Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying Up

I'm late to the game reviewing this weird little book, but I just read it over the weekend and it's really stuck in my mind.

I'm a fairly neat person, and I like to declutter. I'm not terribly sentimental (example: I throw out Pickle's preschool art projects with impunity!). I have a slightly bad habit of thinking I'll get around to things that I won't get around to (example: fixing broken snaps on cloth diapers) and I definitely have a bad habit of saving things that I think I can make money from selling, instead of donating them as soon as I decide I don't need them anymore.

Even so, this book gave me such a kick in the pants.

Basically, the author says to ask - of every item that you own - "does this spark joy?" Most decluttering books encourage you to find things to get rid of (Flylady's 27 Thing Boogie, for example) but this one asks you to focus on what you want to keep. This slight but fundamental difference in approach becomes huge when magnified by each and every possession in your home.

For me, it helped identify the guilt aspect: the things I was hanging onto because I used to love them, or thought I should love them, or because I wanted to get around to making/fixing/doing/reading it someday (even though I knew I wouldn't), or because someone had given it to me. If the item is tinged with any of those things, it cannot also spark joy for me, and so this question has helped me identify a LOT more things to get rid of. All the old cloth diapers, books upon books, almost an entire closet full of clothing. I haven't gone through the kitchen yet but can already think of things to donate. It's obscene, really, to see how many things I have here that I don't love.

Another thing the author suggests is to thank your things for their service to you. She takes it a little too far in the woo direction for my liking (thanking your handbag each day for its work? Um.) but the general principle of appreciating what something did for you when it came into your life - even if you only wore it once or had fun imagining what you would do with it, that's enough. Acknowledge that, and pass the item along.

Combine those concepts with her approach to organizing clothes, and frankly, I'm astonished at the difference in my home in just the last three days. As I job-search in earnest, I'm starting to feel a little guilty about all the things I didn't accomplish while staying home these last three years (cuz, you know, I wasn't busy from dawn til dusk as it was!). So I'm trying to clear things out in anticipation of truly never having the time to do it again.

Have you read The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying Up? What did you think of it?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Back on the market

Peanut and I have decided to radically shake up our lives. I suppose there are a couple ways we could do this, but we decided to go for the one that will (hopefully) have the best long-term impact on our finances.

I'm going back to work.

Staying home with kids was always only a temporary plan, made necessary by Pickle's health issues. As those have resolved themselves, I've wondered how I would know when the time would be right for me to go back.

The reality is, it'll never be right. Someone will always be too small or daycare will always be too expensive or it will always be easier for me to be home to have dinner on the table. But I'm not fulfilled staying home - heck, some days I'm not even happy to be here, and Peanut has carried the burden of supporting all of us without the freedom to take some career risks himself.

It'll be big changes, for sure. And who knows how long it will take for me to find the right job. I've found some that seem perfect on paper, and I've had two interviews, so that's promising. I've started researching child care. I've started thinking about what can be outsourced (housecleaning?) and how our routines can be altered. I've started daydreaming about talking to other adults on a regular basis.

I'm trying not to get my hopes up too much in case the job search takes a while, but I'm excited about the future! (And, yeah, this is why we're keeping the old Mazda for now - we each need a vehicle that can transport children if they're going to be in daycare.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Shiny New Car! Part II: The Happy Ending

So, after we realized that the Mazda5 was not the car for us, we went to a couple of new car dealers to just see what was out there (new dealers mainly because they were the ones open on a Saturday night when we decided to do this. We never considered buying an actual new car.).

That gave me some ideas, but then a few days later I had the chance to drop the kids off with my mother-in-law and go to a CarMax. I had poked around their website and liked that they had a bunch of makes and models available to see all in one place, and (ha!) most of their vehicles are previous rental vehicles so they were exactly what we were looking for.

(Just to head this off, this is also not a sponsored post, but I'm a pretty happy customer.)

I went in and had a chat with the salesperson, who told me up front that he gets paid a flat rate per each vehicle sale, as opposed to a higher commission for a fancier car and a lower commission for a more basic car.

We walked around and sat in a bunch of different cars, and test drove a couple. I liked two of them, and arranged for Peanut to come in that evening and test drive those two and see what he liked. They were about $5,000 apart in price, with the more expensive one right at the top of our price range. He ended up test driving only the less expensive one (a Rav4), liked it fine, and we bought it.

I wish it was that simple - it was a mountain of paperwork that took forever while I fed Pickle treats out of the vending machine and my mother-in-law drove Baby Bear around in circles in the parking lot so he'd stay asleep. I hope to never finance a car ever again simply for how long the process took!

Because, yeah, we did finance part of it. We put down $5,000 of the total cost (it was right around $18,000) and financed the rest at the lowest interest rate our sales person had seen in months (1.95%!). We also upgraded to a remote starter, which is simply astonishing in how it has made my life wonderful (and it's not even that cold yet!). We had it checked out by our personal mechanic during the five day period when we could return it with no consequences, and it got a clean bill of health, although I did end up having to take it back in the first month to have a tire patched (luckily the tire pressure light had come on during Peanut's test drive, so it was fixed as a warranty issue).

All in all, it was a great experience. And even better, I really like the car - it's so much easier to get the kids in and out of the car seats, it feels safer and sturdier, it gets really good gas mileage, it fits all my stuff in it, and there's more leg room up front. And the remote starter! How wonderful to start my car from the house, and dash the kids out there after it's all warm. Brilliant.

Oh, and what we will be doing with our old Mazda? Well, the plan was to sell it, privately, since we figured we could get the most money that way. We're waiting to have it detailed, but we might end up keeping it after all. Ch-ch-ch-changes are afoot!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Shiny New Car! Part I: The Fake Out

I have only ever bought cars from private sellers, cash on the hood, so to speak. But this time around, we weren't really sure what we were looking for, or how we wanted to buy, so we went a different route.

First of all, I did some researching online. I knew I preferred an SUV to a minivan, but I really like the sliding doors of a van (I can't tell you how many times someone has parked too close to me in a parking lot and I've had to do all sorts of weird contortions to maneuver a kid through a six-inch-wide gap.) I narrowed it down to a long list of SUVs and a very short list of minivans, and the car that I thought would be a perfect mix - the Mazda5.

Then I started looking for one to test drive, with some strict criteria. We were looking for recent model years, low mileage, and a good deal, and preferably not a high-pressure sales environment. There were no such vehicles with clean titles in our area on Craigslist, and we couldn't find any at any close car dealers either, so we started looking at rental car fleet purchases.

I found out about this from the keychain on our last rental car - most large rental companies let you buy specific vehicles out of their fleet. It gets inventory off their hands with little effort, and the cars are priced a lot better than dealers, since the rental car company doesn't have to deal with a third party inflating the price. And as luck would have it, Hertz had several Mazda5s to choose from in our area.

Now, the way the program works is that you are selecting a specific vehicle from the fleet (whereas when you rent a car, you rent from a category). So you have to wait for your specific car to be returned if it's out on rental, then to be cleaned and inspected, then to be delivered to the rent to buy location. So we knew it wasn't going to be a fast process.

The first car was supposed to be ready for us to pick up on a Saturday, but we never received the confirmation call to go get it. We kept checking with the office and finally got the news - the car had been wrecked while it was rented out and was totaled. So....bummer. They had a second vehicle with similar mileage and price in a different color, so we signed up for that one. We were supposed to pick it up two weeks later.

This time we got the news the day before we were supposed to pick it up - the vehicle had been returned in such "disgusting" condition that it could no longer be sold. I have spent far longer than I'd like to admit wondering what someone could do to a car that would make it so gross, and what they do with such a vehicle since they can no longer sell it. What's wrong with people?!

So, third time's the charm - we reserved yet another car, at slightly higher mileage and with a slightly lower price. We picked it up two weeks later.

Now, one of the things that I really liked about the Hertz buying program is that you get a three-day test drive. If you like the car, you keep it and do the paperwork online. If you don't like it and return it within two hours, there's no charge. If you return it later than two hours but within the three-day period, you pay a decent rental fee and there are no further obligations. I like this because it gives you a chance to test drive the car in different situations (day, night, city, highway), see how it will fit in the garage, see how it works with your car seats and all your strollers and groceries, and everything else.

Now, keep in mind that we started this three-day test drive blind - we hadn't driven any other cars and all my research had been done online. And it turns out that we hadn't even started the car up before Peanut and I privately each had serious doubts about this being the car for us. (Before we drove it, we checked it out extensively inside and out - after all, you are committing to this particular car so you want to make sure that everything works like it's supposed to and all the features are there.) After driving it, we were even more sure that it wasn't what we'd hoped for. So we returned it the next day and started from scratch.

All those weeks of waiting and being faked out...just to realize that we should have spent an afternoon at a Mazda dealer checking cars out before deciding that this was the model we wanted. Lesson learned! Decide on a kind of car in person, then see if it's available at Hertz.

(I still think the program is great, and if they'd had the kind of car I ended up liking, I would totally have used them. It was weird that the first two cars didn't end up being available for us, but I think that was a fluke, and I appreciated that they were honest with us that the condition of both of those cars wasn't worthy of being sold. This isn't a sponsored or affiliated post in any way; I just think it's a neat option that not many people are aware of when it comes to car buying.)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Happy Monday!

Here's a meal plan and a quick list of stuff that has kept me away from the computer this month.

Sunday - crockpot salsa chicken, avocado lime rice
Monday - hibachi chicken and shrimp
Tuesday - Southwest chicken salad
Wednesday - corn & zucchini pie, roasted carrots
Thursday - crockpot chicken pot pie soup and biscuits
Friday - salmon, baked potatoes
Saturday - who cares, but I'm not cooking!

Neat stuff that's been keeping me busy:
* We bought a car! I'll write a full post on that soon, but it was a six week process of frustration that ultimately has a happy ending.

* Pickle is.....EATING BY MOUTH! We will keep her feeding tube in until cold & flu season is over, just in case, but I can safely say that this little girl is the boss of what goes in her body now. She worked harder to get here than I have ever worked for anything in my life, and I am so proud of her.

* Baby Bear is....ON THE MOVE! He's crawling, pulling up, and cruising, and with a few more weeks of practice he's going to be running all over the place.

* Peanut moved his cell phone service over to Ting, and we're pretty pleased with it so far. I'll be switching soon too, and we'll reduce our cell phone bill by almost half. I hope to write a post about this too.

* Not much new other than that on the money front. I try not to pay too much attention to our retirement funds because they've been so up and down lately.

What's new with you?

Monday, October 5, 2015

Meal plan

Someday, it will not be my responsibility to feed any other human besides myself. I look forward to that day...but it is not today. So in the meantime, I meal plan.

This week is a little unusual in that we have three dinners out - but I've got plans for the other nights.
Monday - dinner out for a family birthday
Tuesday - date night; kids get chicken rice, meatballs and veggies with the babysitter
Wednesday - Mexican quinoa
Thursday - steak and potatoes
Friday - BLTs
Saturday - dinner at the apple orchard

Breakfasts are yogurt and granola, cocowheats, or bagels. I'm working on planning out the kids' snacks, too, so that they are more balanced than goldfish crackers and applesauce - so we've also got peanut butter toast, fruit, yogurt, sandwich crackers, cottage cheese, broccoli pancakes, cheese sticks. If you've got kids, what are your favorite well-rounded snacks that you can carry with you or pull together in five minutes?


Friday, October 2, 2015

Life Skills 101

I was thinking today about how I'd like to take a refresher course in Home Ec. This is kind of silly, because basically my entire life right now is Home Ec (cooking, sewing, caring for kids), so shouldn't I be teaching it instead of wanting someone to teach it to me? And then I was wondering if they still teach Home Ec in school. I took it in high school, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's not offered anymore, which would be a shame. I'd rename it Life Skills and in addition to cooking, baking, and sewing on a button, I'd include a number of new things, like how to change a tire, get a virus off a computer, negotiate the price of a large purchase, budget a paycheck, and make simple repairs in the home (fixing a hinge or broken shelf, for example).
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein
Word, Bob. Word.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Fall consignment sale update

So the fall consignment sale is over, and I had a request to make an update on how things went. This was a big year for me - I sold all of our little baby equipment, a few toys, and a bunch of clothes. I'm not sure exactly how many items I dropped off, but 139 things sold - which is probably more than 75% of what I dropped off. (The rest will be donated to a charity, and I'll get tax paperwork related to that.) I make 60% of what sells, and my check will be around $300. I'd guess it's at least what I'd get by doing a yard sale, maybe better since most of the clothing sold for $2-4 and at a yard sale each piece would be priced at $1 or less. And even better, I didn't have to actually sit outside for three days to make those sales!

I went shopping on half-price day, and got a potty, potty insert, four pairs of shoes, two coats, five pajamas for Baby Bear, and a bunch of stuff for Pickle (eight pants, three sweaters, one skirt, two outfits, and three pajamas) and some other things for $75. I had hoped that this would be all the shopping I needed to do for them until next spring, but a lot of the stuff didn't fit Pickle well - she's so slim that getting pants that stay up but are long enough is a big challenge, especially now that she doesn't have diapers to help hold them up. I can modify a couple of them to fit her better, but I think I'm going to either need to take her to a store or start making her clothes for a while. As she gets older, there isn't as much choice in clothing (infant clothes don't get worn out, but toddler clothes do) and we might have to try some stuff on in person to find some brands that work for her consistently.

I will keep using these consignment sales for selling and buying. It's the easiest way for me to make some money for the stuff we're getting rid of, and also the easiest way for me to get what we need for the upcoming season. I'm trying to stay on top of hanging and tagging stuff as the kids outgrow it instead of doing it in big frantic batches as the sale approaches. I'm also less focused on using it as a vehicle to make money and considering clothing to be handed down - we now have some girl cousins who can use Pickle's old clothing, and perhaps someday there will be a boy cousin as well - so I'm starting to store some of the cutest items or the ones that were given to us by people who will get to see those outfits used on more kids.

In addition, I'll probably start getting rid of more toys - we're getting more toys (and more annoying toys) as the kids get older and I'm trying to keep the clutter to a minimum, so I'm going to start pruning our toyboxes more regularly and more ruthlessly.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Five Frugal Things

Inspired by the Non-Consumer Advocate, here are some frugal things I've done lately.

1. I made soup from scratch, using up a bunch of bits of things in the fridge that weren't going to last much longer. It hit the spot on this cool Minnesota fall-is-almost-here day.

2. I bought more than $300 worth of groceries from Target for $1.83. We are serving dinner at Ronald McDonald House to pay forward the meals that we received while Pickle was in the hospital, and my mother in law was able to get Target to donate $250 to cover the cost of the food. By shopping carefully, using Cartwheel deals, coupons, and her employee discount, we stretched the money a lot further. (And, that $1.83 that I spent out of pocket is tax deductible!)

3. I dragged a bunch of stuff out to the kids' consignment sale the other day. I made more than $120 in commission after the first day of sales! On the one hand, I think maybe I priced my big items a little too cheaply since they sold immediately; on the other, I think that this is money in my pocket and I don't have all that junk in my house anymore, so who cares.

4. I will go shopping at the same consignment sale - but I will only go on the last day, which is half-price day. I used to go to the consignor's pre sale to get first dibs on the stuff, but then there's no discount. Now I hold out - there are still plenty of great things to go around by the end of the sale.

5. I've given up soda - more because of the sugar content than because of the cost, but that won't go unnoticed either. I watched Fed Up a couple weeks ago and it really made an impact on me. I have a terrible sweet tooth, and it's been a struggle to weed out all the sugar, but soda was an obvious thing to cut.

What frugal things have you been up to lately?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Update in list form, and a PSA

I have lots to write about, but no time to form thoughts, much less sentences.

In brief:

* Pickle has started preschool! We went with a program through the parks & rec department, so it's very affordable. We started at two days a week but might bump up to four since she really seems to love it
* Pickle is turning three! Her birthday party will be a frugal affair: cake (made by me) at home (no venue cost) with immediate family only. I might spring for balloons this year, but I'd like to keep things small and manageable.
* Baby Bear is on the move! Time to do more baby proofing. It's different with a kid who puts everything in his mouth!
* We have movement on the new-to-us car front! More to come next week on that.
* Anyone know anything about hot water heaters? Ours has started leaking and we think it's about twenty years old (and is the only major appliance in the basement we haven't had to replace yet, so.). We have someone coming out to look at it and I'm bracing myself.
* I took a quick trip with Baby Bear to visit a family member who has not been in the best of health lately. Funny how traveling with one child now seems so simple! I got a good deal on the flight and had no lodging or food expenses, plus was given an unexpected bunch of money for the kids.

Lastly, if you do not have term life insurance and you have a spouse or children or might have children one day, go get life insurance. Here, I have googled it for you. Two clicks and you can enter your information for a quote. Don't wait - the unexpected happens when you least expect it. Due to a tragedy in our social circle, we are seeing what happens when you don't have life insurance, and it's just adding devastation to an already horrible situation. Please show your love by getting insured.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Kid Update!

ND Chic reminded me that I haven't done any updates on Pickle's health in a while, so I figured I'd do a general kid update, since that's where all my time is going.

Pickle is amazing. She still has her feeding tube, and is basically still dependent on it - but we have been doing weekly feeding therapy since January and are seeing huge strides. In recent weeks, we've managed to eliminate a quarter of what she gets by tube, as she's made gains with oral eating. She's also been weaned off all of her reflux meds, and is able to take by mouth medications that we used to have to give by tube (liquid vitamins and the odd ibuprofen/acetaminophen dose).

It's hard to guess whether she's close to actually losing the tube. She has mastered purees, but still stores a lot of food in her cheek and doesn't swallow it (this is common with toddlers, but typical kids still swallow some food because food cures hunger, and that's a connection Pickle's body has not yet made). Her feeding therapist works on desensitizing Pickle's lips, cheeks, and tongue and especially her gag reflex. They try all kinds of weird combinations of foods to challenge her with textures (lately it's been ritz cracker crumbs mixed in yogurt, blech).

The fascinating part to me is that Pickle and Baby Bear were briefly at the exact same stage with eating - but Baby Bear has now surpassed his big sister. If you've ever started an infant on solids, you know about the tongue thrust reflex and how their gag reflex is super close to the front of their tongue but gradually moves back as they put toys and food in their mouths. Because his instincts were not interrupted, Baby Bear managed to reduce his own gag reflex, learned to swallow mushed/chewed food instead of just liquid, is now capable of eating most table foods, and is working on his pincer grasp. Because Pickle's instincts told her that eating hurt, she still needs our help to reduce that gag reflex and learn to swallow anything that's not totally smooth.

At any rate, the therapy is definitely helping (and is covered by insurance, thankfully) so we are working on challenging Pickle more and more with how much she eats by mouth. In a way I'm in no rush to lose the tube, because she is getting awesome nutrition through it (I still make all her food in our blender, or sometimes use a commercial product called Real Food Blends - she hasn't had formula in over 18 months). Keeping her focused on eating by mouth is a challenge, because she gets bored with it way before she's eaten enough calories to sustain her, so it's nice to not have to worry about it.

At the same time, I think that for us losing the tube will be a lot like potty training: she's not going to do it until I force the issue. For potty training, I picked a day, warned her for about a week, and then threw all her remaining diapers away (into a box for Baby Bear to use when he grows into them). We had several messy days, but there was no going back to diapers for her, and so she has learned to use the potty, even at night. With the tube, I'll have to craft a plan with her medical team and then just...stop feeding her and let her body figure out how to regulate itself. This is much higher stakes than potty training, so we'll have to have a limit for weight loss and dehydration and be willing to step in if necessary, but I sort of see it needing to be an all-or-nothing thing. It's down the road, but I'm not sure how far.

In other news, she has handled several colds with no problem (sometimes we do rescue breathing medications, but we haven't had to actually go in to the pediatrician), she is meeting or exceeding most developmental goals for her actual age, and she's obsessed with construction equipment. Baby Bear is a good-sized almost-9-month-old, sleeps mostly through the night, has a bunch of teeth, and is army-crawling around the house. They are lovely siblings to each other and drive me up the wall every day.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Capsule wardrobes for toddlers

It's getting close to consignment sale time, so I'm making my lists of what to buy. For the first time, I am not rounding out a bunch of hand-me-downs - I think I have maybe three things for Pickle for this winter. Conveniently, she is growing into a new size as the seasons change, and (sorry, I have to brag here for a second): she is growing into the right size for her age! I know that age and size aren't super correlated, but this is a child who was in size twelve months at her second birthday, so I am thrilled to be looking for size 3T pants a few weeks before she turns 3. Yay! (She's still tiny - around 1% on the growth chart - but hey, she's on the chart!)

Anyway, since the majority of her clothing has come from hand-me-downs, we've had situations where we are way lopsided on tops or bottoms, or have lots of different things that don't match each other. I like the idea of a capsule wardrobe (a limited number of pieces, where almost everything can be mixed and matched) and am trying to mimic the idea for the kids going forward. It's a little tricky with kids, since so much of their clothing is sold in sets, and also they go through so many costume changes a day sometimes, but here's what I'm thinking:

For a 3-year-old:
* a complete week's worth of clothing (7 pants + 7 tops, 7 pr underwear + 7 pr socks) plus a few extra in case of potty accidents or exuberant outdoor play. Plus an extra outfit for the diaper bag and one for the car. So, 12 pieces of each of those items.
* a couple hoodies or pull-over sweaters
* one nice outfit (we don't have many occasions for this kind of thing - maybe one or two weddings a year)
* 3-5 pajama sets or soft clothing that work as pajamas (I seem chronically understocked on pajamas). No more one-piece pajamas once potty training starts!
* rain coat
* winter coat
* hat, scarf, gloves (warm and maybe waterproof)
* winter boots
* sneakers
* snow suit? Not sure what kind of mileage we will get out of it this year (last year she wore it once and was not happy about it - but this year is a new year, after all!)

For a 9-month-old:
* two complete weeks' worth of clothing (combination of onesies, shirts, pants, and one-piece outfits), assuming 1.5 outfit changes a day plus the diaper bag and car bag.
* 8 million infant socks
* a couple hoodies
* one nice outfit
* 7 one-piece footy pajamas
* 2 sleep sacks
* soft shoes with grippy soles or something boot-like to cover the gap between sock and pants for when outside
* winter coat
* hat and gloves
* snow suit?

We already have two or three tubs of clothing for Baby Bear that were handed down to us, so I won't need to buy nearly as much for him - maybe nothing but socks. Still, it helps to have an end goal in mind, rather than just taking inventory.

I think in addition to taking their estimated sizes this year, I will also take some measurements (shoulders, waist, length of shirts & pants) and a drawing of their feet. Both kids are slim for their height, and every single pair of pants I bought Pickle last spring was too wide at the waist and too short in the legs. Measuring would help with that. I'm also going to try to make items mix-and-matchable, or maybe just pick a couple of colors for each kid and stick with those when picking out clothes. One hard and fast rule: no "Princess", "Diva", or "Flirt" type stuff for Pickle, and no sports-themed stuff for Baby Bear. I try to avoid name-brand logos and sayings in general, preferring simple designs or at most cute animals.

I am also looking for other basic stuff at the consignment sale: toddler cups/bowls/silverware, bibs (we never used them with Pickle, but Baby Bear is gonna need some!), diapers (disposable and swim), sunglasses, high chair covers, the perfect diaper bag (I will find it two days before I never need to carry a diaper bag again), and books.

It seems like so much stuff, when listed out like this, but just the other day I changed Pickle's pants four times (potty training is fun!) and Baby Bear three times (starting solids is fun!) so I don't think it's an unreasonable list. If I could just get their clothes to respectively mix and match, I wouldn't even have to fold anything - just dump it all in the right drawer and call it a day!


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Comparison: Consignment Stores vs. Consignment Sales

I have a TON of stuff for the upcoming consignment sale, and I was a little overwhelmed at how much work it's going to be to hang, list, and tag everything. So I figured I'd take some things to a local consignment store, where the only work I have to do is make sure that the items are clean and in saleable condition. If I could make a similar return, it seemed like a win-win - especially since I can drop off at the store anytime, whereas the sale only happens twice a year (so I have to store stuff, which can be a pain - right now for example, I have two unusable closets plus a stack of big items in the basement). I ran over there last night to test out my theory.

Well, there is a pretty clear winner! Somewhat to my surprise: the consignment SALES - even factoring in the time it takes to get stuff ready.

I took two bags plus a few bigger items to the consignment store, but they only took seven items and I made a whopping.....$6.

Yeah.

Here's why I think the consignment sales are a better option.

1. The store's website claims that they take all seasons all the time. Turns out, that's not true, at least at my local store, so more than half my stuff they wouldn't even look at - even things like short-sleeved onesies, which, yes, have short sleeves, but are worn in the winter under other clothes. The consignment sale site is extremely clear on what they take and what they don't each season (and they DO take short-sleeved onesies in the winter, since people buy them!), so I know which clothes to ignore until the appropriate season rolls around.

2. The store didn't take any of my larger items - a bathtub, an Ergo insert, and a bottle warmer - even though, again, their website says they take baby equipment "of all types". All my stuff is in great shape and will definitely sell at the consignment sale. The sales person told me they don't take tubs at all, or "electronic equipment" (even though there are tons of electronic toys, so...) and that they don't take baby carriers, even though there was a whole wall of Baby Bjorns (but no Ergos). So...their policy is not clear at all, and the point goes to the sale for clarity.

3. The store has a rule about clothing - infant clothes must be either one piece full clothing (like footy pajamas) or two-piece sets (onesie and pants). They won't take individual pieces like pants or onesies, and they won't pair identical things like two pairs of pants or several onesies. The consignment sale has no such rule, although for little baby clothes, most people match up several like items (three pairs of pants or whatever) to hit the minimum $3 tag rule. Once again, this clothing rule was not listed anywhere on the store's website or on the handout they gave me listing their guidelines.

4. At the store, there's basically one person looking at all my items and deciding whether to buy them. At the sale, there's one person checking to make sure I've followed the rules (minimum $3 price, hung and tagged correctly, no stains or tears, etc) but every shopper is a potential buyer so as long as my stuff is in good shape, I have a way better chance of selling more stuff to more people than to fewer. So far, I've always sold about 75% of the things I bring to a consignment sale (the rest is donated to a non-profit, and I get a receipt for my taxes).

5. Lastly, the pricing at the store is not as favorable as the sales. They claimed to offer me 50% of what they plan to price the item, but I'm not sure this is accurate. For example, I had a pair of boots still in great shape that would have sold for at least $5 at the consignment sale (netting me 60%, or $3), and they gave me $0.90 for them, which indicates they plan to list them at $1.80. But I browsed their shoe bin while I was waiting, and there were no shoes that cheap - the cheapest I saw was $4.50 and a similar boot was for sale at $10. So. I think there's something pretty wonky with their pricing/payment scheme, and I have no control over the pricing and can't prove that they'll price them higher than what they say (I guess I could go back in a few days with my receipt and see what the boots are priced at if they're still there...).

So, my feeling at this point is that sorting and storing stuff for the consignment store is a complete crapshoot - it's a pain to lug everything out there and come home with most of it again. I asked for clarification and wrote down a bunch of notes, but I feel like it's also up to each employee's discretion as to what they'll take and what they won't. Between that and what I feel like are low-ball payments, I don't think it's worth my time to take more stuff to the consignment store. It might be easier to take loads of stuff to the store and then drop off whatever they don't take at a thrift store, and it would certainly get the stuff out of my house faster - but I would be irritated about the payout I received in exchange.

The sales are a lot of work, yes. A TON of work, if I do it all at once. What I've been trying to do this time as my kids outgrow things is to get them into perfect sale condition, keep them sorted by season, hang them as I go, and tag them in small batches when I have a little free time (if I take small enough chunks, I can even do it while the kids are occupying themselves in the same room). My dollar per hour return is almost certainly not even minimum wage - but so far I've managed to make more money selling outgrown clothes than I've spent on the next season's clothes, and that's a pretty good marker as well. It's also something I'm certain I couldn't manage to do at the consignment store, and that's the final answer for me.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Patience pays off!

There is a product out there that is going to make me a better person. A nicer person, a happier person, a more productive person, and - why not? - a sexier person. This is not me falling for advertisements or marketing gimmicks. I know for a fact that this product exists, because pretty much everyone I know has it, and I'm betting that it will upgrade my life in a big way.

This miracle product?

A coffee maker.

I know. I know! How do I not own a coffee maker? Well, I do have one - a French press. About a year and a half ago, I broke the carafe and had to replace it, and I was really proud of myself for sticking with a fairly unconventional and low-waste method of coffee making, but the truth is, friends, I am Over It.

Baby Bear is finally sleeping through the night, so I am desperately trying to catch up on all the sleep I've missed for the last year (yes, I know sleep doesn't work that way. I'll argue about it with you later, when I'm not so tired.). I sleep until both kids wake up, basically, and to then have to get up and heat up water and wait five minutes and press and add sugar before I can even drink it....WELL. I haven't been able to have a cup of coffee while it's still hot in a really, really long time, folks.

But.

What if my coffee could just...happen? While I was still asleep? And I could just come downstairs and pour it into a cup with one hand and start drinking it? Could such bliss exist?

Obviously. It just took me a while to get to where the rest of the world has been for a long, long time.

But I'm still cheapy cheap, so I've been watching for my unicorn at the local thrift store that I love so much, the one where I get 20% off for donating*. I don't drink a lot of coffee - a cup or at most two per day - so I didn't want a giant coffee maker taking up valuable countertop real estate. I didn't want to have to buy paper filters, either, so I was looking for one with a reusable mesh filter. The combination of small pot and reusable filter is pretty rare, but today I scored it! And $6.99 + 20% off is a very thrifty $5.59.

It took several months of waiting and searching, but ultimately my patience paid off. I'm looking forward to enjoying my first magic-brewed up tomorrow morning. (Also, I bought a like-new cross-body strap purse that might be the perfect purse ever, and a wallet that is probably the answer to my prayers. If this isn't the luckiest shopping trip I've ever had, I just don't know what it is.)

Have you waited a long time to find the perfect thing at the perfect price?



Side note: Recently, this organization was taken to task in Minnesota for not really operating as a non-profit, but claiming to. They are still battling it out in court, but now when I donate I am given a coupon and a letter about the good work they do but noting that I cannot claim this donation on my taxes, since I am not helping any non-profit organization. I thought about this for a good ten minutes the first time I got the letter, and decided that I could care less. I don't itemize my taxes, the donations I made for the last few years never did me one bit of good on my taxes, and really all I care about is my 20% and keeping things out of landfills. This company still winds up recycling goods and reselling them for great prices, and I am totally happy with that. Plus, it's fewer receipts I have to keep for tax season, and saves me time! Win-win-win-win-win.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

2015 Summer Bucket List

Inspired by The Frugal Girl, I've decided to write up a summer bucket list. It's sort of a cheat, since at least one of these things has already happened, but it was on my bucket list before summer began, so...

1. Visit my family down south. 

Done! We had a nice time, stayed long enough that I was ready to come home, and also crossed off "fly with the kids" from a bucket list. I'm almost confident enough now to take a trip with them by myself, but we'll see if it comes down to that anytime soon.

2. Go to a park twice a week. 

There are multiple parks within a few blocks of us, but getting there with two kids has so far been a challenge. Where we live is hilly so the double stroller is a good workout for me, but hard to do when it's hot out. I feel kind of dumb driving, but I'll do it. But then when we're at the park, I'm sort of at a loss - Pickle still needs a lot of help getting around on the playground structures or being pushed in a swing, but what do I do with Baby Bear? He's not content to lie in the stroller and it's getting too hot to wear him in the Ergo. I would like to find a park that has two baby swings next to each other so I can push them both in the swings at the same time, but I haven't found one yet.

3. Go swimming at least once a week. 

This is another challenge with two little ones. There are lots of free wading pools and splash pads near us, but I feel like both kids need my undivided attention for safety. Unless anyone knows of a baby carrier that can go in the pool? That would be great. My other option is my in-laws' house - they have a pool and there's usually a grandparent or other adult around to play with Pickle in the big pool while Baby Bear and I splash in the little one. We just have to make a point of going.

4. Eat outside once a week. 

We have a lovely backyard that's getting lovelier now that we've decided what to do with some of the more questionable landscaping choices the previous owners made. It's kind of a hassle to drag the high chairs and whatnot outside, but I want to do it anyway.

5. Get all winter consignment sale items hung and tagged. 

Getting all my consignment stuff hung and tagged is a big project every time, but this season is going to be particularly large, and I don't want to put it off until the last minute. I'm about 1/3 of the way caught up, and when I get that done, I'd like to stay on top of it by hanging and tagging as soon as I determine that my kids have outgrown something.

6. Go to the Childrens Museum at least three times.

I bought a membership to our local Childrens Museum almost a year ago, went frequently for a while, and then got too pregnant to manage it. Our membership expires in about six weeks, and I'm unsure whether I want to renew it. I'll need to go check it out with both kids to see if it's still worth it.

7. Go to the zoo at least once a month. 

We might trade our museum membership for a zoo membership - it's a donation-based zoo, but membership has perks and we visit often enough in the winter that it'd be a good karma thing to do. In the winter there are preschool days, and in the summer there's a little theme park that Pickle might be old enough to enjoy. It's a fun quick outing for us, and if I remember to pack a lunch, winds up being very inexpensive.

8. Clean up the basement. 

The workbench is Peanut's domain for the most part, but I need things from it too sometimes and it's a disaster. There are other things I want to do down there, plus it's nice and cool, so we'll probably spend the hottest days down there while I get this project done.

9. Hold a diaper-box-truck playdate. 

I've been saving diaper boxes and any other box I come across ever since I saw this tutorial (thank you, Pinterest). I'm not super crafty but this seemed fun and cheap, and I've been wanting to host a project-based playdate for my moms' group. This will be a great way to use up some recyclables, give preschoolers a fun time, and take up a morning or afternoon.

10. Round on the NICU once a month. 

I've recently been through training to serve as a parent advocate at the hospital where Pickle spent the first five months of her life. I found it very helpful to talk to parents who had survived what seemed unsurvivable, and I am so thankful to be at a place in my life where I'm ready to give back. It can be emotionally wrenching to go back to the ward, so I don't want to burn myself out, but I do think I need a minimum goal to keep my skills sharp (maybe you wouldn't think that this work would need specific skills, but it does - there are so many things to say or not to say, so many ways to approach delicate situations, so many assumptions to avoid making that it really pays to stay in practice).

So that's my summer bucket list. I've got lots of other ideas as well and have been compiling a calendar of free summer activities that I find, but these are the things that I really, really want to accomplish.

What does your summer look like?


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Frugality in the moment

I've thought a lot lately about choosing frugality when it's off in the future vs. when you're in the middle of a situation where throwing money at the problem can make it go away.

Basically, do you pay for seats on the plane ahead of time?

We recently flew on a low-cost budget airline that charges extra for everything from carry-on bags (yes, carry-on!) to soda onboard the aircraft. Of course, choosing your own seat cost extra as well. I'm still getting used to traveling with other people than just myself, so on the first leg of the flight, I did what I would normally do - save money by not choosing seats ahead of time. This meant that I was stressed out about whether or not we'd all get to sit together right up until we checked in at the airport - and then my stress level skyrocketed when the agent looked worried as she tried to book our seats. She was able to get us in a row together (two adults, one kid, and one baby in arms) but it wasn't a sure thing.

Now, I will argue all day that when you buy tickets at the same time on the same credit card OBVIOUSLY you should get those seats together, but that's not how life in the real world works apparently. For the flight back, I paid $15 to make sure that we got a row together so I could avoid the stress of not knowing or of asking people to move so that we could sit together. Actually, I wasn't too stressed out about asking people to move (one look at our babies and people would probably volunteer to sit somewhere else!) but it occurred to me that if someone else had paid to select a seat and then had to move because of my wanting to save money, I would have veered from frugal to miserly, and that's not a line I want to cross.

Paying for it as a separate expense still irked me, so I tried to think of it as just rolling it into the cost of the plane tickets - they were still so much cheaper than another airline that would have offered confirmed seating for free. Being in the middle of the situation rather than just imagining it down the road made it a lot easier to throw money at the problem to fix it. I'm sure I do this without thinking all the time, and it's a slippery slope (buying the candy bar to stop your kid's tantrum is effectively the same thing) but sometimes I know I am just too cheap for my own good, and I'm glad I coughed up the money to relieve some stress during our trip.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Adventures in Shopping

There are a couple of thrift stores by me that I really like. They are sort of like Goodwill, only I think they are a little more picky about the stuff they actually sell, because the merchandise is all really good but the prices are awesome. And even better, whenever you donate, you get a coupon for 20% off - so every time I go shopping, I make sure to take a box or two of stuff. This helps keep things moving on out of my house AND saves me money - win win!

Anyway, my last trip there wound up teaching me a lesson. I decided that I need some summer pants - last summer, I was wearing maternity clothes, and I was pretty sure I didn't have anything from my pre-pregnancy era that would work for chasing after two kids in the summer. So I tried on a ton of capri-type pants (I don't do shorts) and found three pair that I liked a lot. Like, loved them, must have owned them in a former life, loved them. I bought them (with a 20% off coupon!) and brought them home. When I went to rearrange my drawers to feature my new summer digs, I found...dun dun dun...a HUGE STACK of summer pants that totally fit me now. Including...wait for it...three pairs of pants that were basically identical to the ones I'd just purchased.

No wonder I liked them so much.

*headdesk*

The pants I already owned still fit, so I decided to return the three new-to-me pair. The store does exchanges within seven days, so I wound up buying a bunch of toys for the kids. Which is not something that I intended to do (I try not to buy toys for them, since they have lots of grandparents and aunts and uncles), but that money was spent either way and I didn't have the courage to try on more clothes, especially since when I went back I had both kids with me.

So, lesson learned: look through your summer clothes BEFORE you decide to go shopping for more.

Second lesson learned - try not to buy toys with batteries. Pickle fell in love with a little toy piano thing, which had some weird stains on the bottom and didn't work. Assuming it needed new batteries, I bought it ($3.99-20% off) but it turns out that those weird stains were from when the existing batteries exploded inside of it. Peanut was able to salvage it so it can run on a cell phone charger, but I'm not going to buy anything else that needs batteries unless I know that it works before I bring it home.

Also, third lesson learned: don't take your kids shopping if you can help it.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Weekly Meal Plan and Update

I try to only set up one family activity per weekend, but I failed roundly at that and we are all worn out today. Here's hoping we can reign it in for the next few days and try to settle back in to our regular routine. In that spirit, I've tried to plan low-key meals this week.

Sunday - pasta with sausage and peppers
Monday - quesadillas
Tuesday - brats and veggie dogs (time to start grilling out!)
Wednesday - Thai chili from the freezer for me and tacos for Peanut
Thursday - tomato risotto, green salad
Friday - more grilling out
Saturday - free for all

I've been working on clearing out the fridge, freezers and pantry of all the things I stocked up on when they were on sale. I struggle with finding a balance between stocking up and using up the stuff we have on hand. Usually I make my meal plan and grocery list from what's on sale and what I have a hankering for, but I've been trying to look in the cupboards first the last few weeks and our grocery bills have been correspondingly lower.

A few other random things:
Today I hosted my last shower for a long time. There have been a lot of weddings and babies in my family  lately, but I think we've hit the end of the events I feel responsible for planning. The work was split among four women, so not too much went to any one person, but the amount of work and expense is always a little bit of a surprise.

Peanut and I spent about a quarter of what we usually spend on our credit card last month. We didn't have any big unusual expenses like dental visits or even large grocery bills (thanks to this pantry clean out), so we just managed to spend less than we have been. I think probably we spent a little more last month than average so it works out, but it was fun to pay a credit card bill that was less than $500!

I managed to put $2,500 into our new car fund already! I know we won't be able to do that for a few months as we bankroll our trip to visit my family, but I'm glad to have been able to start it off with a sizable balance. Gives me motivation to keep it up!

My insurance agent sends us $1 on our birthdays. It's a silly tradition, especially since I know it's pure marketing (which pretty much totally works on me), but I was very surprised that Pickle recognized it immediately. She's two and a half and doesn't get an allowance, and doesn't even really go shopping with us all that often, but as soon as she saw it, she said "Money for Mommy!" I hope she's picking up things like "saving money" by osmosis as well.

Monday, April 13, 2015

New (to us) Car Update!

All I can think about is my new (to me) SUV....I dream about it. I can't wait.

Except I am going to wait. For about a year.

Peanut started searching for the vehicle that's going to make me sing aloud when I drive it, and we discovered a couple of things. First, we have no idea what our car is worth - cars in similar condition but with much higher mileage are selling on Craigslist for way more than what KBB values our car. Second, SUVs are more expensive than comparable sedans (in terms of model year, mileage, condition). The only way for us to get an SUV that wouldn't be a step down would be to either deplete our cash savings or skip retirement contributions next year or take out a loan. We aren't comfortable with any of those options, especially since this is very much a WANT situation and not a NEED situation (the Mazda runs fine, after all) so we decided to try to save up enough money to max out Roth IRAs ($11,000) and pay cash for an SUV ($12,000) by a year from now.

Can we save $23,000 in 12 months?

Well, we managed to save $20,000 last year, roughly - helped out by our newest little tax deduction and a property tax refund and some other unexpected income - so we think we can do it again this year. Our savings for the last few years has been amorphous - retirement, emergency fund, just saving to save. We haven't had a tangible goal for a while, and I'm excited about that. It's much easier for me to make frugal choices when I can make the argument, "Hmmm, I can spend $8 on takeout right now...or I can put $8 towards MY NEW CAR." I only have to make that choice 1,500 times to save $12,000.

We don't have a lot of wiggle room as it is - we already are pretty frugal when it comes to daily living expenses and we won't be cutting out things like our big annual trip to visit my family. But we'll continue squeezing where we can, and also redirect all unexpected income (hello, birthday money!) towards this goal, and I think we can get there. I should put a counter up on the sidebar to keep track of this - maybe it will even help us get there early!




Sunday, April 5, 2015

Meal Plan and Plan for the Week

Sunday - creamy cheesy chicken enchiladas
Monday - chicken wild rice soup (from the freezer, brought over by my MIL when Baby Bear was born)
Tuesday - crockpot veggie chili (from the freezer - the other two batches were bad, so if this one is too, then frozen pizza)
Wednesday - BLTs and spaghetti squash
Thursday - pasta with sausage and peppers
Friday - mexican quinoa

I'm also making pumpkin nut bread and vegan sweet potato cinnamon rolls this week. Recipes can be found on my Pinterest board!

It's kind of a boring week foodwise, but we've got a lot going on. April is turning out to be a very busy month, with multiple appointments between the two kids every week. I also have something of a social life for the first time in a long, long time! And it's my birthday month, which means I will be cashing in some birthday rewards, which is always fun.

I've been working my way through a 30 days of yoga series on YouTube, as a way to ease back into being a little more active. It's challenging, physically and metaphysically. Each 30 minute practice usually takes me an hour and a half or so to complete, between all the diaper changes, boo-boo kisses, rocking to sleep, and "help" that I get during each one. I feel better in many ways at the end of it, though, and it is after all a practice, not a perfect. It'll probably take me two months to complete all 30 sessions, but that's okay - at least I'm trying.



Friday, March 27, 2015

Thinking about a new (to us) car...

We have a perfectly fine sedan. We bought it four years ago from the previous/only owner, who'd kept it in good shape. It runs well and has given us no problems. We just got new tires for it. When we bought it, we planned to run it into the ground and possibly hand it off to our children, who at that time were purely hypothetical.

And yet.

Every time I get in the car, I curse it. I've got two kids in car seats and neither of them can do anything to help me get in them. Bending over, lifting them in and out, and buckling them in just sucks. When I'm standing six inches higher on the curb thanks to the snowpack, it sucks even more.

I'd mentioned several times to Peanut how much I was hating the car because of this and how I would really love to have something that's higher off the ground so I wouldn't be killing my back every time I go anywhere, but by the time we get a different car I won't be dealing with car seats anymore. And then he boggled my mind by suggesting that, well, we could just get a different car now.

Ha! Don't laugh, guys, but it seriously hadn't occurred to me that it could be a real option. That's just what I do with cars; I'm their last owner. My first car was scrapped, my second car was donated (and probably scrapped). I assumed that the same would happen to this, my third car. But now I'm thinking of the possibilities....I could have a higher car! For reals! Just entertaining the idea makes me feel like a freaking grown-up.

We're still in the mostly dreaming stage at this point. We've tossed around the idea of getting a car loan at a low interest rate and investing the cash we would spend on it in the stock market, but after looking into the math it's obvious why everyone doesn't do this - it doesn't work (or, it might work, but it's too risky to make up for the guaranteed interest payments over a short term). We've also thought about buying a car from a non-snow state (to avoid existing rust damage) and having Peanut just fly down there and drive it back. Or I guess we could trade it into a dealership (another thing I never, ever thought I would do) and pay a small cash difference. My preference is to buy from a private seller and then sell our current car privately as well, but my time is awfully constricted right now, so looking on Craigslist and setting up test drives and all that just seems impossible. (I'm still not able to manage cleaning both my hair and my body in the same day. I take five minute showers when I can and wash my hair in the kitchen sink while one of the kids is napping. Ah, young motherhood.)

At any rate, it seems like in these discussions we're moving from "should we buy a different car now?" to "we should buy a different car now, how should we do it?" It feels really surreal, and exciting in that new (to me) car way, but also weird because it's so against the way I've thought about my life up to this point. Obviously the cheapest car you can own is the one you already own generally speaking, but there are times in your life when it's not just about the fewest dollars out the door and more about realizing, yes, but this is the life I'm living now so let's pony up and do what needs to be done to get a good standard of living for ourselves. I don't think badly of my friends when they get a different car (unless they are really stupid and drive a brand new next-year's model off the lot with no money down), so why is it weird for me to get a different car because the old one isn't meeting my needs as well as it used to?

Lots to think about. What would you do?


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

This week's meal plan and a new approach to cooking

Sunday - homemade mac & cheese, asparagus
Monday - red lentil thai chili
Tuesday - broccoli cheese soup
Wednesday - crockpot lasagna
Thursday - salsa chicken
Friday - tortilla soup
Saturday - chicken tikka masala

I've been so busy I can hardly keep my head on straight. Pickle has weekly therapy sessions again, and with the warmer weather we've been doing things like library storytime as well. It's a lot more complicated to get two kids out of the house and inevitably there's an unexpected last minute diaper change or nursing session that gets in the way. I go to bed utterly exhausted, even though Baby Bear is only waking up once or twice to eat at night now. It does make the days go by quickly, but I will be glad for a little breathing room.

One of the reasons I want some more calm time in my life is for my new project: cooking through my cookbooks. I have an entire cabinet of cookbooks, many from my days in publishing, and after the last time a Pinterest recipe failed me, I decided to stop finding recipes online and start looking through my printed books. They have the benefit of test cooks, after all! So I'm going through my cookbooks one by one and marking all recipes that I'd like to try. If we like it, it gets copied into my own personal recipe file and once I've tried all the recipes that look good to me in a given cookbook, that book will get sold or donated and out of my life. So - we're trying better recipes AND I'm freeing up space in my kitchen for something else. Yay!

So far, most of the recipes have been keepers, and the ones that haven't been great haven't been as bad as the ones I've found online. We're still eating a lot of Costco prepared soup and frozen pizzas, but I feel like I'm bouncing back to "on top of things" a lot faster after the second kid than I did with the first.

Cleaning, on the other hand.....

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Preparation Fail

During my third trimester I got bit by the nesting bug as many pregnant women do. On the one hand, it was great - there are parts of my house that got cleaned that will probably never be cleaned again!

On the other hand, I had some pretty big frugality fails. I made a number of freezer-to-crockpot meals and baked goods that just....weren't good. It was a combination of factors: with the baked goods, I double-bagged them before freezing but one loaf still got nasty freezer burn after both bags somehow ripped. And the crockpot meals were pretty unilaterally awful. I only used recipes that I had previously made in the crockpot, but the freezing part of it just didn't work. I had made nine meals plus the components of three more, and so far three of them were completely inedible (the taste was so bad I think we would have actually gotten sick from eating them), two of them were just okay, three more were not as good as fresh, and the remaining three are hiding out in the deep freeze, most likely to be abandoned as lost causes.

UGH.

What a waste of time and money. I remember feeling so accomplished about getting those bags frozen and put away, standing on my huge pregnant feet for so long, but knowing that my future self would be appreciative. Instead, my future self was disappointed and kind of grossed out.

I am done with freezer cooking, that's for sure. The only thing I've ever successfully done was breakfast burritos and I've tried enough recipes enough times that I think I'm good with giving up. C'est la vie - but at least we'll be eating better from now on. :/

Saving a dollar vs. getting a dollar

We needed a few things from the store the other day - milk and a couple other non-grocery things - so we decided to head to Target, all four of us. Where we are, the milk at Target is a bit more expensive than the milk at the grocery store - and it's also more expensive than the milk at the gas station a few blocks from our house. We buy two gallons at a time and the savings of getting it somewhere other than Target is about $1.

We had to pass the gas station and the grocery store in order to get to Target. We debated the value of convenience - was it worth a dollar to make an extra stop for one of us to run in and get cheaper milk? It certainly isn't worth it at the grocery store - the milk is as far from the front door as it can get, and the lines on the weekends are long. And the person in the car with the kids would probably have to drive in circles in the parking lot to avoid wailing from the backseat. The gas station would probably have been less than a two minute interaction to save that dollar - and two minutes to save $1 is equivalent to earning more than $30 per hour, so that seems like it makes it very worth it.

For some reason the extra stop to save just $1 was a stumbling block in my mind. We'd be walking right by the milk at Target anyway, surely that convenience was worth $1.

But then I switched the question up in my head - would I stop at the gas station if I would actually be handed a dollar with the milk? In the end, it winds up being the exact same exchange, but the idea of stopping to GET a dollar instead of to SAVE a dollar made it a whole lot more palatable to me. I'm going to try to do this kind of thinking in other areas where it could potentially save me money - to think of exchanging convenience as GETTING money (a la working) instead of SAVING money (a la boring).

[In the end, it turns out that Target's milk prices have dropped since I last updated my price book, and now milk costs the same at all three places. I was a little disappointed at not "getting" my dollar, even though I ended up spending the least amount I could on milk AND saved two minutes.]

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Defining luxury

I really liked the recent New York Times Motherlode blog post, A Stay-at-Home Parent is Not a 'Luxury'. I have sometimes been irritated when I've been told this about our life, but haven't been able to put into words exactly why it bothers me, and the author does a pretty good job summing it up.

To some extent, of course, my staying home IS a luxury - there are many families where two incomes are required simply to provide for basic needs. But in comparison to most middle class families, it's simply a matter of priorities. We don't go on nice vacations. We don't have game systems or cable. Our kids don't do things like music or tumbling classes or immersion preschools. Why are those things not considered luxuries?

My staying home means less income, and it also means less spending on things that are just for fun. We live comfortably, for sure, but I don't feel as free to spend (especially on myself) as I did when we had two incomes, and we weigh our large purchases a lot more carefully than we did in the past. If my staying home is a luxury, it's because we gave up other luxuries that are more often considered necessities - cable and takeout and enrichment classes and weekends away. It's all relative.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Women's Money Week 2015: FMLA pays how much?!

It comes as a pretty rude surprise to a lot of people that even if they qualify for FMLA, it's not what they think it is.

FMLA itself is unpaid. Meaning, no paychecks. Meaning, no retirement contributions and no PTO accruing. Meaning also, your employer is not required to pay your non-salary benefits. If they provide health insurance, for example, they are required to keep up the policy but they are not required to pay for it. So, you might get a bill for your portion of the premiums during the twelve weeks that you are also not earning any money. Yes, this is legal. (Most employers simply deduct the amount owed from your paychecks after you return to work - but if  you don't return, you might have to write them a check!).

FMLA is a maximum twelve weeks of leave, which sounds like three months - but if you look at a calendar, it winds up being quite a bit less than three months, at least in the life of a baby. It also means that you're going back to work right around the time your baby stops being a potato and starts being a real person with smiles and coos and everything. During that twelve weeks, you have to recover from giving birth, figure out how to function on the least amount of sleep you've ever gotten in your life, "get your body back" (grrrr), learn how to take care of a baby, and find a daycare, if you weren't ahead of the game and taking care of that while you were still pregnant. And all those late third-trimester nesting urges are well and truly gone, so just forget about organizing the guest room closet and finishing your novel while you're off work.

Sometimes, women get disability pay while they are on maternity leave, but this is an insurance policy, not anything to do with their actual pay from their employer. Disability often works like this: you get 60% of your salary for six weeks (vaginal birth) or eight weeks (c-section), but for the first week of your leave you have to use vacation days or unpaid leave (so you really are getting only five or seven weeks of 60% of your paycheck). Also, that disability pay is taxable - but they won't withhold the taxes on it, so you'll have to pay them at tax time the next year. Luckily your precious new tax deduction will probably even things out, but it still makes doing your taxes kind of a headache, and is not the kind of thing you remember when you are sleep deprived.

Regardless, you've got about two and a half months where you're either getting nothing or about half of what you used to get coming in. How do you manage financially?

In our case, we had already been basing our living expenses off of Peanut's income, and using mine to supplement things like retirement and emergency savings. Dropping down to actually living on one income was scary but showed us that we could in fact manage with me not working if it came down to it (as it ultimately did).

This is my best suggestion for family planning: if you are a two-income household, learn to live on one income (ideally the lowest, but realistically whomever's is least likely to disappear). Use that second income to pay off all consumer debt and build up an emergency fund. Being prepared to lose that second income (even temporarily) makes it a lot less painful.

Another tip: keep an eye on your bank account while you're on leave! Someone in HR forgot to notify payroll that I was on unpaid leave, so I kept getting paid - and it took several weeks for me to notice it. I let them know and had to repay it, and they had to send corrected information to the IRS and my retirement account holder, and ultimately it was fine but something I really didn't need to be dealing with.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Women's Money Week 2015: Not Qualifying for FMLA

It might be Women's Money Week, but paternity leave affects women too. FMLA covers family leave for men AND women, but few men take full advantage of it, even when they qualify. There's a lot to be said about the sexism exposed by punishing employees who take all the leave they are qualified to take when they have a child (or are caring for a sick spouse, or other things that FMLA covers), but that's not something I'm taking on today.

Today I'm going to talk about what happens if you aren't covered by FMLA.

Peanut's employer is very small - there have been about a dozen employees during the four years he's been there. Their size means they aren't required to offer FMLA to their employees - so basically, Peanut was legally out of luck when it came to job-protected leave when our children were born.

Luckily, the fact that it's a small, close-knit company has some other benefits. In his case, employees are trusted regarding their PTO - there's no formal record keeping involved for vacation or sick days, and the owner of the company trusts his employees to be at work when they can be. Peanut wanted to be at home for a little while when both of our children were born, and he was able to do that without it counting against his regular days off. With Pickle, I seem to remember that he was home for two full weeks and then took a day off each week for the next eight weeks to help me take her and her 25 pounds of medical equipment to our various appointments. With Baby Bear, he took a few days off right at birth (two maybe?) and then stayed home for two weeks (which happened to fall during the holidays), and has also taken a few random days off here and there to help me out since then.

We're lucky that this small company is family-friendly and that he was able to take this time without repercussion or even using up vacation days. There aren't a lot of families among his coworkers yet, so I like to think that we are blazing a trail of expectations regarding a man's time off at the birth of his child as well. Peanut had an honest conversation with his boss about what would work best for our family, and that has served everyone well in our situation. If your employer doesn't offer FMLA, try asking for leave anyway - they may not be legally required to provide it, but they might be willing to do so anyway.

If you're the parent giving birth, you really do need to take some time off. Even a vaginal birth requires recovery time, and if you breastfeed, you'll be unbelievably sleep deprived for at least four weeks, more likely six. And if you're the parent who didn't give birth, you should still take some time off if you can. Caring for an infant is mindnumbing work, but there are also beautiful moments of building a family during this time, and I'm glad that Peanut was able to be there for it.

(Now, that said, I will be honest: two weeks was the right amount of time for both of us to be home full time. Beyond that, people start getting stir-crazy and irritating to each other. Even when they love each other dearly.)

Next up: FMLA is unpaid - how does that work?!



Monday, March 2, 2015

Women's Money Week 2015: My Parental Leave

Welcome to Women's Money Week 2015! This year's topic is Parental Leave, which is something I have some strong opinions on.

I was working when I became pregnant with my first child. We tried to time the pregnancy so that I would qualify for FMLA leave, and we planned for me to go back to work. As a quick refresher, FMLA provides 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for qualifying employees (you have to be employed full-time at your job for at least one year, and there are other criteria which you can find here - as you can see, it's very easy not to qualify for leave). My employer was required to offer FMLA leave, and I did qualify once I'd been there for a year. There is no additional state mandated leave where I live. I also had a disability policy that provided 60% of my salary for 6-8 weeks following giving birth.

Pickle was born unexpectedly 25 weeks into my pregnancy - 15 weeks before her due date. If you do the math on that, you can see that I didn't even have enough maternity leave to make it to what should have been her birthday before I had to go back to work. I had to take some leave right after she was born - I was recovering from a c-section and had a baby in the hospital, after all, and the disability benefit only applies immediately following birth. So I opted to take the maximum time off that I could to get the most disability pay, which was eight weeks. Leaving me with just four weeks banked to take when my daughter eventually came home from the hospital - not just a newborn, but a medically fragile newborn with multiple doctor's appointments each week. Not only will most daycares not take infants under six weeks of age, but we didn't think we could find one that could handle a baby on oxygen and a feeding tube - AND we were under strict orders from her pulmonologist to keep her away from other kids for a year anyway. We couldn't afford a nanny.

I quickly realized that this was impossible. So I tried to quit my job.

My wonderful employer offered me something that I didn't even think to ask for - six additional months of unpaid leave, beginning whenever Pickle came home from the hospital. Six months seemed like enough time to get her health stabilized, get us through cold and flu season, and get used to having a baby around.

As it turns out, Pickle's health did not improve enough for me to go back to work when that six months was up. She had surgery the week before I was supposed to go back to work, and her day to day care still requires more skill than I am comfortable handing off to someone who's not as invested as her parent is. I was very sad to give notice at my job, especially given their generosity to me. They didn't have to keep my job on ice for as long as they did, and it probably created some big headaches for them. It's the kind of thing that doesn't happen very often in America, I suspect, where mostly we hear about people being unfairly denied leave, or not having the criteria thoroughly explained to them in order to make informed decisions about their family planning. I felt valued by my employer, and when I'm ready to go back to work, they'll be among my first inquiries - and you can probably guess how loyal I'll feel to them if I were to work for them again.

Up next, something else that happened in our family: what if you don't qualify for FMLA?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

This Week's Meal Plan and a Round-Up

This week's meal plan:

Sunday - baked potato pancakes, sweet chili glazed salmon
Monday - Mexican quinoa
Tuesday - slow cooker lasagna from The Can't Cook Book
Wednesday - Chicken tortilla soup (Costco!)
Thursday - Minstrone soup (Costco!), Red Lobster cheddar biscuits
Friday - BLTs

Check out my pinterest board Sous Chef for links to the recipes.

Financial Round-Up

* We filed our taxes today. We're getting a hefty refund back - it looks like Peanut's withholding never changed after Pickle's birth even though he's pretty sure he filed the paperwork. And now with our second little tax deduction, well - we're getting a big deposit pretty soon from both federal and state. We'll use it to fully fund Roth IRAs for us both, and make sure the paperwork gets filed this time.

* We're pretty sure the error was at Peanut's company because they also messed up his Simple IRA pretty bad this year - the payroll company took the money out of his paycheck but didn't deposit it into his IRA more often than not. His boss caught the error and it has been corrected, but now we actually have to check each month that his contribution has been made.

* We also get a property tax refund separate from income taxes. I wish there was a way that we could keep this money in our accounts rather than giving an interest-free loan to the state, but it looks like that's not possible.

* We bought a new washing machine a few weeks ago and have had to have three service calls on it already. A part was bad when it was installed, and since that part was replaced, about half the loads get unbalanced and create an unholy racket throughout the house. I'm waiting to hear from the main office of the store we bought it from tomorrow - I'm hoping they will just replace it instead of setting up another repair call. I think it's a lemon.

* I got a Target Red Card a few months ago to save 5% on all our diapers (cloth diapering is sort of a pipe dream right now). Their online interface is the worst I've ever seen, and the amounts of the purchases don't match what I put into my spreadsheet. I'm going to start saving all my receipts and ask their customer service if they can print off old versions of the receipts that don't match. Something's fishy and it's driving me nuts. Is it worth it to save 5%? I'm not sure.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

The financial implications of a third child

I have zero business thinking about having a third child at this point in my life, but you wouldn't believe how soon people started asking me if we were done or not. (Let's put it this way: I hadn't left the hospital yet.)

It's easy to be all, ha, ha, whatever about it, but I came to the startling realization that the jump from one kid to two kids is VASTLY different from the jump from two to three, at least in terms of finances.

Bigger house
Our three-bedroom could technically house more kids without complaining too much, but not for long, I don't think. The bedrooms are small and not conducive for sharing between more than two kids, and I don't like the idea of being on a different floor from tiny children. Also: one bathroom. (Okay, 1.5 - still one bathtub/shower.) As it is, the four of us sleep in four different rooms in order to maximize the amount of sleep everyone is getting, and I don't know how that would work with a fifth person. Who'd be sleeping in the kitchen?

Bigger car
Non-negotiable, we'd need to buy a larger car. Ours can fit two car seats safely but not three, and not two car seats and a person in the backseat. And Peanut's Jeep - well, there will be no kids riding in that thing until they're old enough to drive it. Minivan city. (Plus higher gas prices...would insurance be lower or higher on a mom-mobile?)

Replacing instead of reusing
Baby Bear is currently using Pickle's old bucket seat, but this hypothetical third child might need his or her own new car seats due to the expiration dates on the plastic parts. I have bought three car seats already; it pains me to think of buying more. (We have a portable infant seat and two convertibles - because we already know that Pickle will still be small enough to need one by the time Baby Bear outgrows the bucket.)

Insurance
When updating our beneficiaries, I thought about whether we needed to up our life insurance policies as well, but figured that they are generous enough to be split between two kids in the unlikely event that something happened to both Peanut and I. (Pickle may disagree if it ever occurs to her that she would have been the sole recipient until just a few weeks ago....). But add a third kid to the mix and we'd definitely need to rethink that.

College tuition, weddings, etc.
I can't even bear to think of it.

While we wouldn't make the decision to have another child based on finances alone, the question "can we afford it?" would have to be very carefully looked at. I don't think it's something we even thought about when we decided to have a second.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

That Good Old HDHP

We've had a high deductible health plan since 2012, but in a way this is the first year that we're really experiencing what it's like. Since Pickle was born, she has been classified as disabled by the state, and receives medical assistance as a secondary insurance. They cover any bills that our primary insurance doesn't cover, which is only the deductible ($3,300) and 20% cost sharing up to an additional $3,300. Most years, we really only have her medical expenses, so we haven't had to spend much on medical care despite having a high deductible health plan. (I should also note that we pay no premiums, as those are covered entirely by Peanut's employer.)

This year, that's different - Baby Bear and I have both had doctor visits, and I had a lovely trip to urgent care for food poisoning and mastitis last week. We'll have to pay for all of that out of pocket - I remember being kind of slumped against the check-in desk wondering rather bitterly what this fantastic evening was going to cost me. It was an inane thing to be thinking about, because a) I really, really needed antibiotics and b) it'll all even out in the long run - I essentially got two pregnancies and deliveries for free, so it's probably time I started paying some bills!

It's going to hurt opening those bills when they show up, but I'm trying to remind myself that this plan is actually a good thing - we already know the maximum amount that our out-of-pocket medical expenses can be for the year and I know that they will actually be less than that (since Pickle has had an appointment as well, and has more scheduled for the early part of the year, and those will be covered by MA but will count towards our deductible and out of pocket). It's nice that it's a known entity, so that we can save up in anticipation (and use a health savings plan to get some tax savings on that money as well). In the grand scheme of things, $6,600 a year for the excellent level of medical care we've received is an absolute bargain.




Tuesday, February 17, 2015

This week's meal plan

I'm trying to get back on the meal planning wagon. I fell off of it with aplomb after Baby Bear made his appearance, but I've been getting back into the swing of things, and there's nothing like accountability to help keep me on track.

Here's what we're eating this week:

Sunday - Mac & cheese, steamed broccoli
Monday - Mexican quinoa
Tuesday - crockpot chicken pot pie soup and biscuits
Wednesday - salmon and baked potatoes
Thursday - crockpot salsa chicken, rice & beans
Friday - BLTs
Saturday - fried rice


Friday, February 13, 2015

Have baby, fall off radar

Random updates from my neck of the woods and random stuff that I've been reading online and off:

* Two growing babies. Two kids is a lot of work, y'all. I can't wait until things have settled down a little bit. I feel like my to-do list is groundhog's day - everything that I accomplish has to be repeated in an hour (change diaper, wash dishes, feed baby, repeat!). But everyone's happy and generally healthy and that's wonderful. 

* What postpartum moms really need: SUPPORT and UNDERSTANDING. It is insane that we think someone should have her body back within six weeks. It is insane that we think she should have her body back in six MONTHS, given that it was ravaged by pregnancy for close to ten months. It's crazy that we think women should be able to do it all in the months after giving birth, and then provide them next to no support to do it. My mom said she noticed that while pregnant, people would hold doors, carry groceries, and do anything else they could for her - but would let the door slam shut in her face once she was holding the infant in her arms instead of in her belly. I found it to be true as well. What a weird society we live in. 

* The IRS recently concluded that breastfeeding supplies are deductible as medical expenses! This applies to things like breast pumps not covered by insurance, pump parts, milk storage bags and the like (I hope lanolin is included, because that stuff is expensive!). They can be included in expenses submitted for reimbursement under FSAs or HSAs or deducted directly off of taxes if more than 7.5% of the taxpayer's income goes to medical expenses. Great news!

* Holy cow, I love this post so much. First of all, the use of the word "perspectacles", which I am totally stealing for every day use. But second, what happens when the author takes a look at her "outdated" kitchen using her perspectacles, and the amazing things she sees. I'm trying to use it as a reminder for so many of the things in my life that don't look like they came out of a magazine. Which is, well, everything, but especially lately our well-loved-and-lived-on couch - I see the spit-up stains and the ink marks and cringe, but I'm trying to remember not only that I have a super comfortable couch that's big enough to house a bunch of people, but each stain on it is a memory of something from someone I love - the worn mark on the arm is from the hundreds of pizzas Peanut made next to it in our New York apartment, this pen mark is from my miracle toddler, those claw marks from my cat, that spit up bubble from my son. It's not fancy - it's even ugly - but it tells a story. I'll try to focus on the story until a time when it makes sense to replace the couch. (Which will be well after my kids stop puking and drawing on random surfaces, sigh.)

* Just discovered the store Tuesday Morning. I got some really cute gifts for upcoming preschooler birthdays for super cheap. I didn't have a chance to look at what else they had, but I'll go back. It's kind of like the non-clothing departments of a very curated Marshalls or TJ Maxx, I guess, with a little bit of World Market thrown in. 

* It's Feeding Tube Awareness Week again. Feeding tubes are out there among us, be aware! I didn't have time to do a whole dedicated post about it this time, but Pickle is still 100% dependent on her g-tube so feeding tubes are still a very major part of my life. We're going to start some more intensive therapy with her to see if it helps things move along, since it seems that the medical reasons that required the tube are resolved and what we have left is simply a toddler who's never had to eat by mouth...so she doesn't. 

* Excellent parenting book: Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters. The cover alone describes how I feel during 90% of my day. 

* I should be sleeping. But I know the baby will wake up the minute I close my eyes...

Monday, February 2, 2015

Washing our dollars

It seems like it's one big thing each year with our house. The furnace, the basement - this time it's the washing machine. I had noticed a few loads over the last few weeks were still pretty soaked when I pulled them out, so I made sure I wasn't filling the washer too full. Then the next time it happened, I mentioned it to Peanut who took a look and determined that the drum isn't rotating consistently - sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't, and sometimes it does but not fast enough. He looked up some info online and took the washer apart to see if it was something that we could fix. After ruling out two inexpensive problems, he figured that it is most likely the clutch and brake assembly, which is a more expensive fix - and one that it is commonly recommended be skipped in favor of replacing that machine.

Eh, bummer. We probably could have had a repairman take a look at it to double check but with a toddler and a newborn, I do a load of laundry a day and three a day on weekends, so I didn't feel like we had the luxury of time to futz around with waiting on appointments. Also, the machine is an older one and not very water efficient. So we got a recommendation for an appliance supplier and went and picked out our new machine yesterday, and it will be installed tomorrow. We didn't buy a new dryer because our old one works just fine.

Our total cost was around $600 including delivery/installation and removal of the old machine. The new one is a high efficiency machine that can be programmed to do multiple steps (soak, wash, extra rinse) which saves me running up and down stairs with a toddler trying to follow me. We skipped the version that can sync to our smartphones, because, um, who needs that?

As we discussed what we wanted to do about replacing the washer, it occurred to me that our discussion was quite a bit larger than just the machine itself. Since appliances are generally sold with the house, but not incorporated into the sale price, it made sense to consider how much longer we plan to live in this house. (We've been here three years.) If we're planning on staying for a long, long time, it makes sense to splurge on a machine that I'll get a lot of use out of. But if we were planning to sell in a year or so, it might make more sense to buy a more basic model (and possibly a matching dryer, too, as potential buyers might be weirded out by a fancy washer/boring dryer combo).

Now, we have no intention of moving anytime soon, and as long as we are a family of four we should fit nicely into this house for a long time. Still, it made sense that the possibility of moving should influence our decision. I'd say the model we got is mid-range - it's programmable and high efficiency and quite a bit fancier than what I currently have, but definitely not close to the most expensive option in the store. I think I'll get plenty of good use out of this machine, and while it's not a purchase I wanted to make this weekend, I'm once again glad for our savings, which meant that this isn't more than a speed bump in my week (although I am NOT looking forward to catching up on four days worth of laundry tomorrow!).

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

2014 Spending Recap

Previous Years: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013


2014 2013 Percent change
alcohol $0.00 $20.00 100%
baby $0.00 $1,034.70 100%
blog $37.62 $40.13 6%
business $64.48 $72.55 11%
car jeep $662.58 $1,975.94 66%
car mazda $3,065.02 $2,289.22 -34%
cat $344.20 $483.94 28%
Cell phones $1,345.62 $1,229.93 -9%
charity $150.00 $167.00 10%
clothing $1,137.07 $387.92 -193%
dental $1,188.15 $1,892.95 37%
electric $1,392.48 $966.52 -44%
electronics $468.37 $297.73 -57%
Entertainment $929.21 $509.33 -82%
food - groceries $5,273.68 $3,413.48 -54%
food - other $2,719.13 $2,881.59 5%
gardening $21.95 $50.91 57%
gas $913.73 $787.37 -16%
gifts $527.63 $580.99 9%
Helicopter/Robot $189.35 $473.36 60%
house $16,761.92 $23,248.78 28%
household $2,893.55 $1,235.06 -134%
Hygiene $380.30 $367.02 -4%
insurance $560.00 $560.00 0%
internet $906.84 $797.50 -14%
medical $254.20 $178.94 -42%
sewing/quilting $6.99 $107.73 93%
therapy $0.00 $204.80 100%
transportation $350.00 $350.00 0%
travel $1,627.26 $0.00 -100%
Water & Trash $1,047.04 $812.34 -29%
yoga $40.00 $160.00 75%
Grand Total $45,258.37 $47,577.73


We had around 1,100 transactions in 2014. This is not exactly accurate - in order to correctly categorize purchases, we have to break up some transactions into separate line items. So a single trip to Costco for toilet paper, food items, and socks winds up getting three lines in the spreadsheet: one for household, one for groceries and one for clothing. Nonetheless, it's interesting thing to think about how often we make decisions that involve money coming in or coming out. 

It's interesting to see where the biggest spending differences are - we spent less on hobbies but a lot more on clothes (thanks, pregnancy), exactly the same on bus fare and insurance, more on groceries and nothing on therapy or alcohol. Now that we've paid off all debt but the mortgage, we're focused on putting away money for retirement and saving money on everyday spending where we can. We live a comfortable life as a family of four on one income, thanks to the groundwork we set years ago. For the first time, though, it seems like our financial picture isn't going to change dramatically for a long time.