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.