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.


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.