Saturday, May 31, 2008

So Chesapeake House rest stop has a whole hall of family bathrooms! And entire busloads of solo assholes using them b/c the line's shorter! Grrr.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Biggest Prizey Loser EVAH!

Ever since Art alerted our corner of the blogosphere to the wonder that is Prizey (by telling us about some of her fab swag), I've been clicking and typing away along with lots of my bloggy friends. One by one they've posted their wins, but I have had nothing to show for my efforts. But the tide changed last week when I got an email alerting me to my first Prizey win! I was moderately excited and knew Natalie would be thrilled (it was Signing Time stuff! With Alex! AND LEAH!!!!).

Then, in today's mail, I got a package! With one end torn off and rubber stamps from the Post Office all over it saying, "Received without contents". And no Prizey in sight. Wah.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Tightwad Tuesday 3: Snip, Snip, Snip

So you've taken the plunge and drafted a budget (whether meticulous to the last penny or somewhat faster and looser), and now you're looking at the bottom line. If you're lucky, your bottom line is a positive number. If you're like most of us, it's a bit redder than that. But no matter what your final tally is, chances are you want or need to make some cuts. Another option would be to add income, but we'll look at that another time. Maybe you need to put more money into emergency, retirement, or college savings (in that order, please). Or maybe, like us, you need to find money to, uh, buy groceries.

There are many ways to trim your budget - you can look for big-ticket items, or small ones. Things that can be eliminated immediately, or reductions you can work towards over time. We're looking at all of them, but today I thought I'd focus on some of the small stuff. It really is true that the little things add up over time, and sometimes it's easier and faster to make small changes. While it won't solve all of your money worries, it is good discipline, and it does ultimately make a difference.

Small savings can be made in myriad ways, and every person or family will find a different approach. A friend of mine poured tons of her disposable income into cab rides, but made an effort to get up in time to take the bus or walk. She quickly started saving enough money to make a significant impact on her budget. Others may find that entertainment costs, clothing, gadgets, or hobbies are a bigger slice of the budget than necessary. For us, one key area on which to focus is food costs, including groceries, dining out, and snacking on the run.

We've already made a difference by recommitting to planning dinner menus for the week, and making sure some of the meals provide leftovers for lunches. Convenience foods - like the frozen lunches we used to fall back on far too often - are a quick way to add to the grocery bill. DIY is another way to save, and we already make artisan-type bread using the No-Knead Bread recipe. We're exploring other homemade options, too, but the reality is that we can't make everything and juggle jobs, a toddler, a pregnancy, and chronic illness. So we weigh the convenience versus the cost. Right now, for example, the convenience of canned beans outweighs the cost savings over dried. Perhaps later we'll change our minds.

Much like budgeting is essential to getting your finances in control, cost-comparisons are crucial in trimming spending on things like groceries, toiletries, or other disposable/perishable goods. Shelli keeps a price book where she writes down the cost of goods at various stores, and says after months of tracking prices, she doesn't really need the book - it's all in her head. I'm enough of a geek that I have to have a spreadsheet, so I made one up and printed it out. It lives in my bag, and every time I'm in a store, I jot down the prices on a few items (even if they aren't what I'm buying on that trip). Already it's helped me confirm that many goods really are cheaper - sometimes significantly - at Costco, but not everything.

The small things can also be some of the hardest to change, as they tend to come from the discretionary areas in your spending, so cutting back too quickly or severely can lead to feelings of deprivation and frustration, which may backfire and derail your entire financial plan (much like overly restrictive dieting can lead to a compensatory binge). We may eventually need to be more severe in our cutbacks, but so far have tried instead to reign in carefree spending and make sure that
1) we make the most cost effective purchase possible
2) we use what we buy (we've eaten some sad looking carrots lately, let me tell you)
3) we ENJOY what we eat and make it special, whether it's home-cooked or a treat from a restaurant.
We're not making dramatic eliminations from our grocery purchasing (except cereal - we did switch to oatmeal for breakfast because packaged cereal is SO expensive) and not stopping restaurant and snack purchases altogether, because I know that would make us all depressed and grumpy. So far it's working - and we're enjoying better meals as a result.

There's so much more I could write, but now it's your turn:

What is the area where you can really make small savings add up, and what are your tricks for doing so?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Things I Would Twitter About If I Had Twitter

  • Mowing the lawn is one of the most rewarding home tasks in existence. Immediate results!
  • I cleaned my laptop screen and (most of) the keyboard. My computer may suck, but it sucks CLEANLY now. The screen is blinding in its shininess.
  • I did finally plant my bulbs, um, 5 or 6 months late. We'll see what, if anything, comes up next spring.
  • All weekends should be 3 day weekends.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tightwad Tuesday 2: Knowledge is Power*

Thanks for all the great comments on last week's post. Finances are a subject near and, well, painful, to my heart and I am glad to have the opportunity to think out loud and bounce ideas off such great friends and readers as you. Your comments touched on many things I hope to explore in the coming weeks: creative work arrangements, CSAs/Freecycle/co-ops and other community approaches to stretching resources, arts & museum memberships, and of course, libraries. :D Need I say more about libraries?

I do want to start by saying that I am NOT a financial expert. I'm a nerd with a lot of anxiety and issues around money, and up until this point in my life, my financial approach has been a cross between Aesop's ant and an ostrich: generally working hard and doing the right thing about money, but burying my head in the sand instead of really coming to grips with my money situation. But an ostrich can only live so long with its head in the ground, and our impending Year of Living Impecuniously means that it is time for me to face the facts. Yes, I am talking about a Budget with a capital B. True confession: I've never had a budget to date, and I'd probably be a lot better off right now if I ever had. But that's water under the bridge....

One of the things that kept me from making a budget for so many years was my tendency to perfectionism. I tried several times to sit down with financial software and keep track of EVERY PENNY. My grandparents did it (my grandmother still does - receipts for single candy bars! books of stamps! a bottle of water!), by hand, in a green ledger... and they have more money than anyone else I know personally. But each time I tried it, it was too overwhelming and soon got pushed aside. I always had enough to live on, health insurance, and something in savings (though sometimes a very small something). These last few years, with health challenges and the costs of medically assisted conception, we've been living closer to the wire than I found comfortable, but I still couldn't make the time to sit down and wrestle the numbers.

There's something about knowing that your household income is going to diminish significantly in the near future, while your expenses are NOT, that gives you the impetus to face the budgeting demon head on. In doing so, I learned something very valuable. I don't have to have a PERFECT budget. I don't have to know every expense to the last penny per kilowatt - and in fact, it's nearly impossible to do so. But even working with estimates and loose numbers has given me a much better understanding of our financial picture, for better or for (gulp) worse.

The weekend we made the first draft of our budget, we just looked at what we are spending now and our present income, compared with our anticipated income in the fall. There were no great revelations - we knew our biggest expenses and challenges would be housing, insurance, and our car - but we did get a pretty good idea of how big a gap we'd be looking at in the fall. It was simultaneously reassuring and terrifying. It actually helped my financial anxiety to have real numbers to work with ("Worst case scenario, we would amass X thousand in debt at the end of this year"), rather than the looming vague nightmares -- homelessness, repossession, living in my parents' basement -- I am so good at summoning. At the same time, it gave me a tangible lump in my throat: how are we going to trim that much money from a budget that is already so tight? Or, how will we make up the difference in income?

I think the best thing our budgeting exercise did was make us more conscious of our financial situation on a daily basis, while giving us motivation to start tackling the problem. We need to take it several steps further, getting more specific and monitoring what we are spending (if perhaps not quite as meticulously as my grandmother), but it's a start, and it's more than I've ever done. As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step....

Your turn: Do you have a budget? If not, why not? If you do, what system do you use? What do you like or hate about keeping a budget?

*Are you singing the Schoolhouse Rock song now? I am....

Friday, May 16, 2008

Second Child Syndrome

I wanted to start this post by comparing the number of times the word "Harpo" appears in the archives versus the number of times "Carbo" does, but I couldn't find a tool that would do it for me (if you know of one, do let me know as I am curious). Eventually, I ran a word cloud analysis and suffice to say, Harpo showed up in a pretty decent font size and Carbo... did not.

Poor Carbo. Doomed already to a life with less attention, lots of hand-me-downs, and an older sibling who is likely to alternate hugs and kisses with pokes and smacks*. Unlike some parents anticipating the arrival of a second child, I have NO fears about being able to love this child as much as I do Natalie, but I do worry that this child is not going to get the undivided attention that has been heaped upon Natalie from moms, grandparents, and relatives galore. I know this isn't all bad, and second children tend to be more laid back and social than their often stressed-out firstborn siblings, but it's hard to ignore.

A few weeks ago Liza was giving me a good-natured hard time about my approach to this pregnancy, because not only do I have to stop and think for a moment to determine the exact gestational age of the baby, I also don't know any of the stats I could have quoted to you about then-Harpo at this point (date of my next MW appointment, estimated weight at the Level II u/s, umm... I hate to confess this but, cough my exact EDD**, etc.).

This baby is no less wanted than Natalie, not at all, but I just don't focus on the pregnancy in the same way that I did. For one thing, I am tired all the time, more so than in the middle of gestating Natalie. And the pregnancy experience isn't new, either, so my thoughts tend to be, "Ahh, I remember this," or, more likely, "Ecch, I remember this," or, "Huh, that's different," but there's less belly-gazing in confusion, wonder, and curiosity. (Except for the movement. THAT still gets all my attention. I love it.) Probably the biggest factor, though, is that Natalie takes up a huge portion of my time, thoughts, and energy, and wee Carbo gets what's left.

Here's another example. Our short list of names for this child is VERY short:

Yup - nada. I guess being named, " " would be a conversation starter, and make things easier for the kid when learning to spell, but boy would the bureaucracy have trouble with it. We've had two conversations about names since the pregnancy was confirmed and we got to a point where we felt a live baby was a fairly likely outcome, and neither discussion resulted in much more than a handful of names about which one mom felt somewhat lukewarm and the other mother slightly more enthusiasm.

The truth of the matter is, I probably think about Carbo as much as I did about Harpo in utero -- but the thoughts themselves are very different***. For one thing, a lot of the wondering one does about an unborn child has a different tenor in a subsequent pregnancy. Instead of wondering, "Will this baby be active?" or "Will s/he sleep well?", inevitably the wondering becomes more comparative: "Will s/he be as big as Natalie?" and "Will this baby talk as much as Natalie?" (And I KNOW you're not supposed to compare children... but is there anyone who DOESN'T???) Then there's all the worrying about managing two kids and giving appropriate amounts of attention to each of them. And worrying about sibling rivalry. And thinking about dragging the poor second kid along wherever the first needs to go, as opposed to being slavishly devoted to The Baby's Schedule.

I repeat, this child is wanted and loved as much as Natalie (and Coqui) ever was, and we are eagerly anticipating his or her birth and the growth of our family. I daresay by the birth, we'll even have some names picked out (lest we leave the task up to Natalie who has named two of her dolls "Other Baby" and "Aaa"). But the second verse... it really isn't the same as the first.

*She already does, in fact. She will sweetly talk to my belly and then moments later swat it saying, "I hit baby." The gentle and loving interest is far more frequent than the experimental mistreatment (she often tries to share various treats with the baby by holding them to my belly) but the harbinger of challenges to come is there indeed.
**I do actually know it but I've learned my lesson from last time and when people ask when I am due I tell them "Mid-September". And I have said this so often that I now think of it in those terms, and the actual EDD is not at the forefront of my brain. By August, I guarantee you it will be.
***Except the worries about something being wrong with the baby. Those are pretty much identical.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Feeling the Pinch?

In an effort to post more and to harness some of the wisdom of my friends in the computer, I'm going to experiment with a series of posts about something that is on our minds a lot. As two teachers, we've never been particularly flush, but the past five years of medical treatments (fertility, molar pregnancy aftermath, and Lyme disease... not to mention mental health!!), plus the expenses of one child, soon to be two, have really started to put the squeeze on us. Add to that the fact that we live in the one of the top 5 most expensive metropolitan area of the US*, and, well, it's really starting to keep us up at night.

Regardless of occupation and location, everyone we know struggles with money to some degree. So I'm going to start a series of posts I'm calling Tightwad Tuesdays. (I'm sure it's not original but it was the best I could come up with these days!). My hope is that it will give us a chance to vent, yes, but more than that to share tips and ideas so we can all get by a little better on whatever we've got.

Today I'm just going to give a little background, but in the weeks to come I plan to tackle specific topics, posting questions and suggestions and hoping to get lots more ideas from all of you out there in blogland.

In an ideal world, we'd both be working part time, but that is beyond unrealistic where we live and in the occupations we have. We've been managing with me full time and Cait half time (which allows us to arrange free** childcare for Natalie) , but that model isn't sustainable with two kids - we couldn't make the free childcare work among other things. We've looked at the cost of fulltime daycare for one infant and one 2 y.o., and it's pretty close to Cait's take home - close enough that it's not worth it to us to have our children in bargain basement daycare and the added stress of trying to get all four of us out of the house each morning for chump change in return.

Our plan is that Cait will stay home F/T next year. I will be working, but I will take 12 weeks of maternity leave. Luckily, 6 weeks of that will be paid. Unfortunately, 6 weeks won't. So we are looking down the barrel of a VERY lean year, with a particularly thin patch around November/December (the lag time between when I resume working and when my paycheck picks up again). We have begun working on a budget and have already taken some steps to trim expenses, but we still have to figure out where to come up with money to do frivolous things like... eat.

Therefore, I welcome you to the inaugural issue of TIGHTWAD TUESDAYS!

So we don't all spend the next week gnashing our teeth in despair, I invite you to share some of your financial challenges in the comments, but also please tell us something in your life that is either 1) money very well spent, or 2) free and fabulous. Here are mine:

1) Money well spent: Sometimes, we are just so dead at the end of the week that it's really, really nice just to order a pizza. We wont' be able to do it as often as we do now next year, but I want to find a way in our budget that we can still get takeout or go out for burritos every once in a while. I know we can make pizza and burritos at home - and we do - but sometimes it's a really nice treat not to have to do ANYTHING but pick up the phone or get in the car.

2) Free & fabulous: The upside to both of us teaching is that we get more time together as a family than many families. I'm counting the days until June 20, when we get blissful family time together for weeks on end.

*ACCRA Cost of Living Index 2007
**Except for occasional psychological cost to us (not Natalie).... If you know who one of our caregivers is, you know what I mean.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Backed Up

I just want you to know that I am blogging in my head. I realize this isn't very helpful or interesting to YOU, but I do think about the blog, and write fragments of posts. Quite frequently in fact. I suppose I ought to go over to the Twitter Dark Side, but for one thing, I'm still enough of a Luddite cheapskate idiot that I pay $0.15 per text message, so I don't think it's a good plan. Not to mention that my cell phone doesn't work where *I* work. (Can you Twitter from a website?) Anyway, I have these ideas, sometimes nearly complete posts in my head but they never quite get out, no matter how much I try.

Since this has become pretty much a parenting blog, we now have the obligatory poop reference. Natalie is having similar output problems, but hers are more, shall we say, organic. She is very close to being out of diapers for daytime but is having a lot of trouble in the poop department. She just doesn't seem to know HOW to poop in the toilet, or perhaps she is scared, but no longer poops in diapers much unless she's asleep.* It's becoming a major problem and led to a near war with my mom, who accused us of pushing her too much too soon and scarring her for life (we are only potty training at Natalie's interest and insistence - she went through a major diaper refusal campaign, so what else were we going to do)? So we read a lot about poop, and talk about it being ok in diapers or potties, and listen to Poopsmith, and oh, dear lord the fiber, the fiber! Unfortunately, we're now 4 days since the last deposit, and despite clear discomfort and a LOT of time spent on a potty or in a diaper today -- nada. Suggestions ARE welcome.

*There have been a handful times when she did poop in the potty, but it was mostly accidental.

Friday, May 09, 2008

In Which I Read and Review a Book for GROWNUPS! Wow!

They tell you, "You can't judge a book by its cover." Well, as a librarian, let me tell you that people DO judge books by their covers. The cover is a huge part of whether or not a book will move off the shelves. Kids will turn up their noses at a book with a dated cover, one that "looks boring", or doesn't look like them. And I'm not that different from the kids I teach, honestly.

If I hadn't received a review copy of Marjorie Greenfield's The Working Woman's Pregnancy Book, I probably wouldn't have paid too much attention to it in a bookstore or delved too deeply into its Amazon listing. And that would have been a shame, as there is much to praise in this book. But the image on the cover is of a pregnant belly in a tasteful black maternity top, while the belly's owner looks at a cell phone or PDA in her manicured hand.
It's a far cry from what pregnant, working me looks like, and the image just doesn't resonate with me. Opening the book and perusing the table of contents doesn't help, either, as the chapter titles are puns from the white collar world: "Mergers and Acquisitions (Getting Pregnant)", and "Going Public (Weeks 14-26)" to name a few. I was uninspired when I began reading, but slowly (yes, like a pregnancy) it grew on me.

The adage is true - you can't judge this book by its cover. While it appears to reach out to the corporate career woman - a narrow slice of the working world, indeed - it is broad in its reach and includes voices of women in a wide array of jobs. The frequent quotes were some of my favorite parts of the book, and came from, among others, a FedEx courier, a supermodel*, teachers, librarians, secretaries, lawyers, a police officer, doctors, a factory worker, and a governor**. Oh, and the author herself, although she doesn't make it clear she's quoting herself, which bothered me a bit (Marge G., obstetrician). The quotes brought a reality and warmth to the book which made it fun to read, and really helped present the vast spectrum of working experiences in America. They were still slanted to the middle and upper class (the only housecleaners and nannies mentioned in the book were those employed by the interviewees) but were a far more representative sample than I originally anticipated.

As I read the book, I realized I was at a bit of a (self-created) disadvantage in reviewing it. Despite my obsession with reading and research, I have read very few pregnancy books with which to compare it. In my first pregnancy I read the Girlfriend's Guide to Pregnancy (ugh, don't ask me why - worst piece of heterosexist drivel I've wasted my eyeballs on) and started on What Never To Do When You're Expecting (or whatever it's called)... and then descended into the nine levels of miscarriage and molar hell. When I finally got pregnant again, I had no interest in pregnancy books. Eventually I read a lot about childbirth (and when I got paranoid about a particular symptom, I'd look it up in the Mayo Clinic Complete Book of Pregnancy and Your Child's First Year - not a good choice for hypochondriacs!), and I did refer to Your Vegetarian Pregnancy for nutrition information (great resource!), but I didn't read any of the gazillion pregnancy books.

So I don't have much to compare TWWPB against, and I did sometimes find myself unfairly comparing the latter part of the book, which address labor and birth, against the books I've read which focus entirely on birth preparation and experiences. It's an unfair comparison because TWWPB tries to be much more, and does a very admirable job.

It covers everything from pre-conception through the return to work and the beginning of the long, long juggling act that is working parenthood. Greenfield is warm and supportive, and shows compassion for survivors of infertility and miscarriage. She provides basic information on unassisted conception, an introduction to testing and options in fertility treatment, and a thorough but succinct overview of the various stages of pregnancy, prenatal testing, medical care, childbirth options, labor, birth, baby care, and the eventual return to work. The interplay, positive and negative, between working and procreating is the underlying theme of the book, but it is often a subtle background refrain. Although the work-specific chapters are less than a quarter of the total, they will be tremendously useful and informative for working women, particularly those who need or want to resume working after their children are born. In particular, the section on "Laws Related to Pregnancy and Work" (p.184-189) is more comprehensive and comprehensible than any other resource I've seen to date, and I wish I'd had access to it prior to my first child's birth!

I have quibbles, of course (would you expect anything less?):
  • I was surprised that the discussion of childcare was left until the very end of the book, when it's such a difficult hurdle for so many families, and often requires a great deal of research, legwork, and planning during the pregnancy.
  • The author mentions her love for the book Getting to Yes so many times I began to wonder if she was getting a cut from the publisher.
  • I wish the recommended reading sections had been appended to each chapter instead of in one large resource section at the end. And I was appalled at the omission of Taking Charge of Your Fertility from the "On Getting Pregnant" list.
  • Post-Partum Depression gets minimal coverage, and depression during pregnancy, which has been a challenge for me and several of my friends, is barely mentioned at all.
  • The initial presentation of prenatal care and childbirth options is very comprehensive and remarkably open to midwifery and out-of-hospital birth -- for a mainstream pregnancy book. The labor and birth chapters are a bit more skewed towards the typical medicalized birth, and don't always present complete information about risks and benefits of interventions or alternatives.
Those (mostly) minor issues aside, I found TWWPB to be an interesting and informative read, and other than the stress of the review deadline looming over my head (way to draw the second-shortest straw on my first MotherTalk review!!) I enjoyed reading it. I would recommend it to any of my friends pursuing pregnancy as a good overall resource, and a starting point to a pregnancy library (which would of course need supplementation, particularly in terms of childbirth education). All in all, I liked it much more than I expected when I first pulled it out of the package and flipped through the book. So I guess I'll keep telling the kids not to judge books by their covers....

PS - I would be remiss in my very lesbian blog to overlook the fact that Greenfield is welcoming to mothers of all orientations, explaining in the preface that she will discuss partners as male but was aware and supportive of other family configurations including single moms and partnered lesbians. I was delighted to encounter that statement in the first page of text and it did make the frequent "father" references easier to swallow.

*Identified in the book as Cindy M. Cindy C., I could have figured out. Any ideas for Cindy M.?
Update: Ok, my good friend Google helped me - I think this is Cindy M. Can't say I'm really up to speed on my supermodels....
**That one was a little easier. How many governors have given birth (to twins, no less) in office?