Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Merry Christmas, honey! I got us...more debt!

Tonight on my way home from work I realized for the first time, after months of waiting at this same bus stop, that there's a jewelry store across the street. I realized this because it had a big holiday ad in the front window. "Merry Christmas! Financing available." Those two phrases, stuck together, seem so incongruous. Why would you ever want to buy something that's both extravagant and unnecessary if you need financing to do so?

Then I realized, I am apparently not like other people. That, to me, does not sound like a gift at all. If my spouse were to put us into debt just to get me something sparkly for Christmas, I'd be pretty damn unhappy. But people do this all the time. They get their kids mounds of gifts, financed by credit cards, because that's what their kids expect. They get their spouses lavish gifts because, again, that's what's expected. Right?

But who sets these expectations? When I was growing up, my parents always made sure that we each had a number of gifts. Even with four kids, we got quite a few gifts each year from our parents. There was one year when, to my everlasting shame, I got fewer gifts than my brothers and ended up pouting a bit. My mom explained that my gifts had been more expensive than the items my brothers got, and a lightbulb went off. I was young enough to not have realized that my parents tried to keep spending roughly equal between all of us, rather than the sheer number of gifts. I pondered and apologized to my mom later that day, feeling incredibly ashamed and greedy about something I suddenly realized didn't matter at all. That was the day that the number of gifts I got stopped being any sort of metric by which I judged my holiday.

HusbandX also grew up with piles of gifts under the tree for him and his brother, and that was our combined normal. However, when we first started dating we were old enough to realize that we could do holidays our own way and poor enough to not have much money to spend on one another. We gave small gifts, more concerned with the gesture than the monetary output. I was sent flowers that first Christmas, a fact that I obviously still remember. (I dried some of the rose petals to keep!)

As our relationship evolved--we moved in together, realized that we wanted to spend our lives together--our gifting relationship changed too. As our future became one that we knew would be shared we began to think less in terms of what each of us would want and more in terms of what we both wanted, and what would help further our goals in life. One memorable year we pooled our money and gifted ourselves a food processor. It never got wrapped and put under the tree, but I think of that Christmas every time I pull it out of the cupboard.

Many years, we haven't gotten each other anything at all. Heresy, I know. But we realized that gifts are not our love language. We prefer kind words, service to each other (doing the dishes so that the other spouse doesn't have to is a major currency of love in our house), and time spent together. Gifts are nice, but not necessary. When we do get gifts, they tend to be either something that we wouldn't splurge on for ourselves or special events. This year, my spouse got me tickets to go see "The Nutcracker" with his mom and aunt. I have loved ballet since I was a very small child, spending days with my grandparents and watching ballets they'd taped off PBS for me. Every time I hear the music for "The Nutcracker" I think of the performance by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland, dancing in front of the TV and forcing my grandfather to do the lifts with me. My wonderful husband knows how special this is to me, and that going to see it will be better than anything I could get wrapped and placed under a tree.
The first Christmas tree in our
new house!!

For other family members, sometimes we do gifts and sometimes we don't. Last year my siblings and I decided that it would be far better to do charitable donations than to give gifts. This year we're doing gifts, but I am doing charitable donations on behalf of my parents. Hot tip: until December 31st an anonymous donor is matching gifts to the ACLU. Also, my work will match one charitable donation, up to 30%, so my other donation (to the Electronic Frontier Foundation--my dad would have loved that) is also getting a bump. It's important, at least to me, to be charitable all year, but if you can only do a little bit then you should know that around the holidays you can frequently find ways to make your donation more impactful.

If neither of those options suits, sometimes the best gift is simply time. Every year we gift time with our daughter to my in-laws, because that's the most special thing we can give the three of them. We were both close to our grandparents and, when we discussed having kids, we readily agreed that we wanted our kid(s) to have that same special sort of relationship. Though it's bittersweet to be away from our girl for weeks at a time, we know it's precious and important too. The memories they make are irreplaceable.

"Mommy, I want it!"

Just as we set the tone for giving gifts to each other, we also set the tone for how our child perceives gifts. In the beginning, this was easy. We didn't get her any Christmas or birthday gifts for the first two years of her life. Shocking, right? We knew that family would be getting her gifts, and we also knew that--just like every other child in the world--she'd have far more fun with the boxes and wrapping than she would with any gifts she was given. Babies and small children don't understand presents and don't particularly care.

For her third birthday and last Christmas we got her some very small items, but she still was a bit confused by all of the hullabaloo. Very happy to rip open paper with impunity, but bemused as to why.

Now that she's four, she finally seems to be understanding holidays. Maybe she remembers last year well enough, or maybe she's taken in enough cultural excitement from her friends at school. In the lead-up to her birthday she kept talking about presents. There was obviously an expectation that she would get things. I had to make a run to Target and she kept pointing stuff out. "I want that! Ooh, I want that!" I reminded her quite a few times that her birthday was coming up, that maybe she'd get these things for her birthday.

She did not. However, I don't think she felt the lack. Her birthday fell on a Saturday so we had her party that day. Before the party we gave her one of her gifts, a bunch of Mega Bloks I'd found at Goodwill. She already had some that my parents had given her the Christmas before, and had complained a few times that she didn't have enough for what she wanted to do. Now she has LOTS, and she loves to build with them. During the party, children and parents alike were playing with the blocks, and they haven't lost their allure in the weeks since. It's not an exaggeration to say that they get near-daily use.

Our other gift was a toy box full of dress-up items. I'd gotten the box itself for free from a local Buy Nothing/sharing group from a family that was looking to get rid of it. The clothes I scoured Goodwill for in the week after Halloween. I went on the perfect day, as they'd marked all of their Halloween stuff down by 75%. In addition to the costumes I bought three "fancy" purses, I found some gloves in a trunk I'd inherited from my great-aunt, and I put in a couple of shawls I happened to own but (almost) never wear. All told, her birthday presents cost us less than $40 and she doesn't care at all. One of the dresses is obviously used, has a big visible stain on the skirt, and the edges are fraying. It's her favorite one, though. When we gave this box to her, her best friend was the only kid left from her party. The two girls went through 8 different outfit changes in about half an hour. We counted.
Free toy box. It's cute enough to store in our living room.

I'm not saying this to brag that we do things better, but simply to show that gifts do not have to be elaborate or expensive to be special. The most important part about these gifts is not where or how we got them, but what they inspire and what parts of our child they bring out. We wanted gifts that would inspire her imagination. We wanted things that would challenge her and bring out her resilience, which the blocks definitely do. ("Why do you think that tower fell over? Where do you think that bridge needs supporting? Don't get upset, figure out how to make it better. You can do this.") They're also toys that she can play with with friends, so when she has them over we might end up with a mess of blocks and clothes all over the living room but it will have been time well spent. Sharing and bargaining and collaboration will be learned when playing with these things as a group.

I'm not anti-gift. I would feel absolutely Scrooge-y if I didn't get my child anything for Christmas at this point. However, that doesn't mean that I think she "deserves" a giant pile of presents under the tree. After all, that may be the least important and even fun part of the holidays. There are so many other things for a kid to get excited about: cookies and special foods. Pretty lights all over the place. Decorating the tree. Christmas carols. Seeing the decorations and displays when out and about. Wreaths. Stockings and Santa.
One of the few gifts we've bought: matching nightgowns
for our daughter and niece. They'll love being "twins"!

Most important, family time. This year we get to have both of our families together, so we're expecting at least thirteen people for Christmas day. Just as special, we get to host at our new house. The Munchkin has been talking excitedly about getting to play with "my friend, my cousin" and seeing all of her uncles as well as her grandparents and great-great-aunt. It's going to be loud and crazy and so, so much fun. The part that concerns me the least is the gifts, because they will pale in memory compared to the laughter we'll share and the fun we will create.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Privilege and personal responsibility

I've been pondering, for a long time now, what constitutes personal responsibility. Obviously I can make certain choices that benefit myself and others that don't, and nearly all of these choices will impact people who aren't me. If I choose to eat cheeseburgers every day then my family will have to bear the burden of my poor health and shortened life, the healthcare system itself will pour resources into keeping me alive, and the world will face the ecological problems caused by all that beef consumption. But could I make that choice? Sure. Would it be a good one? Not for me or anyone around me, but the fact still stands that I could make that choice if I was so inclined.

When people talk about "personal responsibility" many people have the unspoken underlying assumption that it also implies a responsibility to others, most especially to those around you. After all, if you are responsible for yourself then others don't have to waste their time, energy, and resources taking care of you. It is, in many ways, a privilege just to be able to take care of yourself. However, I've been seeing more and more the idea that "personal responsibility" is just about an individual. You don't owe anything to anyone but yourself! Or, so the idea goes. Eat those cheeseburgers! You got yours, who cares about anyone else?

I see this even more in how people spend their money. Even if no one will say that they have this idea, spending all of their resources without putting any money by for things like life's inevitable disasters--everything from hurricanes to broken bones--means that they care more about their immediate desires than their future, no matter how stupid those immediate desires are. It really bothers me that so many people out there, people with high incomes and plenty of advantages, still 'can't manage to make ends meet'. Just do a search for it and you'll come up with hundreds of articles like this one and this one. Frankly, I think their definition of "struggling" and mine is vastly different. You see, I sort of feel that if you go out to eat for every meal and hire a maid service and a lawn service and buy expensive clothes that sit in your closet, that's not really 'scraping by'. If you have the means to save money but choose instead to squander it that does not make you an object of sympathy.

On the other hand, the ability to save money, any money, is often a privilege. I can't very well tell someone who's working a minimum wage job without healthcare that it's easy to save money with just a few simple tricks. For many people out there, frugality is a necessity. For even more of those people, credit cards are the simple way to get what they want and not have to practice frugality. That's the worst of all worlds, because it's neither privileged nor personally responsible. This is not to say that all credit card use is stupid, immoral, or what have you. That's merely to say, buying things on credit when you know you can't pay it back is willful self-deception that harms not only those who practice it but also everyone who ends up bailing them out. (Friends, family, or society - through bankruptcy.)

When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. They were part of what has become known as the Greatest Generation. They both lived through the Great Depression, and they came of age during WWII. Both my maternal grandfather and grandmother served in the military at that time. I didn't understand what all of this meant until I was older, of course, but I saw the myriad ways those major events left their marks on my grandparents, in particular my grandmother. She saved just about everything because it might be useful "one day". Plastic bread bags? Drawers full of them.

I do not aspire to be like that. However, the ethos they shared to not waste things has also left its mark on me. I remember watching my grandmother scrape the very last bit of egg white out of the shells as she used them and, to this day, I do that myself. I didn't even realize how odd it was until I read a story from a Jewish woman whose grandmother did the same thing. When she asked her grandmother why her grandmother answered that her husband had starved to death in a concentration camp. How could she ever waste food? That has, obviously, stuck with me. The ability to waste food is very much a privileged position to be in and the US sure takes it to an extreme.

When I put it all in the bigger picture, it makes me mad. How many children's lives could be saved by simple things like mosquito nets, rather than going to clothes that will be donated or thrown away with their tags still on?  How many kids in my own neighborhood are going hungry while others buy things they don't even want or need, or are wantonly throwing away food? How many communal resources (water, energy) are used to make the goods that people buy that they don't even really want?

Which circles back to what we owe others, and what constitutes personal responsibility. You've earned your money, who am I to judge how you spend it? Excellent point! ...But that squandered money does impact me and my family and my community. Do I get a still not get a say? Where is the line drawn between what we owe to ourselves, and what we owe our families, and what we owe to our communities? To the global community? Do we all have to become minimalists or suffer judgment?

I am a parent. What do I owe my child, vs. what I owe other children? I can afford to get my child into swimming lessons. At a heated pool! Luxury, amiright? And she loves them. She loves water to the point that she's not at all afraid of it. She'll dunk herself in and come up gasping, spluttering, without that healthy fear of drowning that a parent would want her to have. She's ready to go right back into the water without the least sense of danger. So in many ways, swim lessons are a calculated expenditure. She gets fun, we get to worry a little less that she'll drown one day. But...not all kids get swim lessons. What right does my child have to get swim lessons when there are kids in our community who don't even get enough to eat? What do I owe my child, vs. what I owe my community? Is it personal responsibility to ensure that my kid grows up knowing how to swim (a valuable life lesson) or is it privilege because not all kids (particularly children of color) get lessons or know how to swim? Why do lessons when we could (theoretically) teach her ourselves?

There are so many different ways to approach this question and in the end, it's always unfair. It's unfair that many of the people who could benefit the most from a little extra are the very ones the system has made it harder for. We can tell people all day long that they need to be personally responsible, but at the end of the day some people just can't be due to circumstances beyond their control. What do we owe them?

I think about these questions pretty much daily. I have a nice house that I can afford to heat and light up and still put food on the table AND save money for the future. To say that it's fortunate undercuts how hard we've worked to be in this position. It erases all the years when we really, really didn't have much. We know what it's like to be a bit poor, to scrounge and scrape and always be close to disaster. It's part of what makes me so keen on not living like that ever again. I don't want my kid to eat soup that's maybe kinda gone bad already, hoping it doesn't make her sick, because we can't afford to waste food. (Yeah, that's actually something I did.) I don't want my kid to wear a hat and gloves and a blanket indoors because we can't afford to heat the house. (We did that too.)
As strange as it might seem, what begins of
necessity can sometimes turn into a privilege.
I dreaded the thought of walking to work in conditions
like this, but soon loved it.

Even with those experiences, however, we don't really know what it's like to be poor. Our privilege is that we always had a backstop. We could ask our parents for a loan, had we really needed it. We could have gotten a loan from the bank, or depended on credit until we were flush again. In many ways, our poverty was self-induced because we could have changed it but didn't because of pride or knowledge that taking a loan would mean more challenges later on. We struggled through and always knew that those times were temporary. So many people out there don't have those luxuries. For so many people, poverty is all they know and all they will ever know. I don't want all those other people to have to live like that either. What do I owe them? What is me being responsible for my family, and what is taking more than my fair share?

The world is not fair. It doesn't take a genius to understand that if your raises and "cost of living" adjustments don't actually keep up with inflation, you're losing money every year. Life gets that much harder. Those with the most money, who need it the least, are seeing all of the gains. This is so blatantly unfair and absurd that it baffles me. The only thing we can do to fight against it is to scrape and save, yet the very systems that make the rich get richer also make it harder for those on the bottom to save anything at all. It is, in many ways, a privilege to be in the class that can scrimp and save.

Read that last sentence again and take in the absurdity of it. It's a privilege to scrimp and be able to save. What the hell is wrong with our society? We're so rich and yet most of us really are not. We have more material goods, true, but that hasn't translated into more security or more happiness.

One of the reasons I chose to focus this blog on frugality is because I think that it can help equalize the world in some ways. I think of my frugal nature as a giant middle finger to the companies, corporations, and practices that I hate. I can pick and choose where to spend my money, and my family's wants and needs are low enough that we don't have to spend money with companies we find unethical. Even when we do buy from large corporations whose interests don't serve mine, I'm not mindlessly shopping.

When a person is frugal, whether by choice or by necessity, they are forced into the knowledge of what their values truly are. After all, I doubt that anyone sets out with a goal to waste money. So many people just fall into that trap, though. A few dollars here and there can really add up and, soon enough, you're wondering how you spent your entire paycheck. It's easy to get caught up in the feeling of not having enough money. However, frugality forces you to examine what your values are and only spend on those things. When there's only so much money, it's easy to know what's worth spending your money on and what isn't. Wool socks will help make keeping the heat in your house lower more bearable, and they're far cheaper than heating an entire house or apartment. (She writes while wearing warm and fuzzy socks with the heat turned down.)

If you're forced into frugality, you spend only on your values because that's all you can afford to do. If you're frugal by nature, it's because you realize the power of your saved money is more important than fleeting desires you might have. I could turn the heat up in my house and keep it tropical in here all year long. But I'd rather save that money and spend it on, say, swim lessons for my kid. That will add far more value to our lives than heating a mostly empty house would. And I haven't even gotten to the environmental (read: societal, global) benefits that come from such measures.

If those of us with plenty of resources choose to use them meaningfully, to know what is enough and what is superfluous, then I think the world would be a much better place. I think we would be happier, have more to share, and that there would be more to share because we wouldn't have some living with way more than they need while others go without. We each have a responsibility not only to ourselves, but to each other. That's part of what it means to be a social species. The choices we make impact those around us for good or for ill, including the ways in which we choose to spend our money.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Oatmeal, about a thousand different ways

I feel a bit foolish writing this post right now. For the first time since sometime before the Munchkin was even in utero, I bought breakfast cereal. I don't even mean a little bit, I mean multiple boxes each week for a few weeks. I stopped eating cereal a long time ago for many reasons: it's expensive, the packaging is wasteful (since the plastic bags can't be recycled, ugh), and it's not even all that great for you. But, BabyX wanted cereal* so cereal we got.

However, for years now my usual breakfasts have been something that is cheaper, can be taken on the go without getting soggy, doesn't have to come with crappy packaging, and is very healthy. Oatmeal. It's the frugal person's secret weapon. Or, well, one of them.

First, the packaging. We go through a lot of oats. The Munchkin and I eat them for breakfast, and HusbandX doesn't always eat breakfast but generally has some mixed up with a protein shake later in the day. I put them in cookies. I put them in bread. We go through so. many. oats. By far the cheapest source of oats that we've found in our area are from the bulk bins at the grocery store. I even have reusable cloth bags so we don't have to use the plastic bags from the store. (When we remember the cloth bags, that is. Ahem.) This gets rid of all that ridiculous packaging and, because we're not paying for a brand name and cardboard or plastic, they're far cheaper than what you can find pre-packaged. (Don't even get me started on those silly individual servings that are both terrible nutritionally and horribly over-packaged.)

How cheap are the bulk oats? They're usually in the area of $.99/lb. I calculated it out once and discovered that the serving of oats I generally eat costs somewhere in the sub-ten cents range. Not bad at all, particularly for something so yummy, filling, and good for me. When I can, I tend to buy the organic oats, however, and those are slightly more pricey at a totally-not-going-to-break-the-bank level. Even when I "splurge" (or rather, when the organic oats are available in bulk) I can get a week's worth of oats for my family for about $3.

And, wait, did I say that it could be taken on the go? Easily? Yep! I don't generally eat breakfast at home on work days. I'm not a morning person so getting myself up and out the door while looking semi-presentable (or with the tools to make myself presentable in the office bathroom) is enough of a challenge. I set everything up the night before, including everyone's lunches and having my clothes for the next day picked out and easily accessible. So, naturally, my breakfast is prepared before and I take it to work with me to consume there.

Now, there is one caveat to how cheap oatmeal is. I mentioned HusbandX's protein shakes earlier. Well, he's not the only one who prefers his oats made with something other than plain water. I pretty much never eat just oats, because that's bland and it gets really, really boring day after day. I also like variety in what I eat. Sure, I can eat leftovers for days on end, but once the leftovers are gone I'm ready to move onto something else. We have a wide range of meals we cook so that we almost never make any single meal more than once a month. We might have it for anywhere from 2-4 meals in a row, but then it won't repeat for a while. I like to do the same with my breakfasts. I'll get on a kick where I make a certain kind for the entire week but then I move on to something else. Cinnamon raisin? That was last week's flavor. Should I do chocolate cherry walnut, or blueberry vanilla almond? So many choices!

So here's how I keep eating oats every day without being bored:

Instant Oatmeal in a Mason Jar

I've seen people make little baggies of their own "instant oatmeal packets" and, while that's a great way to do it, I still don't like the waste of all those little baggies that generally get used once and then thrown away. Instead, I make mine in a mason jar. This becomes an extra win because then I don't have to rely on a bowl, I just add hot water and shake. Mason jar lids aren't reusable for canning, but they can be reused pretty much infinitely for storage or in place of cheap plastic lunch containers. (I do throw them out when they show signs of damage.) You can also buy some reusable caps, of which we have a few and really like them. (We own both those types.)

In a half pint mason jar, half a cup of oats is pretty much the perfect serving. Even with some add-ins it generally leaves enough space for the necessary amount of hot water. Just fill to full, cap, and shake. You'll still need to stir when you open it but it should be pretty much good to go.

For a larger portion of oats, which is what I need these days, or if you have more add-ins than can reasonably fit in a half-pint, a pint-size mason jar is obviously better. However, the amount of water needed will have to be eyeballed and figured out through trial and error.

Some of my favorite ways to make oatmeal in a jar:

-About a tbsp of butter and a tsp of honey (eyeballed)
-Cinnamon and raisins (because it's a classic for a reason)
-Dark chocolate chips and almonds
-A bit of jam
-Fresh fruit and either coconut oil, butter, or milk (depending on the fruit) -- think peaches 'n cream
-Any dried fruit plus a variety of nut that matches (dates and walnuts, peaches and almonds, etc.)
-Strawberries with honey (a favorite of the Munchkin's)
-Dried tropical fruit and coconut oil
-Peanut butter to taste (for me, lots) and for those that like them, bananas would go well
-Savory salt, butter, and topped with a fried egg (less workable on work mornings, but still doable if I have enough time to cook an egg right then)
-More savory recipes (some of which could totally be dinner instead of breakfast, or in addition to!)

You can see how it would be easy to keep this from getting old. I can make one jar or several jars at a time and just grab them in the morning before I go. When I get to work I add hot water and voila: instant breakfast. Super simple.


Baked Oatmeal

This is one I've been experimenting with a lot more lately. The first recipe I tried was rather uninspiring. I kept intending to experiment with other recipes, but I also didn't like the idea of having an entire pan of this in the fridge. Portioning it out just seemed like such a hassle.

Then a lightbulb went on. No one says you have to make baked oatmeal in a big pan. Would baking it in a muffin tin work? So I experimented. Lo and behold, success! It's been wonderful. Not only do they work for breakfast, it's also a super easy and healthy snack to give to the Munchkin, or to pack in her lunchbox for preschool. Her school is entirely nut-free, so we sometimes have a hard time figuring out healthy ways to get enough calories into her. These work.

My favorite recipes so far have all come from Budget Bytes. The pumpkin recipe...my goodness, could anything taste more like autumn? Yum! I've also experimented a couple of times with my own flavor combo by using the applesauce base (used here) and putting in my own flavors. Cherries, walnuts or almonds, and (a few) dark chocolate chips is always a winning combination for me.

These can also be frozen. Make a giant batch, or several different batches, and freeze some for later. I take them out the night before so they have plenty of time to thaw, then pop them in the toaster oven or microwave at work to warm them up. Or, if I'm really ravenous, eating them cold isn't much of a hardship.


Oatmeal Banana Bread

I don't actually like bananas. Even the thought of eating a banana has me making faces. However, for some reason I can tolerate them in banana bread. This works out really well because the Munchkin loves bananas, begs for bananas at the store, but really only wants 1-2 in a week. HusbandX will eat them sometimes but doesn't always notice we have them, so we generally have at least one banana quietly going bad each week. I rescue them in a bag in the freezer (hint: peel them first, if at all possible) until I have enough and the inclination to make something out of them.

I already posted my banana bread recipe, and I'm here to say once again that it works well in muffin form as well. It also freezes beautifully, especially when baked as muffins, so you can make it well ahead of when you actually want or need it. Freezing it in muffin form also allows you to pull out just the number you need, rather than an entire loaf of banana bread.


Leftover oatmeal pancakes

On weekends, when I have time, I generally go the super easy route of just cooking up oatmeal the regular way in a big pot for myself and the kiddo. (That is, on mornings when I'm the parent getting up. HusbandX does his own thing.) However, sometimes we eat it all and sometimes we end up with leftovers. Since I find reheated oatmeal rather odd, even with a bit of water or milk to help the texture, it generally doesn't get eaten in our house.

Cinnamon raisin pancakes.
At least, not as oatmeal. Discovering that leftover oatmeal could be used to make pancakes was a revelation. So yummy! When we're just tired of oatmeal in oatmeal form, or as muffins, pancakes are the way to go. I store any leftover oatmeal in the fridge in a jar and generally at the end of the week we have enough to make a batch of pancakes. Sometimes a big batch of pancakes. These have helped see us through many a hectic morning, and the Munchkin will always eat pancakes. (She had one for 'dessert' tonight.)

Most of the time I make our oatmeal on the weekend plain, and add in the flavorings/toppings that we want individually. Sometimes, though, it's just easier or more convenient to add those things while cooking. Dried fruit, for one thing, will plump up and I prefer the slightly-re-hydrated texture better than the super chewy one it has if you don't add any moisture back. I just take that into account when I'm making the pancakes. If I added dried blueberries to the oatmeal, I add more to the pancake batter (or fresh or frozen blueberries) and, ta da, blueberry pancakes.

Pancakes are yet another item that freeze well. If, in some alternate dimension, my child were to decide that she was sick of eating pancakes it would be super easy to freeze them for the next time she asked for pancakes. It's also helpful to keep a few stashed in the freezer in case I forget to make breakfast ahead of time. (It's happened.) Or if I get sick and just can't do life. (That has also happened.) Just please do yourself a favor and freeze them individually. Having to thaw a giant stack of pancakes is a pain in the butt. You don't need to learn that lesson the hard way because I have done it for you. You're welcome.


Oat Bread

I know a lot of people who, for very valid reasons, are avoiding bread. Even my spouse does not particularly care for bread. (Poor man, he clearly has dysfunctional taste buds.) I, on the other hand, love bread. LOVE IT. Sometimes nothing quite hits the spot like a great slice of toast. And since I learned many, many, many years ago how to make bread (thanks, Mom!) it's easy to have a fantastic slice of bread with only a small amount of effort. The learning curve on bread can be rather steep--my own bread-making history is littered with under-risen, under-cooked, over-salted, and yeast-murdered loaves--but short. Well worth the (minimal) time and effort, at least to me. And, yes, it can be frozen for later consumption. Are you noticing a pattern here?

I really like oats in bread because they add a lot to the flavor without taking away from the texture, and they add more nutrition as well. Yummy + healthy is hard to beat. For a really good, basic recipe that's hard to mess up try this one.


Smoothies and Shakes

The first time I heard about adding oats to a smoothie I thought, gross. It did not sound appealing. Why would you want grains in a smoothie? But I've done it occasionally and, actually, it can be pretty good. I often find that a smoothie alone for breakfast just doesn't keep me full. Fruits and veggies are all very well, but it needs something else or my stomach is grumbling at me within an hour. I also need something to round it out or I end up with stomach pains. (From all the acid in the fruit? Maybe?) Adding oats or oat flour and a bit of yogurt helps tremendously, and the texture ends up being still good. (To me. YMMV, and I won't blame you if you hate it.)

There's also the super lazy way that HusbandX takes. Protein powder in a mason jar with a serving of oats, or oats ground into flour. Add water, mix, and drink.


Overnight Oats

This one is last on my list because, frankly, I don't do it that often. It's not that it's not just as healthy and delicious as the other options, it just doesn't seem to work as well for our family. We don't always have the ingredients on hand, and sometimes when I have made them they've been pushed to the back of the fridge and forgotten until they've gone bad. Worse, the kiddo likes them sometimes, but not always, and she can't generally eat an entire one so a lot goes to waste. So I don't make these as much, but I would be remiss if I didn't include them in a master list of ways to make oatmeal ahead of time for easy, frugal breakfasts that can be taken on the go.

These are generally made in mason jars, same as my instant oatmeal. Having some half-pint mason jars around, even if they're only used for making breakfast**, is really handy. They last longer than plastic, have a greater diversity of uses, don't have any claims about toxicity or nasty chemicals, and they're far less likely to leak than any plastic container I've ever tried.


Nom

If you're wondering what's with all the stuff about food lately, there are several reasons. First, I'm pregnant. Food is on my mind a lot, and not only because I'm hungry. (I'm not that extra hungry.) Getting good nutrition is important both right now and after the baby's born, so it's something my mind is extra focused on. Oatmeal also helped me out an unbelievable amount last time, because it helped with breastfeeding when I struggled with it. I'm keeping that in mind as I figure out what to eat to support myself and the bebe-to-be.

Pregnancy also means that I'm extra tired. I am, quite frankly, all about convenience right now. We've been busy, life has been hard, and I just don't have the reserves to deal with even more. But I also don't want to sacrifice our real goals in the name of short-term convenience, so I've put a lot of thought into how to do more with a bit less energy. Batch cooking breakfasts when I have the time and energy has been, without a doubt, one of the best things I've done recently. I transitioned to a new work schedule at the same time the Munchkin started preschool, both of which things could have really thrown me for a loop. In some ways they have, and we still have a bit of adjusting to do, but knowing that I have breakfast nailed down has helped me feel overall more ready and able to take on the new challenges. If nothing else, I can point to that as a self-reminder that I haven't dropped the ball on everything.

Eating well on the cheap is also on my mind because babies, in case you didn't know, can be rather pricey. They don't have to be as expensive as society claims they are (more on that later) but since we have crappy and expensive healthcare in the U.S., the medical bills alone can be staggering. So many appointments leading up to birth, the big hospital stay--possibly with surgery to pay for--and then a bunch of appointments for both me and baby after birth. Yeah, that's a lot of money spent on medical bills. It's well worth it to me/us, or we wouldn't be doing this again. However, it is the sort of thing that makes me take a look at the ins and outs of our money once more to make sure we're spending in line with our goals. We like food, but we don't need to spend thousands of dollars each month to eat well.

Last, I'm focusing on food because it's fall. In the spring my mind turns to salads and fruits and all the yummy things I didn't eat all winter because they weren't in season (and therefore just plain sucked in both quality and price). Now it's autumn and my mind is turning to comfort foods. Oatmeal, warm and filling, is high on the list. Baking is a great way to pass rainy days indoors with the Munchkin (not that we've had too many of those around here yet) and having breakfasts pre-made for weekdays really does make life less stressful. That seems like something worth passing on, right?

Food can be one of the easiest ways for people to start saving money. And it's crazy, because you absolutely don't have to give up eating out entirely to realize the savings. I know quite a few people who buy breakfast along with their coffees each morning. Depending on what they get that can be $10+ every single day, just for breakfast. $50 a week, a little more than $200 per month. For breakfast. That sure makes my $3 in oats for my entire family for the week seem like a crazy deal. Even with all the extra stuff we add to our oatmeal we couldn't spend $10 a day each if we tried. I'm pretty sure there are times when we don't even break $10 on breakfast for the week. That, to me, is well worth the minimal effort we put into making this meal.





*This has been my first 'real' pregnancy craving. I've had a few others that were prompted by something else. A coworker had a bagel at work one day and I thought, "Ooh, bagels!" I was able to put that off for a few days, though, and one bagel sufficed. However, breakfast cereal became something I HAD TO HAVE. I had multiple days of eating 3+ bowls of cereal and wanted it for pretty much every meal. I was even hiding away from my kid to eat cereal in private, so she wouldn't ask me to share!

**We also use them for canning, obviously, and freezing, and as dry goods storage. When they're not being used in any food storage capacity, we use them as drinking glasses. The half-pint size makes a perfect drinking glass for the Munchkin. She feels like a grownup with the real glass but it's not likely to break if she accidentally drops it. In fact, we've never had one break that way and they get dropped or knocked over plenty. However, if you don't can and don't have kids then obviously the utility of them will go down. I still maintain, though, that they are excellent for all kinds of food storage and transportation.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

When life hands you...bananas?

I have a confession to make: I hate bananas. Really, hate them. Which is such a shame, because they're filling and nutritious, and cheap. They're the cheapest fruit out there, at least that I've seen. But, alas, I hate the slimy things. The taste, the texture, the whole package.

Except, that is, in one form. Banana bread. Not just any banana bread, either. I found a recipe a while ago for blueberry-oatmeal banana bread. I tried it, loved it, then tweaked it just a bit. I lowered the sugar content (totally unnecessary to have a full cup of sugar in it!), upped the baking powder while dropping the baking soda entirely, and voila. An amazing, easy, and cheap recipe. It's so quick and nutritious that I relied on it more than I care to say after the Munchkin was born, particularly after I went back to work. Since I breastfed her, I felt like I was constantly hungry, but having two thick slices of this, with butter, and two scrambled eggs for breakfast each morning kept me full until lunch. And I lost the baby weight, one of the big goals of pretty much any postpartum mom.*

Nowadays, I'm using it more because it's super, super convenient. It's also fun to make with the kiddo, and I don't feel guilty about feeding it to her since it's got so many healthy ingredients. Whenever we've got some bananas about to go bad or a few in the freezer which should be eaten up. It saves more than just bad bananas, too, since you can use either fresh or frozen blueberries. If you've got some berries about to turn, throw them in the freezer until you want to make this.

Food waste is a big deal on so many levels--budgetary, environmental, even social justice. After all, it's true that there are plenty of people out there who are starving. Even kids at your local school might be needing free breakfast and lunch and the rest of us just casually toss away food. We are not by any means perfect in this regard, so I'm not trying to point fingers or get holier-than-thou. However, it is something we work hard at. It's something we've decided is important enough to actively fighting against in our house  and still, sometimes things get tossed in the garbage. A few small steps--freezing food when we can for later use, using scraps or otherwise "waste" food, and planning our meals ahead--save us so much time, money, and effort. They might not save the world, but we can all do our part.

If you're like me and don't really like bananas, or you've got some serious budget constraints, you can also sometimes purchase bananas from the store which are about to go bad. One of our nearest grocery stores has a section for fruit that's about to turn (mostly bananas) that they sell for cheap. Sometimes, when I know I'll have time to use them right away, I'll get enough of them to make at least one batch of this banana bread.

Blueberry Oatmeal Banana Bread

3 large over-ripe bananas
1 egg
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg (optional)
1 cup oats
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
Blueberries, approximately 1 cup

Mix the wet ingredients, then toss the dry ingredients in and combine. Lastly, add the blueberries. Bake in a loaf pan at 375 for 45 minutes. Due to the berries and high moisture content, unless you're going to eat it all in about a day and a half I suggest storing it in the fridge.

Alternatively, bake in muffin tins (I grease the sides so I don't have to waste all those paper cups) for about 30 minutes at 375. These are fantastic to take on the go if you're rushed in the mornings, and they can be frozen. If you don't feel like you'll get through an entire loaf before it goes bad, make it into muffins and freeze most of them. Even if you don't remember to pull them out until the morning of, they reheat beautifully in either a microwave or a toaster oven. It's also way easy to pack them in a child's lunchbox if you thaw them out the night before. I do this as the Munchkin's "treat". Much better than a granola bar or something equally sugary.

A few suggestions for alterations:

I've used blackberries instead of blueberries and that was fantastic too. I bet raspberries would work well also.

Since I know a lot of friends and family are gluten-free, eating Paleo/keto, or just trying to cut down on carbs, I haven't tried alternative flours with any success. My one foray into using coconut flour didn't turn out well. I'd never used it before and didn't realize that you can't do a 1/1 conversion between wheat flour and coconut flour, so I ended up with a chalky mess, even after adding a bunch of water. The Munchkin and I had a few bites, then I threw it out. Fail. Maybe someone with more experience baking with alternative flours would be able to make it work, though.

This recipe is also really easy to make vegan by substituting 1 flax "egg" (1 Tbsp ground flax + 1 Tbsp water) instead.

When I was breastfeeding, I struggled with low supply for a long time so I made a lot of lactation cookies. I didn't like how much sugar I was consuming, however, so I started looking for alternatives. I realized that this was a perfect recipe to convert. Each time I made it I added 1 Tbsp of flax, 1 Tbsp of nutritional yeast, and enough liquid or oil (coconut oil, butter, milk, water, depending on what I had available or felt like adding) to give it the proper consistency. It helped me out so much.

Pardon the totally not Pinterest-worthy picture. I snapped
this one morning just before doing the preschool
drop-off and rushing to work.






*Don't judge us, it's for so many reasons beyond being thin, such as being yourself again or not having your joints hurt, or feeling sexy and pretty again, or just wanting to be fit and healthy for yourself or your kid. Losing the baby weight is important.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Our house

It's been well over three months since we officially moved our stuff into our new house (although we are still only spending weekends there for the foreseeable future, as we work to get my mom settled and deal with my dad's estate) and it's still a bit of a wreck. In a good way, if you can believe that.

Our house has felt like our home since the first day we spent in it. We woke up after the first night and there was no strangeness, no questioning of where we were. Even the Munchkin seemed all right with it. Success! But, there's a lot of work that needs to go into really making your own home, even when you know you've found the right place.

Can you guess where the china
hutch was?
I've seen advice not to do any work on a house right after you move in and, frankly, I'm calling BS. That might be just great for some houses and people, but not for us. Not for this house. We don't have any major remodels planned but there were details we went into the offer knowing we would change immediately. The more we stay there, the more we realize it's been a great decision not to wait. The sellers did some very nice work in the house (like the bathroom tile), but they also did some rather shoddy work as well. It's the shoddy work we're trying to change.

We're not starting with anything major, just some paint. Painting the walls before we get completely settled is one thing we agreed on. If we waited, it would just be more of a hassle because we'd have to move furniture around, take pictures off the walls, etc. Best to it while we still have very little furniture to be moved, and nothing on the walls. It's also summer right now and we wanted to take advantage of being able to open windows and have the walls dry quickly. One of our friends, who has a background in design, offered to help us and that's been a major boon since I'm not supposed to paint while pregnant. (I'm actually kind of bummed about that. I like painting!)

One of my favorite changes so far is that we let the Munchkin pick out the color she wanted in her room, so that she would feel ownership over it. She hasn't gotten to experience that over the last two years in my parents' house, with us constantly having to tell her, "That's not yours, please don't play with it." It's important to us that she feel like this room is really hers, somewhere she can be comfortable, and it's working. She likes to tell people all about her new room, with its purple and blue stripes, and the pictures we're going to hang on the walls. She has a bedroom set that belonged to my grandfather when he was a little boy, so there's a bit of family history too. She even plays quietly in her room occasionally!

I won't detail everything we've done or will be doing, because that's boring. As we've gone along, though, it's made me realize how much I loathe shitty DIY. I respect DIY, it's obviously something we also do, but if you're going to do something then you should do it properly. Don't cut corners. Either you or someone else will just have to re-do it later on down the road and that's such a waste of both time and effort.
"I'm sure I'll hit the stud at some point."
- Person who drilled here, probably

On the other hand, if they'd done a good job then this house likely would have been out of reach for us. It's amazing how many people can't look past a bad coat of paint to the possibilities underneath. We decided that our house was a good deal because so much of the major work has already been done. There are new windows, for the most part, and carpet was torn up to reveal the original wood floors beneath. These are just two examples of the many things that were done well in our house, and they're far more expensive and more work than a few coats of paint.

We have a few more projects slowly getting done or on the list. One of my amazing and wonderful brothers volunteered to take the popcorn off the two ceilings which had it. This is another task that I can't do, because the popcorn possibly contained asbestos. My brother has to wear a breathing mask and he's been going at times when the Munchkin and I wouldn't be around to breathe the dust. I'm so grateful for all the work he's putting into our home, which he's basically doing just because he's a really nice guy.

Making a house into a home you're proud of doesn't require a ton of money, just some careful thought and planning. We have bigger plans for later on, things to make the house suit us even better or to make it more efficient. For instance, one project for this fall is to put more insulation in the attic, where it's rather thin. I imagine we'll also go around with a thermal detector to figure out where to do air sealing work. Eventually, we want to get a programmable thermostat, and we've already begun replacing some lights with LEDs. These are not particularly costly fixes and they'll pay us back in the long term. Anything more major can wait until our lives aren't quite so stressful and busy. (That time will come, right?)

I managed to get porch, hammock
trees, and paw prints all in one.
Lest you think our house is all work and no play, one of the first things we do each weekend is set up our hammock in what is quickly becoming one of my favorite spots. The porch was a feature I liked but not one I set a priority on when we were looking at the house. Now, however, it's where we spend a good portion of each weekend, relaxing. Though our street gets a fair amount of traffic our porch seems like an oasis of greenery and calm. And to make it truly ours, the dog stepped in a tray of paint and left her paw prints all over.


The secret way we frugalized buying a house in Seattle

The one feature of our house that not everyone knows is that it has an apartment in the basement. There's a second kitchen, and two large rooms (plus bathroom) that can be easily separated from the rest of the house and rented out. A mother-in-law apartment like this was something that we had thought of when we were talking over house features we wanted in our home. It was a feature that ended up on the "would be nice but not necessary" list, in part because we figured that finding a house in our price range that included one was a bit of a pipe dream. Nope!

Our goal in life is not to become landlords. We're not going to start buying up properties to rent out. However, having this area to help offset the cost of our mortgage somewhat will be quite nice. I had originally thought that, should a family member need it, it would be nice to be able to offer a place to stay that had some separation. (My full thought was that if my dad needed it after my mom passed away, it would offer him independence but would also keep him close. Obviously, that's no longer a concern.)

I also like the efficiency aspect to it, since our house would be far too large for our needs without it. The same day we looked at this house we saw another one that was similar, it just didn't have the apartment. We really liked that house too and talked about putting an offer on it, but we would have been paying just as much mortgage-wise on that house, without being able to get any money via rent.

We won't be charging maximum rent for the space, since it's more important that we have a friend in there, someone we can trust, someone we get along with, rather than squeezing every penny we can out of a stranger. We had a few people in mind and, luckily, the first friend we talked to was excited about it. I won't talk about him much, if at all, for his own privacy, but we've met a few times to talk about expectations and this sounds like this will work out well for all of us. He gets to pay less in rent and we get not only a little bit of money to help offset the cost of our mortgage but also someone we can trust.

He hasn't moved in yet, because the apartment has the other ceiling with popcorn. We want to get that taken care of before he moves in so that we don't have to upset his life to take care of it later on, or make him live with asbestos. I'm genuinely excited to have him move in, however, and a bit anxious to move forward with this. We haven't gotten to see this particular friend nearly as much as we would like to since we moved down here. We have set up boundaries so that we won't be hanging out with each other constantly, but it will be nice to at least say hi in passing and to easily hang out when we all feel like it.

We are also going to be renting out a room to my brother. Well, "renting". He needs to go finish his epic around the world bike tour, but when he comes home we've promised him a room. We're working out a deal where, for at least a few months, he lives here free in exchange for some childcare. This would allow him time to get some personal projects and other things done, and it would help us out of a bind.( The Munchkin's preschool hours don't quite fit with my work hours.) We'll see how things shake out, but I'm also excited to have my brother with us. We get along quite well so I'm not worried that we'll cause a family rift or anything. And, my daughter thinks the world of her uncles. Having one of them around full time, which she's used to at this point, will help ease the upcoming transitions.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

It wasn't supposed to happen like this

Before we moved into our new house, I briefly started some cutesy little post about the move, minus the details, and was super excited to finish it up. In the end, though, what happened was neither cutesy nor fun nor happy, so naturally that's not what I'm posting.

When I was in high school I had a dream that my dad was dead. Not that he'd died in my dream, but that he'd been dead for many years at that point and I was still sad, going over memories and wishing I could see him again. That morning, my dad actually came to make sure I was waking up for school (I was notoriously bad about that) and, as soon as I saw him, I burst into tears. This was, I know, a little unsettling for him. I was just so relieved to realize that he wasn't gone. I hugged him close and couldn't tell him why I'd cried that morning until years later. Thinking of it always brought back the feeling of grief I'd felt in my dream.

I would give quite a lot to be woken up like that again, and to know I have many more years with my dad.

Despite my dad's heart attack a little over three years ago, no one was worried about him. I mean, I knew that one of these days he'd have another heart attack and that that one, or maybe the next one, would manage to kill him. But that was supposed to be years in the future. As sad and horrible as it is to admit, we've all been so busy worrying about my mom's health and preparing for her (sooner rather than later) death that to say we were completely blindsided by my dad's sudden passing is quite an understatement.

To have it happen the day that we were supposed to move made it doubly hard. It was supposed to be a happy day. He was so excited for us! He was going to finally see our house that weekend, and he kept saying how proud of us he was. He knew how long and hard we've been working toward this goal, and our combined dedication and perseverance was a trait he was not shy about praising.

No one thought anything of it when he slept in. He was always a night owl, and usually slept in quite late on weekends. He'd also had what we thought was a cold the day before. The kiddo and I had been sick the week before and his symptoms seemed to match up so we weren't concerned. Only, that day he wasn't sleeping in. I'm not sure I'll ever forget my brother running downstairs yelling, "Call 911, Dad is cold!" I ran upstairs to see for myself while calling emergency services and could see immediately that there was no helping him.

Instead of using my vacation time to work on setting up our house I used it instead to plan my dad's funeral, to make arrangements for what to do with his body and to contact as many friends and family as I could think of. As if that wasn't enough, there's always my mother's care to think of and, as the mom of a very demanding toddler, I had to focus on my child as well. There were details that I was sorting through and problems I was taking care of all day long. I couldn't grieve, I didn't have time for that. There were others who needed me more than I needed time to myself.

The worst moment of it all was walking into the funeral. I don't know about you, but whenever I'd thought about my parents one day, hopefully far in the future, dying, I had never thought about that detail. There would be a funeral, sure, but my mind glossed over it. However, when it hits you that you are really, truly saying goodbye to someone you love that much, it's overwhelming. I lost what composure I had immediately.

Which, really, is a good thing. If I could remain stoic through my dad's funeral then he wouldn't have meant all that much to me. But he did. He was a wonderful man and a great father and I'm so, so lucky that he was my dad.

I have some small comforts. He died very peacefully in his sleep, and from appearances he didn't even know what was happening. I also had pretty much the best last words to my dad: "Love you." Casually tossed over my shoulder as we left to go see friends for a barbecue, I didn't know that that would be the last thing I ever said to him. But if I had to choose, that's what I would say to him all over again.

We didn't get to spend a night in our own house for two weeks after the day of the move. Thanks to our amazing friends and HusbandX's hard work, most of it had gotten done that day anyway while I made calls and dealt with the details of death. Moving was, in the end, not a happy but a practical decision. After all, having our things cluttering up my parents' house could only make whatever else needed to be done even more difficult. And I cannot thank our friends enough for all that they did: taking the kiddo away so that she could have a somewhat normal day and we could focus on what needed to get done. Moving our things and even supplying us with toilet paper and some (nonperishable) groceries. Checking in to see in what ways they could help. My gratitude for being surrounded by such amazing people is beyond words.

I've gotten through the weeks somehow. This has been, without a doubt, the most difficult period of my life. There are so many things that I need to attend to, and all of them crucial, that I've been constantly overwhelmed. The hardest part has been dealing with the Munchkin's feelings on top of my own. She's having a hard time with this, but so am I. I just don't get the luxury of behaving like a three-year-old. So I've dealt with the move, I've dealt with living in two places, I've helped my mom as best I can, I've worked with my brothers on my dad's estate and everything that needs to be done after someone dies, I've gone back to work, and I've dealt with the needs and emotions of a demanding child all at the same time. And I've been harboring a secret.

You see, before we even closed on our house I took a pregnancy test. It was positive, the way I'd expected it to be. This was as planned as these things ever can be, considering what a crapshoot fertility can be. You start trying and basically cross your fingers, never knowing if it will take five weeks or five years. Well, we got lucky and ended up on the five weeks end of the spectrum. I found out I was pregnant, we closed on our house, and then my dad died all in the space of about three weeks. To say that it was difficult to handle all of that at once is to severely understate things.

I never got to tell my dad and that really, really sucks. At first I was having a hard time finding any happiness in this baby I wanted so much, because it instantly became just one more thing I have to deal with. Between all of my other responsibilities I didn't have time to think of myself, but I also didn't have the luxury not to think about myself either. So instead of being a joy this was just one more thing I have to take care of.

Luckily, the first trimester has been pretty easy on me. No nausea to speak of, only mild food aversions (except for that one week, when I didn't even want water because it was totally abhorrent), and exhaustion. But would I be this exhausted anyway? One of the aspects that's been the hardest is that I don't know what's caused by grief and what by raging pregnancy hormones. Do I suddenly want to cry because I'm still sad, or because my hormones are going wild again?

This all sounds really bleak. It's not the way I wanted or intended to tell the world about this, because a baby should be a happy thing. And it is really is. I've had two appointments now and I'm just starting to round out so it's a visual thing rather than a list of nasty symptoms. I've heard the heartbeat and that was indescribably beautiful. As my grief is becoming less acute (though not fading, never fading) and things are getting checked off the to-do list I am able to relax and be happy. I'm building another human being! That's pretty incredible when I stop to think about it.

I also have to take a moment to thank both my husband and my brothers. HusbandX, of course, knew shortly after I did. He was always there with gentle reminders that taking care of myself was okay too, to step in and handle things when I just couldn't. My brothers did the same. I feel rather bad for the way I blurted it out to them, in the midst of cleaning the bathroom together the day after my dad's death. I didn't really plan it but I realized that they needed to know. We were talking about things that we needed to do, particularly with regards to our mom, and they needed to know what I'm capable of and what I'm not. Since then they've also all been quietly checking in on me, taking care of me. They've entertained the Munchkin when I needed a nap, pre-checked meals with me to make sure it was something I could stomach. Not a day goes by when I don't realize just how lucky I am to have all of them.

Dealing with death and new life together has been confusing and added to my sense of overwhelm. My feelings about this baby are so tied up in my grief. I keep going back to the knowledge that I didn't get to tell my dad and that hurts more than anything else. Of all the people he loved in the world he loved us, his family, the most. It's something I've always known and I hope I can make my own children feel as cherished. My dad is the parent I most wanted to emulate, with his patience and generosity, and I'm not even nearly there yet. What will I do without his guidance?

The very act of telling people about this, seeing the genuine pleasure that others get from hearing our good news, has been making me happier. Fairly soon, I'll start to feel the baby move and it will seem more real to me.
My dad and my daughter, playing on the beach together.
And I will tell it all about the grandfather it will never get to meet. I am now the keeper of my dad's memory and I'll do my best to keep him present in our lives.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Frugality is not the same as greed

If you look at how frugality is portrayed in the media and by acquaintances, it's easy to get the idea that anyone who's frugal is a money-grubbing tightwad, watching every penny with squinty intensity. This can give the impression that anyone who's frugal is not generous, and that they're downright greedy.

In fact, the opposite is often true. Those who are the most frugal are, frequently, the most generous with their extra funds. Since people who are frugal are also the ones who end up with extra funds to donate (examples here and here, although there are many more that I could cite) it can be fairly stated that greed is not the ultimate driver of frugality. My brother is one of the most tightfisted people I know, who can, as an aunt put it, "make every penny squeal". But that's only with himself. With other people he is absurdly generous.
Enjoying this sunset was totally free, and I even
got to share it with lots of friends.

Being frugal allows people to be generous with their money when and as they see fit because those of us who watch our pennies know where our values lie. We spend only on the things which matter to us, and which will lead to a good life. We're buying a house, a very expensive "investment" (we don't view it as an investment, but as our home), because it will help us live the life we want. It's something we were willing to shell out a rather lavish amount of money on and go into debt for, knowing that it will bring our family happiness and stability for many years to come. We've made plenty of trade-offs to be able to afford this, but the things we didn't spend on are things that we don't get joy out of, and which won't make us as happy as our house will. New clothes, haircuts, meals at restaurants, makeup, and fancy coffees are all things that we value less, so we've (mostly) cut them from our lives. It hasn't decreased our happiness at all. On the contrary, by saving for our big goals and making them come true we've vastly increased our happiness. We are able to do the things that matter the most to us.

I'm not going to reiterate the tired advice that buying lattes every day will completely ruin your budget. If you derive true enjoyment from your daily Starbucks cappuccino or by wearing fancy new shoes, by all means keep indulging. But, perhaps look at other areas of your budget which might not bring you as much joy and cut those things out whenever possible. The point of this is to live your best life, not someone else's. If you want to spend lavishly on travel while eating rice and beans at home to afford it, that's awesome.

Frugality is also not about pushing off for tomorrow the things you want to do today. I have daily evidence of the folly of that. My parents wanted to travel. My dad, in particular, had dreams of traveling the world together after they retired. In the treadmill of work and raising four kids, however, they pushed it off. There were short trips to Mexico and various places around the U.S., mostly to visit family, but the big trips that they wanted to do got pushed off. Even after we, their children, were out of the house they pushed it off. After all, they weren't far from retirement.

And then. My mom was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. She didn't get to retire in a blaze of glory but by being laid off, then being too confused to work a retail job she'd taken for the holidays. Immediately their world became smaller. They have taken a few notable trips--to England, to Israel--but for the most part the dreams of travel were crushed. When even a trip to the grocery store is difficult and fraught with confusion, international trips are out of the question.

Seeing this every single day, seeing how much my parents have been forced to give up first because they were sacrificing in the name of family and second by circumstance, has made me think very long and hard about what I want from my own life. The only real conclusion that I've come to is that I don't want to push off my dreams for some unknown future. Some people use that same unknown future as a reason to spend all their money now. I'm using it as a reason to save even as I live for the now. It's been the biggest driver of removing the unnecessary from my life so that I can be as happy as possible for every minute that I have.

I not only have my mother's illness in the back of my head, but I also have my own daughter watching me. When we embarked on the epic task of parenting the one thing we absolutely knew for certain was that we didn't want to be just weekend parents. We wanted to spend real time with our kid through all stages of life. If I die young, my daughter is not going to fondly remember the stuff I've bought frivolously. She's going to remember the time we've spent together, and that is the best gift I can give to both of us. Saving money and living on a much lower budget than we can afford is allowing me to spend this time with my daughter. Working part-time is not an option that every parent has and I'm very lucky that I can do it, but I can also do it because we've worked so hard to put ourselves in this position. I can work part time to create memories with my daughter, or we could buy a second car. I can spend afternoons at the playground watching her build new skills or I could sit in a cubicle to afford trips to the movies and the nail salon each weekend.
I get to spend my afternoons with these two
troublemakers, and it's pretty damn awesome.

Even for people who are not parents, there's a lot of happiness to be found in not relying on a job. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn't do more when I had a truly terrible boss. My former fantastic boss had retired and someone new took over. She made my life hell, and that's not an exaggeration. She honestly did all that she could to deliberately make my life miserable. However, I didn't feel like I could quit for various reasons. I did all that I could within the system--talking with management, bringing HR complaints and even a Title IX complaint--but I still felt that I needed that job. Pregnant and the sole breadwinner for the family, I hunkered down and quietly accepted that that was my lot in life. I would have given anything to tell that woman exactly what she could do to herself and where she could go, but I didn't. I didn't think I could. I eventually changed my job situation by getting a new job (that I loved, and was sad to leave when we moved!) but that period in my life still makes me angry for a variety of reasons, the biggest being simply my remembered helplessness.

How many other people are stuck in jobs they hate because they need the paycheck? And how much better would the world be if they weren't limited by money? How many people could change the world for the better if they didn't have to sit in their cubicle every day? Even just being personally happy would be a positive influence because people tend to be nicer when they're happy. Not everyone needs to have their name in the media as a hero to have an impact on the world, sometimes just being happy will do. Letting go of other people's expectations of what your life should be like, and what you should spend your money on, is as good a place to start as any.

I actually get mad when people use this image of frugality as a reason to be greedy, to hoard their pennies. That's missing the entire point. Being frugal is about being you to the best of your ability, without money getting in the way, and to only spend on the things that will make you happier or a better person. That's it! Your budget won't be the same as anyone else's, and it shouldn't be. When you know what will make you happy then it's easy to lower your spending, set and stick to a budget, and think about a time when you could actually have enough money and not need any more, which would mean that you're free to give away the rest as you see fit.

HusbandX and I are still working on our version of The Good Life, and how much money is enough. Our expenses are still evolving and we're still hashing out things we'd like to do. In the meantime, however, we're enjoying ourselves and we're not worrying about money, because we've set things up in such a way that we don't need to. Being able to enjoy our lives without stressing over money has been one of the best gifts we've given each other.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The Good

My last post feels like kind of a downer. You might think that I've been depressed (and I have, just not Depressed) or that I've been wallowing in anger since November. Some days yes, but for the most part no. I've just been living my life, with a few extra reminders about being kinder.

Some really, really good things have happened in these last few months too. HusbandX started a job back in December, one he enjoys and is happy in. Since my brother was home for a few months at Christmas, we were able to hire him as childcare for us when we were both at work. We've been so, so lucky that for childcare so far we've only ever had to rely on friends and family. That will change in the fall when our Munchkin starts preschool. We found an amazing outdoor preschool that I applied for back in the fall and we found out over the winter that she's in! She'll get to spend her mornings playing with other kids in the woods, and I could not think of a more perfect setting for my child. I know she'll learn a lot and have fun doing it.

So, now HusbandX and I both have jobs that we are happy with. In some ways it's been an odd adjustment. Double employment? What's that? But after hunting around for so long, it's nice to know that HusbandX found something that suits him so well. Having met his coworkers at their Christmas party (in January), they're nice people. The work they're doing is interesting and engaging, and HusbandX is just so much happier than he had been. It's nice to have purpose again.

Since he has a job, in February we started working on our next big thing. We began searching for a house. Waaay back we'd written down a list of our wants and needs for a living situation. Since I'm a planner and a dreamer, I have huge notes dedicated to features I want in my future yard and garden. We already knew what neighborhoods in the city we could afford, which coincidentally happened to be the same neighborhoods where many of our home-owning friends live. We narrowed it down to one area to look in, figured out how far out of that area we wouldn't compromise about even for an amazing house, worked out a budget we were comfortable with, and started our search.

We didn't expect it to be all kittens and roses, thank goodness. It started off slow. Many friends had told us to look at as many houses as we could stand to. It would give us an idea of what's available, what are good prices, what things are actually selling for, and would refine our ideas of what we want in a house. It did all of those things. And let me tell you, the Seattle real estate market is bonkers. There are tiny houses with frankly dangerous issues (broken retaining walls, cracked foundations, outdated electrical systems) that smell of cat pee and they're going for half a million dollars, or close enough. What. The. Fuck. We looked at so many houses with features that made us say, "Wut?" and a few that we outright laughed at. Outrageous house, outrageous price. But they sold. In less than two weeks a house, even a miserable and downright awful house, would be sold. What?

One day I sent HusbandX a link to a listing and said, "Maybe this is a possibility?" It was a $14million dollar penthouse with a view of the Space Needle. We had fun looking at the pictures and joking about, "Well, I would buy it but that kitchen is tasteless," or "the bathroom needs some work, you can't even fit an entire football team in that tub!"

We found one house we really liked in the first month of looking and put in an offer, but someone else got it. We found another house we liked less but which would suit us well enough and put in another offer the next month. Now that someone else has it, I'm thankful for that.

Then...oh boy. We found The One. A house that had all of our Needs, and pretty much all of our Wants. Bigger than I'd initially thought we'd go for but well worth it. The yard and garden match some of my dreams amazingly well, but there's still opportunity to make them just the way I want. Walking around, this place felt like Home.

We did a pre-inspection and that confirmed what we'd already known: this was a great house. There was one major/minor issue that I had some small reservations about. Not enough to deter us but enough to make me slightly less excited about paying so much money for a house only to then lay out even more money to fix this. Then it turned out the seller was having it fixed anyway, which frankly doubled my excitement as it meant that pretty much all of the issues in the house were purely cosmetic, or at least could be put off for a while.

The other houses we'd put offers on had both had many more offers at the same time. I know one had at least six other offers. This one, however, only had one competing offer. HusbandX worried. "Do other people know something that we don't?" I held onto the pre-inspection in my mind as proof that we weren't going for a lemon.

That there were only two offers worked to our advantage. In the end, we're getting a house and lot of a rather large size for the city, close to amenities and close enough to work to bike, close to a bus line. And we're getting it for less than we would have expected. It's rather incredible. I feel so, so lucky.

We're working our way through the loan process right now. For those of you who haven't bought houses, finding the right house and getting an offer accepted is just the start of the stressful process. The bank required tons of paperwork, some of which we had on hand and some of which we needed to contact others about. For about two weeks, every day I was scanning and uploading and searching and signing documents. It was chaos. HusbandX joked, "I thought the stool sample was a little much." It really felt as if they asked for everything just short of a virgin sacrifice.

In the midst of all of this, my part-time job asked me to work longer hours, so I've had more full days in the last month than I've had short ones. I got a small raise at the end of March, too. That's good news for our house fund, but the extra work has added a whole new level of craziness that had me sucking down chamomile tea to calm down. I slept horribly for a few nights, worried about paperwork or that the bank would randomly deny our loan. Ugh.

But now, things are almost over. The appraisal went through just fine. We're still getting the funds together, as about half of what we had was in an investment account, so the thought that it won't get here in time is my final worry. It's mild, however, not the kind of worry that causes my thumb to randomly start twitching for an entire day. (True story.)
These two helped me chill out. At least,
when they weren't causing further sleep
disruptions they did.

It's nice to finally relax. It's nice to feel like this house might actually become ours, although I'm still not going to count on that until closing day. Even then, I think I'll have a hard time taking in that we own a home. When does it begin to feel real?

There are so many reasons we decided to buy a house. There are online calculators out there about whether it's better to rent or to buy, monetarily. We didn't even care (although I think that in this area, it's pretty much a wash) because there were so many other reasons we wanted a home of our own. Among them, we're tired of crappy landlords and worse neighbors. Seriously, we've only ever had one truly good landlord, and we always seem to be stuck with awful neighbors.

I wanted to finally, finally have a garden space that I could do whatever I wanted to. Keep backyard chickens? Maybe! I don't have to seek permission from anyone to plant things, and I know that if I plant a fruit tree or berry bush then I'll be around to harvest it too.

We also will get to remodel our environment to suit us. There were plenty of houses I saw which were nice, but they were someone else's conception of what a nice house should be. The house we're buying has just enough work that needs to be done that we can make it to suit ourselves and our needs.

That includes making it more environmentally friendly. Of course, one of the most environmentally friendly options is just to not buy more crap that needs to get manufactured while throwing out other stuff that will sit in a landfill for who knows how long. And I get that. But even things like increasing the R-value of the attic insulation is exciting to me. How pathetic is that? And that's my point. We're becoming homeowners because this stuff is exciting and fun for us. If it's not making you squee, just a little, to think about it, then renting is a far better idea. Not everyone has the inclination to look up Youtube videos about plumbing, or the desire to refinish cabinets, or to paint walls, or build a patio, or whatever the latest DIY project for a home is. (And I'm not kidding myself--there's always one more project that can be done when you own a home.) We do care about and enjoy these things, so that's what we're going to do.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Quiet

I haven't written. I mean really, I haven't written much of anything since early November. I'd like to say there are a variety of reasons, like the weather has sucked or because I've been too busy. Both of those things are true, but they're not why I haven't written anything. I've just been too upset and depressed about the state of the world to arrange my thoughts in any coherent fashion beyond anger. And really, that's not what anyone needs. That won't make the world a better place. So I've stayed quiet.

This is unusual for me. I am, and always have been, a bit of a loudmouth. Quite possibly too full of opinions for my own good, I'm not a quiet person. If I am, it's because I'm thinking about things. There is no "off" in my head, no peaceful quiet place that I go to. My head is full of chatter and so is the rest of me. I like to write not because I think my opinions are so unique but because there are so many people who share my thoughts but aren't able to articulate them, or not in the same way.

I am what could politely be described as "progressive", politically. "Dirty hippie" might also work. 😊 This is not because I'm surrounded by like-minded people (if nothing else, living in Alaska fixed that right up) but through thoughtful inner searching and talking with people who are not like me. It's been very popular since the election to say that "we lost" because "we're in liberal bubbles". No. We all lost because of fake news is profitable, and because there are people in the world who want to profit off of our communal loss. There would be no fake news without a hefty profit margin, and I don't think the advertisers we can see are the ones profiting most heavily.

The nature of human civilization is progress. There are small steps backward, but in general the trend is to move forward, to better ourselves, to move beyond what we have been. I am not trying to say that human nature is any fundamentally different than it has been since before written records, but it's obvious to anyone that we've moved on from what we were. That we've changed and that in that changing we've shaped the world as it now is. Progress.

On the other hand, conservatives want to keep the world as it is or even move it backwards in some basic ways. That is in the very definition of the word "conservative". It takes a very rosy view of the past, ignoring the realities that life has been a difficult, dirty struggle for most of humanity for as long as there has been humanity. It's also a misguided philosophy because it assumes that we can, as a society, stagnate. We can retain things as they are and everything will work out!

Again, that's not how the world works. That we will move forward should always, always be implicit. Progress will happen whether we all have to be dragged kicking and screaming into our collective future or whether we work together to ensure a more equitable, fruitful, people-centered future. I want to help shape that conversation. Really, I think that's what we all want, deep down. To argue against that, to claim that things are fine as they are or were better in the past so we should go back to that ideal is just dumb. It is never going to happen, and you wouldn't want it to if it did. Help shape the future instead of looking to the past for all the answers, because the latter is a quick way to get humans nowhere fast. Learn lessons from the past, but work to move forward. We can always make the world a better place.

Hearing the voice of progress be so gleefully drowned out by sore "winners"* and crack-pots has been, frankly, heartbreaking. What do you say in the face of such fundamental stupidity? You can't argue with a fool, as is being proven every single day to anyone paying the least amount of attention to the news.

So I've been quiet in the face of all of this, and yet I haven't. I've used some of the time I would have otherwise spent on this blog writing to my elected officials instead. I've even tried calling a few times, and despite how much I love to talk I do not enjoy talking to strangers over the phone. I've been working quietly to support friends who are getting involved in politics, trying to support friends and family who are in vulnerable groups--the people who are Not Like Me but who've helped shape my worldview and from whom I've learned so much about the varied, wonderful human experience. The fact that some of them, maybe even many of them, are in a position to lose the rights and supports that they should be able to take for granted is infuriating and terrifying. I'm honestly scared of the people who think that this is all right, who go along with it or even actively support it. Seriously, what is wrong with you?

All of this is also driving home my enormous privilege. HusbandX and I have the means for insulating our family from many troubles. Not all of them of course (no one can escape climate change) but many of the ones that are so scary won't actually affect us. I won't have to walk into a bathroom with a picture that doesn't represent me because someone else decided that I'm some sort of dangerous abomination. My marriage is never in danger of being de-legitimized. If the schools suck, well, we have the means and education to home school our kid.

But it's always in my mind that others, including people we like and respect and love, don't have those options. Some of them don't feel that they can speak up on their own behalf, because drawing attention to yourself can be dangerous. (If you don't believe me, talk to a Muslim or an LGBTQ military person.) How could I look at these people I respect so much and not work to give them the same level of safety and security that I have? How does it not hurt some people to think of hurting others in such basic and cruel ways?

I'm still working on how I can fight back in both large and small ways. The hardest part is that I feel like this is such a multi-faceted battle we're fighting. Do I focus on climate change or LGBTQ rights? Muslim rights, Black Lives Matter, women's rights, or healthcare access for all? They're all important, as are many others. How do I work on all of them? Do I just pick one pet cause, and if so how do I choose when they're all crucial? Are small pieces okay, or do only larger actions matter? It's enough to make me want to go hide in a book. And I have done that. In doing so, I came across this:

"Progress is the mode of man. The general life of the human race is called Progress. Progress marches on; it makes the great human and terrestrial journey toward the celestial divine; it has its halts where it rallies the belated flock; it has its pauses where it meditates, in sight of some splendid Canaan suddenly unveiling its horizon; it has its nights when it sleeps; and it is one of the bitter anxieties of the thinker to see the shadow over the human soul, and to feel progress asleep in the darkness, without being able to awaken it."
                                                     -Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

It turns out that Victor Hugo was wrestling with some of the same thoughts and anxieties that I was, over a hundred years ago. As I said before, human nature has not changed despite the massive changes in society and technology. It was oddly comforting to read that, to know that this has come about before and will almost certainly come around again. This period will be uncomfortable. I see bad things looming in our future, and I know I'm not the only one. However, humanity has survived these dark times in the past and we will again. We will find a way to thrive, to find moments of peace and joy despite everything around us. That's what we do.

So, that's become part of how I'm fighting back. I can't change what others do, but I can work to spread happiness in my own little sphere. I decided that the best way to start changing the world in the way I want was to simply be kinder to everyone. Patience is not my strong suit, and while I can generally be dubbed cheerful it's not always easy to remember that I should be as cheerful around strangers as I am with those I know. The cashier or the bus driver are as deserving of a smile and genuine thanks as anyone else who helps me. It's not much, but it fits with my ethos of making the world a better place. Even if all I've done is offered a smile, it's a start.



*Seriously, no one won this election. All of humanity lost.