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March 23, 2014

What Need Looks Like

Filed under: Personal, Personal Finance — Tags: , , , , , — llcall @ 8:52 pm

In the days after Neal and I finally agreed to raise our grocery budget from $145 to $200 per month, I was feeling flush with yummier things to eat. I bought a loaf of french bread to eat with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I bought a can of freeze-dried mushrooms (my friend sells these and can get reduced rates if you’re ever in the market for shelf-stable food) to rehydrate and add to some of my meals (SO much better than those water-logged canned mushrooms). Best of all, I probably went at least a week without eating any beans at all!

So I was a little surprised when I clicked on a friend’s Facebook link about a photography exhibit of “Picturing Hunger in America” and found this picture front and center:


The photos are, of course, meant to increase awareness of and empathy for the plight of low-income American families. But I couldn’t feel immediate empathy for this family, similar in size and budget, because I was too busy thinking about how Neal and I would negotiate this particular grocery list. Him crossing roast beef right off the list, while I opine about how juice is just frivolous and has too much sugar; water is so refreshing, anyway!

When I saw that picture I had to pause and contemplate whether the people I interact with, my friends and family (who sometimes joke about us starving Addison — lunch is still our Achilles’ heel), actually think that we, eating off of $50 per week, are hungry. They couldn’t possibly think that we’re going to bed with unbearably empty stomachs, right? I don’t want to downplay real pain that Americans are experiencing, but this is what hunger actually looks like, isn’t it?

This is such a complex topic. To really give context to my own reaction, I would have to talk about some of my previous work with those in poverty, my own experience on food stamps (10 or so years ago), the debate about “food deserts,” and some of the differences between being low-income vs. being in poverty (because we’re obviously low-income, but we’re nowhere near poverty-stricken). But time is my scarcest resource right now, since I started my second job almost a month ago.

In addition to teaching online, I’m now a case manager (part-time) for the family resource center in our town. I work primarily with low-income families with young children, visiting them at home, teaching parenting classes, and connecting them with whatever types of resources they need (food, shelter, insurance, government programs, legal assistance, domestic violence counseling, etc.). As much as I have felt that compassion and empathy are among my strong suits, I have to admit that I’ve already encountered situations, like the one above, in which my judgmental voice was activated far more quickly than my empathic one. It’s hard to suppress my pathological frugality when I’m daily examining others’ income and bank statements, and trying to resist asking for their projected line-item budget for the year. Someone says, We NEED this and my personal finance voice says, Are you sure that’s a need and not a want? Are you sure you’ve prioritized that need over your other wants? I think back to the first time I saw that picture above and the thoughts that ran through my head: This is not what hunger looks like; THIS is what hunger looks like. This is not what need looks like; THIS is what need looks like.

I’ve spent so long looking at incarcerated men — their needs and all the things they’ve lacked or lost — that my heart is soft for them, even without a word. I work with a different group now and I can see that my heart needs to get softer. Is it more difficult because there’s more of a resemblance there? And how to soften my heart in just the right way, so that I can still go home and leave my work at work (as if that’s ever happened!) or say no, in the kindest way possible, when that’s the only appropriate answer?

So talk to me. What helps you to activate your empathic voice, even if you have to do so in conjunction with one of judgment? I’ve found this video from Dr. Brene Brown (and her other work) very insightful . . . but what else?


February 25, 2014

The 50-cent knife

Filed under: Family, Personal, Personal Finance — Tags: , , , — llcall @ 5:15 am

“Hey Neal, what was that 73-cent charge for?”

“It looks like you spent $1.35 yesterday. What did you buy?”

“I can’t account for about 29 cents — have you bought anything lately?”

Seven years later, it’s almost hard to believe how frequently I asked Neal to account for 73 cents here and 8 cents there in the first few months of our marriage. I had been tracking every penny I earned and spent since I was 17 years old, and I didn’t see why that had to change just because I was adding another designated user to all my accounts. He’d usually chuckle a bit, but still patiently answer my questions. I was sure we were on our way to minimizing the seemingly mindless 89-cent purchases that were showing up every 5 or 6 days.

Until the day.

He’d dropped by D. I. (a thrift store) after work, as he always did (read: he must have stopped by there after work at least 7 or 8 times in the 4 years we lived in Utah — that’s like twice a year, guys!). Minutes after he walked through the door I gathered up the receipts as I always did. D. I. receipts were particularly cryptic and maddening:

  • Merchandise — small         $0.70
  • Merchandise — large         $4.00

Small merchandise. Large merchandise. That seemed to be all the specificity D. I. was equipped to provide, which is totally useless when you’re trying to figure out which budgeting category each charge should be most accurately assigned to.

Was the latest purchase a dish rack? Household — Cleaning Supplies — Durable 

A new pair of church shoes for Neal? Personal Care — Clothing — Neal

A skirt that I would begrudgingly try on? Gifts — Clothing — Attempts to Make Lindsay More Presentable

Between D. I.’s vague labels and Neal’s spotty memory, it was almost impossible to keep useful records. It was as if D. I. was purposely trying to create confusion and ambiguity so that you would feel the need to buy more things just to reestablish some sense of control in a chaotic world. (I never did buy anything there, though; I won’t play their sick game.)

On this particular day, there wasn’t much to puzzle over on the receipt. “What small merchandise did you buy for 50 cents?” I asked.

Neal, totally nonchalant: “Just a knife”

“But we already have knives. Where is it?” I started looking around, less nonchalant.

“I put it by the dishwasher.”

I picked up the knife for examination. It looked average enough. Short. Black handle. Decently sharp for a thrift store find.

“We have knives just like this. We don’t need another knife.” I opened the knife drawer just to verify. One, two, three . . .  yep, at least three nearly identical knives.

Neal, bored with the knife interrogation conversation, had casually walked back to his bedroom and was checking email. I followed.

“Why did you buy that knife when we have others just like it?”

“I just thought we could use it,” he replied, eyes still fixed on his computer.

“Well, we don’t need it. You should return it.”

“Well, D. I. doesn’t do returns. ”

“WHAT?! You’re going shopping and making impulse buys at a store that doesn’t even take returns?” I step closer just to make sure he can hear my disgust, since his back is still turned toward me.

He finally cranes his neck to look at me. “Seriously? It cost 50 cents. It’s not a big deal.”

“But 50 cents spent on something we don’t need is still a waste of 50 cents! If you spent 50 cents needlessly every time you went to the store that would add up . . . ”

“To like 50 dollars a year! Gasp!”

“Do you know what 50 dollars per year FOR THE REST OF OUR MARRIAGE would add up to?”

“You seriously need to get a grip,” he concluded as he turns back to his computer.

After the incident, I knew I had to curb my obsessive financial tracking. It seemed the rest of our marriage might not be as long as I was planning if I kept asking him to account for every penny that left our account. Some men might find it emasculating; he just found it freaking annoying.

Initially the realization that I couldn’t track every cent was so depressing that I stopped monitoring our finances altogether for several months. (Crazy, I know!) It was strange that one of my favorite pastimes (financial monitoring! with spreadsheets!) had so quickly lost any pleasure for me. Neal, feeling for my frustration, even helpfully offered to take over the finances: “I’ll do it, as long as you’re okay with imperfection and losing track of a couple hundred dollars here and there.” (Um . . . thanks? as I dry-heave at the thought.) No, I had to find a middle ground. I had to accept that marriage means giving up obsessive control over many things, not the least of which is cheap knife purchases. Peace was once again restored to our home and financial planning.

Until the summer of “WE’RE BLEEDING MONEY,” of course . . .

September 4, 2012

Metablogging and money guilt

[That’s right, blogging about my blogging again.]

I have only written a handful of posts on my personal finance blog since introducing it in June. Still, it’s about what I was planning on — tracking our income, deconstructing our budget, and explaining our lifestyle choices. In that vein, I recently wrote a post about “the why” behind some of our choices per the suggestion of Alysa. It’s about “money guilt” — and by the way, I’m DYING to hear more thoughts/opinions/experiences/non-experiences on the topic! — and after I was done writing, I felt so relieved to have finally recorded some of those childhood experiences that have loomed surprisingly large in my life.

But then I thought, this is really part of my personal history; it ties into so many of the things that I’ve been working on recording like therapy and childhood memories. And I wished instead that I had written it on this blog. And then I bemoaned the fragmentation that seems to so easily creep into our lives.

But of course, it’s not a big deal (I just have nothing else to think about at 1:00 am); I could just post a link on this blog when I feel like something hits on the more personal aspects of personal finance. Or I could cross-post them. Really, I can do whatever I want since they’re my blogs, though I’m less inclined to cross-post since the 6 people that read Chronically Ill Finances also read this blog.

This leads to another silly problem that has frustrated me on the blogging front in recent weeks. A few friends have asked me to post a link to my personal finance blog on my sidebar, perhaps even updating when there’s a new post. That sounded easy enough since I’ve done a similar thing on Neal’s blogs. What I discovered, however, is that when I inserted a sidebar link, WordPress was resetting my entire sidebar, wanting me to design it from scratch. And that is just not my thing. In case you can’t tell, aesthetics have played a very minuscule role in my blogging tenure. I have had the same theme since maybe 2009 and I haven’t customized anything — just let it do its (boring) thing. The idea of tweaking my sidebar or layout or color scheme just doesn’t excite me in the least. So, no automatically updating sidebar link.

But last night at 1:00 am I finally had a productive thought. I could add a page with a blog link to my sidebar. It’s not quite as smooth, but if you do ever want to hop over to my personal finance blog, it will only be a couple of clicks away. (Or one click if you’re reading this post.)

[End metablogging.]

June 23, 2012

A fond farewell . . . and a new beginning

Remember that one time I said I was going to write more about personal finance on here? Yeah, I didn’t. I’ve often thought about it because it remains a huge passion of mine, but somehow it never quite seems to fit in here with all the talk about pregnancy and adoption and adorable pictures and incarceration (because otherwise there was such a unifying theme, right?).

So I started to think about creating a second blog focused on personal finance, which sounds simple enough but somehow felt like it would completely undercut my life philosophy. (I know, I’m ridiculous.) Back when I was a teenager and going through my first round of therapy, I realized just how fragmented my life was. I was something of a different person with other people and in various settings. And when it all hit the fan, I realized just how unhealthy and draining and horrible that life was. I decided then and there that I wanted to be (1) one person and  (2) totally open about that one person. And I think I have mostly been successful at this remake of myself — and nowhere is that success more clear than on this blog I have come to love. It is an absolute expression of me and that ideal I espoused as a very messed-up 18-year-old, who somehow managed to figure out what would bring me lasting happiness (if 14 years is any indication of that).

As silly as it sounds, I have hated the idea of sending some of my thoughts/ideas/passion to live elsewhere on the internet. Still, I decided to do it. When I started thinking about how to chronicle this “alternative lifestyle” we’re trying to live, it just made sense to keep it in one discrete, focused place.

So if you’re a personal finance geek, or you still haven’t figured out what the heck we’re doing, or you want to know how much money we’re making, or you want to see our budget (you know you wanna), hop over to Chronically ill finances and take a peek. Feel free to ask questions, offer suggestions (though that’s not a promise of heeding them), question our plans, or ask about specific budget items. I don’t have a master plan of how often I’ll post there (besides whenever we bring in income, which hopefully will get more frequent), but I would love for it to be a place where I can dialogue with and be challenged by interested people.

But before I abandon the topic of personal finance altogether, let me leave you with some parting “budgeting tips and tricks” in the form of this screencast I made as a sort of audition for the online adjunct faculty position I was seeking. If you watch it, don’t forget to share your own budgeting tips in the comments, or tell me how you’re going to apply one of mine to improve your financial situation! (Do I sound like a personal finance teacher yet?)

February 21, 2012

Moments when I know Neal and I are just right together:

Filed under: Family, Personal, Personal Finance — Tags: , , — llcall @ 6:42 pm

Neal, wistfully, while thumbing through a free issue of Consumer Reports:

If we were rich, I would totally get a subscription to Consumer Reports.

January 26, 2012

Not-so-lean times

2012 is going to be the leanest year financially that Neal and I have ever spent together.  Although we hope to have a new income stream established by year’s end, we will probably have no income for most of the year.  Living off savings is a psychologically difficult state for me.  Even though we have planned this for awhile, I can’t help mildly freaking out about it every few weeks.  I have never NOT saved money.  Even when I was living in DC on $10,000 per year.  I always found ways to bank a little money for the future.  But this is the future.

While I want to spend as little of our savings as possible, I don’t want to make the mistake of not enjoying some of the unique opportunities we have while living with my parents.  Like babysitting.  It will be a monumental waste if we are so frugal that we don’t go out on dates or weekend getaways while we have built-in babysitters.  We are aiming to carve out some kind of balance where we live lean, but also enjoy some of the things that So Cal has to offer (which is A LOT!).

The deal we hit on is that for all the activities I want to do, I need to sell something personal to make the money for it.  I’m not a huge purchaser of stuff, but I am definitely a keeper of stuff, AKA a pack-rat.  Since I know that experiences bring me more happiness than material possessions, I have started giving up things that I have long thought I would never part with.  My test question has been, would I rather have this or go to Disneyland?  If you know nothing else about me, you should know that Disneyland trumps almost everything.

Here’s the tally so far:

  • Sold items: $507
  • Birthday money from my aunts: $30

So all that is to say, I’ve made enough money that I’m going to Disneyland today!  Addison and I are off to buy my annual pass (thankfully they have a $199 So Cal resident pass) so that we can enjoy a year of Disneyland fun before she turns 3 and costs money too.

If there’s one thing that’s sure to boost my flagging spirits, it’s a roller-coaster!

January 4, 2012

2011: Did I git ‘er done?

Filed under: Family, Personal, Personal Finance, Therapy — Tags: , , , , — llcall @ 4:17 pm

I always love reading about people’s goals and resolutions for a new year.  I think I’m drawn to the concept of striving in general.  And while I’ve always been a striving sort of person, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as successful with following through on New Year’s plans as I was in 2011.   The one-word theme git ‘er done really worked for me — I actually managed to keep it fresh in my mind from beginning to end.  Having said that, when I look back at the things I said I hoped to get done in 2011, I can actually only cross one off my list:

  • Thesis
  • Three in-process papers submitted to journals
  • Reading Getting Things Done
  • Rach and Todd’s wedding quilt
  • Finish or discard the 50-some blog post drafts I’ve started
  • Roll over 403b into Roth IRA
  • Cross off two or three more states on my life list

But man was that thesis a doozy!

Otherwise, papers are still in process (but two of the three involve collaborators so I don’t have full control over that).  And I’ve only got about 50 pages left in GTD, so not too bad.  The quilt — what can I say, Rach?  I’m lame.  Blog drafts . . . now there’s 106 instead of 50.  The 403b rollover I wisely deferred until 2012 because this year will be the lowest income we’ve ever had.  And while I couldn’t cross off any new states, I did manage to see new cities in North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Even if at a cursory glance it looks like I didn’t really git ‘er done the way I intended, I feel quite satisfied with the year.  Spending time with my Grandpa in his final days is not the sort of thing I would set a goal for, but it is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.  And when I wrote that list I didn’t realize that I would soon feel an urgent need to go back to therapy for the fourth or fifth time — I can’t believe I’m losing count; that doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you should have trouble keeping track of — but so I did.  And just to kick it up a notch, we went to couples counseling, which is about 1000 times harder than individual therapy.  But I’m proud that we did that, and that we pressed on for six months even though there are always times you want to quit because you might still be able to protect some little corner of your precious ego.  Therapy wasn’t exactly something we got “done” (instead we graduated and lost those benefits and our awesome counselor) but it made me and our marriage stronger; now that’s a pretty dang good year.  I also succeeded in making a book for Neal, something I had been working on since April, but was only spurred to completion by this timely post from On Call Mom. (Thanks again, lady!)  That’s exactly the sort of thing I would start and never finish in years past, but not this time.

So the unexpected moral of the story is that as turbulent as 2011 often felt, it was also incredibly fulfilling and growth-inducing.  And as it ends, I feel a deep sense of peace and satisfaction that while I didn’t do everything I wanted to, I did the things I needed to.

Oh and also, I’ve decided not to let 2011 end for me until February 29.  I’ve got a new one-word theme for 2012, which I’m equally excited about, but I think git ‘er done will serve me better for at least a couple more months.  And since I’m an adult, I can arbitrarily end my years whenever I please.  So here’s to two more months of git ‘er done!

October 14, 2011

Sometimes I study things other than prisoners . . .

Filed under: Personal Finance — Tags: , , — llcall @ 7:24 pm

And sometimes (rarely, as in once) those studies make The Atlantic’s Study of the Day feature.  Like yesterday.  This study, “Materialism and Marriage: Couple Profiles of Congruent and Incongruent Spouses,” was the very first I co-authored in graduate school.  It was “in press” so long that I didn’t even realize it had finally come out, so thanks to Emily for pointing that out!

BYU News has a bit lengthier article about it as well as links to all the news outlets that covered the article if you’re interested in the topic (ABC News and Deseret News did the most in-depth pieces).  And if you’re really interested, I’ve got the full text waiting for you . . .

September 15, 2011

Someday I will blog again . . .

Filed under: Personal, Personal Finance — Tags: , , — llcall @ 7:25 pm

You know, cause I’ve still got to write Addison’s 12-month update.  Never mind that she is 19 months now.

Moving has been very trying and very draining and I have felt majorly stressed about so many things — some of which I could discuss if I felt like I had more time and some of which is not really blog appropriate.  I strive to make all aspects of my life both transparent and unified, so I’ve been a bit unsettled for the last several months, feeling a mounting sense of fragmentation.  I can talk about this with this person, but not that person.  I can mention this on my blog, but not that.  It’s an exhausting way to live; I really dislike it and I have spent most of my adult life actively working against that kind of fragmentation.  But sometimes you become entangled in other people’s “stuff” — it becomes part of your life, but you can’t talk about it too much because it’s not just your life and you don’t own it in quite the same way.  Anyone get what I’m saying . . . or am I not being transparent enough?

I am feeling a bit more relaxed this morning than I have been, partly because we got our DMV stuff taken care of yesterday — it’s a funny story but when we got to California we realized that Neal’s driver’s license had expired nearly six months ago! — and partly because now that Neal can drive again, he’s taken the little one away for the morning and I’ve had some time to myself.  I created a current balance sheet to help us make some decisions about our finances now that we are entering a period of no income.  Oh, how love creating balance sheets!  I feel a sort of happy calm that has eluded me lately.  Next, I’m going to create a new budget template.  Oh boy!

July 5, 2011

The reward for finishing my thesis:

Free reading again!  I promised myself that I would only read thesis-related materials until I was done.  Completely and utterly done.  (At least with the content and writing . . . I’m still gathering those pesky signatures.)

So after a couple of months of reading about financial knowledge/problems and predatory banking/lending practices related to incarcerated men, I rewarded myself by reading . . . wait for it . . . The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, a book about the global financial crisis.  It turns out it’s a book about financial knowledge/problems and predatory banking/lending practices related to men who should be incarcerated, but aren’t.  Is that lame reward reading?  Probably, but fascinating book.  You won’t completely understand complex derivatives or synthetic collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) but you will feel better about not understanding them since the people who created them didn’t either.  If you can stomach nonfiction (sometimes I feel like there are only two or three of us out there), read this book.  While you’re at it, read Moneyball another Michael Lewis book and one of my all-time favorites.

P.S.  If you didn’t hear via facebook (or because you’re one of my family members), my Grandpa passed away a little less than two days after the aforementioned 911 call.  I’m sure I’ll write more about that later but for now things are too busy and kind of raw.

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