhile, I'm puttering around the house, and cooking.  I started sourdough bread yesterday, and it will bake this afternoon.  It's due to be cold tonight, so I'm thinking soup.  I'm also planning to make a chicken pot pie for tomorrow night's dinner, and salads for lunches.  

I have learned to take pleasure in the domestic arts.  We try to sit down to dinner together as often as we can, and we prefer it home-cooked.  Even when not working on house projects or cooking, we have home-based hobbies, such as woodworking (him) and needlework (me).  I'm planning to learn to quilt over the next year as well.  

Time at home doesn't have to be a sacrifice made just for the sake of saving money.  As a matter of fact, it doesn't always save money - for us, the more time at home, the more we seem to cook up house project ideas.  But it can be both enjoyable and a money-saver; like all things frugal, it means looking at things with a focus on what you are doing vs. what you aren't.  

Over time, you may realize that watching a concert or event on TV at home is as nice, if not nicer than going out.  For one, you don't have to buy expensive tickets.  The seats are comfy, and drinks of choice are both available and affordable.  And the pause button works wonders.

A home centered life shouldn't replace all social activity, but nor should it be dreaded as a thing to be done because you can't do other things.  

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Costs of Maternity - So Far

I've just passed into my 18th week of pregnancy, and it's been enlightening on a money front.  We had spent a good deal of time trying to project the costs out, and up until we got that wonderful phone call, we thought we had it down.  We were in for a surprise or two or several.

Surprise #1: Non-maternity clothing costs
Sure, I knew I would need maternity clothes.  But what I didn't realize is that my $26.00 in a bella band (, would only go so far.  I had expected it to cover most of the early stages of body change, as my belly grew.  Which it did, but I had failed to take into account the fact that other parts were growing too, and well before maternity clothing would fit.  2 sets of new bras and some new tops later, I adjusted for a few weeks, then grew again.  I also went up a couple pant sizes because no matter how nice that band was, there came a point where my current pants were just too uncomfortable to stay in.  Even buying the minimum, this was an unexpected cost.

Cost of clothing other than maternity: $150ish

Surprise #2: Food Aversions
I was lucky enough to never even have a touch of morning sickness.  What I did have, around week 8, was some serious food aversions.  To things like vegetables and seafood,  along with the smell of cooking chicken, which I normally love. The aversions were so strong I literally couldn't swallow certain foods.  For well over 6 weeks, I lived on bread, pasta, pizza and other carb-heavy foods.  This wreaked havoc on our CSA membership (although friends and family reaped the benefits as we gave food away) as well as our diet.  

Since a typical weeknight meal at home consisted of pan chicken and some veggies, it was a huge change in diet, and our grocery bill spiked accordingly, as well as the amount of take out we ate.  Thankfully some of my aversions have slowed, although the smell of grilling squash or cooked eggplant will still send me running for the hills.  Salad however, I can now eat by the ton.  

Cost of food aversions to our food budget: $250ish

Surprise #3: How hard maternity clothes are to buy, and how much they cost
Most of my maternity clothes window-shopping prior to pregnancy consisted of clearance items.  It never occurred to me that I might need to buy items before they went on sale.  I've recently started to make the transition to maternity, and while I still have managed to shop the sales, fall/winter maternity clothes are still full price - and they are not cheap, even the cheap stuff.   At this point, I am fitting into about the final 10-15% of my non-maternity clothes. 

I tried ebay and craigslist, only to realize I really needed to try stuff on.  And since the only resource of maternity clothes that is near my size, and not a good 6 inches shorter than me, is currently expecting, hand me downs are rare.  So we've ended up shopping.  

The thing about it is, you need everything.  From bras to work clothes to t-shirts and jeans, you have to start over.  And while I have started to supplement by borrowing from my husband's wardrobe, even that has a lifespan that will end before my maternity marathon is over.  I found that stressful - how would I know what was enough?  Where to start?  It was overwhelming financially to buy clothes for a short period of time, as well as just stressful from a scale perspective.  I'd spent years accumulating a wardrobe, and now I had to start from zero.

So, I've bought 2 maternity t-shirts, one pair of jeans, a winter dress, 3 pairs of pants for work, 1 pair of cropped pants for the warm days, a pair of chino cargo pants, and 4 tops for the office, pajamas, and a nursing top that should fit me through the  6th month or so, and then after I deliver.  I imagine I'll need a few more things over the next few months, but I plan to buy slow. I've received a few items from my younger sister as well. 

Even on sale, maternity stuff is pricey - they have a captive audience, after all.  

Cost of maternity so far: $320ish.  I expect to spend about $600 when all is said and done - a bit over our initial plans, but within reason according to other working women I know who have gone through this.  And I'll be doing a lot of laundry to keep up - even after spending all I have, the lack of variety makes that necessary.  But it is worth it, I'd rather be sick of my options than buy an entire new wardrobe.  1 pair of jeans will do for the entire time, thanks. 

Surprise #4: The cost of being tired
My energy has slowly increased over the last few weeks, but 'tired' is still how I answer when someone asks me how I am.  My stamina is not what it was before I got pregnant, and that has cost us money.  Where?  In lunches that didn't get packed, so they had to be bought at work.  In buying, instead of making, something to bring to a gathering.  In shopping for gifts at the last minute instead of shopping around for a good deal.   In a general lack of planning, that costs us by everything being done just in time, usually at a higher cost.  In last minute trips to the grocery store.

I had always known that being a planner saved us a lot of money, but I had never tested it out. Now I know for sure - our lifestyle depends on thinking ahead.  It's not the $7.50 spent on lunch that does us in  - it's doing that 1-2x a week for several months, or not packing enough snacks, so I run out and spend $1.50 on a brownie.  It's realizing at the last minute that you need to bring a gift or a dish or a bottle of wine, because you are only focused on getting through now, this moment.

In short, I've proved to myself that frugality and planning go hand in hand.  So I'm trying to spend more time on that.   

Total cost of lack of planning and being tired: over $200

Aside from the maternity clothes, which have been budgeted, we've hit our budget to the tune of about $600 in unplanned expenses over the last 18 weeks.  Some of that will be made up in upcoming overtime for me.  But what it really means is that the budget bears watching for the next 22 weeks and beyond.  I'm already working on a plan to stock our freezer with meals I prepare in advance for when the baby comes.  But it also means that I'm going to have to pick and choose what to do on weekends so I can keep up with the money-saving tasks our plans depend on us doing.

Pregnancy is full of surprises, most not financial.  But the financial ones make things a bit harder to swallow, especially for a planner like myself.  And I've realized that I need to plan more for the chaos that will come with the arrival of baby Moneypenny just a bit better.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

How Does My Garden Grow - Harvest Season

Gardening season has just about come to an end.   It's time to pull all the dying plants, turn the beds, and inventory my seeds for next year.    Our sole remaining harvest, sweet potatoes, will come out next week.  We're hoping they look good.

This year was a mixed one.  Near-constant rain through July and August slowed the harvest and bogged down a few plants.  As a result, the bulk of our tomato and pepper harvest came in early to mid-September.  Our fingerling potatoes did well, and we plucked a single acorn squash but our sole pumpkin got infested with squash borers, then helpfully eaten by some local wildlife.

We did well with cherry tomatoes, but the larger heirlooms we planted didn't provide us much this year - enough for a few pints of salsa (6 to be exact, made with locally grown onions and our own cilantro), but not enough for making and canning batches of pasta sauce.

We did well with basil from our own plants and the CSA, so my husband made and froze some large batches of pesto.  Fresh garden pesto tastes wonderful in the cold of winter.  Today we'll be roasting peppers to freeze, that will top salads and homemade pizza for months to come.

All this was in addition to the lettuce, squash and other things we harvested for in-season eating.

We also blanched and froze green and wax beans, which we'll enjoy over the cold season.  In addition, the transplanted raspberry bushes gave a few treats, and they are thriving.  We should see a good raspberry and blackberry harvest next year.  Both apple trees and our cherry tree are thriving, and next year we'll be putting in some peaches and an apricot tree.   We'll also be able to take advantage of the first asparagus harvest next spring.  

It was a small harvest this year, but a good one nonetheless.  Given the weather, my pregnancy exhaustion, and our busy life, I am a little disappointed, but not terribly.  It was our first year with our garden, and while it wasn't the large source of winter food we daydream about, the perk of gardening is that there is always next year.  

3 garden beds got built this year, and they will be planted while we create more in the spring. Our ultimate goal is 7-8 of them.  It may take a couple years to get there, but it will be worth the effort.

Our local food experiment is still in progress.  It will take a few years to come to fruition, but I look forward to the process.   And every tomato I slice that didn't get trucked in from somewhere else is filled with the seeds of our future.  

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Memorial, An Election, And Wild Mood Swings

Today is September 11th. I still remember this day in 2001. I was in a meeting. Someone came in and said 'Put on CNN, someone blew up the World Trade Center'. And so we watched, in horrified mesmerization, as the second plane hit the trade center, and the towers fell. And saw the flames shooting out of the Pentagon. And watched those who jumped a hundred stories to certain death, rather than submit themselves to the flames.

I worked on a military base at the time, so we went home shortly thereafter. I went and sat on the beach and cried.

Unlike some of my coworkers, I didn't know anyone who worked in the World Trade Center. But that day, we were all one nation, in our grief and horror.

It may have been the last time we came together like that. Since then, it's all about red vs. blue. Conservative vs. liberal. Rich vs. poor. Hater vs. hatee. Or so it seems sometimes. Things aren't going so hot in the American economy. The market has worse mood swings than a teenager. We don't trust companies to do the right thing, and we don't trust our government - they can't even figure out that torturing people is...well, torture.

And I'm just hoping at no point do I have to face the idea of President Palin - I may have to move to Canada if that comes to pass. I'd love to see a woman in the White House, but not that woman.

But there is hope, both for the future and for our wallets. The market will stabilize, if for no other reason than people are so tired of trying to predict where things are going that they will take up Bocce instead of market-watching. The impact to our collective wallets is putting us at home more, which is never a bad thing. Hey, if one more family sits down to dinner together, I'm all for it.

But it's painful, both to experience, and to watch. I took a look at my 401k balance the other day and wished immediately that I had forgotten it existed, and that the selective amnesia would stay in place until at least 2012, when the world is supposed to end anyway. I'd rather it didn't, but at least I wouldn't have to worry about my 401k balance.

I am torn between sympathy for the homeowners who struggle, and a reluctance to support bad decisions. Between knowing the markets need to be shored up, and thinking that letting them fall might be just punishment for those who took unneccesary risks with other people's money. Between hating how we've offered up a bail-out-o-rama for big companies who do stupid things, and not wanting the employees and their kids to end up on a bread line.

There's no simple solutions . All I can do today mourn what is lost, hope for what might be, and live in the moment.

9/11 was a horrible day. But one good thing came out of it - we were all Americans first, and other things second. That's not to say we have to agree on things. We can even think each other has profoundly bad, or off the wall ideas. But we do have to live together, and maybe it's time we found a common bond again.

I heard said once that the saddest thing that happened to the US as a culture after 9/11 is we lost our hope. That it was the thing that was most appealing about us to our allies - our bright vision of the future, and the knowledge that things would get better. I say it's time to recapture that - that the legacy of 9/11 is not one of pain and fear, but of the determination that things will get better. The market will take some mood stabilizers, the government will stop trying to rule by fear, and companies will stop padding the golden parachutes of their CEOs and remember to hand out the occasional raise.

I think those that died 7 years ago today might agree with that.

Monday, September 1, 2008

On Vacation

Ms Moneypenny is on vacation until September 8, 2008

Have a safe and happy labor day!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Never Take the First Offer

Last week, amid lower oil prices, and a rising stock market, I got a boomerang slap from the rebounds of the shaky economy.  I came into work on Thursday morning to be informed that my consulting firm had been forced to take a 10% rate reduction from my client, and that was being passed to me in the form of a 10% pay cut.  As of this coming Monday.  

I informed my consulting firm that I wasn't going to take it, and since I knew they had previously offered my client a rate reduction without impact to their consultants, I informed them I needed to hear offers - that I would be flexible, but not 10% flexible.

So they countered me a 6% reduction, with a rate increase at the end of January that would make up some more of what I had lost.  I might not be back to my current rate at the end of January, but close.

My consulting firm has been reasonably straight shooters with me for the year I've been with them, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt and accepted that, with the caveat that this would not be permanent - that when things ease, they go back to the table with both the client and me.

But I wasn't willing to take the 10% without some negotiation, and it worked to my benefit.  I'm still not very happy, but a bit of a rate cut is better than a layoff.  

Why was I so willing to push back?  Because I believe the first offer on the table is never the one to take.  That there is always negotiating room in financial dealings.  Always.  It's why, before the bottom dropped out of the market we got the previous owner to come down over 7% of her asking price - things were slowing, but she could have bet on a spring uptick in the housing market in 2007.  Good that she didn't -  both for us and for her.

It's why I made the dealership where we bought my husband's car come back 5 - yes 5 - times before I agreed to a price (I am the haggler in our house).  

It's also why I managed to double my salary in under 3 years.  

I never take the first offer made.  I might take the second, or maybe the fifth,  but unless I feel that I'm getting a good deal, I walk away.

Negotiating is a skill that I think needs to be used more in our marketplace.  Americans are conditioned to view the sticker price as the price.  But negotiating has a place in the American economy, especially around big-ticket items, such as a salary, a home, or a car.

Smaller things can be negotiated too.  My husband and I have the best luck with small, local businesses - the folks who did our yard cleanup in the spring, the company that replaced our oil tanks.  I am having our heating oil tanks filled next week, and I fully plan to see if our current company will match the deals from other local businesses I've found.  See, I want to give our current company my business.  I like them.  But I am a price conscious consumer, and proud of it.

I don't negotiate on everything.  Food quality, local farmers....I don't go there.  If something is too costly, I don't buy it, but I certainly am not going to push someone with a tiny profit margin for 50 cents.  But when it comes to hundreds or thousands, I'm willing to negotiate a bit.  Even if it's just smiling and saying 'Is that the best offer you can make me?'.  Sometimes those 9 words save me significantly.  

I think more people don't negotiate because they believe it hurts someone.  It doesn't.  I can assure you companies want your business as much as you want their services.  Especially in this economy.  Having a long-term customer is more valuable, in many cases, than the cost of taking a few bucks off here and there.  And remember, the business can always say no.  I respect that. I might go elsewhere, but I still respect it.

So how can you negotiate?  Here's a few simple things that really work.

1. Ask: Is that the best you can do?
Those simple words open the negotiations, and put the next move in the other person's lap, without you having to ask for a specific  percent, or dollar amount.  In other words, you've clearly stated "I want a better deal" but without having to put your cards on the table.

2. When they come back to you: That's a little higher than I was thinking
Now you still haven't put a dollar amount on the table, but they know you want a better deal. This gives your negotiatee two options - to ask you what you want, or to make a second offer.  

3. $X is being offered.....
This is a great way to open a negotiation.  I know for a fact that three other local firms are offering heating oil at $3.50 a gallon near me as of this writing.  Our current oil company wants $3.67 a gallon.  If they are willing to meet, beat, or make me a counter, I'll work with them.  

4. I'm sorry, that's just too high
For this one, you have to be willing to walk.  I always, always, have a walking away amount in mind for large purchases.  With our home, the seller came in just $500.00 below our walking away price.  I'm glad she did, but we would have walked if she had not.  So don't toss this one out unless you know your bottom line.

5. Don't be afraid to walk away and come back
My in-laws did this with their home.  The price was too high, so they walked.  A month or two later, they came back.  The house was still sitting with no bites.  And they got their price.  You must know your market to do this, but it often pays off.  And if it doesn't, at least you didn't overpay.

Do I win every negotiation?  No.  Sometimes it takes 3 or more phone calls to different businesses, or rounds of negotiation to get to a place that everyone can live with.  Sometimes I give more than I would like to.  But never do I give more than I'm willing to.

You too, can negotiate.  It's easier than you think.  So the next time you are making a purchase, just ask "Is that the best you can do?"

See what happens.  You just might like the results. 

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Local Food Update

This spring, I catalogued our desire to eat locally.  In order to do so, we planted several beds of a vegetable garden.  As of this writing, 3 of our desired 8 beds got dug and planted.  We'll have those to plant in spring while we dig more.

In addition, we joined a CSA, to get a farm share.  Every Sunday from early June on, we've gone to our local farm to bring home a bounty of vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruit.  

But things didn't quite work out as we planned, and much of the food was given away, or composted.  This wasn't exactly what we were going for, but just as summer's bounty was coming into full flower (so to speak), so did I.  I got pregnant.  And started having some serious food aversions.  Specifically to vegetables.  

The mere smell of grilling squash curdled my stomach.  Greens?  Ugh.  I was lucky to make it through the first trimester with barely a touch of nausea, but vegetables became an anathema.  

For a while, all of them, with the exception of potatoes.  Recently I've been managing salad greens (just as lettuce went pretty much out of season, but I've got some more planted for fall), tomatoes, cucumbers, and broccoli.  Corn too.  The list broadens each week, thankfully.  

Seeing as it had taken us 22 months to get to this point, the fact that some veggies didn't get eaten probably seems a small price to pay, but it was hard to swallow the idea that I wasn't eating the way I like to eat.  Our typical stir fries and grilled veggies went out the window in favor of comfort food - pastas and other carb-heavy foods.  If it hadn't been for my fruit cravings, I might have been completely nutritionally deprived. 

Yeah, comfort food.  In summer. I know.  

Add to that my all-too-common first trimester exhaustion, and more than one store-bought chicken pot pie got eaten instead of all the amazing foodstuffs coming out of the ground from the local farmers.  BJs over farmers markets.  Stuff from boxes.  Cans.  The freezer section.

Sigh.  Add to that me being a too tired to write my blog most days - not to mention tiredness making me unable to process any complex thinking, and it's been an interesting summer.  

I have managed to bake bread most weeks, and that has been rewarding indeed.  Between a recipe for no-knead bread, and sourdough starter passed on from a friend, it's been a good bread season.  

As I pass into my second trimester, things are getting better.  Yesterday I dug up our first batch of homegrown fingerling potatoes, and have visions of herb roasting them with the local chicken from our CSA are running through my head.  I'm again daydreaming about uses the fresh pesto we've started to make.  I've managed to blanch and freeze some beans, and will be making a large batch of fresh salsa to can and serve at our annual cookout.  

Our sole pumpkin is ripening on the vine, ready to be turned into pie for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The sweet potatoes are looking great, and mashing and baking them will be a joy when the weather turns colder.  

The peppers in the garden are starting to redden, and the tomatoes, while still mostly green, are coming along.  A combination of near-daily rain and lack of tying up have stunted their development, but there are gobs of them on the vines, if the frosts will hold off until at least late September. 

It hasn't been the best local food season we could have had, certainly not the one I daydreamed about while I started my seedlings in March.  But it could have been worse.  Good things happened, just not the ones I expected. 

The nice thing about gardening is that there is always next year.  Will we do the CSA again?  I don't know.  Parts of it I have loved, parts not so much.  Next year, with a hopefully larger garden (and a small-ish child) we'll grow enough that supplementing from a farmers market and various farm stands may be a better option, so we'll be mulling that over for a bit.  We've got until January to decide.

Despite our less-than-stellar attempt at local food this year, impending parenthood has confirmed my desire to eat responsibly.  And that means locally.  The pride I felt in bringing a salad to a family cookout that was almost entirely locally or self-grown confirmed that.  And I know the food coming out of the ground in our yard isn't subjected to contaminants or being trucked from thousands of miles away.  The world is running low on oil, and running far to high in toxins, so whatever I, and my family can do to lessen that impact is a good thing.  As Mother Theresa said, we can only do small things with great love.    And what is more loving than feeding one's family and friends great food that's good for them and Mother Earth?

Things didn't turn out quite the way I planned this year.  Not by a long shot.  But it's been a good summer nonetheless.   And local food matters more to me than ever.  

Because it's not just about me anymore.  I'm going to be someone's mother.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Mixed Money Messages

A recent comment on my blog got me thinking about the mixed messages we get about money, and how they impact people's viewpoints.

It's interesting to me how many different messages there are out there about money. Does staying near a job with stable, healthy income mean you are materialistic? You might think so if you talk to folks who tell you it's happiness, not money that matters, and income isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Well, that's great, unless you can't figure out how to pay the bills.

But then, should you have all those bills anyway? Live on less.

Okay, which less? Phone? Electricity? Heat? Food?
The 'live on less' folks are right to an extent - our modern expectations are incredibly outsized. No one needs an iPod or a flatscreen. But I'm not becoming a breatharian to suit anyone, sorry. There's balance here.

So we shouldn't acquire them?
This is where things get sticky. There's an environmental and financial cost to everything we do. And we have to pick and choose. Should you not redo your kitchen? I don't know. I can't make that decision for you. I know that for me, not liking an appliance isn't sufficient reason to replace it - but it's breaking is. On the other hand, if our much-hated washing machine died tomorrow, I wouldn't be sad at having to replace it, not one bit.

I think the folks that replace their furniture every couple years because they feel like redecorating should consider the impacts to the world around them. Then again, I sort of like getting their fantastic, mildly used stuff at cheap prices. Still, it's clear the world can't support wanton acquisition.

Yeah, Moneypenny, we're renovation & acquisition happy in the US. What ever happened to being happy with what you have?
Good point. But even Pa Ingalls in the Little House on the Prarie books kept adding on to his house. This is not a new phenomena, it's just that access to stuff is unprecedented these days.

Like with all things, I believe in happy mediums.

I don't have a perfect answer. I think all you can do is think about what you really want and need. I can't choose it for you, and I don't have the perfect regulations to throw out there.

I do know that wanting a bathroom that doesn't leak water every time you shower and looks kind of nice too isn't a judgement-worthy item. And if you can afford marble subway tile, who am I to say you shouldn't, even though I think the mountains of Carrara, Italy might have looked nicer if they weren't chipped down so they no longer have true peaks.

And maybe that money would be better spent making sure the elderly widow in your neighborhood has enough heating oil for the winter. Yeah, yeah, I know you work hard for your money. Me too.

These are issues that I struggle with all the time - what's enough? At what point can people be judgy? What should be regulated? What's up to us to choose?

It's clear the market in free for all doesn't make good choices, but also clear that regulating things unilaterally often doesn't take into account that one size doesn't fit all.

I don't have answers, but I do know that assuming the worst about people's financial choices is something that has come out of all the mixed messages we get about money....and I don't think it makes us better people. There has to be a better way - banding together to help each other make good choices, rather than tearing each other down for making different ones.

What do you think?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Either/Or and the Space In Between

I was involved in an interesting discussion the other day regarding dream jobs.  With a few exceptions, it seems that many folks don't do their dream job because:

1. It doesn't pay enough
2. It doesn't pay at all
3. It's a tough field to get into, and the likelihood of them getting into it is very slim
4. Some combination of the above

I posited the somewhat unpopular idea that sometimes having a job that you like enough not to have to talk yourself out of bed in the morning that pays enough to cover what you need, at least some of what you want, and allows you a good life, was maybe enough.  Going back to Your Money or Your Life - work is for money, it isn't the main event.  

Of course, then came the responses, which varied, but many included 'Life is too short to do something you hate'.

Which got me thinking, both about the career debate and life on a broader scale.  Is it really a simple choice between passionate enjoyment and stark misery?  I don't think so.  

There is a ton of grey area between 'I love this so much I can't see straight' and 'Please will I get hit by a Hoodsie truck so I don't have to do this'.  Not just around career decisions, around most life decisions.  Now some folks are fortunate enough to find their passion, get paid for it, and look forward to doing it every day.  Some are determined that their passion is the only thing worth doing, and they use that passion as a gauge for everything they do.  I admire those people.  But....

Then there's the rest of us.  

The ones that make compromises.  To pay the bills. To move to an area that provides them a liveable commute, rather than live in the perfect spot on a lake.  Maybe they vacation at the lake instead.  That even though they had always dreamed of a hot pink kitchen, they go neutral because their spouse hates hot pink with a passion.  And a happy spouse is a good key to a happy life.

My husband and I dream of moving to Maine.  We almost did, before we bought our home.  And then when we started actually putting numbers on salaries and cost of housing, we bought a home in Massachusetts.  Near our jobs, near career growth options.  Is it our dream spot?  No, but we love our home.  We are happy here.  Someday we'll end up in Maine, we know that, but for right now, we made a compromise we could live with.

And in the end, one that we are both happy with, despite the occasional cracks in that when dealing with Massachusetts traffic.  

Are the people who choose compromise are miserable in comparison to those that choose passion?
Not the ones I know.   I know some people who are passionate about every aspect of their lives and are happy.  Others found that when it becomes obligation, wasn't as much fun.  I think everyone has to choose their own path.  Nothing is written.  You don't have to live forever with decisions that don't work for you.   And most of the folks I know that have compromised have found happiness in ways they didn't imagine.  

Are you saying I should do something that makes me unhappy?
I've had the sort of job where I could barely talk myself out of the car in the parking lot in the morning, my boss was such a miserable person.  I don't recommend that to anyone.  But if living somewhere, working somewhere or doing something gives you options to choose something that may make your life better, I say consider it.  If living closer to work means a smaller plot of land but the time to tend that garden you've been dreaming of, is that a bad thing?  Probably not.  

Does that mean I shouldn't seek passion?
Oh seek, definitely seek.  But don't let what's possibly around the next bend blind you to what is in front of you.  Maybe you can throw pots for gifts for friends, rather than having to take the risk of opening a business.  But if that risk is all that will do for you, more power to you.

Besides, you can always change your mind if it's not working - relocate, change careers, open that shop after all.  

Isn't life grand?