Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Theory of Economic Relativity: The Cost of Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Over the last few weeks, our hot water heater has started acting up.  Some mornings we get water so hot you could cook an egg in the shower on the cool setting.  Other mornings, it's on the lukewarm side at best.

So this week we'll have someone out to look at it.  Could be just a sensor, could be the whole thing is on it's last legs.

I like to be proactive about these things, and not wait until it dies, which will inevitably be on a morning when I'm midway through the shower, with shampoo suds running down my back, and I'm going to be late to a meeting. They say that Alfred Hitchcock turned the water to freezing cold without warning Janet Leigh during the shower scene of Psycho in order to get the appropriate reaction from her, although Leigh denied it.  Still, I've no doubt it would be effective.  There's nothing like an icy blast of water to elicit a shriek.

Water heaters are pricey, but in the realm of home repair, not that big of a deal. Traditional heaters run about $600 plus installation.  Tankless heaters are more expensive, running about $1000 + installation, but much more energy efficient.  If you can afford it, tankless is the way to roll.

But then there is the commitment we made to 'go solar' the minute it became feasible.  A grid-tied solar heating system is really costly, and low on the priority list right now, as it falls behind other big projects that are a tad more urgent, like insulating and residing the house.  But solar hot water is another story.

Solar hot water systems are more expensive than traditional systems.  We haven't yet gotten a quote on one, but let's give a safe estimate of maybe $3000-$3500 to install.  Which is a bunch more than $1000 for a tankless heater.  Still, a recent post on my sister's blog put this into perspective - and I'll quote her quoting her friend:

My friend Pat Meadows, a very, very smart woman, has a wonderful idea she calls “The Theory of Anyway.” What it entails is this – she argues that 95% of what is needed to resolve the coming crises in energy depletion, or climate change, or most other global crises are the same sort of efforts. When in doubt about how to change, we should change our lives to reflect what we should be doing “Anyway.” Living more simply, more frugally, using less, leaving reserves for others, reconnecting with our food and our community, these are things we should be doing because they are the right thing to do on many levels. That they also have the potential to save our lives is merely a side benefit (a big one, though).

So in other words, if solar is the moral choice in our opinion - and it is - we have an obligation to look at implementing it.

Still, the difference (for argument's sake, let's go with a $3200 estimate) in cost is big.  If a tankless heater is $1000 + installation - let's call it $1500, and a solar system is $3200 + installation - let's call it $4k, then that's a $2500 difference in cost. 

Let's say we take advantage of the 30% tax credit that we'd get early next year when we file our taxes.  That brings the cost down to $2700.  Then lets say it saves us $30 on our electric bill for the next 10 years.  That means that at the end of 2020, we've come up with a net profit of $900. 

It's a long haul investment, to be sure.  And it's a bunch of dough out of the gate.  But it has the result of being both the 'anyway' choice and being an economic benefit over many years.  It is one of those places where our morals and our pocketbook get to come together, which is what I call 'economic relativity'. 

What will we do?  Not sure yet.  But I like the fit.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Radical Thinking in the Garden

If you have an extra 5 minutes today, go read this invitation to the Tea Party by Dar Williams. 
It's just brilliant, spot on, absolutely on target.  

If you are still here, here's a little bit to whet your appetite:

"As you might have guessed, I don't want to scrap what you might call big government. I distrust big business more than big government. But often enough the two entities have been bedfellows with silk sheets and matching toothbrushes, so I'm willing to meet you halfway. I'll meet you in a community garden. Community gardens close the loop, decentralize power, and let people help people, addressing issues that differ from region to region. They improve our physical health and increase self-reliance. With greater strength of the community mind and body, we're better able to deflect the buzz and hype of anyone that does not have our best interests at heart. We The People can do that."

Radical thinking at it's best. 

Oh, and if you thought my idea that keeping kids warm, well-fed and safe was a means to a brighter future was idealistic or simplistic, go read this.  Even the Washington Post agrees with me. 

Holidays are the Gateway to Seed Season

Back in the day when my husband and I were in the midst of planning our wedding, which, being a somewhat DIY affair, was a time-intensive undertaking, my older sister gave me some particularly sage advice. 

"The wedding", she said with a wise nod, having done the deed herself a few years back, "is the gateway to the honeymoon". 

And whenever wedding planning got overly time consuming, as fun as it was, we reminded ourselves that it was the ticket to the 11 days we were spending up in the Canadian Rockies hiking and having daily cocktail hours. 

I feel similarly as the holidays approach.  I love the winter holidays.  There's eating, there's parties, there's cutting down a Christmas tree, there's eggnog, and mulled cider, and cookies. Every gathering seems to involve mashed potatoes, and heck, you could invite me to a closet cleaning if you served me mashed potatoes.  Especially if they have cheese in them.

But I digress.

Still, the holidays can be a lot of work.  There's the shopping and wrapping and baking.  Our December weekends seem to book up by mid-June.   And so as the relative chaos grows, and my living room becomes buried under a pile of pine needles and ribbon scraps, I start to look forward to January.  A lot.

Because January is when the seed catalogs arrive.  And so while everyone else is complaining about the dark and the cold (I whine about it too, just with a 2-week lag while I drool over descriptions of pumpkins and tomatoes), I'm curled up on the couch making lists of things to plant, and with drafting paper, planning where the seeds will go.

I always buy too many.  I'm always far more ambitious with the seeds I start than the space I have.  But I love seed season - because it reminds me, in the dark and cold of winter, that soon the snowdrops will peek up over the crusts of snow in the yard, and the ice will, eventually, 4 months later, melt.  

Usually I'm in no rush though.   I'm content to tuck the yard and garden in every year and take the breather that is January-March.  No leaves to rake, no weeding to do, few social demands - it's respite from the endless business of planting, growing and harvesting, the start of every year.  Lots of soup and bread dinners in front of the woodstove.

But I still plot and plan about growing season again.   We all have to choose what we work for.  Some people build things in clay or brick.  I like to build in dirt.   

When the sun rises, I go to work.

When the sun goes down I take my rest,

I dig the well from which I drink,

I farm the soil which yields my food,

I share creation, Kings can do no more.

- Chinese Proverb, 2500 B.C.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hobby Shopping

This past Saturday, my husband and I took a wine making class at Old Sturbridge Village.  We've been wanting to make wine for a long time, and so when news about the class popped up this summer, just as my parents were asking me what I wanted for my birthday, we jumped on it.

On the surface, wine making is pretty simple.  You can pretty much turn anything into wine - fruit, vegetables, stinky athletic socks, whatever.  All you need is water, sugar, fruit (I'm skipping the sweat socks myself, your mileage may vary) and yeast.  A food-grade plastic bucket to ferment it in, a few sterilized glass bottles to rack it in, and food-grade tubing to siphon it with. Listerine makes for a great sterilizing agent for your corks and tubing and that sort of thing.  Rubber gaskets and corks may be the most expensive part of the deal, and those can be reused, albeit carefully.  The bucket can be gotten for the asking from a local restaurant.  Glass bottles can be picked up at a recycling center.  If you plan to strain your ingredients, bleach an old pillow case. 

 Wine making can be dead cheap.  Well, okay, unless you want to make really good wine, then it can get more complicated, and potentially more expensive.  But you can make some pretty good stuff with a minimum of cost and effort.  After all, people have been making wine for thousands of years before you could have frozen grapes shipped from Napa or before a hydrometer was even invented. 

Which brings me to my philosophy around hobbies.  The modern approach to hobbying seems to be an expensive one.  Take biking, or skiing.  Buy expensive, brand-new bike or skis.  Buy matching gear and single-purpose footwear (bike shoes that clip in, say, or $300 ski boots).  Then go out and play, after an investment of considerable money.  By then, of course, playing is serious business.  After all, look at what you have spent!

My personal opinion is that approach is backwards.  First decide if you like to do something, having made the most minimal investment possible, then put your money into it.  Let's take that biking example again.  Borrow, buy on CraigsList, or find on sale an inexpensive bike.  Buy a helmet, since spending $30 is worth not spending your remaining days as a drooling vegetable.  Put on some old sneakers and go for a ride.  Enjoy.

Love it?  Fine, invest.  Padded bike shorts definitely make long rides more pleasant.  Better, lighter bikes are much faster and easier to lug around, and you'll offset the cost by reselling your old bike anyway.  Hate it?  Resell your cheap stuff and make your money back. 

You may not look as fancy, but that isn't the point of a hobby.  The point is to take up something you enjoy.  I can't tell you how many good sets of golf clubs I see at yard sales for a fraction of the cost, after spending a few years gathering dust in the owner's basement. 

Try it first.  Decide if you like it.  Then spend your money.  Chances are you'll make better decisions about what to buy anyway. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Not Exactly E.M. Forster

Do you ever read something someone has written and think "That was perfect.  I might as well just hang up my keyboard right now."

That's how I feel about this blog: The Occasional CEO

I have nothing but admiration for good writing - something I hope someday someone will say about my writing (I'm not there yet and not fishing for compliments.  Really).  Really good writing?  Rare, even in the world of 100 million blogs.  

Eric's blog is simultaneously informative, witty, interesting, and smart.  Go read it.  Do not pass go, do not collect $200.00, skip a day of work if you have to.  Fortunately, reading The Marshmallow Test might only make you 5 minutes late to a meeting.  You might even leave the meeting with a promotion.

Why are you still here, anyway? 

And by the way, if you haven't read A Passage To India, by the man this blog post is named after, get thee to a library.  There are a lot of books out there.   Few are perfect.   This one is.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Are You Allowed To Enjoy Unemployment?

So, my husband is unemployed.   If you've been following along for the last few months, you know this.  

Next month he begins to fall into the category of Long Term Unemployed which has a whole host of negative connotations especially if you listen to certain individuals, who apparently think that those who can't find a job have a host of personal failings the rest of us are immune to, and perhaps should just float away on an ice floe, so as not to continue to bother the rest of us hardworking, morally superior Americans who are employed.

Huh.  I've never quite understood that particular line of thought, and I'm grateful that the people around me don't either.

Unemployment brings out a lot of different emotions during the course of it, especially the type of  unemployment that the current economy has brought about.  It's scary, it's overwhelming, it's filled with uncertainty, it can make people question their own self worth.

But it can also be a lot of fun.

I can hear the lynch mob screaming, even as I type.  "Unemployment should not be fun!  Unemployment is serious business.  These people are taking money from other hardworking Americans!   Unemployment is probably enjoyed only by those people who want a permanent government handout, and prefer to sit on their lazy asses all day!"

Let's ignore those moralizing basilisks for a moment though, while I make another, more important point.

More Important Point:  I do not mean to make light of unemployment.  At all.  It IS scary.  And it makes people who want nothing more than to go to work lose their homes, their savings, and creates food insecurity, which, in a country as bountiful and full of plenty as ours is - well, the fact that people around us can't be sure if they can feed themselves is shameful.  

But I'm a firm believer that you only get one life.   And that life is meant to be enjoyed as much as possible.  Even when money is tight and you don't know what is going to come next.

Money is important.   But when you get right down to it, money is not the value of a human being.

14.9 million people are unemployed. More are coming to join their ranks this December.  And walking around in a state of puritanical misery is neither good for the economy, their individual  job prospects, or their mental and physical health.  Adopting an unemployment hair shirt also teaches the children of said unemployed that money = happiness.

Let me repeat that, because I think it may be the most important thing I have ever written: It teaches their children that money = happiness and lack thereof should = unhappiness.  

Now really, is that the lesson we want the next generation to come away with? 

One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is how to have fun on very little.  It's not a gift in the sense that being able to have fun without money is somehow morally superior to having fun with money.  Not at all.  In many ways, it's much easier to have fun with money.  And often I crave the type of fun that money brings.  As we all do.   Nothing wrong with that.


To teach your kids - or yourself - to have fun, and to see adventure even when circumstances are less than ideal gives not only a sense of safety in an uncertain world, but it grants a level of resilience as well.  In other words, having fun is healthy.  Normal.  And really really important.  Let's quantify this - who would you rather hire, the person who is optimistic and hopeful, or the person who walks around pissing and moaning?

Yeah, I thought so.   

So here's the thing: Enjoying unemployment may be the best way to stop being unemployed. Heck, enjoying your life is probably the best way to have a good one under any circumstances.

That doesn't mean you stop looking for a job, or spend lots of money on unnecessary things, but it does mean that perhaps if you are unemployed, you consider doing some of the things you have never had time for - stuff around the house, volunteering, learning a new skill, that sort of thing.  

Life is uncertain by it's nature.  So have a little fun, will ya?

Here are some ways you might go about it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Best Of MoneyPenny

After almost 4 years of blogging erratically, I've written um, a decent number of posts.  Some were good.  Some were bad.  Some were even really really good.

Here's the best of the best, for your reading pleasure:

1. 7 Beliefs That Prevent Wealth
If you aren't accumulating assets, some of your beliefs might be in the way.

2. Poverty Of The Soul
I worry about a society that thinks the amount of money you have equals the quality of you as a person. 

3. About Those HENRYS
High Income, Not Rich Yet people are often confused with the weathy.  Here's my take on HENRYs

4. Peak Oil and Us (You, Me, Everyone) Part 1: What Is It, and Why Do I Care?
What is peak oil?  Why should I care? 

5. How To Prepare For The Apocalypse Part 1
What you need to know, just in case. 

6. To Be or Not To Be Mathematically Optimal
Money is not just about numbers.

7. How To Avoid a Descent Into Madness
What to do when life spins out of control.

8. 12 Goats, 2 Chickens, and a Camel
Negotiation is an art.

9. Plan For The Worst, Hope For The Best
It can keep you out of hot water.

The Real Problem With The Economy

Happy Veteran's Day to me and all the other Vets out there.  Thank you for your service!

Last night as I was driving home, I heard this interview on NPR.  Paul Auster has a new book out, and it's about, amongst other things, home loss due to foreclosure. 

I'd been thinking about the economy again during my ride home.  It's something that I, along with many of my fellow Americans, think about a lot these days.  And something the author said during the interview hit me square in the chest. 

Auster says that home is a place where you should feel absolutely safe. "It's the place where you don't really have to defend yourself," the author says, speaking from his Brooklyn brownstone. "I think that's the idea everyone holds in his head, is that this is the place you are welcome no matter what you've done, no matter how rocky things have become for you. And unfortunately not everyone has this refuge."

And I got it.  For the first time I could put into words why we as a nation have gone from hopeful to perpetually anxious in the last nine years.
We don't feel safe

Too many CEOs enhance their profit margins by cutting jobs instead of, oh, I don't know, making something good.  And we're complicit in this one too - cheering as our stock value rises, even as our colleagues are packing up their desks.  It's just business, right?

We don't feel safe in our jobs.  It's no longer a matter of how hard you work.

Too many of us have watched someone go from the top of the world to the bottom.  One of my colleagues watched his neighbor, a highly paid exec, lose his job, be out of work for 2+ years, and then the house, the retirement funds, all of it - because few, if any, of us can last forever without income.

We don't feel safe in our homes.  It feels risky to have a mortgage, it's just one more exposure.

Too many of us have watched our 401ks and IRAs lose value, or just hold steady, over and over again.

We don't feel safe for retirement.  It's almost certain that a huge percentage of the population will not be able to sustain themselves.

In short, the places that are supposed to be safe are now areas of deep insecurity. 

I grew up poor.  Subsidized housing for the first few years of my life, actually.  And it has far-reaching impacts on many areas of your life when you grow up without.  

1 in 5 kids right now is growing up in poverty.  The impacts, both long-term and short are well-documented. Being hungry or cold or perpetually worried shortens the focus.  Instead of keeping one's eyes on goals, one's eyes become focused on much shorter term things- enough clothes, enough food.

In short, survival.

When you are focused on survival, it's hard to think about things like getting an A on the test.  Long term life success is out there in the future - it's not like today.  Today is now, present.  We want kids focused on their future?  Keep them warm, well fed and safe.  You want to sustain the arts, build America's scientific acheivements, create a strong job market?  Keep kids warm, well-fed, and safe.  You want everyone to be able to stand on their own two feet? 

KEEP KIDS WARM, WELL-FED AND SAFE.  It really is that simple.  Until we figure out how to create a sense of safety and well-being for our society again - not just optimism for the middle class, but optimism that one can rise out of poverty, we're going to be stuck here, in this rather unpleasant place of worry, fear and insecurity. 

No one wants to see their hard-earned money go out the door.  I've yet to meet a liberal that thought all the social programs were particularly well run.  But I've yet to meet a private interest that didn't have it's own agenda or set of preferences in dealing with people.  We need to figure out a way to invest in our future, which might just be heat, hot water, soap, food, abuse prevention, a winter coat, a safe place to live, and a lot of hugs.  No, I'm not just idealistic.  If you want long-term strategic thinking from someone, they have to be able to focus past the immediate to move on to the long run.

Some individuals can do that without the things listed above, but that doesn't mean that they are stronger or better than those who can't.  It just means that there was some external or internal force that helped them along. 

We need to figure out how to make our current population of adults feel safer in their jobs and homes.  But until we figure out how to do it for the kids in our world, over the long haul, we're not ever going to feel safe again. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Stay The Course

“To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.”
 - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Over the course of the last 5 months, my husband and I have gone from what was a deep sense of unease with his unemployment, to at least a relative sense that no matter what happens, we're okay.

While we still haven't sorted out all the details we need to, we think that we've reached a place where we can afford our life - minus some of the previously enjoyed luxuries, adding in some new and equally enjoyable things - for the long haul.  And by afford, I mean that we can still save for retirement, put a little in the bank, and maybe take the occasional vacation.  We just need to stay on careful track.  Which is okay, neither of us really minds short term constraints for long term gain. 

So we're lucky.  And I never forget it.  Except those occasional times when trading short term constraints for long term gains gets annoying and frustrating, and I want to skip town for a weekend.  Or something. 

It's very easy to go off course, and start thinking 'well, maybe we could just..."  And all of a sudden, I find myself pricing out a trip or something like that.

It's not that I'm into self-sabotage.  It's that I get bored or tired or cranky, or some combination thereof, and I want a change.  Preferably one that involves a jacuzzi tub in some hotel or bed and breakfast. 

It's not like I'll never have that, either.  It's just that I get tired of waiting and planning for it.  I call these moments having 'iwantsies'.  Whether it's a weekend in the mountains, taking my daughter to a show she almost certainly isn't yet capable of sitting through, or replacing my entire wardrobe, the iwantsies are awfully inconvenient.  They take up time, energy, and focus me on what I don't have instead of what I do. 

Which is the thing I find especially annoying, since I'm working hard to never forget how lucky I am. 

It most recently popped up around New Years Eve.  In the BAOA era (before the adorable one arrived) we used to party with friends.  Last year, we got chinese take out and were in bed by 10ish.  This year, I started fantasizing about a luxury resort in the mountains, relaxing in front of a fire after a day in the snow and a 5-star dinner.

Then reality intervened.   First, every hotel in the universe jacks up their prices for NYE.  If we want to continue along the comfortable path, a $1200 weekend is not in the cards (and that was a cheap quote).  Then there's the fact that the adorable one crashes at 7:30, tying one or both of us to said hotel room.  5-star dinners?  With a toddler?  Are you nuts? 

Right then.  But then I thought maybe we could go for just one night to a Christmas-themed park in the same mountains.  Cheaper stay, lots of fun.  Right?

Well, except that we really want to get the adorable one a kitten for Christmas.  Leaving a kitten 2 days after getting it is just irresponsible. Oh, we could put it off.  Getting the kitten, I mean - it could wait until January. But she loves 'Eeows', and we've been planning it, you see. 

The reality is we could go if it really was important to us.  But instead, I'm going to take the week between Christmas and New Year's off.  We'll stay home, all of us, including the aforementioned future member of our family, the Eeow.  

And on NYE, we'll sit in front of the fire made in our very own woodstove in the family room, or if we decide to be really wild and crazy, in the fireplace in the living room, and drink wine.  And have a nice dinner, maybe of takeout, maybe not, depending on our lazy factor.

No packing, no stressing, no big expensive getaway.  That's later.  And what will we get in return?  The knowledge that when we do go away later on, there's no guilt.  No blowing the budget.  That we're on course.

That is, unless I give in to temptation....

Monday, November 8, 2010

Peeling Pumpkins

The first time I peeled a pumpkin and cooked it down into puree, I was about 25.   The other day, I remembered why I'd waited 12 years to do it again.

It's not that I don't like fresh pumpkin, it blows away pumpkin puree out of the can.   But peeling a pumpkin and cooking it down is a pain in the butt.  No, actually, just the peeling part.

Usually when I want to peel a squash or a pumpkin, I slow roast it.  But with puree, roasting does slightly change the flavor, and I just think it comes out better if you peel it and cook it down with just a teeny bit of water on the stove.

But like I said, it's a pain to peel a raw pumpkin.   It went like this: we bought a beautiful cinderella-shaped pumpkin at a local farm stand last month.   I was sucked in by the word heirloom and the lovely orange color.  What can I say, I'm a sucker for a pretty squash.

So there it sat, on a shelf in the kitchen for a few weeks, waiting for the right moment.  That moment was  Saturday.  I'd been fighting a cold, and was finally feeling better.  We had a family party on Sunday, and I'd promised to make the cake.  Pumpkin Chocolate Cake, to be exact, baked in my pumpkin-shaped Bundt pan.  Okay, so I like pumpkins.  A lot.

So I found myself, after a long day of errands, peeling pumpkin.  Because I believe in local food, less packaging, and eating as close to (but with the dirt washed off, thank you very much) the earth as possible, this was the only way to start.  Plus roasted pumpkin seeds are really really good.

1/2 way through, at about 25 minutes - it was a big pumpkin - I was thoroughly irritated and tired.  3/4 of the way through the pumpkin got wrapped in plastic wrap and I left it for later (later has not yet arrived).

In the end, I didn't have heavy cream for the cake anyway, so I made Gingerbread cake instead.   With a toffee glaze.   It was good.  And I stuck the cooked pumpkin in the freezer for something else.

But it reminded me that sometimes, sometimes, convenience foods are awesome.  And really convenient. No, they don't taste as good. Yes, they create environmental impact.

But dammit, a can opener is just so much easier to use.

And so it goes.  Talk to me about it again in another 12 years.