Sunday, December 18, 2016

BANG!

We recently were in a minor car accident. The kids were in the car but we are all fine. We hit some black ice approaching an intersection and slid through it into a car that was turning left in front of us, which then hit a third car. It was slow enough that there were no injuries, but it was kind of scary - I had never been in that kind of an accident before, and while that part of me was quietly freaking out, the rest of me had to stay calm for the kids and make sure that they were okay and staying warm (it was -14 degrees out, but we couldn't leave the car running in case of exhaust leaks).

At any rate, this accident came less than a week after we paid almost $600 to have the wheels aligned and a bearing replaced after we hit a curb on a different patch of ice in the last snowstorm.

In other words, this winter has been expensive for us! It's also an anomaly, because in a combined 38 years of driving, neither of us have ever had any kind of winter driving situation requiring car repairs.

Luckily, we do have insurance which should cover the repairs and also a rental car if we need it. Our deductible is only $500 although I guess our premiums will probably go up a bit. We might raise the deductible to $1,000 if we can (I think our lender might require a lower deductible, because typically we always set higher deductibles). We may not need the rental car because we've been intentional about reducing our need for a car - Peanut walks the kids to preschool and I take the bus, so really we only need a car for visiting family in the 'burbs and grocery shopping.

As always, I'm thankful for the situation we're in that mean that something like this is unfortunate but not a disaster. It'll be an expensive month but our savings can cover it, and most important, no one was hurt. The kids are asking a lot of questions about what happened (and it might be a while before they want to watch Cars again!) but we're all okay.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

I'm practicing right now!

Are you an expert computer user? If you're reading this post, likely you are in the top 5% of computer users in the world.

 I was surprised by that article, but perhaps I shouldn't be. It's said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, and I use a computer in some form probably 90% of my waking hours and have done so for, hm, between 15-18 years? I've definitely got my practice in.

The interesting lesson to take away from this is that expert experts are the ones designing software and writing code, and they literally cannot see things from the most elementary users' point of view. They can't un-know what they know, or lose the understanding or assumptions they have about how software works.

I think actually this goes a long way towards explaining my frustration when dealing with a digital tool that is badly designed - the coders didn't even stop to think whether the end user would have different assumptions than they do.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Amazon Go (Away)

So Amazon is opening a new store where you don't have to pay for anything; you just go in, pick up what you want, and leave, and your purchases are automatically charged to your Amazon account via an app on your phone.

I think this is a terrible idea. I have documented previously why I am anti-Amazon, but I would think this was a bad idea no matter who came up with it.

First, the system relies on extensive surveillance, more than I am comfortable with experiencing in a public place. A series of cameras and microphones as well as tracking software is needed to make this experience seamless for the end user, but surveillance technology is still not perfect, and I see this system as rife for abuse. (Good information about that technology here, but be warned that video and audio autoplay when you load the page*.)

Second, all of this technology replaces real, actual jobs that could be employing human beings. And at least in the beginning, that technology is going to be more expensive than humans, so there will not be any real savings to pass along to the consumer. I expect that Amazon will operate as it has before and take a loss on products to establish itself, then take a monopolistic approach to its vendors, forcing them to operate on its terms.

Third, and most important from a personal finance point of view, is that removing the barrier of paying means removing the psychological understanding of what has transpired in the transaction. We already know that paying with a credit card causes us to buy more than when we spend cold, hard cash. What will happen when it doesn't feel like we're paying anything at all? I presume the app would allow you to see your total as you shop, but the video makes it look like you don't need  to think about what you're spending at all, and that's dangerous territory.


*Which was a good incentive for me to install a browser extension that blocks that from happening. It worked so nicely that I'll be installing one on all the browsers on all the computers that I use regularly.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Book Review: Essentialism

Essentialism is, well, an essential little book. It could be summed up as "less, but better". I liken it to The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying-Up for its inspiring but still very implementable message.

Author Greg McKeown offers insight and advice on how to change your entire mindset from scarcity and FOMO to determining what is essential for you and ruthlessly (but politely) carving out that which is not. Most of us, I think, are aware of when we are getting stretched too thin, and we can even identify the causes - bosses who pile on the work, friends and family whose feelings matter to us, an expansive desire to have it all. But we don't know how to deal with being pulled in all of these different directions in a way that allows us to keep our jobs, our relationships, and our contentment intact.

Essentialism answers those difficult questions and more. As a rallying cry, as a practical manual, as a manifesto, a call to action, and a muse, this one is highly recommended.

I got my copy from the library, but am keeping an eye out for a copy to own as well. Support your local library, indie bookseller, or brick-and-mortar bookstore!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

About those consignment sales...

When Pickle was born and people starting giving us bags and boxes of baby clothes, I just did not understand it. That stuff was WORTH SOMETHING. And they were just...giving it away! I cleaned, used, and then sold most of it at kids' consignment sales, after passing on the favorites to the other little babies in our family. I just could not wrap my mind around the fact that people would give away such great stuff with abandon.

I get it now.

Currently, I am staring at three boxes, three grocery bags, and a small pile of things too big to fit in those containers. That doesn't include the high chair and tiny potty on the kitchen floor or the two ride-on toys, the two baby strollers, the infant clamshell car seat, and the exersaucer thing in the basement. Nor yet all the rest of the toys and clothes that are scattered around my house, not being played with or worn or otherwise useful to anyone on the planet. Not only will I donate this to the next expecting parent, I come across, I would gleefully PAY someone to take it all out of my life.

That's how much kids' stuff multiplies as the kids get older and more numerous in a given household.

Last year, the consignment sales still seemed like a good use of my time but I just can't anymore. The time it takes to clean, repair, hang, catalog, price, tag, load, unload, inspect, and wait for payment on the stuff is just too much. My hourly rate at work is too high to justify taking time off to manage it, and my time not at work, I'd rather spend with my kids than trying to make money off of their used stuff.

This grates at me a little bit. I like to find efficient ways to use my time and effort, and giving away valuable stuff doesn't seem efficient (it is, of course, when compared with the frustration I experience during the course of doing all that stuff, but it's not efficient from a dollars-in perspective). I'm trying to look at it as paying forward all the generosity that was displayed towards us, which helps. I remember the delight I experienced going through a giant trash bag of adorable baby girls' clothing, and hope that someone will feel the same looking at Baby Bear's cute little newborn pajamas. I will try not to think about the $79.08 (or $1.21 hourly rate) I might have otherwise earned. And most of all, I will luxuriate in having no piles of baby crap anywhere in my vision for at least three or four hours.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Too Bad, Toys R Us

I get that the competition is fierce out there in Black Friday world. I really do; I run an e-commerce site as part of my job and make decisions about policies, promotions, and discounts on a daily basis. But one thing that I focus on both personally and professionally is customer experience, and Toys R Us just gave me a bad one.

Baby Bear's birthday is coming up, as is Christmas (in case you hadn't noticed?) so my mother-in-law and I went to Toys R Us to pick up some presents today. I checked the Toys R Us website before we headed out to make sure that the specific item I wanted was in stock there, and happily noticed that it was both in stock and on sale. I checked the website's price match policy to make sure that the online price would be honored in store, and saw that it was. We got there, picked up what I wanted as well as a cart full of other presents, and headed to the checkout.

At the register, the cashier confirmed that the store would match the listed price on their website. And he was able to do so for the first item he rang up. But the second item, the one I'd come for, he couldn't make the computer match it. So he called over a manager, who said that Toys R Us would not be price matching their own website this weekend, due to all the Black Friday sales. He said there was a sign near the front of the store that said so (which I never did see, though I looked for it when we left). I showed him the price matching policy on the Toys R Us website, which had no such disclaimer on it, but he shrugged and said there was nothing he could do.

Obviously, front-line retail employees have no ability to influence the corporate decisions that are made regarding things like this, and often no ability to force the computer to make an exception to a dumb rule that's been handed down. But come on, Toys R Us. It is not that difficult to update a page on your website when you make a major policy change like that, even when it's temporary. It's reasonable to expect that customers will look at your policy online while they are shopping in the store, rather than for a notice tacked to a random bulletin board near the door. Frankly, I think the policy change is a stupid one overall - if your P&L for a promotion only works if you force weird restrictions on it, plan a different promotion. The extra stupid thing is that if I had ordered and paid online but requested in-store pickup, the price would have been honored but the employees would have had to do even more work than if I went and got stuff off the shelves myself.

I kind of wish I'd thought of this option and bought the items through the website while I was standing at the cash register, but in the end we made a decision I feel even better about - I canceled the entire transaction and I bought the item I wanted from a different retailer. I don't do business with companies that create policies and promotions that don't have the customer experience first and foremost. The short-sighted decisions to temporarily invalidate the price matching policy AND to not appropriately notify customers of it wound up costing Toys R Us way more than the sale price of the item I was looking for - they lost today's entire sale and any future sales they might have made to me. Next time I need to buy a kids' present, guess where I won't be going?

And as a bonus to this story, when we got home and related this story to my siblings-in-law, we had a great discussion about consumerism in general and decided to scale back our overall gifting within the family. Now the little kids will get presents from Grandma and Grandpa (and Santa) but not aunts and uncles, which means that I don't even need to do any more shopping to replace the cart full of stuff that I didn't buy today. So...I won't even miss you, Toys R Us!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Black Friday Sale

We didn't go Black Friday shopping - or at least, we did go to some stores, but we didn't go in search of doorbuster deals or anything like that. We went in search of bread, milk, and grounded outlet covers - or, the kinds of things we might buy on any other day.

One Black Friday sale I DO recommend, though, is Plan to Eat's 50% off deal.

Simple Meal Planning - Plan to Eat

Plan to Eat is a meal planning and recipe collection website, which I started using last year when a friend posted a link to the 50% off Black Friday sale. I couldn't imagine paying for a service that I could do for free with Pinterest, Google Calendar and Google Keep - but she recommended it so strongly and is a frugal stay at home mom, so I figured it might be worth trying it out, especially given that the sale price winds up being only $1.62 per month. I figured I was wasting at least that much a month with failed menu planning.

And guess what - it IS worth it! Yes, you can gather recipes on Pinterest, plan meals on a Google calendar, and create a shopping list in Google Keep, all for free. But it's just not as convenient, easy, and - dare I say it - fun to use as Plan to Eat.

I put their "add to Plan to Eat" bookmark to my browser windows and voila - all those recipes I had previously been starring in my feed reader and adding to Pinterest boards suddenly wound up all in one place. I revised the standard shopping list to include those staples I prefer to have on hand. Weekly, I created a menu within Plan to Eat, which told me how often I'd made a given recipe and whose search tools quickly helped me organize recipes I'd been wanting to try. With one click, I could create a shopping list based on those recipes and the staples I currently needed. Bam! Menu planning to grocery shopping, done, in one step.

I'm not the one who does the meal planning in our house anymore, but I'm still going to renew my subscription to Plan to Eat, because I found it that helpful. I rarely pay for software tools when free ones exist to fill the same needs, but this is one that actually delivers.

(Disclosure: Links in this post are affiliate links, so if you sign up for Plan to Eat, I get a little something. However, this is not a sponsored post, and I really have been a happy Plan-to-Eater for the last year. )

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Five frugal things

1. Our dryer stopped working - it spun but had no heat. Peanut took the whole thing apart and identified a likely problem, ordered one part (even with next-day shipping, it was cheaper than buying it locally, sadly) and replaced it. That wasn't the problem, so he went on to the next small part, which he was able to get locally, and bingo! A $30 fix, and enough understanding of how our dryer works now that we might be able to keep it going forever. WAY better than a new $300 dryer!

2. We managed to be realistic about how many trick or treaters we'd have this year, and didn't overbuy candy to the extent that I have done in the past. I'll say it here for posterity: one bag is plenty. (There is a commercial district near here that does trick or treating, and maybe that's why we don't get many kids at our house - we had more than last year, but still under twenty, I'd say.)

3. I voted last week, at one of the early voting centers available in the state of Minnesota, where you don't need a reason to cast what is effectively an absentee ballot. I consider this frugal because I saved time (and time is money!). Also, if I'd had to wait in the lines today, I would have ended up eating my feelings in purchases snacks, so in a way, it saves me money too.

4. Working hard to bring my lunch every day - I usually get frozen lunches at the grocery store for about $2.50 each, or I take leftovers. Compared to $8-10 for a lunch downtown, it's not bad!

5. I control a large budget at work, and we are in budgeting season for next year. I am so thankful for the experience I have in being actively involved in managing my personal finances, because this would be a very difficult task if I didn't have that background. Pro-tip: take a personal finance class in college if you can; it actually might help you more than your general ed requirements!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Health insurance

When Peanut decided to stay home with the kids, we had to switch from his company's insurance to mine. It's been fine so far but it's really interesting to see the kinds of things we have to think about now that we didn't think about before.

Peanut's job paid for the entire premium for our health insurance. I have never seen that as a perk anywhere before, and it was awesome. It was a high deductible plan, but even so, the deductible wasn't that high (around $3,000) and the coinsurance/max out of pocket was an additional $3,000. Pretty much everything we ever threw at it was covered, and we didn't need to get referrals or anything. This is the insurance we were on when Pickle was born, and for the first couple years of her life we didn't have to pay that due to the state medical assistance she received. In all, that health insurance company paid out at least $1.5 million in claims for our family and we never had a single problem or issue with them at all.

So I was a little nervous about switching to a new health insurance company.

My job shares the premium payments with the employees, and both the deductibles and max out of pocket were higher than our old insurance. This is why at the end of the day, our take-home pay situation hasn't changed much even though my salary on paper is 14% higher than Peanut's was. On top of the increased actual cost to us, we also had to make decisions about primary care networks - one of which means we have to do a lot of legwork to get referrals documented appropriately but save $90 a month, or the other one that works more like the old plan worked where we just go to wherever we want for whatever care we need, but we pay for the privilege. If Pickle still had lots of specialists, we'd probably have to go with the latter, but we decided to take on the work ourselves of managing the paperwork and having slightly cheaper out of pocket expenses up front.

And it turns out, I'm really glad we went that route. We haven't needed and don't expect to need any referrals in the next three months, and it was just announced this week that in January my company is switching to yet another insurance company, which will have lower premiums and out of pocket expenses than we currently have. I don't know about their referral requirements yet, but I do know that we haven't spent any time to set up any primary care situations with our current insurance (at least not for Peanut or me) so we will have saved more than $300 to do nothing but take on a little risk.

Insurance was never something I thought a lot about, until we really needed a lot of it. We are so fortunate to have had such a good experience with an insurer (and a secondary state insurance) and it has drastically changed how I feel about that out of pocket amount now. I assume we'll spend it all in a year (4 out of the last 5 years, that's been true). I can start a year knowing that our max OOP is $6,000 or whatever, and just think, okay, that's about $500 a month for four people for all of the medical costs we can expect to have in a year (add in premiums and it's probably double that, but pre-tax stuff is so removed from my daily consciousness that it's like it doesn't exist). It's an easy way to budget for it, whatever we don't end up spending is bonus to our bottom line, and it takes a lot of the emotions and politics out of it.

I wish I could solve the health insurance system for everyone, but that mental shift has done a lot of solving it for our own budget. I used to begrudge paying anything on top of premiums for some reason, and now I treat it more like a sunk cost. The rest of it is a racket, but the perspective helps me deal with the bills that come in for an emergency room or urgent care visit.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Sold a car!

We sold one of our cars - the sedan that I complained about 18 months ago. We sold it to a family member for about half the blue book value, as a favor to them and also to us, because then we didn't have to do anything in terms of work but vacuum it out and sign the title. No advertising, no test drives, no worrying if someone's cashier's check is valid. That car has a lot of life left in it, and while I hated getting kids in and out of it, I feel a little guilty about getting rid of it before it was really and truly driven into the ground. I have actually never sold a car before - both of my previous vehicles were donated as scrap because I drove them until they didn't work anymore.

We still have our Rav 4 and the Jeep, which is stored for the winter. We should be getting a refund on our car insurance for the sedan and the Jeep, since we pulled insurance off it while it's stored.

It's been a bit of a shift to go from being used to each having a child-safe car we can drive to only having one of those, but not too bad. Peanut has taken up biking around our neighborhood which is great in a number of ways. We'll probably use some of the money from the sale of the sedan to upgrade his hand-me-down bike and get a nicer bike trailer for the kids, but bikes are definitely a lower-cost commuting option, when your commute is five blocks to the local preschool!

I take the bus most days, which is way cheaper than paying for downtown parking, way better for my mental sanity since I can read on the bus instead of glower at other driver's from my own car, and also helps me leave work at 5 on the dot every day. I had forgotten how nice public transit can be, and it's weird how easy it is to fall prey to the notion that I "need" to have my own car for going to and from work, where I pay $14 for the privilege of leaving it all by itself for nine hours. I am also getting so much more reading done!




Time-poor

It seems like you're usually either strapped for cash or strapped for time - or both, but rarely wallowing in an excess of either.

At any rate, I'm now time-poor even if we're doing okay financially. I was thinking the other day about how my idea of retirement is basically that I still want to work but I just want to control my own schedule. I don't know what job is out there that lets me do that, but that's what I want to retire to. Peanut on the other hand has more time on his hands than probably ever before in his life and he's enjoying it. I don't quite know how he has so much time to do projects he wants to do, because I sure didn't feel like that when I was staying home with kids! But I guess they are almost a year older than they were when I was last home 24/7, and they are getting better at entertaining themselves every day.

It's budget season at work. This is the first time I've ever had to manage a budget at work, and I'm really glad for the practice I have of managing our personal budget in such detail - I don't know how I'd cope otherwise. There is very little guidance or oversight of the budget creation process, but a lot of nit-picky details. I sat down today and did some SUMIFS and pivot tables to take a lot of the manual labor out of the process - and a project manager actually got teary-eyed at the amount of time Excel could save her now going forward. I thought it was maybe a bit of overkill to have pivot tables in our own private budget, but I'm glad now that I knew how to implement them at work.

Our spending is already down quite a bit in the last two months -between not having a nanny anymore and the savings we see from me not eating lunch out as much as Peanut did, we are enjoying feeling a little flush. After we pay bills this month we're going to max out one of our 2016 Roths, which will hopefully scratch the itch of wanting to spend without that spending being wasted.

I got a new cell phone and switched to Ting. My last phone was having some battery problems (totally dead by 3 p.m. even without being used at all), although I kind of wish that I'd tried harder to find a solution to fix that phone. Change is really hard for me and this sounds so stupid to say but I've had a lot of stress and anxiety about finding and getting used to a new phone. The savings from being on Ting is nice (and my old phone couldn't work on Ting), so that helps.

Trying to explain money to kids is hilarious. Pickle kind of understands it (she knows you can exchange it for stuff but has no concept of value) but Baby Bear has no concept at all. All he knows is that dogs don't use money because they don't have any pockets to keep it in. Ha!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Role Reversal

Today is a big day in the Moneybags household. Today, I become the breadwinner, and Peanut becomes a stay at home dad.

Yay!

It's an option we talked about before we had children, and again when our kids were born, even though it seemed unlikely that I'd end up making more than him at any point (I have an advanced degree, but picked a not-lucrative field). But that's the situation we are in, surprisingly, so when our nanny gave notice a few weeks ago, we decided to go for it rather than find another paid caregiver.

It puts us almost exactly in the position we were in a year ago, when Peanut was the only wage-earner. My income is higher but my health benefits are more expensive too, so it comes out to almost exactly the same take-home pay. We'll be able to save some and live well. The kids will benefit from seeing a man as the primary caregiver (it's weird to think that if they remember any parent staying home with them, it will be Peanut and not me). I will benefit by not having to stay home, and by turning over a lot of the housework to Peanut. Peanut will benefit from getting to experience primary caregiving and getting a break from a career/job where he was getting burned out. We'll both benefit from walking in the other's shoes for a little while. Our nanny benefits by getting to do something she's always wanted to do (she didn't leave us for another family but for a unique job opportunity overseas). Everybody wins!

Probably the most challenging thing about it will be for me to let go. Peanut is a #1 fine dad, and he doesn't need my "help" or advice. I don't want to be one of those moms who leave a list when the dad "babysits". We've been talking about which chores we'll each do (when Peanut worked and I stayed home, I did everything but yard work, but the reverse doesn't make sense) but other than that, I am mainly looking forward to never having to make dinner again! (And so is everyone else.)

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Retirement Savings: Mission Accomplished?

There are so many ways to look at money, particularly at what is "enough". I've been thinking, reading, and writing about money for a long time now, but I always love coming across a new perspective that resonates with me, particularly when it comes with a pleasant surprise related to my own financial situation.

One example of this is the question how much do you need to save for retirement? Well, enough to retire on, obviously. We've calculated this out a couple different ways, and have a number in mind, which is about 10 times more than we currently have in retirement savings. It feels like it's so far out of reach. We're in our mid-thirties, and in the last ten years we've managed to put away a six-figure amount in retirement savings, but if we're trying to make to a seven-figure amount...sometimes it hardly seems possible.

Then Peanut stumbled upon this post from Mr. Money Mustache, The Man Who Didn't Realize He Was Already Rich. Basically, a guy in a pretty good situation feels like he'll never get to his savings goal but some math shows that, in fact, he has already saved enough to retire at age 65 - even if he never adds to his retirement account again! Therefore, he is only working to meet his current needs and/or save additional money in order to move up his retirement date. That seemed like a neat way to consider our financial position, and when Peanut did the math - woo hoo! - he found that we're already there.

To put it into more concrete terms, here are the numbers:

Retirement goal: $1,200,000
Current savings: $163,000
Compound Annual Growth Rate: 7%*
Yield in 30 years, with no additional savings: $1,240,797.57
Yield in 30 years, at our current savings rate: $2,279,866.22
Yield in 22 years, at our current savings rate: $1,261,218.61

WHAT THE WHAT. (Do the math for your own situation here.)

That means that, starting today, we could re-deploy our savings (currently around 10% of our income) in a bunch of different ways - we could move our planned retirement date earlier, we could start serious college savings funds for the kids, or we could up our standard of living. Or we could continue like normal and make big fancy retirement plans. Or we could choose to take lower-paying jobs that don't provide us with a lot of extra for savings since we really only need to cover our daily expenses for the next 30 years.

In reality, it probably won't cause any drastic changes to our lifestyle. Peanut and I are both fairly conservative, so we will save more than the minimum we need for retirement. We'll continue to take advantage of the tax benefits retirement accounts and HSAs offer. We might up our college fund savings rates, and we are definitely planning to cut our income (more on that soon!) with confidence. We'll build a bigger cash emergency fund than we've had the last couple of years. I'm not really one who's been super interested in early retirement - in a way, I've experienced that by staying home with kids for three years. And it turns out, I really like working! But man, the freedom that comes along with being able to take a job for the job instead of the paycheck - that's cool.


* Despite the fluctuations in the market the last 10 years, this is actually a conservative estimate looking at a period of 30 years or longer. See for yourself, here.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

This Week's Frugal Win

I was issued a laptop on my first day of work, and I carry it home with me most nights. I noticed it was getting a little scuffed from being carried in my bag. I don't want a dedicated laptop bag so I figured I'd buy one of those slim sleeves to slip it into. I've been too busy to get to the store or even look around online when suddenly I realized that I could probably just make one super easily. So I did!

 I used this tutorial, and in about an hour came up with something super cute - for FREE.


I used leftover quilt fabric for the outside (a pattern I bought at a quilt show in Paducah a few years ago for 50% off), leftover quilt batting (I always save the scraps for some reason), and for the lining, the bottom half of a family-company-branded t-shirt (I'd used the logo part shirt to make a pair of pants for my kids a year or so ago). I still need to put a closure on the flap, but guess what - I have buttons and velcro in my scrap drawer too.



 For less time than it would have taken me to get in the car, drive to the store, look for what I wanted, buy it and drive back, I had the satisfaction of "using up" and "making do" and every time I pull it out of my bag, I am reminded of a) the trip I took with my mom and sister to get that fabric, which I love and haven't used in a project yet; b) the fun of being creative (first time in a while I've made something instead of just repairing something), c) the fun of being frugal, and d) that shopping doesn't always have to be the solution to a problem.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Our Nanny Costs

We've had our nanny for almost three months now and she's wonderful. We found her through Care.com, a website for hiring caregivers of all sorts. We pay her well and provide a lot of standard benefits that more traditional jobs have. It's a huge expense, but childcare is definitely an area where I feel justified not cutting corners.

Care.com was very easy to use to find a nanny - first I poked around at the people who were advertising themselves as nannies to get a sense of what the expected pay rate was and what types of jobs people were looking for. Peanut and I both work full time, so we need more than full time coverage, and we quickly realized that that wasn't something most people wanted to do. We also discovered that a lot of potential nannies wanted to care for kids from their homes or bring their own kids along, which I just wasn't comfortable with. One of the big benefits of having a nanny is not having to get the kids up and out the door every morning, and I didn't like the idea of having someone else's child in my home all the time.

Still, there were lots of great candidates on Care.com, so I signed up for a three month membership, which cost $63.20. A paid membership allows users to message nannies who have posted that they are looking for jobs, and also to post a job for people to apply to. I did both, and I got a TON of applications. Many people got weeded out early on - they were looking to be paid under the table, or were only available part-time, or it otherwise wasn't a good match. We interviewed four women, and made two offers. The first accepted and then had a family emergency which caused her to have to resign before she started, and the second we hired and has been with us since.

She works 50 hours a week (8am-6pm M-F) and gets paid a regular hourly rate for 40 hours + 10 hours of time and a half. She also gets five days paid sick time and 10 paid vacation days. And she gets off any holidays that we are off work, and still gets paid if Grandma comes and picks up the kids for the afternoon or something like that. This is intentional - if I'm going to book her time, then I need to pay to make sure she is available when I need her.

In terms of benefits, we don't pay a health insurance benefit (in large part because she has health insurance already, which is great for us financially - it's expensive!). We provide a car for her to use while she's working (so we don't have to transfer car seats in and out of her car), and we provide a credit card for her to use for gas and expenses for the kids. Paying for cell phone service was another common benefit we saw, but we opted out of that - we don't call or text her that often, and she already has a phone. We also withhold her income taxes and send them to the IRS, and we also pay into unemployment benefits for her. This and social security were two of the big reasons we didn't want to pay someone under the table (in addition to it being illegal) - unemployment and social security are important safety net benefits, and I expect my employers to provide them. Therefore, I will provide them for my employee.

All of the paperwork and calculations are kind of a pain, so we chose to pay for a payroll service that Care.com owns (Peanut corrected me: we use the service provided by Intuit, maker of TurboTax*). It manages withdrawing the money from our account and depositing it into hers every week, generates a pay stub, calculates withholding, spits out all the paperwork for her taxes every quarter, and will provide the tax paperwork for both us and her next year. It costs $22 a month.

Oh, right, and the question you are probably wondering most - what do we pay her? We offered $15 an hour, and she countered with $16 an hour. I was both proud of her for negotiating and kind of devastated at how much more it seemed to increase our expenses. In the end, I realized it was only about $2,000 a year - and I really was proud of her for negotiating! We settled on $15.50 an hour, which is only for those first 40 hours - after that, she gets ten hours at $23.25 per hour. All told, she's grossing about $43,000 a year (more than I made at my last job!). With taxes and the service fees, we're actually paying out just under $47,000.

It's a lot of money.

It's more expensive than the most expensive fancy daycare that we looked at. To us right now,though, the benefits of having a nanny (not having to get the kids out the door in the morning, not having them around lots of other kids and getting sick, them getting to go out to parks and storytime and develop a close bond with a single long-term caregiver) are so worth that cost. It feels right to me to pay someone a living wage to do a job that's really hard. And, astonishingly...even after paying her, I am STILL making more than I was at my last job. So it's not like we're missing the money; we're still coming out ahead.


I love this division of labor - payroll and taxes and all of that is his responsibility and while I have access to all the information through Dropbox and our finances spreadsheet, I know that he's taking care of it so I haven't bothered to memorize all of the details. Participating partner FTW!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Women at Work: Sexism, money, and career

I just finished this really excellent book, What Works for Women at Work, and I feel like I need to talk about it with someone.

I've had kind of a weird career, maybe, in that for the first time (after about a decade in the workforce), my direct supervisor is a man. Previously I've always reported to a woman, and in most cases, those women also reported to women. Three of the four CEOs at my various jobs have been women. Most of the people in my master's program were women (easily 75%) and even more of the professors were women (easily 90%). Publishing is pretty heavily dominated by women in all divisions, so my experience isn't unusual for the industry but it's in no way representative of business as a whole, even in the United States in 2016. That's sad but it's a fact. What's also startling is that there can be a lot of sexism (conscious or unconscious) that holds women back, and is even perpetrated by women against women - and I was pretty startled to find myself in some of the examples given in this book.

What Works for Women at Work was written by a mother-daughter team and is based on social science research and interviews with women in different places in their careers. They've identified four buckets of sexism and have strategies for coping with each. The four buckets are Prove-It-Again (how women's past accomplishments aren't enough to gain faith in their future accomplishments whereas men are often promoted based on their potential rather than their accomplishments), The Maternal Wall (and rather simply decrying the way society isn't set up to accommodate families, they talk about the unconscious attitudes we have towards women who work and women who have children and how we need to resolve those), The Tightrope (how women get typecast as either a bimbo or a bitch), and The Tug of War (how womens' issues in the workplace are exacerbated by generational conflicts and other ways womens' actions can support or hinder progress for women as a whole). There's also a chapter about the additional bias faced by women of color which was super eye-opening for this white girl.

As an employee, I've not often had cause to think that I might be the target of sexism in the workplace. I've had to deal with a twinge of it since becoming a mother (worrying about what people might think when I went back to work while Pickle was still in the NICU - shouldn't a good mother stay at her side? Never mind that Peanut had gone back to work within a few days after her birth, and no one was judging him for being a bad father for doing so). I've also had to consider whether sexism would prevent me from re-entering the workforce in a way that would keep my career on track (thankfully, that didn't end up happening - but it was definitely harder road to get a job with a three-year gap on my resume). But on the whole I haven't bumped up against outright visible sexism.

And I think that's why this book is so important - because it showed me areas of unconscious sexism that I not only have encountered by have been guilty of perpetrating myself. I have noticed how my perception of a female colleague starts to change upon learning she has children, whereas my perception of a male colleague does not. I don't think that the woman is less competent; in fact, it's almost always the opposite - but why should it change only for women and not for men? I've also made assumptions about whether female colleagues will announce a maternity leave shortly after getting married. I've never done anything besides make those assumptions, like give them bad projects or anything like that, but it was still surprising to realize that as egalitarian as I like to think myself, I've got unconscious bias just like everyone else. The first step to eradicating it is to become aware of it, and What Works for Women at Work is so helpful at bringing that awareness about.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Feeling the FIRE

Peanut and I have decided to set up a BHAG - a big hairy audacious goal for ourselves. We're going to aim to retire in twelve years.

We probably won't actually retire - but we want to be capable of doing that. Peanut stumbled upon a post at Mr. Money Mustache about the simple math behind retiring early, and we realized that with my job, we can actually pull this off. By saving 65% of our take-home pay, we can stop working in our mid-40s. It'll probably take us 18 months or so to get to the point where we are saving a full 65% of our income (because we need to do things like build up the emergency fund and pay off the car) but given that we're used to living on one income and have managed to pull off big financial plans before, this seems within our grasp.

To sum up, we'll need to basically keep living as if we only have one income, and save the rest of our money in official retirement accounts and other types of investments (because we won't actually be eligible to withdraw from retirement accounts by the time we're ready to retire). We'll have to pay off the car, have a healthy emergency fund, and not increase our housing expenses (we could also focus on paying off our entire mortgage instead of retiring, but we're not focused on that because Reasons). We likely limp along with a 30% savings rate for a couple of years until we no longer have full-time childcare expenses - that accounts for as much as 30% of our gross income right now. Once the kids are in school, it will feel like we got a huge raise!

I wouldn't say we've been floundering about without a financial goal, but "pinch pennies to be able to save a few hundred bucks a month on one income" is not a super inspiring way to manage one's money. "Bust our butts for the next decade to be financial independent forever" is WAY more exciting. Financial Indepence Retire Early - that's something to get fired up about!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Kid Update!

It's been a while since I did a kid update. I don't even remember if I posted the biggest big news of ever: Pickle no longer has a g-tube! We did a home-based wean back in September and the day after Christmas, we took out the feeding tube for good. She has a tiny scar (her second belly button) and is still petite but to look at her now, you would never guess her crazy history. It's amazing how far she's come. She can read a few words, remembers songs after hearing them only once - actually, her memory is astonishing. She just played a memory game on my father-in-law's tablet this weekend and was doing well in the eight-year-old range. It was crazy! She likes to bake and paint with watercolors.

Baby Bear is a full-on toddler. He's not actually toddling yet, but he could be if he wanted to. He walks around with one hand holding on to something and will take 2-3 steps into my arms, but doesn't seem interested in doing much more than that just yet. Which is fine - I know he'll go right from wobbly steps to a full-out run, so I'm in no hurry. He can crawl like a fiend, manages to go up and down stairs safely, does some sign language, and blows bubbles. He loves to be outside and will go fetch his shoes at the slightest invitation.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Women's Money Week: Investing in Your Future #WMW16

What does it mean to invest in your future?

Is it about taking out crushing student loan debt to finance a degree that's "guaranteed" to bring in a big paycheck?

Is it about buying a house when you'd rather be traveling the world?

Is it about watching the Dow like a hawk, trying to beat the stock market with hedge funds?

I don't think it's any of those things. Investing in your future might look like taking some classes or asking for a raise or even carefully evaluating a potential marriage partner. It might look like clipping coupons or taking the bus or doing an envelope system budget. It might mean up and quitting or it might mean sticking with it for a bit longer.

I've said on this blog several times that I'm so grateful to my former self for decisions that I've made, and I think that's the essence of investing in yourself. I'm thankful that Peanut and I practiced living on one income so that when we needed to, we could. I'm thankful that we didn't buy as much house as the bank told us we could afford, so we had money left over to deal with the emergencies that come with home ownership. I'm thankful that when I was rubbing two nickels together my first year in New York I didn't succumb to credit cards to buy something better to eat than day-old Starbucks markout sandwiches.

I'd be lying if I said that I was so forward-thinking that I knew those decisions were the best. There are more than a few moments in my life where I did not invest in my future self, and I've mulled over the wasted money those actions caused. Probably the most realistic thing I can say about it is that I'm a pessimist and so I tend to make decisions assuming that things will go badly - that's why I have life insurance. But it does seem to have generally served me well - I try to find ways today that will improve my life later on, and that is probably the root of it all. Treat your future self the way your current self would like to be treated, and it'll probably be for the better.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

Women's Money Week: Debt & Saving #WMW16

My former self is shocked at my current self's comfort with having consumer debt. Shocked, I tell you, and probably a little bit outraged. I am accustomed to thinking of myself as debt free, but I haven't been for a while, and probably never really will be again.

We have a mortgage. And a car loan. (And I use credit cards all the time, as my main payment method for everything, but we still pay those off in full every month.)

With my new income, we have the ability to pay off our car loan this year, but we probably won't.

What?! My former self is aghast.

I know. It goes against a lot of what I've said in the past. And what a lot of financial experts say. But I promise, we've done the math and it makes more sense for us to save right now. Here's why:

1. Our car loan is cheap. 1.9%, which made the finance guy do a double take - he hadn't seen a rate that low in months. Paying off the loan in full now vs over time as scheduled is a difference of just under $700.
2. We have non-recurring opportunities that we can put money into right now. Roth IRAs and HSAs have a limit on how much can be put into them each year, and if that deadline passes, you can never go back. Putting $5,000 in a Roth now to earn money tax-free until retirement will definitely earn me back more than the $700 I'd save paying off the car now!
3. Once we manage to fully fund Roths and the HSA, we plan to build our emergency fund back up. We've been treating our Roths as an extension of our emergency fund, but we'd like to have a very nice big cushion in the bank. We have a small cushion now, certainly enough to absorb any of the kinds of emergencies we've faced as homeowners, but we'd like to build that up more before we start funneling money against that car loan.

Truthfully, we'll probably pay the loan off early. With my additional income, we're on track to be on top of these other things in a year or so, with still 3+ years left on the car loan, and at that point, obviously that will be our big focus. It's hard to convince the old LMM of this, but it really does make a little more financial sense to wait on it.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Women's Money Week: Budgeting & Spending #WMW16

Dirty confession: I haven't had a budget in years.

I think there are two ways to approach personal finance, and I've done both. One is a zero-based budget, where each dollar is assigned to a category and once you run out of money in a category, you don't get any more until the next pay period or month. The other way is to track every dollar you spend, so you can monitor trends and adjust as needed. Both work very well, if you're diligent, but I think they work for different circumstances.

I did a zero-based budget when I was living paycheck-to-paycheck. I had very little wiggle room and needed to be the boss of all my dollars. I had specific bills in specific amounts and also specific savings goals that I wanted or needed to reach, and that's the only way I can think of to manage that kind of situation. I even did an envelope system for a while, where I cashed my paycheck into certain denominations and kept the cash in envelopes marked "groceries," "eating out," "household stuff," and "mad money." It was hard to borrow from Peter to pay Paul because it was so obvious what I was doing and when I couldn't afford to do it. During this time, I didn't have a credit card, so cash was my only option.

As my financial situation stabilized and I had a bit of cushion in the bank, plus the confidence in my ability to be disciplined in my spending, I transitioned to tracking each dollar instead of specifically budgeting and when Peanut and I merged finances after our wedding, this is the only method we've used. We have had budgets for specific things - our wedding, our cross-country move, our house purchase, traveling - which we've stuck to, but our organizing financial principle now is tracking our spending instead of budgeting.

If you've tried one method or the other and haven't liked it, I encourage you to try the other - budgeting feels very restrictive when you don't really need to do it, but tracking gives you all sorts of awesome data about your financial life.

If you've never tried budgeting at all, however, I also encourage you to do it for a while - it's a necessary skill to achieve any level of leadership in most professions, and my practice budgeting for myself has given me the confidence to manage budgets with lots more zeros than my personal accounts will likely ever see.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Women's Money Week: Financial Organization #WMW16

At the end of last year, Peanut and I decided to do something we've never done before: automate our finances. We signed up for autopay on every bill that allowed it (which was pretty much everything besides credit cards), figuring that it would be a lot easier than sitting down and paying everything once a month. It was taking a long time to reconcile our spreadsheet and pay all the bills every month and we just felt like we could get more organized and streamlined by taking advantage of automatic payments.

What a disaster.

We've not been doing a great job of staying on top of it, and this week we narrowly avoided overdrafting our mortgage payment and Roth IRA contribution. Ugh. We caught it and luckily my paycheck hit just in time to save us (in other words, we realized it but couldn't have done anything about it if I hadn't been getting paid when I was). Keeping up with the variable nature of our utility bills and remembering to enter those amounts into the spreadsheet when they were automatically paid was way more complicated than spending an hour a month doing it manually.

So we're taking everything off autopay and going back to doing it manually.

Our system is SUPPOSED to work like this:
We have a master spreadsheet that tracks every account balance as well as the cash on our persons (we round up to the nearest dollar). When we spend any money, we're supposed to input and categorize the data into the spreadsheet. Once a month, we reconcile everything and pay all the bills. We know our net worth on a monthly basis and can see trends over time (we've used some version of this spreadsheet for almost eight years now). It gets a little unwieldy but it works if we enter our expenditures regularly and reconcile monthly.

We've not been great about entering our receipts, though, and knowing that the bills were getting paid gave us no impetus to go in and reconcile anything, so it all fell apart. Going back to manual bill pay will fix part of that problem, and we're going to work harder at entering our expenditures more frequently to make the reconciling side of things easier too.

We've been doing this for so long that you'd think we'd have the discipline to manage it with autopay, but apparently not. We both feel more comfortable being this involved with and aware of our financial picture, so I guess we'll consider bill-paying to be a date night activity and kill two birds with one stone. :-)



Monday, March 7, 2016

Women's Money Week: Making Money #WMW16

What do I want my daughter to know about being a woman, as it relates to money?

I want her to be willing to make money. I want her to believe that every job has dignity and that no job is beneath her. I want her to aspire to support herself, and eventually a family. 

I want her to be able to make money. I want her to be educated and have every advantage to find a career that she enjoys and ca make a living at. 

I want her to be interested in making money. I want her to care about her financial situation. I want her to be curious about investment options and economic theory. I want her to understand that money represents more than paper and coin, but is all about values. 

I want these things for my son, too. But I suspect that they will come easier for my son than for my daughter. I don't think my son will feel twinges of weirdness if he out-earns his wife, the way I do sometimes for out-earning Peanut right now. I suspect Baby Bear will have an easier time negotiating salary or asking for a raise - there is no proven bias against men for doing those things, the way there is for women. 

Part of my reason for going back to work when my children are small is that I want them to see a woman earning money, and not feeling bad about it. I want them to see someone who is able to provide not only for herself but for a family and who is informed about the state of our family's finances. It's weird - and ridiculous - that this is even a thing I have to think about. Does Peanut think that he needs to work in order to set a good example of a man for our kids? No. He works because that's what you do as an adult - people need money for necessities and luxuries and you get money by working for it. 

So I guess that's what it really boils down to: I'd like for my daughter to make money the way her dad does - because it's a thing that adult people do, and not a man/woman thing at all. 


Friday, February 26, 2016

Childcare, Hoo Dilly

I had no idea how much it cost to pay someone else to look after your kid. I guess Pickle's initial babysitters were super expensive (NICU nurses!) - the first several weeks of her life cost $10,000 per day in medical care and expertise. But aside from that, we've never paid money to have anyone care for our children - it's been us or it's been family. No money has changed hands.

So when I started looking at going back to work, I was a bit apprehensive - I knew that Minnesota has a reputation for being a very expensive state for childcare but when I added it up, I can't figure out how it works for so many families.

In-home daycares in our area run about $160 per week, per kid (~$17,000 per year). This is by far the cheapest option (aside from having a grandparent watch them for free, I guess, which we don't have as an option for full-time care). In-home daycares have the advantage of a home-based environment, a smaller number of kids (the max at the places I looked at was 10-12 of varying ages, and most places didn't operate at the max), and hopefully a long-term stable caretaker. The cons, for me, included having a single adult watching multiple children of varying ages with no one to check their behavior or give them a break, and often one or more of those kids was the caregiver's own child. Every place I visited either had a TV on in the background while I was there, or used the television to distract the other kids while I talked with the provider. None of the in-home daycares are allowed to transport kids in a vehicle, and I know how challenging it is to walk even two kids to the playground so I can't imagine that they get to go very often. It's a smaller number of kids than a daycare center, but it's still multiple kids and so there's an increased risk of sharing germs, plus the different ages were a concern for me. Pickle is very tiny and cute, and seems to get "adopted" by other children - I've discovered children younger than her picking her up and carrying her around, for example. She's not able to defend herself physically and freezes instead of telling the other kids no, so I wanted to avoid a situation where older children might be bullying or even just aggressively friendly towards her. I also didn't find a lot of places that had openings for my kids' ages - they are limited to how many children in certain age ranges they can take and most places could take one but not the other. I didn't want to deal with multiple care places for sure.

Daycare centers range from $2100-$3400 a month for both kids in our area. I liked having only kids of the same age in the same room, and all the centers that I saw had educational requirements for their teachers, safety protocols, varied menus with on-site kitchens, secure facilities with attached, dedicated playgrounds, and a staff schedule so that people could be given breaks. My big concern with daycare was illness - they are germ farms and I knew that we'd likely be sick a lot if they kids went there. At $25,000-40,800, the annual cost of daycare is pretty close to or below the net take-home pay of the jobs I've had and expected to receive upon going back to work. So it makes it a wash or worse for me to go back to work.

Nannies are even more expensive - $600-700 a week for their pay on the low end, plus additional fees as an employer - 7.5% FICA taxes, time and a half for anything over 40 hours a week, mileage reimbursement if they drive the kids anywhere, worker's compensation insurance plus potential insurance increases to our homeowner's policy, payroll fees if we use a service, and placement fees if we use a nanny agency. Paying $40,000+ a year for childcare seems pretty certain with a nanny, so I'd need to earn a lot more than I was expecting to in order to cover that cost.

Looking back on the options now, I'm not sure why I didn't do more research into home daycares. It's true that I didn't get a great feeling from the ones I visited but since these businesses are operated out of people's homes, it's pretty clear that each one is different and I might have found the right fit if I'd kept looking. As it was, we've wound up dipping our toes into both of the other options - Pickle and Baby Bear were in a daycare center for six weeks and are now home with a nanny. There were a lot of things I liked about daycare, but ultimately the dealbreaker for us was illness. We were sick - SO SICK - for all six of those weeks, and we were miserable. We probably could have stuck it out, but Pickle lost 10% of her body weight, which is the hard limit in terms of what she can safely lose at her size, so we just couldn't do it anymore. Since being home and getting well, she has started incrementally gaining again, so it was the right move.

Having a nanny is a little weird for me - I'm an employer! - but also great. The first day, I came home and the house was cleaner than it was when I left and both kids were eating dinner and there was something for me to eat too. I had hardly anything to do after putting the kids to bed and it was wonderful! It's the most expensive option for childcare right now, but you know, bargain-basement prices for the person taking care of my kids is not really in their best interest. In addition, I'm delighted to be in a job where I am paid well enough to pass it along to another person in the form of a living wage.

More soon about how we found a nanny and all the financial details of that!


Monday, February 22, 2016

Personal Shopping

One of my first orders of business after I started my new job was to get some new clothes. My job has a "dress for your day" policy, so jeans are fine any day of the week - but it's still a professional environment. In addition, I'm leading a  team now, so I knew that my existing wardrobe was not going to cut it. All of the professional-level clothing I own was (more than) a few years old when I left my last job three years ago (so, now really out of date and didn't fit well besides), and the stuff I've bought in the meantime was designed for pregnancy, nursing, or sitting on the floor among yesterday's cheerios.

So, shopping we go! Except I hate clothes shopping. I get overwhelmed and stuff doesn't seem to fit well but I don't like to ask for help and blah blah blah.

So I took a different tack this time around - I set up some free personal shopping appointments. Nordstrom is the go-to for this kind of thing, but the closest Nordstrom personal shopper is quite a drive from my house. However, J. Crew and Macy's offer similar services, so I made an appointment at each place. Here's what I learned:

I don't think I'd ever shopped at J. Crew before. The preppy look is not my style, but I figured it would be good to try some new things. When I arrived for my appointment, the stylist introduced herself and asked me a few questions, then led me around the store and started making recommendations. She guessed at my size (and did a pretty good job of it), and pulled a TON of clothes off the rack. One of the things I was clear on was that I didn't want to buy outfits; I wanted to buy a lot of separates that I could mix and match. This changed her strategy a little bit so I'm glad that I mentioned it.

Then I started trying things on. Normally I hate being checked on in the fitting room, but this was great - I didn't feel like I was bothering someone; she was very much there to help me. So sending her off for a different size or color or something to go with these pants didn't seem like a burden. She was honest about how things looked and didn't try to sell me on anything that I didn't love. She pulled other people over when we were stumped on something. It was weird to be the center of attention like that, but it was effective - I definitely got more done in that shopping trip than I do on my own. I also tried on some stuff I would NEVER have touched, including a top that is now my favorite thing I've ever worn.

The whole thing took a little over an hour, I spent about $700 (I had a budget in mind before I went in of between $600-800, so right on target). My shopper probably got some sort of commission on what I bought, but I didn't have to pay anything extra for her time. In the end, I bought a pair of jeans, two pairs of pants, four button-up shirts, three sweaters and three cardigans. A bunch of things were on sale or clearance, and the rest were full price. I opened a store credit card to get 15% off my purchase, and also to get free alterations. This is not the kind of thing I EVER do, but the savings on the alterations alone make it worth it. After I pay off these purchases (in full when I get the first statement), I'll close the account - my goal was to do a big wardrobe overhaul right now and not to go shopping every month or so to add stuff to my closet.

I will be taking back the button-down shirts first, though. I liked them in the store and was excited at the thought of changing up my look but as time has gone by I have never reached for those shirts. They need to be ironed, and who am I kidding - I don't have time for that. I might replace them with some button-down shirts that don't need to be ironed, since I did like the look. Or a second pair of jeans, as I really like the way these fit.

The sweaters gave me pause, too, since they need to be dry cleaned. But a big frustration of mine has always been how my discount-store sweaters pill after the first washing, so I figured it was worth a try for a more high-quality fabric that requires a little more care. I've been careful to take the sweaters off and put on an old hoodie or something before I get home to my spaghetti-sauce covered kids.

Next, on to Macy's.

After I set up the appointment online, the shopper emailed me a questionnaire with lots of detailed questions about what I'm looking for, my sizes, my preferred sleeve/dress/hem length and that sort of thing. I filled it out and also requested a bra fitting, since things have changed since I last bought non-nursing bras.

When I arrived for the appointment, a fitting room (a BIG room, with a desk and two chairs in it!) was waiting for me with a bunch of clothes already paired into outfits. There were also a couple pairs of different styles of shoes and some jewelry. I loved almost everything as soon as I looked at it - my stylist had clearly taken to heart what I'd written in the questionnaire and dug through to find things that matched what I described as my style. She also took some creative license to introduce new styles and colors, which was great.

This appointment took almost two and a half hours, and I got a ton out of it - two pairs of pants, a pair of boots, six tops, five cardigans, two bras, a camisole, and I feel like there's more I'm forgetting. I spent around $900, but I won't be taking anything back. I seriously love everything I got and I've been getting a lot of compliment on these items when I wear them. I also opened a Macy's card to get 20% off this time around. That card I might actually keep open, but will of course pay the balance off in full each month (I don't plan on going shopping with it every month, but you know what I mean). Once again the interaction was no-pressure, even though I'm sure the shopper got a commission off of my purchases.

So, to sum up?

Store-based personal shoppers are awesome. I'm never going shopping without one again. It saved me so much time and energy - I didn't have to guess at my size across different brands, or find things that worked together, or run back and forth from the fitting room to get a different size. I got so much more accomplished in a shorter period of time, and I also got some things that I would never have picked out for myself but that looked great. I was also able to honestly say no to a few things that I loved on the hanger but just didn't love while wearing - I didn't have the same attachment to having picked them out myself, so it was easier to evaluate them honestly. We actually ran out of time at the appointment, so I will be going back to see the same shopper again - I see this being a seasonal or quarterly thing for me, but I can hardly imagine ever going to the mall without an appointment like this again.

If you're considering doing this, though, I'd highly recommend starting with a department store like Macy's or Nordstrom's (unless you're already a J. Crew devotee). There are so many more styles at a department store that I think it's easier to find things that fit your existing style or maybe stretch it a little, instead of doing what I did at J. Crew and buying a whole new look for yourself. That kind of thing is fun but maybe isn't likely to stick, and I feel bad returning the things that I thought I would wear but just won't. This was such a fun, useful way to update my wardrobe, and didn't cost me anything more than I'd have spent anyway. Win-win!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Freedom from Small Frugality

Here is a list of things I don't care about since our income doubled:

- Selling at consignment sales. My time is now valued at $X/hour, and these consignment sales have always returned about $X-90% per hour. It feels weird to just give away all these clothes that I could "make money on", but it's a far better use of my time and energy - instead of organizing, hanging, tagging, and delivering the clothes to the sale I can spend the time hanging out with my family. (I'll probably still go shopping there.)

- Selling my shopping habits. Surveys and programs like Checkout 51 were a way that I made (very) incremental money without going too much out of my way. Most people don't realize that they are in fact selling their data by doing these activities but that's exactly what's going on. Marketers want this information so they can be smarter about how to sell to you in the future. This always makes me vaguely uncomfortable if I think about it too hard, so I'm relieved to not feel like I need to monetize my behavior. I uninstalled tracking programs, unsubscribed from email surveys, and closed accounts at the various places that used to give me spare change for my data.

- Sunk costs. I'm not looking at past money spent to figure out how to recoup it. Sunk costs have in the past been a thing that really bothered me and I'd spent a lot of time and energy trying to "make it up". There are a couple of sunk costs in the last month that I've just shrugged at, which is a much easier way to move forward (to be clear, I'm learning a lesson from them - I'm just not spending time trying to get my money's worth out of something that is a lost case).

I haven't lost all my frugal habits! I still pick up found change, look for Cartwheel deals or coupons on stuff I'm buying anyway, pick the better-priced option at the store, try not to waste food, and pay attention to what I spend. But having a second income has really freed me from some of the more burdensome of my frugal habits, and that's been a nice change of pace.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

SAHM No More

Little Miss Moneybags is now a working mom!

There's so much to the story that it's hard to figure out where to start. The last month has been fairly chaotic - we've bounced around from both ends of the "SAHM returning to the workforce scale" and looked at multiple options for childcare. We've been frugal in some ways and spendthrift in others. Each event has enough to talk about to generate its own post, but I don't know if I'm ever going to catch up to my own life in that regard, so I'll just sum up here.

I've been home for about three years, since Pickle came home from her very long NICU stay. While I never intended to be a stay at home mom it was definitely the right choice for our family at that time and I am so, so thankful that Peanut and I had made arrangements in case it was required - we were able to be a one-income family without any trouble, and still managed to cash flow every month (even with emergencies), pay down student loan debt and save for retirement, and live comfortably. To be sure, our emergency fund is nowhere near where I'd like it to be, we've managed to do no college savings for our kids (aside from gifts they've been given for that purpose), and while Peanut has done very well increasing his earnings every year, our expenses have risen as well. After about two and a half years at home, I started to feel a little stir-crazy and was having a pretty hard time emotionally and intellectually with the challenges of being around small children 24/7. It got to the point where we felt like even if we had to take a loss on childcare costs in order to get me back into the workforce, it would be worth it for our family.

I took a standard approach to job searching - applying for relevant positions, letting my network know I was looking - and also reached out to companies that might have a need but no job posted. I had a lot of interviews but wasn't getting any offers. I had just started thinking seriously about starting a full-time freelance business when I got an offer for part-time work. Freelancing was very much a last resort for me (the whole point of going back to work was to get out of the house and talk to other adults every day, and I've talked before about how I don't want to be an entrepreneur). So I took the part-time job, even though it didn't cover daycare expenses.

In a way, it was a nice transition back into the working world and possibly a better transition for the kids to be away from me only three days a week instead of five. It's been great to be working but not awesome to know that we are literally paying a price for me to do that, not to mention the additional costs of my commute and the additional food costs (lunches out, takeout for dinner, and a lot of food waste that I wasn't able to manage very well). But it definitely fit in with the stories I've heard of women who stay home for a few years - what it does to our career trajectory, what it sets us up for in the future. Well, this is my bed, and I'll lie in it.

Then, the old saying that the easiest way to get a job is to have a job came true for me. A series of events led to me being offered a high-level position with unbelievable pay (more than Peanut will make for several more years), excellent benefits (financial and otherwise), challenging work, something that makes a few ticks on my bucket list and also sets up the rest of my career in an interesting and possibly life-changing way. Literally overnight, I went from being a drain on the family finances to the breadwinner and a potential employer, as we can now afford things like a nanny and a housecleaner. Peanut has the opportunity to take some creative risks with his own career. This is the kind of thing I dreamed might happen after leaving the workforce, but I never actually thought it would happen. It's very much like winning the lottery - it's made that kind of difference in our family's financial future.

It's been a little bit mind-boggling, to say the least. I'm hoping that as things shake out I'll have more time to talk about it here - there's a lot to unpack.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

2016 New Years Resolutions

Well, perhaps one of my resolutions should be to finish what I start, since it's taken me more than the first full week of the year to finish this list! Better late than never, I guess - I took the time to think hard about these instead of dashing off some less personal resolutions.

1. Say hello first. I've noticed that I often wait for someone else to be the first to acknowledge me when I'm not sure what else to do - things like dragging the garbage cans out to the curb at the same time as a neighbor, or waiting at preschool pick-up with another parent. It feels like we should say hi or maybe chat a little, but I am waiting for someone else to take the lead. I'm going to say hello first from now on, whenever the opportunity comes up.

2. KonMarie my house. I've been decluttering according to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and it is, indeed, life-changing. But there are some areas of the house I haven't really tackled as well as I could - my own wardrobe, my book collection, the basement in general. I've gotten rid of a ton of stuff, but I know there's more that I can send back out into the world.

3. Pay for childcare. Things are hap-hap-happening on the job front, which is great, and I have some other opportunities as well. This requires paid childcare (and probably additional free childcare from my in-laws). My goal is to earn enough net income to pay the childcare bills - and a nice bonus would be bring in a little more than that, too.

4. Better sleep hygiene. I go on jags about this where I'm good about it and then I fall into terrible habits like watching Scandal for two hours later than I wanted to stay up. My kids have better bedtime routines than I do, and this is an area where I need to treat myself like a kid, I guess, and get strict.

5. Be curious about parenting. I often feel frustrated that things don't go the way I expect them to with my kids. I find that when I just let things unfold, I am almost always pleasantly surprised. I learn things that I didn't know they can do, just by wondering if they can - so my goal this year is to be curious more often and see what develops.

6. Align how I spend my time with what I want to be doingThis article about a seminar that helps first-year college students plan the next four years of their lives struck a chord with me, particularly the suggestion to make a list of how you want to spend your time, and then to make a list of how you actually spent your time the previous week. I know that there would be quite a disparity between my lists, so I'm striving to make active, conscious choices on a daily basis that brings those two things closer into alignment.

Monday, January 4, 2016

2015 Spending Recap

Previous Years: 2010201120122013, 2014



2015 2014 % change
blog $40.50 $37.62 8%
business $46.68 $64.48 -28%
car jeep $669.95 $662.58 1%
car mazda $1,882.43 $3,065.02 -39%
Car Toyota $6,866.73 n/a 68667200%
cat $169.26 $344.20 -51%
cell phones $1,529.95 $1,345.62 14%
charity $454.18 $150.00 203%
clothing $1,183.10 $1,137.07 4%
dental $2,814.55 $1,188.15 137%
electric $1,178.40 $1,392.48 -15%
electronics $17.23 $468.37 -96%
Entertainment $989.82 $929.21 7%
food  groceries $5,234.81 $5,273.68 -1%
food  other $3,178.88 $2,719.13 17%
gardening $175.76 $21.95 701%
gas $727.39 $913.73 -20%
Gifts $1,185.30 $527.63 125%
helicopter/robot $0.01 $189.35 -100%
house $19,199.83 $16,761.92 15%
household $2,206.51 $2,893.55 -24%
hygiene $380.43 $380.30 0%
insurance $1,224.96 $560.00 119%
internet $803.13 $906.84 -11%
medical $4,407.81 $254.20 1634%
sewing/quilting $52.48 $6.99 651%
school $270.00 n/a 2699900%
transportation $140.00 $350.00 -60%
travel $1,167.03 $1,627.26 -28%
water & trash $919.73 $1,047.04 -12%
yoga $0.00 $40.00 -100%
Total $59,116.84 $45,258.37 31%


We are really consistent in some categories - hygiene, for example, clothing, entertainment, groceries. Like, weirdly so. A difference of $0.13 in hygiene? (which includes toothpaste, deodorant, feminine products, hair cuts). That's almost creepy. :)

The increases were the purchase of our Toyota, a big dental expense (root canal/crown, yay), a big uptick in gifts (lots of babies born in our lives in 2015!), and a major change from the last three years is that Pickle's medical assistance from the state ran out and we are now responsible for our out-of-pocket medical expenses. Previously, due to her special needs, state medical assistance covered all of her medical expenses that our primary insurance didn't cover - like the deductible, which we usually met very early in the year (and we have a high interest deductible plan). So we didn't have many out-of-pocket medical expenses for Peanut or I in 2013 or 2014, even though I had a baby! But Pickle has now aged out of her original approval for state assistance, and her remaining diagnoses do not qualify for her to continue to receive it. This is not even a mixed blessing - I am happy to pay for our medical care, because it means that Pickle is overcoming all the side effects of prematurity! After all of the excellent care we have received, paying our max out of pocket of $6,300 a year still seems like a bargain. We cycle our medical expenses through an HSA so we don't have to pay income tax on those dollars, too.

Despite the increase in our spending, we were able to save a little bit as well and also maxed out both of our Roth IRAs for the year as well as contributing to Peanut's 401(k) up to the match. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015 New Years Resolutions Recap

1. Less yelling. When I failed this one, I failed pretty spectacularly, so it's hard for me to dwell on it too long. I know that there were moments that I managed to succeed, but the moments that stay with me are the ones where I tripped up. On the plus side, I made the effort, I did a lot of research on parenting approaches to give me more tools to deal with frustration or manage our lives in such a way that yelling is less likely, and we've taken steps to mitigate the situations I have the hardest time dealing with.

2. Get stronger. I felt pretty weak physically at the beginning of 2014 after spending almost a full year in a high-risk pregnancy and then recovering from a c-section. I didn't manage to get any kind of regular exercise routine in place, but I did make an effort to walk to the park or preschool, take the stairs, carry both kids at once, and even do some home-based yoga for a while. I feel almost back to my old self. I'm in as good of shape as can be expected for this period of my life, I think. 

3. Treasure the moment.  At the end of 2015, I will have a preschooler and a toddler - no babies. I wrote that sentence a year ago, and it literally brought a tear to my eye today to realize that it's true. Baby Bear is a full-blown toddler, with full-blown toddler tantrums, a toothy grin, and those first wobbly steps about to appear any minute. This year, it has been really hard to treasure the moments - Baby Bear has been a much more difficult baby than Pickle ever was (colic, constantly nursing, never sleeping - oh, god, the not sleeping) so I have very much looked forward to milestones instead of sniffing baby heads and pinching baby toes. This is a year I will be relieved to never have to live through again, but I think I've managed to notice and be present for a lot of the really amazing moments (like the other day, when Pickle asked to sing Baby Bear a song for his nap, and then rubbed his back and sang to him in an eerily familiar mimicry of the way I do it for her). 

4. Max out retirement. Success! We maxed out our Roth IRAs and Peanut contributed to his SEP IRA to get the employer match (which has not always been managed correctly, but it's been documented and sooner or later all the money will show up there). 

5. Bring in some side income. Success! I sold a bunch of baby stuff, medical supplies, books, and other household items, participated in a medical research study, and did some Swagbucks/survey/reward app things. It wasn't a ton of money, but it did add up, and I also tried hard to find ways to save money on regular spending, which is a good use of my time as well.