Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It's Really Easy to Cop Out

You know, as I get older, I get more political, and more liberal. It's funny, because in my early 20s, I contended that grassroots upswells were for 'little people' who couldn't affect change. And now, I'm a believer.

Why? Because it's become clearer to me how far we have to go.

Here's what I believe.

It's really easy to say that health insurance or housing isn't a right when you have no worries of losing either.

It's really easy to say that the poor should pull themselves up by their bootstraps when you've never been poor, never had to dodge a gang on the way to work, never had to wonder if you'd have dinner on the table, and never had to work 3 jobs to keep a roof over your kids head.

It's really easy to say that women's rights don't need to be protected by the courts, as that jackass to end all jackasses, Antonin Scalia recently said, when you don't make less than your male counterparts just because you happen to wear a bra instead of a jockstrap.

It's really easy to say that we shouldn't extend unemployment benefits when you have a job.

It's really easy to say that extended unemployment keeps people from looking for a job when you don't have to worry about whether you are going to lose your house tomorrow morning, and have to live in your car.

It's really easy to say that the free market solves problems when deregulation over the last 20 years has benefited you and yours, and you aren't one of the millions who it hurt.

It's really easy to say that federal social programs are too expensive when you don't need them.

It's really easy to pretend that their aren't kids who are going hungry, without immunizations and medical care, and without basic needs when you don't see them every day.

It's really easy to say that people want to get a handout, when you don't have to see the shame on their faces when taking it.

These things are all cop outs. They are all said from positions of relative power, education, and well being. They are rarely said by the people that truly need the services and the help. Our government doesn't always do the best job, that's true. But human need is never so simple as 'get it together and get a job' or 'survival of the fittest'.

We're a society, we Americans. We're not just consumers, we're citizens. I was a US Marine. The one thing you know about your fellow Marines - whether you are BFFs or not - is that they have your back.

Somewhere along the way we've forgotten what it means to have our fellow American's backs. I pray that the current trend of selfishness takes a turn for the better. Because more people fell into poverty over the last 24 months than at any time since the depression. And if we don't have those people's backs, who is going to have ours if something bad happens to us?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Diary of a Working Mom - Part something-or-other

So in the interest of sensible budgeting, we cut the housekeeper down to once a month. And you can tell. Or you could, except that I won't let you past the front door.

Sigh. It's not that it's a mess when she doesn't come by for 4 weeks because we do tidy up, vacuum and mop, it's just a tad dusty and the clutter breeds in the corners when we don't have to clear surfaces as often. We did dust for a dinner guest last week, but seeing as it's cobweb season (that is a season in my house, please don't ask) I noticed a few spiderwebs we missed after our guest left.

I'm not ready to give up my housekeeper yet. We could - it's $90 that we'd save, but it's still a lifesaver for us, so we've given up other things first. Eventually we'll probably have to - our income is still less than outgo with Sander out of work.

Interestingly, cutting back hasn't really bothered us too much. We miss our wine club, and a few other things, but we're not missing too much. We're even getting out some. More for picnics than lunches or dinners out, but we've made efforts to get out and do things, since we have time now.

In November we'll finally see some unemployment checks. We're not clear whether he'll be eligible for any extensions so we're assuming that we'll have unemployment from November-June, and at that point, we'll make hard decisions if this is still going on. Fortunately, we should be able to bank a little with unemployment to make up for some of the savings we've burned down.

Refinancing the house will save us about $360 a month, less than we hoped for, but definitely still worth doing. We decided to take the offered gift to pay off our 2nd mortgage, but as a loan. Still, our payments until he returns to work are about 1/2 the 2nd mortgage. And once he returns, we'll pay that loan off very aggressively.

We're going to a 25 year loan, and when Sander goes back to work, we'll return to the biweekly repayment plan that takes an additional 4 or so years off the loan. We're hoping to pay it off before we're making college tuition payments, so we'll up the ante as we can over the years. While we don't intend to retire here, we would like to stay for a long time.

So where does that leave us? With a fairly small delta of income to outgo, maybe $800 or so, maybe less, once unemployment runs out. If we get to that point, which I hope we don't. The sort of thing that can be made up for with part time work.

Assuming all goes well on my employment end, we should see my income rise a bit over the next few years as well. So eventually we could be fine, if we just hold out. And so we've tied the knot, and are going to hang on.

This whole process has been a learning experience for all of us. It's tough to get laid off, and it's tough to transition from income earner to full-time caregiver. My husband is a wonderful Dad, but there are some long days for him. For me, it's been tough to plan, and I'm a planner - giving up a bit of control-freakishness is good, but hard for me. For Kiera, she has seen tons of routine disruption and less social time with other kids, primarily her cousins. On the upside, she loves being with her Dad, and we're working hard to make sure she gets to spend time with other kids.

And it's been an adjustment to figure out our roles for all of us. But we've been lucky - if anything, this experience has made our marriage stronger, and taking full control of our daughter's routines (okay, she's got a lot of control there too, just try to make her nap when she doesn't want to) has probably made us better parents. When she returns to child care, I think we'll have a much better picture of what works for us as a family and what works for her in terms of environment.

Sander losing his job has ultimately been a mixed blessing. We've got less money but more time. We've had to react to circumstances instead of being able to choose the course, in many ways. But I think on the other end, I'm going to come to the conclusion that I wouldn't have traded this experience for an easier time of it. Watching my daughter and my husband bond like they have, and learning how to pull together even more than ever have been lessons that no amount of income can replace.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Week in the Kitchen

Our race to process and preserve all the food we brought home from upstate NY at the end of August took a total of 8 days, when we cut the final corn kernels off the cobs and froze them - not as sweet as if we'd gotten to it within the first day or so, but not bad, the peaches were turned into a peach raspberry pie for a party we attended and the final pot of sauce came off the stove and went into the freezer.

We've eaten well as a result, and will all winter, but both Sander and I were pretty tired from it all. We literally sliced, chopped, pressed, strained, blanched and cooked for 8 days straight. I worked, he had the adorable one full-time during the week, and I was writing an article for work. At least my life is not boring, right?

Cool weather finally rolled in towards the end of our kitchenathon, ending a 6-day streak of hot, humid summer weather. I was grateful - we'd spent most of that time working over a hot stove, and there's nothing less appealing than that when it's 99 degrees out. Because of the heat, most of the food this year was frozen instead of canned. I have a pressure canner, and a gobzillion jars, but had neither the energy or the inclination to deal with it.

Over Labor Day weekend, as the pile of food-waiting-to-be-dealt-with was dwindling, and the 8412 tons of dishes that result from putting up the produce was dealt with, we decided to add to the pile and went apple picking. Hey, I'm not saying we're sane. But in my husband's and my defense, we love to pick apples. The smell of an apple orchard full of ripe fruit is something to be savored. My daughter, who would eat apples and almost nothing but, given the choice, was in absolute heaven. We picked a 10 lb bag (1/4 peck) but I'm guessing it was more like 18-20 pounds of them.
It was a big pile of apples. This batch is just for eating as-is, although I am tempted to turn a few into apple cake. But the next batch in early October will be for sauce, apple butter, apple anything.

Then I went out to the garden and looked at an absolutely insane amount of chard, sighed, and started picking. The first batch was sauteed for dinner guests and turned into a frittata.

But there's a lot more now. And kale. Lots of kale.

I turned the $1 butternut squash into soup last night, so all the produce we brought back is used up or tucked away in the freezer.

I like chard and kale. But now I have to figure out what to do with that, too. There's a ton of green tomatoes still out there too. I'm hoping they ripen, but if not, I'll be making green tomato preserves. I'm most appreciative of the bounty, it's just the all-at-onceness that overwhelms me. Yeah yeah, I know I do it to myself, but still.

Still, 2 weeks after the kitchenathon is over, I'm missing it a bit. My Mom is heading out to my sister's at the end of the month, and she will bring more back - most likely more broccoli, some squash, and more onions.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Go Liz!

I've been keeping my fingers crossed for Elizabeth Warren to head the new consumer agency created by the Dodd-Frank Act.

If you haven't already read the Two Income Trap, you really should. It's absolutely fascinating.

But it's time for someone to head up an agency that isn't bought and paid for by Wall Street. And I love it when a girl gets ahead.

Good Luck, Ms. Warren. My fingers are crossed for you.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Living Well on a Shoestring: Toddler Fun Edition

Having a toddler at home practically full-time, as my husband does, creates a need to get the heck out of the house on a regular basis. The park is a good option, but as the weather cools or it rains for a few days straight, the need for free or very low-cost fun pops up.

So here's what we've dug up around us so far:
Free intro classes at Gymboree and Little Gym. Enrolling costs, but taking the intro classes is free, and spread over 2 weeks, gives a great thing to look forward to.

Our nearby mall has a great playspace for kids. It's free, and it's a good place to go when the weather isn't great.

Our local library has a toy area, a fish tank, and free story hour. Plus all the DVDs and kids books we could want to bring home, but not keep. It's great for a 'try before you buy' book acquisition strategy.

Groupon recently offered $5 admission for adults (kids under 2 are free) to the Stone Zoo. For someone as animal-crazy as my daughter, this is a really good time - $10 for the family for the afternoon.

For $5, Monkey Joe's is a great place to go and play, with bouncy houses galore and a toddler area. Big red balloons are an additional $1.75. This is a huge winner for us.

For the book-loving kids, a visit to the Used Book Superstore is not to be missed. For very little money, about $1.25 each, often less on sale, a child can get a 'new' book. Most are in very good condition. An additional perk is parent recommendations from the parents browsing in the store. A random Mom was the reason we came home with Counting Our Way To Maine, which is a perpetual favorite in our house.

A nearby farm, Russell Orchards is always a hit for us - there's ducks and chickens to feed ($0.25 feed dispenser), horses to pet, a playground that's appropriate for a lot of ages, hay rides and apple picking in the fall, ice cream, and hay rides. And the animal visits and playground are free and open to the public.

While apple-picking isn't free, $15.00 last weekend brought home a tote bag (probably 20 lbs?) of apples at the aforesaid Russell Orchards, and was a good 90 minutes of running around and having family fun.

Later this month we'll be driving up to Quichee, Vermont to camp overnight in the local state park. A cheap tent, an air mattress, and some food, plus the $18.00 camping fee makes for a fun weekend getaway. We have the tent and air mattress, so aside from gas and some marshmallows, chocolate bars and graham crackers, there isn't much we need.

Just typing this list, which is probably a very small subset of the fun things to do with a toddler, makes me appreciate how many no-or-low-cost things to do are around me. And all are things that we'd enjoy whether the economy was good or bad.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Interesting News

Michael Burry is in the news again. Yeah, he's the guy from The Big Short. And he's betting on farmland.

Here's what he said to Bloomberg:
“I believe that agriculture land -- productive agricultural land with water on site -- will be very valuable in the future,” Burry, 39, said in a Bloomberg Television interview scheduled for broadcast this morning in New York. “I’ve put a good amount of money into that.”

I'm not a big believer in market oracles. But if ever there was one I believe in, it's Mike Burry. Sure, he's validating my take on future events, so that makes it easier. But this is a guy who studies things obsessively. If he's going in a direction, even if you don't agree with my take on Peak Oil and the economic impacts, watching someone who correctly identified the biggest market failure since 1929 is a worthwhile task.

Just sayin'.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Betting On Black Swans

I recently finished reading Michael Lewis's book about the stock market crash and the start of the Great Recession, The Big Short. I love ML's books - I read Liar's Poker about a dozen years ago, before I knew anything about Wall Street, markets, or investing. I think I picked it up off a $1 book table, and was mesmerized. Unlike many others, I did not read it as a 'how-to' manual.

The Big Short though, that hit a nerve. No, no, I wasn't betting against the subprime market, although I did wonder how long the general population thought that maxing out their credit cards and cashing out home equity to shop at Pottery Barn would last. I really wondered how certain individuals managed to afford the homes they bought, and I was fairly certain that most of Wall Street was reasonably corrupt. That said, until I read The Big Short, I did not have a clue how corrupt and stupid the people that created this mess were. To say the book is enlightening may be one of the greatest understatements of all time.

But it got me thinking about something I've been mulling for a while, which is hedging the market against peak oil. Or starting a hedge fund. But since I don't know anything about hedge funds except that they sound like 'hedgehog' (I'm not sure that some of the people running them know more, to be honest, but we'll leave that alone for now), for now, we'll talk about my personal money.

I am a big believer in investing in what you know. But I'm not a believer in trying to time markets, or predict the behavior of people. Both are pretty fallible, and most of us bank on the idea that the future will look somewhat like the present. The idea that it might not is often discarded out of hand, or referred to as a 'Black Swan Event'. I've long taken the tack that Black Swan events are not necessarily the outliers they are assumed to be, but often predictable and natural outcomes of actions and reactions. It goes back to kindergarten science: What goes up must come down.

This often paints me as a pessimist. I'm not really, I just tend to think using the idea that life as it is will be fundamentally similar to how it has been as a predictor of the future is really sort of short-sighted. Assuming that things will change, sometimes radically and unpleasantly, sometimes for the better, but will always have an outcome of change, seems like a better bet.

So I've been thinking about taking a few market positions based on my theory of the outcome of Peak Oil impact on the next 25 years. If I'm wrong, I could lose money. If I'm right, I could become one of the few that makes money out of the crisis. My only reluctance is a moral one - is it right to bet on a catastrophic outcome? I think yes, and no. Yes in the sense that planning for the future, no matter what you think it will look like, is a good thing. No in the sense that there is some moral hazard to betting on things falling apart - especially because there is always a loser in these bets. That said, they might be losers anyway.

Most of us build our lives around the predication that catastrophe will not affect us. This is a good thing - trying to build up barriers against all potential risk and/or hiding under the covers is rarely a good approach to life. But the assessment of feasible risk is a smart thing. The trouble is the realization that there might be a finer line than most of us prefer between reasonable risk assessment and paranoia. I'm going to go for the idea that I'm using the former, while taking into account the idea that crazy people rarely know that they are crazy. Hedging on one's own point of view is often the ultimate risk.

So where will I put my money? Probably some into oil futures, some into the local economy, and some into businesses that will allow information flow in an era of decreased mobility. As I firm up my plans I'll blog more about them - my husband and I are still dealing with the immediacy of his job loss, so making bets on the future is something I have to wait on right now.

If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. It might hurt to lose money, but that's all. And if I'm right, it won't be a happy collection of profit. But it will be a predictable one.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

An Interesting Conundrum

One of the biggest issues around my husband being unemployed is not the unemployed bit. It's the impact to the budget. Quite frankly, whether he gets paid or not is a bit irrelevant to me - I didn't marry him for his present or future financial means, I married him because he's a great partner and a fantastic father, and I couldn't imagine life without him.

If it wasn't for the budget impact, I could care if he ever earns another dime - it's just not important to me (although it is to him, I don't think he's quite as enamoured with him being home as I am). Which is how I know he was the right one for me - when I'm not weighing the financial implications of a decision, and money is the least important factor, it's the right life choice.

This past week, a financial game-changer came to light. When we bought our house, we put a significant amount down, but it wasn't 20%. At the time, a 2nd mortgage, worth about 9% of the value of our house at the time was a better deal than PMI.

That 2nd mortgage, while small, is a barrier to our ability to refinance - and with current rates where they are, a refinance might save us about $800 a month, conservatively. So needless to say, we've wanted to do it.

Well, the ability to pay off the 2nd mortgage came up as an opportunity this week. With that paid off, and the road to refinancing cleared, all of a sudden our budget shortfall shrinks to.....$0. Maybe less than $0. Probably significantly less than $0.

Simple decision, right? Maybe. It involves a gift, and so we're weighing the decision. Will we probably go for it? Yes. Is it the right thing on all fronts? Probably. But I'm reasonably proud, and get a little twitchy about money I didn't earn. It's a hang up of mine, along the lines of "I did it myself". Sounds a little toddler-like, doesn't it?

Yeah, it is. I never claimed to be mature all the time.

So all of a sudden, what my husband's next move is becomes an entirely open field. Career change, part-time,'s all a choice. And that is a type of financial freedom we didn't expect. We'd be back to a place where paying off the mortgage before our daughter goes to college is a real possibility.

So what's next? I don't know. First, the logistics. Pay off the loan. Gracefully thank the givers of the gift. Hope that my husband's lack of income doesn't prevent us from a refi (it shouldn't).

And then? We'll see.