Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To My Blog....

Another month+ disappeared.  I'm not exactly sure how, even.  Except that maybe it was the stomach bug my daughter had followed by 3 teeth my daughter cut, along with the croup, another tooth, and a cold. And that was just her.  Then there was working every night after her bedtime.

And a few (okay, more than a few) social commitments after that - family,  friends, other.  See, you sort of get a pass when you have a baby and then go back to work, at least for a while. But after ,say, almost 8 months go by - even if you are still almost as sleep deprived as when you started and dreaming about checking into a hotel for a week just to sleep, occasionally ordering room service and then sleeping again  -  and working to boot, there does start to be some questions regarding your whereabouts in a social sense.  

And those who handed out the pass wonder why you aren't willing to miss the occasional bed-and-story routine - after all, they were there for you long before the smallish cute baby was, and they will share a bottle of wine with you and presumably not fuss if you want to close the door while in the toilet.  A not invalid point, really, if you can tear yourself away from baby-gazing long enough to note it.

And you and your spouse realize that the occasional kid-free evening probably will help keep you fond of one another in 20ish years when said cute smallish daughter is no longer so smallish (hopefully still cute) is far more interested in her boyfriend with a mohawk and a (gulp) motorcycle than in reading "The Going to Bed Book" 843 times before falling asleep.  

And then if you suck at balance, say, you lose a month or so, and wonder when it is you'll find the time to go to the grocery store, and where the hell that stack of bills you were going to pay...oh, found it.  Now where on earth is that checkbook? Sadly, the entire world is not online yet, so some bills still must be paid the old fashioned way.

The thing about working parenthood is this.  When it's good, it's pretty darn good. I manage to juggle work and still feed my daughter healthy homemade food I've hand-chopped for her, do tubby time, read stories, cuddle, have family outings, and still manage to keep my roots touched up and my email current.

When it's bad....ohboy.   It cycles out of control fast.  Really fast.  And getting the chaos back down to manageable is....well, imagine after the Big Bang, trying to stuff everything back into that smallish dense ball it came out of.   All the while in the background the housekeeper is gently reminding you she can't clean any surfaces you haven't previously cleaned off.   Which brings me back to why things disappear...

The reality is that my life is a madhouse right now.  My job is demanding, albeit flexible enough to allow me to bug out at 4 pm most nights to do our nightly routine with the kiddo, but just as I want to drop, exhausted onto the couch, there's email to check, some files to work on, and dishes to do.  And never ending piles of laundry to fold.  

And yes, my wonderful husband does his share.  But really,  17 parents to 1 child might be just the right ratio to keep it all together. Maybe there are other people who fall into motherhood, and working motherhood more gracefully.  Maybe they keep it together and find it all fabulous all the time.  Maybe they run marathons 6 weeks after the baby is born instead of looking down at the last 15(19) pounds and hoping they will fall off while you try to get just a wee bit more sleep because even though you did sleep training, every week something disrupts the routine and you end up bleary-eyed again.  

I'm sure those women are out there.  If you are one of them, do me a favor and don't tell me.  I already don't like you.  

I like my life, I really do.  I love my family, my job, and I wouldn't trade this motherhood thing for the world.  This sea change in my world has forced me to edit carefully what I choose to do and not do.  Sometimes I do that well.  Often I fail.  But it's been a tough transition for me.  I'm used to having things under control.  I don't now, and I won't for a while.   It's one day at a time, literally.

So what does this mean for my blog?  Well, it's still here, and so am I.  When I can, I will.  When I don't have time....well, let's just say RSS feeds of this blog are the way to go right now.  If you've stuck with me this long, thanks for that.   I hope to make it worth your while.  In the meantime, I'm off to try to get some sleep.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

'Tis The Season To Buy Toys

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I have a really good start on holiday shopping this year. Honestly, I do most of my shopping online at this point - I rarely have the time or energy to shop in a store these days, and if I do, it's a day that gets planned a long time in advance, like my standing Black Friday outlet date with my sister. I could opt out of shopping that day, but the deals are great, and we have a nice time together.

This will be my first Christmas as a parent, and so instead of just buying toys and clothes for neices and nephews, I get to fill a stocking, play Santa, and the whole 9 yards for my own child. Yes, I'm aware that, at 10 months old she won't know the difference between a toy from Santa or from Mommy & Daddy, and the wrapping paper is sure to be the hit of the day. Humor me. I love to make traditions, and family Christmas traditions are ones I've looked forward to making for a long time.

This year, I decided to buy only North American and/or European-produced toys that met pretty exacting standards of child safety. Not only do I want to support smaller, specialized toy producers if I can, but I think that european toys are typically really cool. Much nicer than the plastic-y junk I see at Toys R' Us.

So I've put a lot of time and effort into finding neat toys from some pretty cool places at reasonable prices. Here's my list for those of you who have a White Christmas on the brain despite the hot, humid August we're having.

1. I like wooden toys for kids. Real wood blocks and pull toys are my favorites (note: anything that doesn't require batteries is a plus in my book). http://www.northstartoys.com/ has some really neat rolly animals and push toys. Plus the prices are very reasonable. Two snaps up for this family-owned business in New Mexico.

2. For about the best selection of neat stuff I've seen yet http://www.moolka.com/ wins hands down. Lots of european toys of the nifty sort one doesn't see too often in brick-and-mortar stores. I was especially impressed with their building blocks and stacking toy selection. 4 snaps in a z formation for this site.

3. Similar to MoolKa, the Oompa Toy Store is great. I thought their prices were sometimes a little higher than MoolKa, but they didn't have as much out of stock. http://www.oompa.com/

4. If you like toy trucks, check out the wood ones at http://www.dandmewoodtoys.com/. They have a great selection, along with pull toys and other cool stuff. Their prices are a bit high, but the Klickity Klacker Push Toy is only $39.95, and was chosen by 'Baby Talk' magazine as one of their toys of the year. I love it.

5. Last but not least on my list is http://www.childtrek.com/. Their toys are cool, they are green, and they have a good list of toys under $30.

Happy Holidays...er...summer.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Getting Less Spendy

I've been pretty spendy recently. Some of it has been spending that was planned, but postponed until I returned to work, like replacing my car, flooring for our entryway, and a new grill now that the end of season deals are good.

Some of the rest is holiday and birthday related. I'm well on my way to done shopping with the 7 autumn and winter birthdays that fall between now and the end of the year, as well as quite a few holiday gifts, including for my daughter. Which will feel great when everyone is crowding into the malls in December.

Then there were the costs of hosting 30 people for Kiera's christening party a couple weeks ago, parking costs in Boston, and various other ancillary expenses.

But there was also the clothes I bought for Kiera (let's just say I don't particularly want to add up the total) for winter and sale stuff for next summer. And trips to Dunkin Donuts with my new coworkers, along with a few lunches here and there.

Add it all together, and it's a lot - and I do mean a lot - of spending.

I'm officially spent out, I think. There's more coming - due to a water leak, we have to gut our bathroom in the next few weeks, and we really can't salvage anything. And of course, there's the day to day stuff - tolls, groceries, gas, drycleaning. We have to fill our heating oil tanks this month as well, and that's never cheap.

But aside from the unavoidable, I'm done for a while. A long while.

For clarification, we still have plenty of savings, no credit card debt, and balance the budget. But I don't particularly enjoy overspending. It leaves me with a vaguely icky feeling, like when you eat that second large slice of cake because you want it, not because you have room.

So why did I? A few reasons. For Kiera, it's very important to me that she's well dressed. Maybe because I really wasn't when I was growing up, maybe because, given how much time and medical intervention it took to have her, it's likely she's an only child and I feel like I can spoil her. Probably a combination. Still, parenthood is a marathon, not a sprint, and I need to ease off the gas pedal.

But I think in the bigger picture, I was spending because I felt, for the first time in years, flush and secure. For almost 4 years I was an independent consultant - often contracted month by month, and if I didn't work, I didn't get paid. Now, while still a consultant, I'm an official employee of a firm, with paid time off, and a level of job security. I still have to work to build the business, but the level of risk and insecurity has dropped off significantly. And that has felt pretty good...maybe too good. "Whoopee we can spend again" has never led me to my best moments. Being more frugal and creative has.

The problem with spending is that it breeds more spending. And for someone likes me, who loves to shop - and probably always will - continual shopping just makes it harder to stop. So sometimes I need to pull the plug and just stop entirely. It's the financial version of a reset button for me. And it works.

So it's time to reboot, go through the budget, make sure lunches are packed every night before work, and grab the free coffee at work instead of Dunkin Donuts. I'm not beating myself up - but I'm not giving myself much free reign either.

So maybe getting spent out was good. Now I can focus on other stuff.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Money Vs. Time Equation

I've always been one of those 'why would I pay someone if I don't have to?" kind of people. I want the inexpensive option. And I'd rather spend the time - to make dinner, to wash my own car, and so on - than spend money for the same thing. For me, the time vs. money equation was always summed up as spend the time, save the money.

But sometimes I realize I can't spend the time. And whatever it is that I don't have time for is just as valuable to me as the money it will cost to pay for it. And so then my time vs. money equation reverses to spend the money, save the time.

On one level, I really hate it when that happens. Because it inevitably involves some kind of upscaling of our lifestyle, and a larger proportion of our income becoming outgo.

But I try to recognize that sometimes there's no good option but to shell out. So this month, we took two big plunges - a parking spot for me in Downtown Boston, around the corner from where I work, and a twice-monthly housekeeper. Neither are cheap. In the event of need, both could be done away with (okay, so I wouldn't literally do away with my housekeeper, she's actually very nice). But both grant me tremendous quality of life.

A few weeks ago, our house was complete chaos. Piles of stuff and paper had bred in the dark corners of the various rooms. Laundry hadn't been put away in quite some time, making getting dressed in the morning a unique challenge if, say, my husband needed some socks. And we were spending the weekends trying to stay on top of it.

So in comes Nicole, our housekeeper/magician. She started last Thursday. Our house gleamed after her arrival. I practically danced with glee. Good spend? Oh, yes. Going throug my head was: "Why didn't I do this years ago?" I don't know..something vague about saving money and using it on more practical items. Who knows what I meant by that.

The parking space came about after I realized that I couldn't keep up my previous commute that included: driving to a parking spot(15 min), walking to the train station (15 min) and taking a train (34 minutes), then a subway line(10-30 minutes). All that commuting, plus wait times took it's toll on me even before I had a child. Now that I have a baby to pick up, and no direct way to work on public transportation, I drive. Is it the environmental choice? No. Nor is it the frugal choice. But for now, it's the best choice.

I don't love shelling out the money for these luxuries each month. But until our lives shift to a point where time and sleep aren't at a premium, they'll stay.

And I'm going to enjoy my nice clean bathrooms immensely, thank you very much.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Parenthood 5 months in

This past week, Baby MoneyPenny was 5 months old. In some ways, those weeks and months have passed in an eye blink. In others, it may well have been years. It's hard to remember what life was like without our daughter - it seems like she's always been here.

The first few weeks were pricey - she came a bit early, so we weren't totally ready (although at 38 weeks along, probably should have been). It felt like every day my husband made a new run to Babies R Us. Starting to burn through our savings - even for it's intended purpose - was tough. For the first few weeks we burned through diapers at an alarming rate - we held off on the cloth diapers until we got adjusted and I healed from my surgery, and now we use a mix of cloth and paper. 

We didn't buy a lot of baby gear up front. Since every baby likes different things, we waited until we knew what we would use. The baby swing and bumbo seat were both great spends. The swing buys me 20 minute stretches of free hands, which is miraculous for a new parent.  

Since she loved the swing at my sister's house, we ended up getting the same one for home. You don't mess with what works when you are trying to get some downtime.

I had also refrained from buying a lot of clothes before she was born. Hand me downs and gifts made up her wardrobe for the first weeks of life, and after that I started shopping. I've bought both retail and second-hand, and will probably continue to do both. But as I find more secondhand sources of clothes, and  yard sale season continues, I hope that retail purchases will be to supplement gaps, rather than to be her primary source of outfits. But buying her cute outfits is fun, and I suspect we will sometimes succumb to temptation. Sale stuff though.

I went back to work part-time early, and began supplementing with formula. She ended up requiring an expensive formula because of some food sensitivities - and eventually I had to wean her.  Formula runs about $280 a month. Insurance now reimburses us for it, but it's a pretty big outlay every month while we wait for the money back.  

Severe reflux and a milk protein allergy sent us to the doctor and ER , and eventually a pediatric GI specialist multiple times. Copays and prescriptions have cost a couple hundred dollars thus far. This was far more than we bargained for.

But other than the surprises of some small medical costs, and some gear we hadn't bought up front, like the baby monitor, swing, pack n' play, and so on, the biggest cost (and one we planned for) is child care.  It's worth it though - our child is loved and well cared for at my sister's home.   That and the fact that we're finally probably going to indulge in a housekeeper 2x a month, since working has made it near-impossible to keep up.  I've managed to keep the house relatively clean, but that means that all attempts at organization and other projects have fallen by the wayside.  Which means our dining room now looks like the local dead letter office, with piles of paper breeding in the corners.  I can't manage it all, and my husband's chores focus around yard work and the projects we need done, like finishing the shelves in my daughter's closet.

So working parenthood is pricey, I'll admit.  I'm happy to be back to work, and I do like my job, despite missing my daughter.  I am lucky, she was almost 5 months when I finally went back full-time, and I get a day a week to work from home.   Every expense has been worth it.  

Still, I'd recommend to new parents to get as much second-hand as you can.  The $7 fill-a-bag sale clothes from The Children's Orchard (a used clothing chain) and bulk clothing I've gotten off craigslist are just as cute as my Gymboree indulgences.  I may not give up on Gymboree entirely, especially buying larger sizes at their end of season sales.  My daughter already has some great clothes for next summer at fire sale prices, both used and new.

And while I'm not a fan of used stuffed animals, any toy that can be washed clean is fair game at yard sales.  New toys are often not worth the price.  And our local 'used book superstore' has been a great source of children's books cheap.

When you can't buy, borrow.  Our high chair is being borrowed from my sister, and I've gotten other loaner items as well.  Kids go through gear pretty fast, so it's worth not spending too much.  That said, a notable exception is a pack n play - that's worth owning.  We used it when she was an infant in our room, and since we travel a fair bit, it's already earned it's keep.

Kids can be expensive...but they are also worth every penny.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Local Food Project

Last summer, I had a disappointing garden year.  Intense rain, the fact that we were late to the planting season after working to build out the first three garden beds (of a planned 7-8) and pregnancy exhaustion meant that our yield was only so-so.  We managed to freeze some homemade salsa, roast some peppers, and have a few salads from our garden, but that was really about it.  

This year isn't going to be much better.  While we do have a garden planted, it's pretty small - some potatoes, tomatoes, kale, and a few other things.  We didn't start any of it ourselves, despite me being proactive about buying seeds before our daughter came along.  Thankfully, most seeds last for multiple years (and often even increase germination rates) as long as they are stored in a cool, dry place, so we're all prepared for next year. Instead, my sister and parents took pity on our sleep-deprived selves and gave us some seedlings.  

But similar rains this past June, making Massachusetts feel like a temperate rain forest, rotted many of those seedlings.  

And the remaining garden beds will have to wait another year, as will a chicken coop and chickens, our next sustainable living project.  We have some critical house projects that need to get started now that I'm back to work.  So that means that we won't be providing very much of our own food this year.  

And after an experiment with a CSA that just didn't work that well for us, I was back to the drawing board.  But food price increases are making a local diet harder.  

The downside of living in a high-population, high cost of living area in the current economy is that local food is expensive - far more so than last year.  I mean it's really expensive.  A quart of organic strawberries from the local farmstand, in season?  $6.59.  Local beef?  $8-$11 a pound. Local chicken?  $20 for a whole chicken.  A head of lettuce?  $4.


Since our total grocery budget (this includes personal care and cleaning supplies), not including diapers and baby supplies, is about $400-450.00 per month right now, it's clear that shopping at our local farmstand is perhaps not the most financially sustainable option.  It's still a part of our shopping repertoire, but isn't replacing the grocery store.

The farm stand does have a co-op for a cost of $50 a year, and I'm mulling over giving it a try. There's a 129-page abbreviated text catalog that I need to go through first, just to make sure there's foods that we would eat that make the purchases worth our while.

Still, local is important to us.  And so is growing our own food, now that there are signs that perhaps, someday, our 5 month old daughter will sleep more.  There's still time for a late summer garden, and some fall lettuces.

I've found a local beef farm about 2 hours away that sells in bulk, and my parents are talking about going in with us.  My older sister, in upstate NY, is willing to raise us meat chickens, and we still have some from the last batch she raised.   I make it to the farmstand about once or twice a month now, which is far less than I would like, but it will have to do for now.

With the cost of local food going up so high, it means that we're going to have to focus more on what we can grow.  So we're adding some more strawberry plants and a couple peach trees this year, and then next spring we'll break ground on the remaining 5 garden beds, and start up on the chicken coop.  It's my hope by July of 2010 we'll have chickens helping us on bug patrol, and finally that big garden we dream of.  

In the meantime there's the farmstand and the grocery store, and the occasional donation of fresh produce from family - and that will have to do.  It's not my preferred way of doing things, but it is what works now.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Does Using Cheaper Ingredients Mean Lower Quality Meals?

The other day, I was making a chicken meal in my crockpot.  As I pulled out the $2.39 bottle of white cooking wine, and the dried-instead-of-fresh basil, I started thinking about the cost of ingredients vs. the quality of food. 

I'm all about good food.  I have 2 shelves of cookbooks  - and I use them (or at least, I use them when I'm not utterly sleep deprived).  I love to cook, and I have no problem spending lots of time in the kitchen when I have the time to do so. 

But I do often cut corners on ingredients when I feel it's appropriate.  For instance, if wine was a key component of a sauce, I'll use decent wine.  If it's deglazing a pan of stuff that is then going to be cooked in the crockpot for 5 or 6 hours, the cooking wine will do.  Any qualities of the better wine would be lost in the sauce - literally.  

It's the same with things that offer similar flavor.  The particular recipe I was making called for adding kalamata olives to the recipe.  While they were a late addition, because they were being cooked in, a $3.29 jar of them had the same effect as $6 or so worth from the olive bar.  I could have done it cheaper but I sprang for the pitted kind, since I hate picking olive pits out of food.

Had the olives been part of an appetizer spread, I would have gone with the good stuff.  And having made the recipe with both jarred and olive bar-esque olives, I can honestly say there was no difference.

I usually try to make the recipe as called for the first time out.  That's my baseline.  I want to know exactly what it tastes like as called for.   After that, I start making modifications.  Little ones, at first.  Less salt, more oregano, olive oil instead of butter, that sort of thing.  Once I have the levels of ingredients to my liking, then I go further.  Skip this, add that instead.  And I always try a cheaper option 

Why am I so systematic about it?  Because I want to be sure that we're eating what tastes best.  And because cookbooks are the one exception I make to my 'no writing in books' rule.  I add notes to the pages of recipes I've made.  I love finding used cookbooks with notes in them.  And I always try the advice the notes give - someone took the time to tell their future selves, and those who come later how the recipe tastes best.  Of course, it's all subjective, and sometimes I don't love the advice given.  But often, it's the variation on the original recipe that is top notch.  

Someday, either when my daughter gives the cookbooks away after my death, or uses them for herself, someone is going to open them up and see my notes, assuming they just don't go to some trash bin.  I think that's kind of cool - that while 'The Best Recipe' has a great recipe for meatballs, I think I took it up a notch, to the really best recipe.  At least for me.  Everyone has different taste buds. 

So do cheaper ingredients make for lesser quality meals?  Sure, sometimes.  I do prefer fresh herbs, or ones we've dried ourselves (my husband is the herb-drying rock star in our home). But if there's a choice between $5 worth of dubiously fresh basil from the store or the dried, I'll often choose the dried and see if I like it.  It's always worth a try.  And since food budgets are one of the largest variable costs for most of us, it's worth it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Unemployment Redux

This past January 31st, I left work for my maternity leave.  It was the first time I'd been jobless since I was 15 years old - a pretty scary idea, even though we'd saved and planned for it.

I had 2 weeks off before Baby MoneyPenny arrived, and then settled into my maternity leave and new parenthood.

When I was 7 weeks postpartum, my job called and asked if I would come back part time to get a project I'd worked on earlier over the finish line.  They offered to be flexible with my schedule, and pay for my Mom to come on a business trip with Kiera so that I wouldn't have to leave her. 

It was an offer too good to refuse, so I went back to work a few days later.  Since my sister is my primary daycare provider, having an erratic schedule worked, and I don't have to worry about losing a daycare slot or paying for a full-time slot.  I ended up working between 14 and 25 hours a week, with the week of my business trip being the only 40+ hour week.

But then May 31st rolled around, and the contract ended.  While I'm in the interview process for a new job, and am continuing the hunt, I'm back at home.  

We're lucky.  And we employ foresight.  Between savings and unemployment, we can afford for me to be out of work for a good long while before having to worry.  And yet, I am worried - not because we can't make ends meet, or because I don't think I'll get the job I'm currently interviewing for, but because I'm now torn between home and work (and will be for the next 18 years).  It's no longer clean for me - if I work, I leave my daughter.  If I am home, I want to be working.  

I'll still go back to work - I am not cut out to be a stay at home parent, nor is our budget cut out for it.  Which is fine, it's the choice we made. 

Over the last couple years, since we bought our home, I have been pulled between wanting to do all the renovations we desire for the home (buying a fixer-upper that requires everything from wiring to windows will do that to a person) and wanting to save every penny.  And all this while still enjoying ourselves.  

I think we've struck a good balance.  We've done some renovations, plan to do more this year, and have saved well.  I may have a crack in the old, ugly entryway flooring, but I have a healthy bank balance.  And the flooring will go, hopefully sooner than later.

It's been hard to watch friends renovate with abandon, but I'm grateful for the choices we've made.  It means I can sit here and play with my daughter guilt-free.  For now.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A MoneyPenny Update

It's been a long time since I've blogged - a bit under 3 months.  The time since my last post has hurtled by - much of it in a sleep-deprived blur.  I've started writing a few times only to realize I was too tired to put my thoughts together with any sense of coherence.  And for a while there I couldn't even bring myself to think about personal finance - when you are perpetually exhausted, even deciding what to eat for dinner can be more complex thinking than can be managed.  

But recently, as Baby MoneyPenny crossed into the home stretch of the '4th trimester'  I started getting more sleep.  As a result, I'm starting to get my groove back.  I'm reading the news, thinking about our financial life again, and adapting to our new state of normalcy.  Actually, I'm  not just adapting, I'm enjoying the Mommy thing immensely.

The transition to parenthood is amazing, exhausting, thrilling and overwhelming.  I wouldn't trade it for the world wrapped up in a bow, but it's been challenging.  And rather more expensive than originally planned. 

Worth every dime though.  

I'll be blogging more frequently now, and incorporating my new role into my posts. 

It's been too long.  It's good to be back.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Bright Spot in the Landscape...Baby MoneyPenny

2 weeks ago today, my husband and I became parents to a beautiful baby girl.  Her arrival was a bit early and surprising - my water broke after a quiet dinner on President's Day, and shortly thereafter we found ourselves at the hospital with me being prepped for an emergency c-section.

Becoming parents for the first time is a startling experience, no matter how much you plan and look forward to it.  The sheer number of diaper changes, feedings and the sleep deprivation can make a new parent feel as though they are in their own special version of "GroundHog Day".  

And yet, it is all offset by what my husband and I call 'baby TV' - the ability to sit and stare at this amazing little person with fascination and adoration for hours.  Babies are mesmerizing. When it's your child, even more so.  

We've spent endless moments analyzing what of her traits are his and which are mine.  And yet, she is uniquely her own person too, with a clear personality already.  This is no blank slate, our daughter.

My blogging will likely be even more erratic than it has been for a while.  But there is a good reason, and I wouldn't trade my baby-watching and diaper changing for anything right now.

Welcome to the world, Kiera.  

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Reinventing the Past

A recent article at The Wall Street Journal online (www.wsjonline.com) caught my eye.  

Like many of it's brethren these days, the article addresses how we are - and aren't - in the same situation as our antecedents were in 1929.  In other words, why things are similar, but not the same as the Great Depression.  

Seeing as there have been roughly a bazillion articles that addressed the same thing since late September, why did this one catch my attention?

Because of how well it started, how interesting it was, and then how incredibly thoroughly it lost me.  The article starts well enough - the author comparing the stock market stats between then and now, and the human interest of how his Grandfather and Father survived was good enough, but the purported purpose of the article was 'what we can learn' and on that topic, it failed.  

Why?  Because there's little I can take from the lessons of someone who earned their way through the depression by buying horses for $1, breaking them with the aid of their sons, and then selling them for $10.  Not because I can't learn creativity, or thinking outside of the box lessons, but because there's little practical application to be gotten from a family that had a hand pump for their water and who's youngest son had to get up at 5 to lug water to the horses.
Okay, so that the whole family helped out, okay.  But does it teach anyone how to survive where we are, and what's coming?  Not really.  Few of us are farmers these days - too few, really, but that's another blog post.  Most of us get our food from the good old grocery store, perhaps supplemented by a garden in summer.  I don't have any kids old enough to perform farm chores.  And so on.  

And it's not just the one article.  A recent issue of Money magazine suggests upping your emergency fund to a year.  I'm all for that, but let's face it - that's a slow process for most of us.  If you have 3 months in your e-fund now, and it took you a year to amass, you may not have another 3 years before the hard times hit your doorstep.  

All of the articles are great for perspective - things are nowhere near where they were in the 1930s, at the height of the Depression, when the Dust Bowl and the market collapse converged to create a country with 25% unemployment, starvation, and little hope.  

But that's not much consolation to those who are unemployed or facing layoffs with a crummy job market and mortgages to pay, families to feed, and the persistent, nagging thought that things just aren't going to get better real soon.  
So what can we do?  Really?  

Adjust expectations.  Expect to do, have and spend less.    Pick and choose the things that are really, really important, such as a particular family holiday tradition, and do those things.  No fair calling them all important either.  And look for low cost traditions you can start.  Pack some hot apple cider and cookies, and go listen to a free concert. Get involved in your community.  Volunteer. Go to the library.  Whatever floats it for you, do it.

Start a garden.  Now is the time all the seed catalogs arrive.  Order a few things and start some seedlings in a sunny window later this month.  You don't have to plant everything, but maybe a salad garden for midsummer.  There's something peaceful about gardening - and something very rewarding about making a salad from things you grew yourself.  

Network.  Go to Linkedin.com and start sending invitations to coworkers.  Update your resume and send it out to recruiters.  If you are still employed, volunteer for some extra work - even if you feel overworked already.  Try to find tasks and projects that are considered 'mission critical' to your organization.  Another good way to network is to volunteer your time for a cause you feel passionate about.  And it doesn't hurt your resume either.

Learn to cook things you normally buy.  Friday nights are often pizza night in the MoneyPenny household, but we rarely order it.  It's simple to make from scratch, and tastes great.  Miss chinese take out?  Learn to make potstickers, satay or another favorite.  It will save you money, and - here's a little secret - cooking can be great fun.  

How can you make a little money?

Sell some stuff on Craigslist and Ebay.  We all have way too much stuff anyway, so go through your closets, your cabinets, and sell.  If it's not online sale-worthy, consider a yard sale this spring.  

Babysit for friends with kids.  Become a 'mother's helper' after school if you are out of work. Apply to substitute teach.  If you have a skill, turn it into a business.  Etsy.com is a great place to see if you have something other people want.

The people who win in this economy are going to have one common thread amongst them - adaptability.  The ones who refuse to take worth that is not in their field or below their education level will pay the price for that pride.  The ones willing to cobble together a living using their creativity, networks and flexibility will be the ones who make it through.  

I can't learn a lot on how to survive in this new economy from the job tactics of someone from 1932.  What I can do is look for opportunities that others may not be filling now, and fill them.

So maybe I did get something from that article after all.

The article that inspired this post is here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Preparing for Baby Part the Last

This past Saturday was my baby shower.  At 37 weeks along, it was a little late, but felt like a good time.  I was happy to have it right before baby makes an appearance, rather than having everything sit around and collect dust for a couple months.  

Everyone was extraordinarily generous with us.  And it was so fun to have our family and friends gathered around us.

The next day, Sander and I went shopping.  We still needed a bureau for the baby's room and there was some additional items we needed just in case baby made his or her appearance a little early - diapers, wipes, waterproof crib protectors, a caddy to put all the changing supplies, baby wash, that sort of thing.  We spent a total of about $773.00 on a bureau (including delivery) and all the gear.   We spent more than we had planned to on baby gear and furniture overall, but we're happy with the purchases, and the bureau we bought should take our child all the way through their first apartment if all goes well.

That pretty much sums up our purchases for the baby.  We still have a few items we plan to get, but all of them can wait.  Baby MoneyPenny can arrive any time now - although it's likely to be a scheduled arrival, as the baby is breech, not indicating any plans to turn, and with that and a few other complications, currently planned to arrive via the surgical suite the last week of this month.  

I've taken advantage of being home over the last week and a half to stock up on groceries and do some freezer cooking.  My goal is to prepare us 2-3 weeks worth of meals so that we're not living on take out when the baby first comes home.

We're about to hit our maternity leave savings for the first time.  While planned, it's always painful to see savings go down instead of up.

Overall, we're prepared for our new lives as parents.  The nursery is looking wonderful, with just a few last finishing touches needed.  We're planning a few more outings to movies and to see friends before the baby comes.  We're ready.

What have I learned through this preparation process?  A few things.  I am glad we're becoming parents at a point where spending $142.00 at Babies R' Us this past Sunday on diapers, wipes, bottles and various and assorted other accoutrements doesn't 'hurt'.   Same goes for the baby furniture.  We could have gone to craigslist or some friends, but decided we would like to order what we liked instead.  The crib becomes a toddler bed, so will see years of use, and the bureau, as I mentioned, should last a lot longer than that.  As for the glider, that will stay in our home long after our child is too big to be rocked to sleep.  

On the flip side, for the short-time baby gear, such as a swing, etc - we're happily taking every hand-me-down offered.  We've bought minimal clothing, as we were inundated with beautiful stuff this past weekend, and more seems to arrive every few days.  And with 4 nephews and 4 nieces, I expect we'll have some clothing to pick from without having to invest in a lot.  Also, I'm a fan of used baby clothes, and fully intend to hit yard sales and second hand stores as soon as Baby MoneyPenny - and Baby MoneyPenny's gender - make an appearance.

A perk of not knowing the baby's sex is that it has restrained us on the shopping front, and forced us to stay gender-neutral in nursery decor, which will serve us well if we eventually decide to provide a sibling.  In that sense, it was a frugal decision.  But we didn't make it for that reason - there are so few true surprises in life, and this one is exciting.

So how did we do?  Well, we went over the original baby budget, but we probably under-planned for it.  We came within $400.00 of our very aggressive savings target for maternity leave.  And we managed to refrain from a lot of extraneous purchases.  Even the nursery was more sweat equity than cost, totaling less than $200.00 for paint, supplies, the chair rail, and wood for shelving in the closet.  And every room we 'finish' adds to our home's value, so it is an investment in and of itself.

What advice can I give to potential new parents?  Pad your budget.   Take hand-me-downs when offered.  And when you are ready, you'll know.


Monday, February 2, 2009

Honey, I'm Home....

It's the first Monday in February.  Cold, in the mid-20s as this is being written.  The kind of Monday most of us hate to get out of bed for.  

This morning I didn't have to get out of bed.  Every morning will be like this for a while - I've joined the ranks of the unemployed.

At 9 months pregnant, this is not exactly traumatic for me.  A little nerve-wracking, as I've basically been employed since I was 15, and the economy is in tough condition, but otherwise, it's good.  I have a few weeks of time to get ready for the baby.  I no longer have to fight the weekend crowds at the grocery store.  I can cook to fill our freezer with meals to eat post-baby, spend time with family and friends, and have dinner on the table at night when my husband comes home.  In short, it's a really good time for me.

I never imagined I'd be happy to be out of work.  And yet I am....as long as I go back when my maternity leave is over.   That's the goal and the plan.  

I'll be updating over the next few weeks on how it's going.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How to Prepare for The Apocalypse Part 2

Last year, I wrote a semi-joking blog post about how to prepare for the apocalypse.  I knew there was more to the story, but never knew exactly what, until  I found an article over at www.thebigmoney.com about the stupidity of job ranking lists.  In the article, titled "I'm a Lumberjack and That's Okay", Jonathan O'Connell .... makes a fairly astute observation about the rankings of a particular job list.  The jobs that require someone to sit on their tush in a cubicle rank highest, those that require physical labor, the lowest. 

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I sit in a cubicle and get paid for it.  But it is a tad worrisome that our goals as a culture seem to revolve around sitting on our ever-growing behinds.  When not at work in our cubicles, there's 'must-see TV' and the newest movies. Sidewalks are history.  Everyone drives everywhere.  The movie Wall-E makes a very pointed social statement with the human race represented as slug-beings.   What's frightening is how much we 1st world countries already resemble the slug beings.
What's interesting to me about the absurdity of thinking that butt-sitting is the penultimate achievement is how tied that thinking is to what is going on with our economy.  We are, rather obviously, coming to the end of the time when perpetual acquisition and productions of shiny-things-we-don't-need-but-want-on-our-mantels is sustainable.  In reality, it never was, but we convinced ourselves of it for a good long time.  Shopping became not a means to an end, but the end itself.  No more.  The earth, and our wallets can't take it.  

So what happens next?  Well, a few things.  We may continue to try to have the same type of economy for a while.  I'm guessing we will - it may take more than just one bad recession for people to truly believe that individuals buying stuff making up 70% of the economy is sustainable.  Or maybe it's that we know it, but we don't know how to do things differently.  

If we do things differently too, the economy - both the US and other countries - will crash further.  This is true.  Except where  those particular economies learn to adapt.  

What kinds of different things could we do to adapt our economy?  Well, we could make stuff.  Everything from dinner to quilts and blankets to furniture to houses.  We could start to re-learn the art of crafting.  It would still require us to buy or barter for things, but we would be wholly involved in the process of creation.  

We could plan ahead better.   Before buying property, people should ask themselves questions like "How long can I/we be happy here if our home doesn't appreciate" and "How long could we afford to keep the house if one of us lost our job?".   I think it might change what people spend on their homes pretty significantly.  

We could rethink our expectations.  Just because J-Lo can afford an $1100.00 stroller doesn't mean you should try to have the same thing.  Do you really need new clothes or shoes every season or every year?  Could you clean your own house, and mow your own lawn?  Sure, that eats up time on weekends, but is spending the weekend at home so awful?  

Things are going to change over the next few decades, and as a result, we need to think, and think hard about how we can change with it.  The apocalypse isn't coming, but on the other hand, Obama, Tim Geithner, and/or Santa Claus combined aren't going to be able to prevent this sea change.  It's going to happen, and we need to start making long term plans for our own personal economies to deal with it.

That's scary and hard to do with so much uncertainty.  I know - I am still waiting to hear if I have a job in February, and February is less than 2 weeks away.  And I have no guarantee of a job after my maternity leave.  So I've dealt with that uncertainty by saving in advance of it.  And by knowing that, even if I have to work 2-3 jobs after I am done with my leave, we'll make it work because we have to.  

The uncertainty is here to stay, I think.  At least for a while.  The folks who think this will be all over by summer are a tad optimistic, in my personal opinion.  So to ride this out we need to be creative.  And that may mean stepping out of our comfort zones.  '

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday in the Kitchen

It was cold and snowy here today in Massachusetts.  The bitter cold temperatures we've been experiencing disappeared to make way for about 5 inches of snow, give or take.  It was a day to spend in the house.  So we did - my husband working on the baby's room, me puttering around the house.

Sundays like this call for cooking, and with a baby on the way in oh, 6 weeks or so - give or take, I'm trying to spend as much of my time preparing meals for the freezer as I can.  I'd rather not live on take out once baby MoneyPenny arrives, even though I know there will be some of that.

This Sunday, it was potstickers - aka Peking Ravioli, but of a far better variety than your average Chinese take-out joint.  My recipe comes from the cookbook Dim Sum, by Ellen Leong Blonder.  Its' the first asian cookbook that I have come across that I found really easy to use (I do have a bunch of them), because it was clear on all the details.  Having found myself in a Chinese grocery store in Boston's Chinatown more than once trying to figure out if the Black Bean Paste that the recipe calls for is the same as Fermented Black Bean Paste on the shelf (it was), or which rice wine, white or dark is appropriate for the recipe, and not finding anyone who speaks english - at least willingly - well enough to help, I found this cookbook to be one of the best for trying to make the asian delicacies I love so much.

So I made about 75 potstickers, and froze a bunch of them on cookie sheets (bag them up in freezer bags once they are frozen) for later meals.  If you don't have a Chinatown near you, and have a love for authentic asian food, I recommend this cookbook highly.  

Then I started bread.  My sourdough starter died when I was traveling and working long hours in November, and I haven't had a chance to mooch more from my friend yet, so I've reverted to another great recipe here. 

It's quick and easy to prep, and aside from needing a night to rise, is minimal effort.
And the best part?  It tastes like bakery bread, the kind that can cost $4 or more a loaf.  I make mine with 2 cups of white flour, 1/4 cup of bran flour, and 3/4 cup of wheat flour, but the nice thing is that you can make all sorts of variations.  

Tomorrow is a holiday, and although I have some work to do in the morning, I'll be finishing up the last item on this week's cooking list: squash soup, a recipe I published here back in November.   We'll have it for dinner tomorrow, and then again later in the week.  Over the next few weeks I'll make it again to have some for the freezer.  

Overall I spent less than 2 hours in the kitchen - if I had more energy earlier, I would probably add another freezer recipe, but the downside - or maybe the upside - of late pregnancy is that I cave to the need to nap on the weekends.  

We still end up eating quick pasta dinners a fair amount of the time, more than either of us would like, but on days like today, when the snow is falling and there's no where to go, spending time in the kitchen is my favorite thing to do.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Look Back and A Look Forward

It's 2009.  Hard to believe, especially this year.  For some reason or another, December just seemed to fly by.  

Since it's a new year,  I thought I'd take a look back and see how I did with my goals, and set some for this year.

Overall, I think I did pretty good this year.  Here's a list of the things we did do:

1. Looking for an outlet for my thoughts and interest in personal finance, I started this blog, which I enjoy.  I didn't blog nearly as much as I hoped to and goaled myself to, nor have I finished the redesign and improvement of my blog page or publicized it as much as I would have liked to, but I still managed to blog a bit over 25% of the days this year.  

2. We built 3 of a planned 7-8 permanent garden beds, and started our first vegetable garden at our home.  It was hardly a perfect effort, due to rain, lack of energy and a lot of other factors, but it was a great start.  And those 3 beds will get planted while more are dug this year.

3. We rebuilt our savings rather significantly.  In 2007, after moving and taking on our renovations projects, our liquid savings hit a low of about a 1/2 month's worth of cash.  We've since almost hit a target of 6+ months of expenses, approximately 3 of which will get used up while I'm on maternity leave.  And then we'll start rebuilding again.

4. We started talking and planning more for the future, specifically around a downshift in 10 years.  While we haven't done much towards this goal besides work hard to build savings up, it's on the table.  Right now, between the fairly imminent arrival of baby MoneyPenny and the likelihood that I'm going to have to job hunt during my maternity leave, and may even lose my job as of January 31st, downshifting is on the back burner, but it is still high on the list of goals.

5. We accomplished a lot around the house.  We didn't tackle as much as we hoped to, but we did manage to knock off a few big-ticket items, such as replacing our electrical panel, taking down a dangerously unstable small barn on our property, replacing our bed and mattress, furnishing the nursery, and purchasing new basement windows.   We also replaced both our washer and dryer, and added a 14.8 cubic foot chest freezer.   Then there was the flatscreen TV that made it's way into our family room, which makes me cringe at the cost (our TV was dying, and my husband is one happy guy, so overall it was a good spend).  All of these things were paid for in cash.

6. I got pregnant, and we've funded my maternity wardrobe.  The big costs are still to come (college?) but that feels like a pretty big thing.  

7. We did all of the above and still accommodated my long work hours and work travel that adds up to over a month of the year away from home just traveling.  

So we did a lot...and that's not even including the day to day accomplishments, such as reducing the amount we spend eating out, heavily reducing our dry cleaning costs for the latter half of this year,  a road trip vacation in September, and having a much lower-key Christmas than usual.   

Where did we fall flat?  

1.  We spent WAY more on food than we should have.  A lot of that was me getting pregnant and having aversions and 'food moodiness' that had me indulging in whatever sounded good at the moment.  The CSA, while enjoyable, also had us expending money on food that we didn't consume and often didn't even enjoy - after all, there's only so many times a week I can eat kale and like it.    This year, we'll garden and supplement from the farmers markets for our veggies, only buying what we want and can use up. 

2. We didn't preserve much food either - a bit of salsa, some green and wax beans that got blanched and frozen, and some pesto.  For all the cost and effort, we definitely fell short of our goals in this area.
3. We didn't get to some projects, in part because we decided we were just too busy.  This is a mixed one, because while they were things we wanted to do, we also realized that between work, long commutes, house projects, and chores, we weren't having much fun.  And so we've spent more time relaxing in the last few months when we can.  Still, those projects are starting to bother us in their unfinished state.  

4. We were a little too surprised by certain expenditures.  I'm working on planning and researching better, so that we can estimate costs better.

So how did we do?  I give us a A-.  Not because all the goals got accomplished, but because those that did got accomplished in cash, while still meeting our savings goals.  We even managed to absorb some surprises into the budget without a blip.

So how does 2009 look?  From a personal perspective, pretty good.  We're finally going to get to meet Baby Moneypenny (in about 8 weeks, give or take), and we're both looking forward to that.  I'm looking forward to my maternity leave, especially after how much of my life I've given to work this year.  

From a financial perspective, not so secure.  In addition to burning through savings for a maternity leave, the economy is uncomfortably insecure.  We may have another month of unemployment for me (February) which we're waiting on an answer for.  While we're prepared for me to be out of work for a while, if it carries on too long things could get stressful.  

All that financial insecurity has made it hard for me to set goals for 2009.  But the point of goals is not to feel bad if you don't meet them, but to give yourself something to work towards.  So here's 2009.

1. To enjoy my maternity leave and our baby without stressing about money or finding a new job.  It would be so easy to fret the time away, but I'll never get it back, so I intend to revel in it.

2. To continue to focus what money we do have allocated for house projects towards infrastructure, such as wiring, insulation and so on.  These are things that will pay us back in the end.

3. To lose all the baby weight and get back into shape.  Once Baby MoneyPenny arrives, I need to find a way to work exercise and a healthier diet into our lives, despite the sleep deprivation and demands of new parenthood.  

4. To continue to work towards our long-term savings goals, as well as the smaller goal of eating locally and organically.  

We'll see how we're doing at a mid-year check in this June.  Happy New Year!