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Poverty as a Life Phase

The XFP (as I have renamed him) and I, with our children, made up a basically middle-class household of four. We certainly had to watch where our money was going, but we could generally cover our own expenses. On the sliding scale that Denver Public Schools uses for preschool and kindergarten tuition, we were the third step down from the top (monthly income $5,964 to $6,758 for a full-day preschool tuition charge of $390).

Well, things have changed for me. As the head of a three-person household, I am objectively fairly poor (strictly as a measure of income). Remember that sliding scale? Well, we have slid right off the bottom of it. No tuition, no registration fee, no bills of any kind. Poor enough to get reduced-price lunch at school, not poor enough for food stamps. I will probably rent a one-bedroom apartment, because that’s what I can comfortably afford; the boys can have the bedroom and I will be sleeping in the living room.

I grew up in a comfortably middle-class suburban family, but I can remember my father waxing nostalgic about the efficiency apartment he and my mother used to cram into when they were teenagers, how they used to have lawn chairs for furniture. Looking back, this is one of the best things I learned from my parents: that being broke is a life stage to be passed through.

Now, maybe I already went through my broke-young-person phase once, but I’m not afraid to go back. Being willing to accept this phase in my life makes it much easier to cope. Easier to accept help. Easier to stop buying things when I run out of money. If I didn’t accept that this was just a temporary phase that I need to live in right now, I might want to pretend that nothing had changed, that I didn’t really need to adjust my budget or let people help me, and the short- and long-term result would be financial misery.

The interesting thing is how non-terrible this phase is so far. I have enough money for a nice and safe, if small, apartment; healthy food; and occasional treats. I will be honest: When my marriage was failing, I was frightened of this outcome–having to sell my house, sleep in the living room and sign up my kids for reduced lunch. Now that it’s here, eh, it’s not so bad. 

I’ve lived a life of pretty exceptional privilege so far and am fortunate enough that I have had the chance to develop the skills and resources I’ll need to work my way up financially. Soon enough I’ll get more work hours, maybe a better job. I’ll get my feet under myself. And some day when my boys are much bigger, we’ll talk about that apartment we used to live in, where we used to curl up on Mommy’s bed in the living room to watch a movie.

Were there times in your life when you were “poor”? How do you look back on them?

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Halfsies

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which support this blog at no extra cost to you. I bought the things with my own money and all opinions are my own.

Well, I always said I had too much stuff. Now that Mr. FP has moved out into his own apartment, I have half as much stuff. It has been an unusual and fascinating opportunity to reconsider my relationship with my possessions.

Sometimes, it’s been an opportunity for me to no longer own something I didn’t like that much to begin with. (I have nothing against the Kennedy brothers, but that giant poster of them got old after the first couple of years.)

No more pepper leakage.

Sometimes, it makes an excuse to buy something nicer for myself and take pleasure in its functionality. Goodbye, yucky old cheese grater. (It was a box style with no rubber on the bottom, so very hard on my cutting boards.) Farewell, pepper grinder. I ordered highly-rated replacements, which are great. This OXO Good Grips pepper mill has a clear door so I can tell if I need to refill it AND a cap on the bottom, so it doesn’t get pepper all over the cabinet. Fantastic! And the also-OXO Good Grips folding cheese grater stands up like a box grater but folds up for easier storage AND takes up less space in the dishwasher. Brilliant!

The two halves come apart, so you can wash just the part you used.


Sometimes, it means re-evaluating what something is worth. There was only one Vitamix. He took it. (I got other stuff.) Should we ever have bought a three hundred dollar blender? Will I save up for another one? Well, probably not, but let’s say TBD. In the meantime, since I have ten pounds of frozen fruit in the freezer, I am making sorbet in the food processor instead of smoothies in the blender I no longer own.

Sometimes, it means losing something I liked and can’t replace. Two of the four creepy New Orleans coasters my aunt gave us, for instance, and the framed still life of the wine bottle that looked nice with the wine-themed curtain we got at Goodwill (which I still have). Yes, they are Just Things, but I feel a sense of loss.

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I still have enough coasters to terrify myself and one select guest.

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Not actually a red Swingline as in Office Space, but a maroon one at least.

Conversely, a strange feeling of victory attaches itself to the few favorite things I kept, even though I do not consider myself an acquisitive person. The nice heavy can opener, the new vegetable peeler, the Crock Pot. Mine! And I had that stapler before we were married! Mine, I tell you!

And then there is a poignancy to this process with its empty spaces and its absurdities. I now have a hammer but no nails, and he has nails but no hammer. He has an almost-empty toolbox. I have a Whole Foods bag full of the wrenches and screwdrivers that I owned before we were married.

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Possibly not an ideal long-term tool storage solution.

It both is and is not a question of “just things.” It’s the dismantling of a shared life, represented in the things we used to share but will no longer be sharing.

Keep some, give some away. Do without some, replace some. Rebuild.

Well, This Will Be Different

Many of you either know me in real life or follow me in the Mr. Money Mustache forums, so you already know my sad news. For those just joining in: After 15 years of marriage (that’s ages 20–yes, 20–to 35), Mr. FP and I are divorcing.

It’s amicable and mostly mutual and sad and painful.

The effect on my self-concept has been swift and startling. Among my many roles–mother, professional librarian, daughter, middle sibling–was that of Respectable Wife. And I tried to be a good wife. I worked part-time and made a home. I washed my husband’s clothes and ironed his favorite shirts. I reduced the amount of onion called for in recipes by at least half, maybe two-thirds, and what onion I did include was food-processed almost to the point of puree, because that’s how he tolerates onion. I have a killer recipe for cornbread. I brought home Cadbury mini-eggs from the store every spring the very first day I saw them for sale.

If there were some sort of spouse achievement scale, I would score average to above average for sure. But none of those things made me the right wife for the man I was actually married to.

So I’ll need to cross Respectable Wife off my mental list of Roles I Play. Now, all my other roles also involve relating to and doing things for other people, so I guess I’ll take some of the time and intellectual energy I was devoting to fulfilling my role as Respectable Wife and spend it on being Myself more fully.

Aside from using larger chunks of onion, I’m not entirely sure what that means after all these years, but I’ll be interested to find out as the dust settles.

We are selling the house and I’ll be living, at least temporarily, in something like a one-bedroom apartment, and the boys will be living with me about half the time. That should add up to much less cooking, cleaning, laundry, and general homemaking, so my use of time will be quite different.

Solo adulting and single parenting will present all kinds of exciting new frugality possibilities and budgetary challenges, so I hope you’ll stay tuned.

I Got Fired Again. Phew!

For years, since way back when I was a full-time middle school teacher, I’ve worked writing and fact-checking trivia questions for a company that runs “pub quizzes.” For most of that time, I was the editor; I worked directly with writers on the question mix and structure and was a liaison between them and the main office. I was proud of my ability to maintain friendly relationships conducted exclusively over email.

Nearly every question went across my desk, from my years as a full-time teacher to my first years of motherhood. I took off a couple of weeks when Big Brother was born and a whopping six days for Little Brother. (He slept a lot and I couldn’t get off the couch. I got bored.)

When I got a job, I started getting behind. My favorite writer filled in as the backup editor. Well, now he’s the editor and I’m the favorite writer and the backup editor.

It stung. Of course it did. No one likes to be taken down a notch. (I was given the news nicely enough, with respect for my years of service, and asked kindly to stay on as a writer.) If I had been able to put more effort into the editing, especially over the summer, maybe things would have been different. And it’s worth noting that the writing doesn’t pay as well as editing on an hourly basis. But within perhaps a few days, I felt immense relief.

For one thing, I like writing. It’s more creative than editing. And for another thing, as much as I enjoyed the work, I am so happy not to have the responsibility any more.

Now, if I’m tied up with other things, I just don’t work. Unless I accept a special assignment (like a Christmas set), there’s no looming deadline. I don’t feel like I have to stuff my mornings (when the kids are at school) with as much editing as possible; the house is a little cleaner and we eat a little better.

And I’m free from the constant sense of failure I felt from my inability to keep up, every time a week ended (and it was most weeks) and I had finished only three shows when I knew we needed four.

I loved that job. I miss it. But no one has time to do everything that they might love. Trying to squeeze in that one thing too many was taking away from my enjoyment of other things.

How have you pared down your responsibilities?

 

I KonMaried My Wardrobe (FP Style)

This post contains affiliate links. Also, it contains terrible photography, for which I apologize. My bedroom is in the basement and it’s kind of a dark hole.

Well, everyone else was reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying UpI am by no means a committed minimalist, but I do like to keep my possessions trimmed down and tidy, so I got on the hold list for the book to see if I could get any fresh ideas.

First, let’s acknowledge that it’s kind of a weird book. The author, Marie Kondo, advises thanking your possessions for their service to you, especially when you are discarding something. I don’t find it necessary to consult the feelings of inanimate objects. And while nicely stored clothes make me happy, I do not believe that the clothes have an opinion one way or another. Still, I’m getting some use from the book.

Marie Kondo’s sole criterion for deciding whether to keep or discard an item is, “Does it spark joy?” and she advises that you begin paring down by starting with your clothes in a specific order: first tops, then bottoms, and so on.

I thought I had a pretty small wardrobe and I’ve gone through it regularly, but I was surprised when I started counting to find that I owned 62 tops, from camisoles to cardigans. (According to Kondo, the average person she works with has 160, so I guess I do have a small wardrobe.)

Frankly, I think it’s unreasonable to expect all your clothes to “spark joy.” I often wear to work a pink and white striped button-down that I bought when I was breastfeeding Big Brother. It does not now and never has sparked actual joy, but it is comfortable, reasonably professional, and performs all the important functions of clothing, so I kept it. I can’t alternate between pajamas and the red dress Mr. FP bought me in Italy, the only two items of clothing that I find particularly joy-inducing.

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Sweat pants, circa 1997. They still cover my legs, so I choose to keep them rather than buy something new.

I also dislike discarding clothing because Americans waste massive quantities of clothing. A lot of our discarded clothing winds up getting shipped overseas. If I don’t wear it, it’s possible no one else will, either, so to keep things out of the landfill, I like to err on the side of using them up.

So I set a lower bar: I would keep any clothes that did not cause me actual emotional or physical discomfort and that serve a purpose. Turns out, I owned nineteen shirts that I actively disliked or had no conceivable use for. 19! And that’s just shirts.

I love the color, but it's time to admit that I bought this shirt too small and it hurts my elbows.

I love the color, but it’s time to admit that I bought this shirt too small. Even if I lost weight, it would still pinch my elbows.

The fanciest, newest clothes I got rid of. The dry-clean-only shirt was a gift and I bought the makes-me-look-pregnant skirt to go with it.

The fanciest, newest clothes I got rid of. The dry-clean-only shirt was a gift and I bought the makes-me-look-pregnant skirt to go with it.

I filled up one garbage bag and about half of a Trader Joe’s bag with discarded clothes, but for me, the bigger impact was the vertical folding. Essentially, you fold your clothes up so tightly that they stand up on their own (no really–this actually happens!), then you place them in the drawer on their edge. While the folding takes longer, it lets you fit a lot more things into the drawer AND at the same time actually see it all. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been looking for something and not been able to find it when it was in a pile the whole time.

Before. Never knew what shirts were in which pile and my underpants and sports bras were shoved awkwardly in the back.

Before. Never knew what shirts were in which pile and my underpants and sports bras were shoved awkwardly in the back.

And after. Removed undies and added several large sweaters plus some camis from the closet.

And after. Removed undies and added several large sweaters plus some camis from the closet.

I made the change several days ago and love it so far. I do spend more time folding, but it’s kind of satisfying, and anyway I find I get that time back not having to hunt for things in piles. Plus I like how nice it looks. She advises using shoeboxes as drawer dividers, but so far I’ve been making do without. My underwear drawer is too shallow for a shoebox, but I do use a commemorative paperweight to keep my sports bras from falling over.

Vertical sock folding made room for my sports bras and underpants in--of all places--my underwear drawer.

Vertical sock folding made room for my sports bras and underpants in–of all places–my underwear drawer. Paperweight keeps pile from falling over. I’ve also heard of people using bookends.

Now that I’ve I tossed out everything in the closet I hated and then folded much of what remained (now that I had all that dresser space–yes, you can fold skirts), I will be able to fix my awful closet space. See, I have these two awkwardly placed bars:

Before pic of overcrowded closet with draggy clothes.

Before pic of overcrowded closet.

There was not enough space either on the bottom or the top to hang dresses or long shirts and everything just kind of dragged. Now, I can hang everything on one bar, lower the other one to make a convenient shelf for things like my sewing basket, and still not have dragging clothes. Just as soon as I get around to it…

Have you read The Life-Changing Magic? How do you store your clothes? Do you thank your possessions for their service to you?

How I’m Reading 100 Books in 2015

This post contains affiliate links. They are for educational purposes, because you should check your books out from your library. But if you did buy something from Amazon, I would get a tiny cut.

I have always been a fast reader, the kind who needs more than one Agatha Christie novel if it’s going to be a long flight. In 2010, the last full year before I became a mother, I read 85 books, according to my LibraryThing page, and only half of those, tops, were manuals on childbirth, infant care, or breastfeeding. That was a light year–2009 I read 113.

Then the babies started to arrive and I enrolled in library school. I did my best to keep up with reading. I curled up with Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and Adventures in Tandem Nursing; I held a sleeping baby on one arm and The Murder Room on the other; I listened to State of Wonder on my iPod during four a.m. feedings. Still, I read only 46 books in 2011, and in 2012, the year Big Brother was 1 and Little Brother was a newborn, a paltry 31. That’s probably a respectable number as far as averages, but look at it this way: Reading is the recreational activity that I love more than any other, and my reading had dropped by a full two-thirds.

Family portrait by Big Brother. I'm the one with the book in hand, of course.

Family portrait by Big Brother. I’m the one with the book in hand, of course.

I became irritable and depressed and simply did not feel like myself. I resolved to do better. I read an article near the end of 2012 about a man who had successfully resolved to average one book per day that year–365 books. That wasn’t realistic for me, but I figured I could manage 75 in 2013. I finished my goal ahead of schedule and clocked in at 82 for the year. Last year, I dunno what happened, but I was back down to 48 for 2014.

This year, I have so far read 97 books and should easily break a hundred. And no, that does not count picture books I’ve read to the children. “But, Mrs. FP,” you say, “You have two preschool-age children and a part-time job and you serve nutritious, made-from-scratch meals. How do you have time to read?” Here are my secrets for averaging about two books a week:

I use every scrap of time.

If we watch TV, I read during the commercials. If I get in bed a few minutes before Mr. FP, I read a few pages. If I arrive at the preschool door two minutes before they open it, I read a page. I read while I’m eating; sometimes I even read while I’m cooking. I often have an ebook going on my smartphone as well as a paper book to better maximize; sometimes it’s easier to read on my phone, sometimes I want paper.

I let my children amuse themselves.

I’m not saying I never play with them, and goodness knows I spend half our waking hours reading to them. But much of the day, I let them do their own thing, together or separately. Now, most of THAT time, I’m in the kitchen or doing laundry. Still leaves a bit of time for my books, especially at the playground. Sometimes lunch is served at 2:15 pm because I wanted to finish my book and they were playing happily in the park.

It helps that I made two of them. Once Little Brother turned two, all of a sudden they could really entertain each other.

I consume less of other media.

I follow exactly three television shows (and two of them are short-season shows). Lots of other good ones out there, but I let other people watch them. Movies? As soon as I finish folding the laundry, I just get restless and want my book back. News? I scan the headlines in Feedly, but I don’t read much about things I can’t change.

Confession: I read a lot of (but not only) short books.

Sure, I took my time wading through the annotated Pioneer Girl, and when my sister sent me The Thorn Birds for my birthday, I read the whole damn thing. (I told her next year, just send me a hammer and I’ll break my toes with it and enjoy it just as much.) But I read a lot of what librarians call “genre fiction.” You know what genre fiction is. It looks like this:

These Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novels are pretty fun with a smart heroine.

These Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novels are pretty fun with a smart, independent heroine.

Or this:

Yep, there is sex in this book.

Yep, there is sex in this book.

I also tore through a ten-volume graphic novel series (Y: The Last Man). Makes the books add up in a hurry. It’s not just they’re short, it’s that they’re fun and I’m always anxious to get back to them. I’ll read a few in a row, then maybe something with modest literary pretensions.

All of this is to say, I love reading and it makes me happy, so I make it a priority and sometimes let other things slide. What does that for you? Do you read?

If you’re curious what the 97 books are, click here to see a Google doc of this year’s reading with reviews of some of the books. I maintain a LibraryThing page with over 900 entries, but I like to keep a list on my own hard drive as well..

 

To Budget or Not To Budget

A key division between personal finance/Mustachian bloggers like myself is whether or not one keeps a strict budget.

Some bloggers keep excellent budgets. The Goblin Chief comes to mind, as does The Barefoot Budgeter. Both account for every penny and The Goblin Chief does a particularly impressive job of keeping set-aside funds for a variety of categoires. The other school of thought is, essentially, “just spend as little as possible.” My favorite examples of this approach are Frugalwoods and, of course, Mr. Money Mustache. These people track their spending, but they don’t sit down and draw up a list of how much money they are allowed to spend in each category. For the record, the Frugalwoods family and the Money Mustache family both practice a level of fiscal discipline to which I can only aspire.

I tend to embrace a hybrid approach. In most categories, I simply try to spend as little as possible and choose carefully where my dollars go to make sure each purchase is really enhancing my life. I do, however, set a goal for my grocery expenses that I try not to exceed. (The folks over at Planting Our Pennies seem to have a similar approach, albeit with a much larger amount of income to work with.)

No approach is “right.” In general, I think keeping a strict budget is advisable if you

  • have a very limited income and limited savings, meaning that a slip would mean debt; or
  • have had trouble controlling your spending in the past, such that you need to figure out a “reasonable” number and practice limiting yourself to it; or
  • just really like budgeting.

None of those things apply to me. I have two other reasons that I don’t budget:

  • Mr. FP will not keep to a budget; and
  • I have a bad tendency to live up to the budget.

Years ago, we experimented with each having a set amount of personal spending money each month. Mr. FP didn’t always arbitrarily limit himself, and I would up buying things I didn’t necessarily need or splurging on edible treats just because I could. To be clear, Mr. FP is generally a frugal fellow. But in October, for instance, he went out and spent over $400 on coats, and no budget would have stopped him. He wanted new coats, he researched them carefully, and he wanted the best damn coats he could get. Now, I might have objected to this, but the two coats he was replacing dated to approximately 1997. One was a delaminated raincoat, and the other was one of those giant puffy Starter jackets popular in the era. If he gets 17 years out of these, too, I will consider it money well spent.

Grocery money is a separate issue more amenable to budgeting, I find. One’s needs month to month are more similar. And my goal amount is so low, there is no danger of my spending up to it. I’ve always been over it, but I keep trying! “Budget” isn’t even really the right word, because I always keep buying groceries when I run out of grocery money before I run out of month (I do, however, keep it minimal—I stop buying luxuries like almond milk and we eat more of our cheapest meals, like black bean burgers and homemade pizza).

Do you keep a budget? Why or why not?

Our Great House Debacle

In 2006, Mr. FP and I were, for the first time ever, both fully employed. We were 25/26 and had been married for five years. We were tired of living in apartments, so we decided to buy a house. And we wanted to have a family in a few years, so we bought a four-bedroom house.

Three years later, we no longer wanted to live in south Georgia, where both our house and our jobs were located. According to conventional wisdom, this should not have been a particular problem. We had lived in the house for over three years, and it was a nice house in a desirable school district, so we should have been able to sell it and turn a small profit. We put the house on the market, got jobs out of state, rented an apartment, and moved away, confident that the place would sell soon.

White built-in bookcases.

I don’t miss having four bedrooms, but I do sometimes miss these bookcases, which we had custom-built… with money that should have gone toward our mortgage!

But you can add, right? 2006 + 3 = 2009 and looming housing crash. We had no idea, and our real estate agent appeared to have no idea, that the rules had changed. We were underwater on our house; we owed more than it was worth. To make a long story short, after eight or nine months we fired our old agent, stopped paying the mortgage, and pursued a short sale. We found a buyer quickly at that price, the bank approved the short sale in record time, and the whole thing was over in a few months. The bank wrote off the missing money and the federal government magnanimously agreed not to charge us taxes on this forgiven debt.All Categories

What we had done wrong: Bought a house with only 5% down, allowing the slightest market fluctuation to put us underwater. Did not pay down the balance like we were supposed to do to get rid of our PMI. Bought a house in a place before we had lived in it long enough to really commit. Made a precipitous move out of the house.

What we did right: Kept our retirement accounts. Even in the darkest moments of this whole debacle, our net worth was never negative. When we ran out of liquid money, we did not cash in our 403(b)s. And we never attempted to rent the house out as a stopgap. Had we done so, there’s a good chance that the mortgage company would have refused the short sale (seeing it as an investment property) and we would have wound up in foreclosure.

Aside from the retirement accounts, we lost every penny that we had ever possessed. We had made some bad financial decisions in the past, but none of them really mattered, because if we had had more money, we just would have lost it, too. We also, of course, lost our good credit, which we are still rebuilding. I don’t indulge in much regret, as every “error” is part of what led me to where I am now, but I do regret–and feel ashamed–that I borrowed money and didn’t pay it back.

The funny thing is, I couldn’t get pregnant in that house. Tried for a full year, charts and Robitussin and the whole nine yards, nothing. That yellow-painted bedroom just sat empty. Didn’t get pregnant until we were living in a one-bedroom apartment and going broke. We moved into a rental duplex in my hometown when I was four months along. Around the time the short sale went through and our credit was a goner, my nephew was born. My sister was on maternity leave and we spent lots of time together, having lunch with our grandma and taking the baby for walks. I remember that fall, if you will pardon the schmaltz, as one of the happiest times of my life, and I remember Mr. FP remarking that I had started laughing a lot more.

Turns out I was just as happy to bring home my babies (after all that waiting for Big Brother, Little Brother turned up unlooked-for a mere sixteen months later) to a duplex as I would have been in that big house. We thought we needed to have everything All Set, but there’s really no such thing anyway. We do hope to buy a house again in the future, but we’ll do so much more cautiously–make sure we like the area first, put more down, and buy only as much house as we need.

What debacles did you pass through on your way to better things? Would you go back and change them if you could, or were they too important as stepping stones?

Calico cat using scratching post.

Kitty Paragon first joined us in our big house. She seems to like our cozier rentals just as well.

I Got a Flat Tire, and My Life Is Awesome

I had planned to blog about how driving my car has become kind of interesting novelty (Oooh! I have the car today!) now that I bike most places I go regularly.

But today I had the car for a job interview, and on the way home from it, I ran over some sort of twisted metal and got a flat tire. While this was inconvenient and I wish I still had the $165 (for tow and tire), the whole experience actually exposed a number of things about my life that are great.

  1. I have a car! It let me down a bit today, but 999 times out of a thousand, I get in it and it whisks me over the kinds of distances I could only dream travelling by foot or bicycle. It’s faster than horses and doesn’t poop all over the place.
  2. I have money. Three years ago, I ran up a nine hundred dollar emergency room bill (insurance deductible). I did not have it. The bill came in three separate parts as medical bills do, so I had to make three separate phone calls asking for payment plans, including for the smallest bill–which was $137. That was a real low point for me. Today, I could put the charges on my Visa and be confident I can pay it off at the end of the month. Even if it had been a thousand dollars, I have an emergency fund now.
  3. Modern technology rocks. I don’t have a smartphone yet (I actually ordered one! Stay tuned for details!) but I have a dumb phone which allows me to sit in my car and call for help. Then the power of the Internet allowed someone 1700 miles away to find me a tow company.
  4. People love me. Lacking a smart phone, my best option was to call people and ask them to look up the number of a tow truck company. The first four people I called weren’t available, but I hit pay dirt on the fifth call, my brother-in-law. And if he didn’t answer, I would have moved on to friends. Plenty of people willing to help me out of a jam.
  5. I love to read. If you love to read enough, every delay becomes a mini-vacation. Of the hour and a half the whole thing took, I got to read for probably an hour! It was great! Thank goodness I had brought my Nook.

Other things that worked in my favor: The kids were not with me and the weather was lovely. What are you grateful for this week?