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!