Brighter Looking Future

After years of belt tightening and scraping by, I’m relieved that the future is finally looking brighter. Adjusting a W4 made a big difference on taxes so instead of owing again this year, we’re getting a refund. WHEW!

Finally, we can get rid of the derelict furniture in our family room and replace it with something comfortable and multi-functional. The leather reclining couch and love seat have served us well for about 12 years. It was durable and easy to clean with young children and dogs around. However, it has torn at the seams on each seat, the padding is shot, and one of the recliners is broken. Have you ever tried to sew leather? OW! The best solution has been to toss a cover over them when company comes.

Since we don’t have a dedicated “guest room” in our house like so many others who live far away from family have on reserve for visitors, I’d like to get another sofa sleeper. It’s not as private as a separate bedroom, but it’s got to be more comfortable (and easier to get in and out of) than an air mattress. Of course, using my office in the basement as a guest room for more privacy is also an option but really only if I’m able to take time off work while the guests are here. :) 

I am tossing around the idea of moving the futon from the open area of the basement and into my office anyway. That’s going to take a considerable amount of work. I have four sets of shelves in here with so much on them that I look like I’m in the early stages of becoming a hoarder. It’s crafting/hobby supplies, books, and paperwork that should be filed, trashed, or shredded immediately but has accumulated instead. Ultimately, I would love this room to be a more calming environment without all this crud closing in on me. Bad feng shmay!

For the first time in a long time, I was able to use my quarterly bonus from work to purchase something special just for me that I wouldn’t have bought otherwise. After nearly two years of waiting, I was finally able to buy the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens for my camera. A sampling of it’s capabilities is here. It’s not limited to taking 1:1 ratio close up photos, though. It’s also great as a portrait lens. I hope to do some portrait work with it soon. I did take it to a high school musical last night to test it at a distance. We were sitting in the first row of the upper section of theater seats, and I was able to get shots like this from my seat:

The Who's Tommy | Pinball King and QueenWe do have another special treat coming up that I’m very excited about! For privacy reasons, I won’t divulge the details until after the fact. ;) Must be mindful of spammers, scammers, and other creepy stalker types.

Though the future looks brighter at the moment, we know better than to get too carried away. That can lead to trouble and ultimately right back to the same place. Careful decisions must be made to be mindful of the budget.

 

The Day After

Day After ChristmasYou wanna know something about my brain? No? Well, that’s alright. I’ll tell you anyway. It’s defective. There. I’ve said it. I have a faulty brain. At this point in my life I blame it on the not-managed-by-medication ADD combined with aging. It’s the day after Christmas, and I have the day off. The hustle and bustle of the season is over, and I thought it would be a perfect day to do something I used to love to do but now only long to do. It would be, but my brain had other ideas. It’s full of thoughts, and my heart is full of emotions, and together they make one interesting soup. Let’s see if I can isolate some of those ingredients to come up with somewhat of a coherent blog post.

I’ll start with over-abundance. More than ever, this really stood out to me this Christmas. Even in our own current state of belt tightening, we have an over-abundance of material possessions (aka: stuff). It has taken us a number of over-spending years to accumulate much of that stuff, and we’ve worked on that considerably. That’s why it stands out to me even more as I observe others adding to their over-abundance of stuff. Pictures of Christmas trees with oodles and gobs of presents flooding out from underneath resonated deeply with me this year. We had just a puddle of presents under our tree. My heart ached a little (OK, a lot) because I can’t help but compare and because I don’t want to be pitied.

Being in the financial situation we’re currently in has been an eye-opener. Not only do I see what careless use of credit can do, but I also see that there is so much stuff out there that we don’t need. Oh my gosh, there were so many things I would throw into a shopping cart for no other reason than I wanted it and then blindly hand over my credit card at the checkout! Every time I go through an uncluttering phase and come across such items, it disgusts me a little. I beat myself up. I’m becoming the opposite of an over-spender. I’m not quite there yet; more so with myself than with my kids. I can’t tell you how many things I look at in stores and really want but know that I don’t really need and then leave it there.

Like my favorite ornament here with exhausted Santa soaking his feet after a busy Christmas season, I just want to rest for a minute and be thankful that it’s over. I’d say I’m looking forward to a new year, but I’m not sure that’s true. If I knew that the new year would bring better times, then I’d absolutely be looking forward to it. I’m thankful that we made it through Christmas without going completely broke. This was due to having one less car payment plus a considerable amount of overtime I worked in November.

If my defective brain were better at planning enough to come up with a financial forecast, I might feel better. It’s the unknown that’s causing the anxiety to hang around. I have this ultimate budget formulated on Excel with an entire workbook of expense tracking. I’ll try to make that a New Year’s resolution one more time. My goal is to update that budget over the weekend and then stick to it in 2014.

I think I’ll end it there. There is so much more I wanted to vomit onto this page, but spitting this part out caused enough anxiety (and a bit of depression). Perhaps my next post will be brighter.

How to Blog After a Long, Hard Week

So here’s something new. I’m going to write a blog post while working on beer #2, and I don’t drink much. I only have 14 more minutes to accomplish this because I can’t miss The Carrie Diaries!

I’ll start with household budgets (no way am I touching the national budget!).

Budget Cartoon

We’ve been through the ringer the past three years. I got real about it in a previous post. Two months ago, we made our last payment on one of our cars and now have the title in our hands (well, it’s actually safely filed away because it would be difficult to go about our daily business with a title in our hands). Living on a budget is something we should have been doing before we were even married, but it is what it is, and we’ve suffered (are still suffering) the consequences. We are entering year 4 of a 5-year plan, and the elimination of a car payment is a huge milestone.

Somewhere along the past several months, a bill fell through the cracks. I’ve been late-paying it ever since (less than 30 days each time). That system bit me in the arse this past week, though. Through a miscalculation on my end, the payment was a few bucks short of the minimum, and they cancelled our auto insurance. FREAK OUT mode! I realized this on Sunday night when I couldn’t contact anyone about it to make it right … the day AFTER our son bought a new car. I don’t know how I managed to fall asleep that night in the midst of a panic attack. First thing Monday morning, I contacted my insurance agent and brought the account current to get the policies reinstated. According to my calculations, this was doable. Then along came Wednesday. Overdrawn! I must have been sheet white. My body was just about numb all over. I forgot to account for the energy bill payment still pending! So I caved and deposited a check drawn on a home equity line of credit account that I swore we’d never touch again – just enough to fix the situation. Breathing again, I managed to get to sleep that night.

Cut to today, PAYDAY! There was no overtime at all on my check for this pay period, but the next one will have about 23 hours of overtime on it. Everything is current at this point, so the overtime will go towards Christmas. With a final “rent” payment coming from our son, we should be back in a comfortable place. Praise sweetbabyjesus! Water and energy (gas/electric combined) bills should be back to normal now, too.

Work

Let me start by emphasizing how grateful I am to be able to work from home for a company that keeps growing and growing and growing! Being promoted to a “Senior Agent” on top of an exceptionally generous annual raise was a pleasant surprise this year. If that raise hadn’t happened this past spring, I don’t think we would be where we are right now.

Here’s the “but”. We are short-handed, and the work is piling up. Hence all the overtime lately. I haven’t clocked out on time in the past couple weeks. Today I took a call at 6pm (when I should be clocking out for the day). They had been holding for about three minutes already. I had to put the wrap-up from my last call on hold to take that call. I got back to that wrap-up at about 6:15. After that was taken care of, I wasn’t done yet. Nope! I was in the middle of a complaint case before THAT call came in. After finishing that case, I finally clocked out at about 6:45pm. That’s nothing! Last week I didn’t clock out until about 7:30pm one day. Thank goodness my commute is only a flight of stairs!

Nevertheless, working past 10 hours is exhausting. Working 10 hours is rough enough because I get absolutely nothing else done on work days. It makes that extra day off each week that much more beautiful, though. I have no desire to go back to five 8-hour days. I’m sure it played a role in my brain’s malfunction noted above (forgetting about a pending payment).

You know what makes it all worth it? The huge, heart-felt thank you I received on the phone today from a customer. Before reaching me, their customer experience had been lackluster. This person literally gushed over the fact that I took the time to really listen to the entire issue with empathy and finally took the appropriate action to help resolve the issue. I nearly cried! This shows how spent the entire department is. We hear similar problems all day every day and forget to treat each case like it’s the first instance of a particular problem. That’s a skill that I’ve worked hard to master and one that I’m proud to possess. Empathy, excellent people skills, professionalism, overall knowledge and understanding of all areas of my department as well a general understanding of other departments, and of course tenure are reasons I’m a great Senior Agent. I wear that badge proudly and take my job seriously.

OK. I’m done now. What goes in must come out … TMI, sorry!

Senior Picture Controversy

One-Sided Spin on Rite of Passage

When I saw this Huffington Post story posted on Facebook this morning by Chris Parente, shared from the Colorado Everyday Show page, it struck a nerve … a BIG nerve. I have my topic for today’s blog post! Writing comes easily when it’s something you’re passionate about, and I am passionate about the value of photographs!

Colorado Everyday Show Facebook Post on Senior Pictures

This sparked comments that were mostly bent in the same direction. Some said they took their own photos in their backyards. Some had friends, aunts, and even a high school photography student take their senior photos (note: no one shared copies of these photos). Someone said they’d rather go to Sears. I guess they didn’t hear that Sears closed their portrait studios. ;) One person said that for $1200, you can buy an amazing DSLR [camera] and take your own photos. :D OK! Because that’s all it takes to make a great photo. Pffft! Here was my immediate comment when I saw this post:

But it’s OK to spend hundreds on an iPhone (probably more than twice with newer models constantly coming out), thousands on Apple computers, who knows how much on designer clothes and shoes? Future generations will consider photographs priceless treasures. Sure, snapshots will also be treasured, but splurging a LITTLE on professional portraits (be they senior photos, family portraits, or just because) not only gives you amazing quality but, if you find the right photographer, you also have a great time in the process! I can tell which senior photos in a yearbook were done by professionals and which were DIY. Buying a “fancy” DSLR camera is not all it takes to get fabulous photos. If you don’t learn and fully understand all that camera can do and just shoot in “P” mode, you’re not going to get photos that look any better than a pocket digital camera. True story! I think the price is overboard in this particular story. There are many photographers who do NOT charge that much (myself included). I believe everyone deserves great photos without breaking the bank. What I don’t understand are the professionals who make everyone look plastic. Now there’s a whole other story. :D

Then I tuned in and watched the segment on the show and came back to post this additional comment:

I just watched the segment and think you guys spun a pretty one-sided twist. But I guess that’s just how media works. What can ya do? Senior portraits, in many cases, are more for the parents than the teenager. So it’s not about spoiling a child in most cases. It’s one more thing to make senior year special. It doesn’t have to be that expensive. You read Maritza’s comment in favor of hiring a professional photographer but then added a comment about looking back on it and hating it hears from now. If it was done professionally, chances are pretty high you are not going to be embarrassed by the photos years from now. It’s the backyard snapshots done in harsh high noon sunlight that you’ll be embarrassed about.

The $1200 mentioned by the Huffington Post is apparently a national average. I can see that. There are very wealthy parts of the country that probably spend twice that on senior portraits, and there are areas who spend a fraction of that. The average amount spent on senior photos around us is probably closer to $300 or so.

Special photos for senior year is not a new concept. I went to a studio to have mine done nearly 30 years ago. I have no idea how much they cost, but I’m sure they were more than having the photographer hired by the school do them. It wasn’t a vanity issue then at all. That’s exactly the spin they were trying to put on it in this report. Vanity and being spoiled. There is a certain amount of vanity these days with all the social media networks. However, these photos are used in graduation announcements as well, and they represent a time in a teen’s life where they are transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Some are leaving the nest to go off to universities. Some are staying home to attend local universities, colleges, and trade/technical schools. Some are entering full-time jobs immediately. A few are getting married and moving out (or not moving out).

Senior portraits commemorate a rite of passage. That’s a priceless thing!

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Shameless plug time! I’d be remiss if I didn’t promote my own photography here. I offer senior portrait photography as well as family and individual portraits and smaller weddings. See my website and my photography blog!

Out of the Mouths of Babes

A year or so after I had twins, a 9 year old asked me if I was pregnant (I was not). I remember it clearly. Sometimes a child’s inability to filter what they say can sting and stay with you forever. Most recent, and purely innocent I’m sure: “You have to pay for college yourself?” said to our daughter by a 13 year old as if this young teen honestly didn’t know that not all parents pay for their children’s college education.

NOTE: Names withheld to protect the innocent. :)

We live in a semi-affluent area, where many kids do go on to college right after high school. So it’s already a tough subject for us. Unfortunately, we’re in a situation where  we can’t afford any extra monthly payments but don’t qualify for grants. I already feel terrible about that so any time the subject is brought up, I get a knot in my stomach.

They should make some sort of financial planning class mandatory in high school (preferably during their senior year) with a strong emphasis on budgeting, living within your means, and the dangers of credit cards.

In any event, it is not unheard of (and most certainly not wrong) for young adults to pay for their own college education. As much as it kills me that we can’t pay for it, I think this is a great lesson in financial responsibility and working for what you want.

I leave you with this unfiltered funny…

Debt Sucks!

It’s about to get real in here!

I struggled for a minute on a title for this blog and chose to go with the most blunt statement that came to mind. It’s true. Debt sucks! When others don’t understand because the words “We’re broke” or “We can’t afford it” seem to be over-used, it sucks even more.

Pushy sales people at mall kiosks don’t get it … or they seriously don’t give a crap about potential consumers’ financial situations or what they would have to give up for a month (or three) if they spent $99 on a curling iron because “it’s ceramic and won’t damage your hair” and “it comes with a lifetime guarantee” and you get “free hair styling there for six months”.

Hanging out with friends outside the home is rough because, well, consider how much a single beer (or soda) costs at bars! Want a mixed drink? Even worse!

Family dinners out at nice-ish restaurants? A rarity compared to before. This one doesn’t bother me so much anymore because I have a whole other issue with this. The portion sizes at such restaurants are ridiculous! I can make three meals of an order of seafood fettuccine from O.G. but if we’re not going straight home after eating, leftovers become an issue. We’d have to stick a cooler with ice in the boot before leaving home.

Perhaps the hardest part is having family in different states across the country and not being able to travel to see them. Understandably, airfare is expensive for anyone. The bigger heartache comes when some may continue to press for a visit saying we can drive it in a day, but they don’t understand that the extra gas money simply is not in the budget unless we want our utilities cut off or our children to forego birthday gifts. Here’s what they don’t know because we haven’t told them…

We have been in a debt management program for two years, and we haven’t used a credit card for at least three years. We will be credit card debt free in less than three years now, and I cannot WAIT to find out what that feels like! Until then, all extras are out of the question.

This (above illustration) is the whole picture people don’t see when they get one credit card after another. Sometimes it’s out of necessity, and that’s even sadder. Most of the time, it’s simply to live beyond our means. That’s how it started with us. When you first get married, you want to continue to have the same lifestyle you experienced while living in your parents’ homes. Who wants to go from comfort to struggle?! Well you should! Better yet, you should be taught well while still living at home. (Not pointing fingers here, but maybe the policy of not talking about money because that’s private is not such a grand idea.)

So when we say we can’t afford it right now, we really mean it. We’re not avoiding anyone. We would love nothing more than to take a vacation in California! It tears me up that I can’t just pick up and drive back to St. Louis to see family and friends whenever I want. I also have family in Florida, the farthest away and most expensive to travel to from Colorado.

When our daughter couldn’t go on a New York trip with her choir last spring because we didn’t have the money, it crushed me! But worse than that is the fact that she couldn’t go straight to UNC (best in state for all things theater) after high school because things are too tight. When Facebook was flooded with posts and pictures of her friends going off to college, it all but killed me.

On the other hand, I am bursting with pride seeing her go off to work at a full-time job now to earn and save money for college. Parents don’t want to see their children struggle to get by, but they should. Not living-on-the-streets struggle, but work-hard-for-what-you-want struggle.

Don’t worry too much, though. We aren’t in danger of losing our house or having cars repo’d. In fact, one car will be paid off early next year. (Tiny sigh of relief.) We make enough to pay for everything we currently have. We just can’t add to or replace anything right now (as much as I would LOVE to replace our torn leather couches that are falling apart). Things can wait.

Birthdays and Christmas have changed a lot, too. I now appreciate more than ever hand-crafted gifts. They truly are more valuable than mass manufactured items. The time and thought alone that goes into them … there are no words! You can’t put a price on that.

It’s certainly a different lifestyle than before, and it is hard to see our friends and some family continuing on with the same lifestyle we were living before when relying on credit to do so. Gone are the days of instant gratification for us. Now, that goal of being able to do the same with cash on hand has actually become a little exciting!

Credit cards are evil. There are other ways to build your credit. Few are disciplined enough to use a credit card “wisely”. Yes, it can be done. Often, it is not. Debt sucks!

One Week Down, 51 To Go

Moving into week two of 2011, I still don’t have an official list of goals to share but have started a personal list. Topping the list is the budget. I started this budget in November and have yet to see a “normal” month. There was a slight surplus due to the extra month’s pay from Greg’s former employer overlapping the new income. Then there was Christmas along with extra dining out due to company and surgery throwing a wrench in routines. Do you realize how easy it is to blow through an extra $500 for a family of six dining out? Enough said about December!

Now it’s time to settle back into as normal of a routine as possible and get back to scheduling and planning meals/grocery shopping. It’s also time to spread the workload to other members of this household. I hereby declare 2011 the year of responsibility in our house! I can make a schedule (I’m getting pretty skilled on Excel), but I know I’ll run into problems when it comes to being the enforcer. Perhaps I should add that to my goals for 2011: Be an effective and consistent enforcer. :) Toughen up a bit and stop being such a softie – not “mean” tough but definitely firm.

 

Christmas Extravagance Not a New Issue

…but it is a hard habit to break.

It’s so hard to avoid that look in little Johnny’s eyes. You know the one. He’s playing on the family room floor while watching cartoons on a Saturday morning when a commercial comes on for the coolest new gaming system … and then you see it. His full attention is now focused on that commercial, he sits up straighter, eyes darting left and right as he follows the action on the screen. Then the commercial’s over, and little Johnny jumps up and runs into the kitchen to beg, “Pleeeeease, can I have that???” And so it begins. Under the tree that year is that cool new gaming system along with a couple of games and maybe some extra controllers (because of course, they’re sold separately). They’ve got you now! In three years, the manufacturer of that gaming system is going to improve upon it with a brand new one. Then, not-so-little-anymore Johnny will come to you again to beg, “Moooooom, I gotta have it!”

It seems to makes sense to give something like this as a Christmas gift rather than buying it “just because” at any other time of year because it’s a time to bring joy to others through gift giving. There are those fortunate enough to afford to give expensive gifts without relying on credit cards to do so. There are also those who really can’t afford it but do rely on credit cards to buy them anyway and then suffer from Christmas debt hangovers (how to avoid this).

Christmas extravagance extending beyond your immediate family is not a new thing. It seems new because every year someone somewhere is having a conversation about what Christmas has become. I found this New York Times letter to the editor from 1910. I didn’t see the date on the article until I got to the bottom. It could have been written this year!

One solution offered in both of the preceding links is to reduce your gift exchange list. We did this years ago out of necessity. Another tip I started following is to budget how much to spend on each person. This is especially helpful when you have more than one child. It can be hard to keep things “fair”. Lucky for us, I started putting these things in place already. It might soften the blow compliments of our recent move to a lower income tax bracket.

Happy shopping everyone!