Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Newest Frugal Discovery - My Library Card (subtitle: Duh, MoneyPenny!)

It's been years since I went to the library. Literally. I used to live right around the corner from one, and was there all the time growing up. But as an adult it became easier to pass around good books between family and friends, or simply buy them. So it had been about 15 years since I ventured in to a public library when I finally did last summer.

I got a library card. Then never used it.

Until last week, when I started reserving movies online. Yeah, so we're #242 in line to see Inglorious Basterds, and maybe we'll rent it via on-demand before our number comes up. But just this weekend we saw Wanted and Burn After Reading for free (which was good, because neither one would have been worth a rental fee, quite frankly).

Kiera adored the children's room - the colors, the other kids, the fish tank. She has more books than we can read to her at this point, but that will change over the years. We tried out a Baby Einstein video (blech) for her. Glad I didn't spend good money for that.

I had forgotten just how good this basic resource is. Want to read it? Check it out for free. Want to take your child to story hour? Just pop in at the designated time. The public library system is a fantastic, and incredibly underused resource for all of us. Impressed doesn't cover how I feel about it.

I don't know why it took me so long to get back to the library. It's a staple of a more frugal, sustainable lifestyle.

Now if those 241 other people would just hurry up and return that movie...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Downshift Planning, Redux

Over the long weekend, my husband and I had some conversations about our eventual downshift. Last year, because of all the changes in our life, we lost our view into the future, but are slowly starting to regain it.

We don't exactly see eye to eye on how to accomplish our goals, or what they look like, but that's okay. Much of marriage is a negotiation, and this is no different. What we agree about without fail though, is that this is not the end state goal for how we live our lives.

We're in a place where our lives are starting to get a little saner. My hours at work are slowing. An almost 1-year old is a little easier to handle than a perpetually non-sleeping infant. And after almost a year of parenthood, and 6 months of us both working full time, routines have become ingrained. Our 'new normal' has taken root.

So unless we decide to throw another baby into the mix, which is sort of like tossing a hand grenade into a place that you've just finished cleaning up the debris of a smart bomb in, only cuter, we can start focusing a bit on our future plans. Even if 'future' is just what seeds to start for the garden in late February.

One thing this weekend has shown me is that stage one is to get at least one of us, if not both, down to a 4-day workweek. It may be a couple years before we can get to that point, but we're going to try like heck to make it happen. Things are so much calmer when we have that time.

This weekend alone, I started a batch of vanilla to give as gifts next Christmas (note: take 2 vanilla beans. Split down the middle. Drop into about 1/2 bottle of cheap vodka. Let steep for a couple months - longer is better. Strain. Use. If you can't wait that long, use some after a couple days in vanilla martinis, which smell lovely), made chili, soup, stir fry, and meals for later in the week. Because of all my endeavors in the kitchen, we'll be less likely to need to stop at the grocery store or pick up takeout, which saves us money. And it's pleasant to cook. I don't enjoy the clean up, but I do love to cook. And saving money, even on little things, means more money to put towards our big goals.

Add to that the fact that we both got to sleep in a bit, I got a nap, and we were able to enjoy the snow falling and time with our daughter, and it's a no-brainer. Less work, more time is a good calculation.

We're not really sure how to get to the whole downshift thing. Or if we'll get there in the time we planned. We do know that if we're going to do anything, there's at least a 6 year trajectory before we'll know even what's realistic. But we're planning just the same. And in the meantime, taking smaller steps to try and incorporate some of what we want our future to look like into our current life.

Because relaxing is something we don't do enough of, and it's worth a slower climb up the economic hill to get it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Chaos Theory

Tonight, as I was putting away the holiday crap (editor's note: before Christmas and immediately after, this stuff is called holiday decorations, which I love to put up. Around January 2nd it becomes annoying Christmas crap - clutter I can't wait to put away) I was thinking about how different life is from a year ago.

I've had almost 11 months as a mom, and 6 (ish, plus that part time thing I did early on) of working motherhood. It's been an interesting and rocky road, but an educational one for me.

The old me took care of everything in a timely manner. My holiday card list was always updated. The house, pretty much always ready for guests, with the exception of the eternal pile of mail that breeds in the corner of the living room when the lights are turned out. Surfaces had no dust on them. Or extraneous clutter. I was always 100% focused on getting whatever it was that needed doing, done.

In short, I had my act together.

Now, I just have to laugh. My to-do list gets written. Then I cut it in half, then in half again, and maybe about 2/3 of that might get done. Most of the time I am about 1 for 3. I either suck at work, at motherhood, or the rest of my life (sorry honey). With the exceptions of rare moments, I never make it all work together.

But, as one of my favorite wise men pointed out, even the great Ty Cobb only had a lifetime batting average of .367 - yep, he hit the ball one out of three times he was pitched to. Kinda makes you feel better about the crappy days, no?

So I've learned a few things from the trenches over the last 11 months, and I think they are some of the best things I've ever learned.

1. Get a system. Or die.
I've blogged about how chaotic things can get at Chez MoneyPenny these days. I learned from the chaos though. Everything, and I do mean everything, needs to be put back in it's place. Phone chargers are always in the hallway table. FSA paperwork is in the desk drawer in a folder. And so on. I was organized before, but this is master class. I'm too tired to have to go looking for something, and chances are I won't remember where I put it anyway. So every time I have an urge to just stuff things somewhere I remind myself that I'll only be able to blame myself when I can't find it...10 minutes from now.

2. You won't remember...anything
Write it down. Then again somewhere else. Call yourself if you have to. I'm convinced they knocked me over the head and yanked out a bit of my frontal lobe in the delivery room. I remember nothing for very long, and even if I do remember, it's never at a time or place when I can do anything about it. I always made lists. Now I make lists on anything that will hold ink. Or crayon. Or lipstick. Whatever.

3. No one wants to hear it
Eventually, no matter how sleep deprived you still are, or how busy your life has gotten, those thank you notes must be written, the phone calls returned, the little details of life attended to. And if, say, 11 months in you are still complaining of exhaustion and being overwhelmed - even if you are still exhausted, and working 60 hours a week plus parenthood is overwhelming, well, let's just say the sympathy bus left a long time ago. Eventually you'll get the side eye and speculation about your inability to cope instead of patient understanding. This is your life. Enjoy it. You can sleep later.

4. There is no separation of church and state
Back in the day, my personal life did not bleed into my professional life. Now, I'm lucky if I can make it through a week without having to leave work early because the baby has yet another (insert medical condition such as cold, conjunctivitis, ear infection, tummy ache, or new tooth) thing that requires Mommy to be on deck. Babies blow your carefully crafted professional persona to..well..you know. And that's okay. Anyone that wants to judge that can - it's fair to say that I'm not quite as together as before. That said, I worry about how people perceive me less these days. I can't worry about it. I can only give my absolute best to every role I have at work and at home. After that I'm too tired to care.

5. Do something for yourself
I know, I know, who has time when you are a working parent? But this parenthood/work/life thing is a marathon, not a sprint. If you are a better person/coworker/mother/father because you took a few hours to yourself, then do it. Actually, there's no if here - you will be a better person.

6. Learn to say no
This is the most important lesson, and one that I admittedly suck at. But really, you can skip your uncle's sister's brother's son's first birthday party. Or that thing you really don't want to go to. Sure, sometimes you have to make the effort. But you know, sometimes you really can just shut down and take a nap on a Saturday afternoon. So the laundry doesn't get put away. You'll live.

It's been an interesting 11 months. I'm older, wiser, and in dire need of a pedicure. But I'm happier. I can be perfect later. When I've had some sleep.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Why A 2 Income Lifestyle is Not The Devil

If you read other personal finance blogs and articles, which I do - voraciously, I might add - one piece of advice that stands out over and over again is to live on one salary and save the other.

This is actually pretty good advice, and doing this would have probably saved a fair number of Americans affected by this recession quite a bit of pain and heartache.  I think it is, in the big picture, a laudable goal.   That said, I'm not sure it's always good advice.  Overall, I'm a fan of case-by-case-basis finance anyway; there's very few approaches that work for everyone in every situation.  

Sander and I used to live on one income.  Over the course of our first year and a half of marriage, and the 2 years prior, we effectively lived on a single income, using the other to pay off debt, pay for a large chunk of our wedding and honeymoon in cash (family helped with the rest, no debt was incurred in the making of our marriage), replace an older, expensive-to-maintain car, and save for a home.  We also did some traveling.

In that 3.5 year period, we saved a lot, and were completely debt free for a period of time.  

But we chose to upgrade our lifestyle 2.5 years ago when we bought our house, and again when we had our daughter.  While we do save a good chunk, it's nowhere near the % of our income it was back in our apartment renting days.  Sometimes that gives me heartburn, but mostly I am at peace with what was a very good set of decisions.  Here's why.

We bought an older fixer-upper in a great location.  While home devaluation has hit us, we've been more insulated than other cities and towns.  While I'll confess our home is something of a money pit, needing everything and anything we can put into it, the bones of the house are beautiful, and we're doing all the work ourselves, which allows us to do premium renovations for minimal money.  Scraping paint off doors or sautering pipes may not be the most fun way to spend an afternoon, but it's worth it in the long run.  We still have a good bit of equity, and the knowledge that when we sell, we will make a profit - even if that is many years away.  

Our house is in a great spot.  We've got a large yard, rural zoning, and privacy, which allows me to indulge my dreams of a big vegetable garden, fruit trees and chickens.  The school system is well-rated.  We bought knowing we would be raising a family here, and the size is perfect for us.

Had we bought what we could have afforded on one salary in early 2007 when we were house hunting, we would have been in a 1, maybe 2 bedroom condo in a more crowded area, with a small likelihood of a yard.  If we did manage a yard, we would have had much longer commutes.  I know quite a few people who are deeply underwater on condos that no longer work for their lives.  We didn't want to end up like that.

We could have moved away to a lower cost of living area - certainly an option.  But here we have great (yes, even in this recession) job opportunities, a huge network of friends and family, and a pretty excellent life.  Staying here allowed us the opportunity to have family childcare instead of having to find somewhere that we could trust, and as a result, my daughter will grow up with cousins as close as siblings, and a sense of belonging to a large circle of people she is related to by blood, marriage, and by the bonds of friendship.   While things might have worked out perfectly in another area, this is a situation that is perfect for us.  

Needing two incomes isn't always ideal.  It definitely increases the risk exposure if both incomes are required to make ends meet.   But so does living on one income - and there, if the breadwinner loses that income, there is zero coming in.  

I think it's a choice for everyone.  But I am at peace with our decision.   At some point, we'll downshift, despite the fact that we have no idea really what that will mean.  We both agree that the sometimes blistering pace of our lives isn't how we want it to be forever.   But we make time for what is important - our daughter, extended family, even the occasional date.  

Saving more is good.  But so is having all the pieces of a meaningful life.   It's worth the extra outgo.   At least in our case.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Looking Forward is Better Than Tripping Over Your Past Mistakes

2009 was a strange year.  A good year - new daughter, new job, but a tough year too.  Due to sleep deprivation that went on for a long time (about 10 months), the demands of my new job, and a lot of other things, it got pretty out of control for a while.   Bills were getting lost after being plopped in piles we never looked at, we lost all control of our budget, we returned phone calls and emails days and weeks late - if ever - and had to learn a new way of life.   Illness hit my family again and again- daughter, myself, occasionally my husband, at least one week out of every month since August.  Thankfully nothing serious, but added to the rest, exhausting.    

Our old life has been completely blown out the window.   Probably for good.  

At some point, you have to triage your life, not dissimilarly to a battle field hospital.  You pick and choose what can be saved and salvaged, what must be tended, and what you must bypass to save the rest.  And, as I've blogged earlier in the year about, sometimes you choose to spend money to save time.

One of the hardest transitions in being a parent is the complete lack of time.  Eventually some of it does come back, but never in the same way you had time before.   And after becoming a parent, figuring out how to put the pieces together of a life that resembles 'before' not at all is a challenge.

So, while I am grateful for all that came into my life in 2009, I'm not sorry to see it's backside either.  2010 just feels better.   I adore my daughter, my husband, my family and my job, but egads I am ready for a new year.    

In 2010, my goals are simple.  Drop the rest of the baby weight.  Get our finances back to where they were pre-baby (no, not in total outgo, but in savings definitely).  Stop stressing about what doesn't - can't - get done.  Blog more.  I miss that.  Run more. I miss that too.  

I'm grateful for the last year.  I'm also pretty proud of myself, despite all the mistakes I made.  There's a saying that goes: " How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time." 

This year I ate an elephant.  The hits kept coming, but I, and my amazing husband, just kept getting up kept going.   And somehow we did it. 

And so does every other parent, every day.  It's a great job - full of amazing rewards.  But damn, it's a tough one sometimes too. I now have a profound respect for parenthood.   

So 2010 should bring more blogging from me, hopefully more Zen in my life, and (oh please God) a smaller pant size.

Because I'm sick of elephant, and ordering salads from here on out.

Happy New Year.