Sunday, January 28, 2018

Can one buy the good life?

My apologies to anyone forced to re-live their dental traumas as a result of my last post. As someone who has not had employer-provided dental coverage in twenty years, I save a lot of money by visiting my dentist and hygienist quarterly. My mouth has never felt better and it is one of the best investments one can make toward keeping natural teeth in old age.

The question in the title for this post is not rhetorical. Defining the "good life" is different for each of us. Yet, when asked, many of us describe a very monied life of luxury. I think that money only takes one so far...

What I want is not to jet off to exotic destinations, though there is nothing wrong with travel or living abroad. Having done both, the security and contentment that stems from being happy where I find myself at this day and time seems far more important. After all, I'm the one who gains or suffers from financial or other life decisions. Being a wealthy malcontent only means that one can more easily hide from problems or priorities, not that they will magically vanish in a sea of green.

Understanding one's motives for spending or saving is only part of a multi-layered question, much like looking at one's consumer debt and then realizing that the consumerist trappings--clothing, furniture, jewelry, electronics, gadgets and all of the other things we tell ourselves we need--can indeed trap us. Revolving interest, compounding and constant spending all lead to stress, insecurity and problems living. There is no enjoyment in such a scenario and yet it is seductive, judging by rising levels of consumer debt.

Some of us, if we are fortunate, eventually come to the realization that we either need more money to support how we are choosing to live, and go after whatever opportunities exist for attaining it, or make different choices. An increasing number of us face extremely limiting choices due to age, lack of education or other factors related to poverty.  The "good life" and the "hard work" we've been taught to aspire to that is supposed to save us from lives of debt often no longer provide as much as they once did, leaving many of us defeated or confused.

How many of you know someone who works three jobs and still cannot afford health insurance? How many of you have ever spoken to a young person who cannot afford the dentist or an eye exam even when working full time? How many of you have seen an elderly neighbor reduce medication so that food can be purchased or pay Meals on Wheels to receive one hot meal per day and attempt to live on Insure for the remainder?

I've seen all of these and more where I live, and the situation isn't much better elsewhere from what I've been told by friends who live in various communities. While the answer to the original question starts with each of us as individuals, it does not end there if the definition of a "good life" involves security as in having a roof over one's head, reasonable rents, affordable food and medicine and the contentment that comes with feeling safe.

There is a distinct difference between miserliness and frugality. The former promises us nothing except stress while the latter can and often does provide a path to freedom from debt and the worry that arises from it. Planning and management are both important if one is to re-pay or avoid debt. Another closely related caveat, and one with which a lot of us struggle: the need to own more or the feeling that what we have or who we are may never be enough.

Just how one banishes such beliefs is at the core of living well. Ending the bombardment of advertising that tells us what we want, how we should look and feel and offers constant comparison to others, is one thing all of us can do. Choosing who and what we listen to is another. Limiting time on social media can also help in this regard. A valuable last step is to finally realize and value who we are beyond the roles prescribed for us or those we seek  out in an effort to earn or impress. This allows what we truly value and who we are to come to the fore. That is how best to direct the remaining choices in our lives.

Easy? Not...But worth every ounce of sweat, misgiving or misstep involved in the process.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Gleaming Choppers...

I don't know about you, but as a kid, I dreaded the dentist almost as much as the doctor.
Those gleaming instruments, the big light that always seemed to be in my eyes and the sense of confinement all added to the worry and terror over possible pain and foul tasting medicines or anesthetics.

There were no child-friendly waiting rooms full of toys, murals or books, and parents could be seen dragging their unwilling offspring into the waiting area and then shoving them toward the chair in the dental suite, all the while re-assuring them that they would be fine.

The first time I was permitted to see a dentist alone, I was ten, and all of my worst fears came to fruition when after confessing my dislike of anesthetic shots, the dentist proceeded to drill into a small cavity. ignoring my screams. I emerged in tears, one side of my face swollen, and marched into the waiting area in search of my mother. She took one look at me and demanded an explanation. After my recounting, she said, "Well, if you did not want the shot, you should have expected this."

Placing an ice pack on my face once home, she then relayed the information I had provided to her husband. Stepfather was equally tough but apparently decided to have a word with the Army dental clinic. Though I went twice more, that particular dentist was nowhere in sight.

That experience stayed with me, as did her response to my discomfort. It took an auto accident and chipped teeth to deliver me into the hands of my present dental office. I've been a client there for over twenty years and have never had a bad experience. My dentist, in practice for over forty years, has no doubt, seen the consequences of bad dentistry and no dentistry due to previous trauma. Though I've never discussed this incident with him directly, his staff, including my hygienist, have re-affirmed their commitment to trauma-free dentistry for anyone who sees them, child or adult. While I still dislike injections and needles, on the rare occasion I've required them, they have been dispatched with minimal stress and almost no pain. I go every three months and my mouth and teeth have never felt better.

It is nice to know that the Dark Ages of dentistry have been put to rest, at least by most of those with whom I associate. My only fear of the dentist is now his retirement.

Have any of you had similar experiences?

Monday, January 22, 2018

When a "Treat" isn't...

How many times has a friend said, "Oh, go ahead, it is only four bucks and it is a treat." This of course in reference to some unintended purchase of coffee, candy or another thing you or I suddenly fancy. Our consumerist environment encourages this behavior, particularly with more expensive items.

The "Oh, go on, you deserve it," comments of this world are powerful reinforcers. They bolster flagging confidence, doubting Thomases and those whose self-esteem hinges on what they have, what they lack or how they believe others perceive them. Many of us don't think twice about shopping for entertainment, having a girls day out at an expensive salon or buying something we really don't need and would not particularly want but for having in our face at the Mall.

Advertisers play on our emotions. Having grown up with a mother who was the very essence of the shop until you drop slogan emblazoned across one of her tees, she loved to look, and elevated shopping to an art. Her disappointment in shopping with me, who would rather read a book, listen to music, visit the park or beach or browse a good used book store, was often audible. With every exasperated sigh I simply learned, and not for the umpteenth time, that I somehow did not fit a prescribed mold belonging to most women. She, on the other hand, would take note of all of the "new" clothes, foods and other material things she saw in ads on our trips to visit relatives or travel in the US and search out whatever she wanted. At her death almost twenty years ago, I donated drawers of new lingerie and clothing, tags still attached, to a women's shelter, wondering why a dying person would fill her dwindling days with retail therapy.

The product of depression-era, frugal parents who always had an income, my mother was  among those women who colored her hair, wore make-up every time she left her home, made sure her lipstick and mascara were just right and enhanced her almost-five-foot-eight height with size ten heels, a rare find for a working woman in the 1960's. Artistically talented, she could also easily cook and sew. Though she later claimed that sewing was for  poor women, she and I both wore some of her creations until I was well into my teens. Deficits in motor development meant that my skills would never be a match, so I focused on academics, books, animals and music while along the way forsaking bright and beautiful retail for the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of second-hand and a growing savings account balance.

I do love treats, a good book, a trip to the beach, a possibly soon-to-be-adopted furry baby, aromatic natural soap. a chat with a friend, a good game of Scrabble or some very occasional chocolate. Some days, it is a treat not to have pain anywhere or to have the luxury of an extra cup of tea.

What about you?

Friday, January 19, 2018

Why do you spend money?

I'm not speaking here of mortgages, rents, taxes or other non-discretionary expenses. I'm asking about all of the other things...this question was part of an exercise designed to focus people on spending habits.

So far, this year, I've paid property taxes, condominium association fees through the end of August, and my homeowner's policy for the year. I've got income tax to look forward to in April.

Apart from these, my monthly expenses include electricity, for which I pay the same amount each month regardless of the season so I have no huge dips or rises to contend with which makes budgeting easier, my internet cost which I think is too high but because I do not have a television and do not want "bundled" phone, internet and cable, I have no choice unless I want to cancel internet home service. That would mean spending money to go to the library or another WIFI spot to use the internet, write posts and check e-mail because I would need a bus or cab. We don't have a dearth of providers in this area either and the other company is no better, according to users. I have already experienced two internet outages this month, and had my phone been bundled, I'd have had no way to call and tell them or the use of the phone in an emergency. My mobile, which is now the only phone I have, has been running between $25-35 per month. I'm now in the habit of keeping it switched off unless I'm expecting a call or need to return one. It keeps things quieter, has reduced the number of nuisance calls and is far cheaper on a monthly basis than its predecessor. I also have no contract and get a small discount as a member of AARP.

My transportation costs vary depending upon how much I travel but are generally about $50. Groceries are about $45 per week and I'm attempting to reduce this further. I have both Netflix and and a membership of $45 per month. Netflix has a lot of foreign movies which I enjoy and Acorn is wonderful for those who enjoy British programming. Though my public library system also offers streaming for movies and other items such as e-books and music via Hoopla, further investigation is needed before I determine whether to give up my paid subscriptions though at the moment I am leaning in that direction. An Alumni Association membership comes with an array of benefits including my university library but the distance to and from my flat would be an added expense.  Some streaming is a possibility there as well and various discounts and access to insurance products might be useful. I have been a member of my credit union for thirty years which has kept banking costs to a minimum. I also get a very low interest credit card which I attempt to pay off every month. During Jacob's illness, that wasn't always possible but his bills have now been paid off in full.

Additionally, I've shed my weekly Starbucks habit and had restaurant food twice since the beginning of December. Other than Aldi, I've spent $125 at Target and another
 $25 on household supplies. Instituting a waiting period of 72 hours between purchases has helped me determine whether I want something or actually need it, and has further curbed spending. Haircuts, which are $15 at a neighborhood discounter, have been reduced to $9.99 with advanced purchase on a gift card. I have a total of eight and can use them anytime I choose as the gift card does not expire. I am not buying any books this year since I already have some on my TBR shelf and more on my Kindle.    

The re-model is complete, with everything in working order and paid by check, so no debt was accrued. Unlike many of you, I do need to pay for cleaning and repairs. My next adventure may be a new wheelchair but that won't be for some time. My current chair is a titanium build, not covered under Medicare. From a brick and mortar vendor, it retailed for $8000 in 2009. While online prices are considerably less, once made, it cannot be returned, so measurements must be precise. Unlike the purchase of small cars, vendors do not take monthly or partial payments.

I've spent nothing frivolously or out of boredom, made my meals and coffees at home and will research options outlined here. Though I've agreed to meet a lovable stray and the man currently sheltering him, whether he likes me or my home remains to be seen. I'm under no pressure since the gentleman and this cat are from my vet's office. The man has already told me that if he and his family cannot find the cat another home, he will stay with them even though one of the older felines in the home objects. It all depends upon what the cat decides. Very often, cats adopt people and the deal is done. He may have already chosen his family.

I am still researching assistance dogs but remain concerned over the costs of feeding and vet bills, getting the dog groomed and out to a dog park regularly and other things. No decisions will be made quickly.

Wishing you all a good weekend.

Monday, January 15, 2018

MLK DAY 2018

The first recollection I have of the word "pacifist" is in connection with Martin Luther King, Jr, and protests for both Civil Rights and an end to the war in Vietnam. Residing in a community dominated by both military and government employees, the questions asked of my parents and teachers were often met with cautious responses.

"What is a pacifist?," was one of the first. The initial response, "Why are you asking?" then led to a series of even more provocative inquiries on my part that culminated in the simplistic reply, "A pacifist is someone who does not believe in violence."

When I pointed out that killing people only resulted in more people getting killed and asked why both sides could not just stop and talk with each other, my exasperated mother conceded the point that talking was indeed a better solution than shooting or dropping bombs.

Her frustration reached new heights when I observed that it was wrong to put Mr. King in jail just for standing up for people who could not stand up for themselves, then wondering aloud why everyone did not have the same rights, despite differences in their houses, the color of their skin or where they were from. She knew I was right, but offered no satisfactory answers as to why the rest of the world did not see things my way.

I knew by age nine that discrimination, cruelty and ignorance existed, for I had experienced them in my school and neighborhood, and so had my mother. I was growing up female in a world full of sexism, disabled in a microcosm of American society in which well-meaning teachers and neighbors, and more than a few doctors, were often ignorant.

Despite having the things many of my neighbors and their children had, I was also growing up in a Third World Nation, in which many neighborhoods overflowed with poverty. I also grew up around people from throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America as well as the United States and Mexico, and grew to love many of the wonderful foods, customs and cultural experiences that sprang from this exposure.

That this environment, coupled with personal experiences, also gave me a first-hand look at the differences in the way people are perceived and treated is no surprise. Indeed, the desire for fairness, equity and dignity for everyone, which I also learned from Judaism, and first glimpsed through the eyes of a Baptist civil rights activist and minister on an old black and white television screen, remain at my core as a woman today.

As an American, I am often treated as a second-class citizen, frequently finding myself at odds with the activities and views of elected officials and wondering what we are coming to as a nation and as a member of a much larger and diverse planet. I am by turns, disgusted and heartsick. I wish I could seize the hope that Dr. King had fifty years ago for a better, more just world to come. 

Many people, including Reverend King, were forced to give their lives in pursuit of a better world for all. History has shown us to be a nation divided, and unfortunately, our current leadership is the antithesis of everything Dr. King fought to achieve. Despite this, the commemoration of the birthday and sacrifices made by Martin Luther King, Jr  should not be forgotten or simply relegated to the pages of history. They are as necessary today as they were at his death in 1968.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

That was an experience...

Some of you may remember that I applied to a well known rescue organization to adopt an eleven-month-old cat. I asked the foster who had him from about four weeks if she thought he would be happy as an only cat and let her know that I was looking for a lovable lap cat. All his little online narrative said was that he was good with and would do well with other cats.

After several e-mails and waiting for a reply after submitting two applications, the answer came back that although the applications look great, kitty isn't best pleased as a solo animal. He has siblings to which he is attached, both of whom are highly skittish and sensitive to noise.

Would I consider adopting another cat at the same time who was not a sensitive sibling with whom he could be a companion? or we could do a trial run? or I could consider adopting two of the three siblings?

The idea of adopting two non-sibling cats who would both be adapting to me and this space simultaneously did not appeal to me at all. Having told me that he is unhappy alone also ruled out solo adoption. I could try adopting one sibling for him, but don't really want a hiding, scared cat.

Ultimately, I did something I've never done before. I suggested to this foster that she advertise him for adoption with a sibling, thanked her for her time and wished the cat(s) well. I hope he, who is supposedly outgoing and inquisitive, finds a lovely home. As an adult, he will be harder to place but that is no longer my concern. I am disappointed and a little put out to have spent days involved in something that could have been easily resolved with better online information in a matter of minutes. Evidently, this is not the adoption route for me and this episode has made me realize how fortunate I was that the animals who found and claimed me were compatible. My vet has said that this is in part due to the care they received in my home. I'm missing them all right now, a lot.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Has Your Food Bill Increased?

This weekend, I had a prowl through the small hall closet that serves as food pantry and storage for household supplies.

I do this as a prelude to meal planning and grocery shopping because if I know what is in there, I can plan around it and buy less at the store and hopefully reduce food waste.

Jarred Spaghetti Sauce
Jarred Curry
4 Cans assorted beans
6 Cans Soup
1 Jar Branston Pickle
2 Jars Honey
1 Jar Dill Relish
2 Packets Brown Rice
1 Packet Spanish Rice
1 Box Quinoa
4 Cans assorted fruits
1 Can New Potatoes
4 Cans assorted vegetables
1 Box Baking Soda
Bragg's Aminos
1 packet Jello
Evaporated Milk
Steel cut oats
Olive Spread
Olive Oil
Cooking Spray
Minced Garlic
Rice Cakes
Peanut Butter

A good deal more than I thought on initial inspection. My focus will be on fresh fruit, salad makings and vegetables this time around as I won't need anything for the pantry, and the frozen food consists of a few assorted packets of vegetables and risotto. I always check the specials to see if there is anything worth taking since they generally do not stay around long. I go at two-week intervals, and whatever I run out of means getting creative with what is left since there is no "running out to the store for two or three things" when transport is relatively expensive and must be arranged in advance. Since Aldi carries most of what  I use and is cheaper for organic options in some items than its higher priced counterparts, it has become my main source for groceries. I'm attempting to winnow the bill down to no more than $40 per week, less if I can. At present, there are 23 items on my list to buy. For two weeks, that's not bad. Since I'm in the US, Aldi does not do yellow stickers and other stores do not issue vouchers or points. What are you doing to bring down food costs?

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Learning to wait II

Continued from previous post...

I learned to wait, look around, ask questions, plan and then buy. My grandparents did this, and my grandmother, after observing me in a store as a nineteen-year-old, commented, "I finally have someone who knows the value of a dollar." This high praise did not fall upon deaf ears and I felt completely free of any embarrassment my mother may have had regarding my developing money habits from then on.

During my school and working years, money was always a bit of an issue since I drove an older car which broke down with such regularity that my neighborhood mechanic's shop number remained on the refrigerator next to the wall phone in the kitchen. When the car died, his sage advice to "go Japanese," saved time and money, not to mention bestowing freedom from revolving debt and interest.

 My nights of shift work afforded me reading time, much of it devoted to personal finance for women. I also delved into disability history where I discovered that seventy-five percent of persons with disabilities who were qualified for work did not get hired, something that sadly remains true today. Living in a so-called "right to work" State which isn't Union-friendly and which pays below the national average for a variety of occupations made me aware that I was at least somewhat fortunate. When offered more hours, I took them. When laid off, I worked briefly in credit card collections for a financial institution. This further opened my eyes to the reality of debt and the problems people have leading to it, not all of which are caused by reckless overspending.

Several years as a freelance writer in this market meant that without at least a part-time job, my hours and earnings might be so erratic that a budget would be meaningless, so I worked part-time for a few years until a recession came. Losing clients and patience, I was hired to write in-house for a medical marketing publication, wrote a book on spec for an educational publisher in New York, then took a seasonal job scoring standardized tests.
My adventures in librarianship began in grad school. The best part of the entire experience was working in the library. Graduation and the worst "recession" this country has ever seen, along with medical issues, put paid any plans for a doctorate. I live now as a retired person, my primary mode of travel the two wheels beneath either side of a broadening backside.

My looming elder years promise to be interesting. I hope I'll be able to afford them.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Learning to wait...

Have you ever decided you needed something, then zoomed to your neighborhood store in its pursuit? Perhaps you favor online shopping for convenience.  How many of these items do you use daily or weekly? Are they wants or actual needs?

To my mind, groceries are a need and must be replenished regularly. With planning, preparing food at home that can be frozen for later use and cold storage, there is not the urgency to visit the butcher, greengrocer or bakery daily. Many of us had grandparents who grew up distant from towns and only went in weekly. That meant they were likely eating what they grew or made themselves and the ability to can at home was prized. They also did not have televisions, radios or computers loaded with ads telling them what they should have for a good life.

Admittedly, our western existence has changed markedly, and along with it the ability to discern what we want from what we actually need on a given day. So acclimated have we become to simply using credit for online or in-store purchases that if statistics are to be believed, we have become a nation rolling in consumer debt. We also appear to keep bankruptcy courts very busy.

While you might equate this with an individual's inability to manage money, there is more to the scenario, including the fact that very few of us are taught the rudiments of budgeting, understanding credit or living with what we have. My eighth grade Consumer Math class did attempt some of this teaching but I've yet to meet a thirteen year-old with a good grasp of the cost of revolving credit or compounding interest. If the parents are deficient in this information or don't provide a kid a reasonable allowance with which to make some purchases of their own and thus decide what to spend, what to save and what to donate to a favorite charity or cause, the kid will not learn easily, and indoctrinated with a consumerist mindset, may never quash impulse spending or prioritize what is spent or saved.

My allowance from ten onward was one dollar per week at home with permission to look after younger neighborhood children whose parents were out, starting at age fourteen. This paid fifty percent more than the parents did for daily chores around the house. As I was polite and responsible, most people gave me a bit more as a thank you. Since my parents were not comfortable with me purchasing my own clothes or personal care items and I wasn't interested in buying a lot, my four-dollar-per-month grand total usually went in an envelope in my desk while any babysitting money was reserved for the odd movie or a day trip on a launch to a nearby island with a friend. Sometimes I would buy a bag of carrots for the horse I rode after school a couple times per week.

Sent to college with permission to buy clothing and send home the receipts for reimbursement, did I suddenly morph into a "Shop til You Drop" maven of the Mall?  Hardly. She who was born without a shopping gene preferred the racks of clothing found at the university's weekly flea market or nearby thrift stores, something which horrified my mother to the point that if she asked where a particular item of clothing came from, I'd simply do something which did not come naturally and lie. When she quit asking, our mutual relief was palpable. (To Be Continued)

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Leftovers and a dose of gratitude...

Ever wonder what to do with a leftover bowl of chewy steel cut oatmeal? As I stared into the abyss that is my refrigerator on this 40 degree and windy morning, I reflected on what I had seen at a home over the holidays. A party with way too much food, far too many sweets and a two-hour lag between when people were told to arrive and the actual serving of dinner.

All of the starters were nibbled at and what was left remained on the table while guests consumed the main courses. We had a choice of two meats, corn casserole, canned sugared sweet potatoes, mixed roasted vegetables, macaroni and cheese and a green salad, most of which were stashed with the previous two days leftovers once dinner was over. The leftover starters were thrown away, wasting easily two days' worth of food. I've wondered since how many of those leftovers that were kept actually got eaten.

I've trimmed my grocery budget by forty percent shopping at Aldi and going to the local fruit and veg stand rather than any of the large supermarket chains in my area. Additionally, I've been working to refine food shopping and menu planning in an effort to curb potential waste and overconsumption.

This will be the year that delivered food becomes a thing of the past. As for leftovers, when I cook, there are almost always remains, which are eaten the next day if they cannot be frozen or made into another recipe. I'm having the remaining Hoppin' John and greens with a salad tonight. That oatmeal I mentioned? Festooned with blueberries and banana coins and enjoyed as a late breakfast.

The sad fact is, we live in the most destructive, over consuming and self-serving society on the planet and for every developing country that seeks to copy our economic model, I cringe in despair at the inevitable overconsumption, waste and pollution which follows.

As a single woman on the outer edges of midlife, my coming elder years will hold many challenges, some of which are being crafted by the minions from Hell as I write. Having spent much of the previous year calling and e-mailing my representatives in our not-so-duly elected government, not to mention signing petitions out the ying-yang, the most control that any of us have rests in our personal lives, our everyday habits and the ability to manage time, money, food and other assets with some degree of conscious thought.

Some of you may believe that this is about finances. Alas, that is but a fraction of the overall picture here. At its essence, this is about what one woman can do to shed a consumerist mindset, re-focus her time and energy and work out how to get out and where to spend time.

As for gratitude, that is a daily and evolving practice. I have the privilege of a roof and four walls to call my own, friends, the ability to read and think, thanks to my education and travels and the willingness to keep going. All of that means I owe a debt of thanks to a lot of people, many of whom are now gone.

That alone is enough to give me pause...

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year's Day 2018

The New Year begins with a steaming plate of what is commonly called Hoppin' John. Black-eyed peas, rice and greens, to which I add fresh sliced tomato and salt and pepper. The peas, reputed in the South to bring good fortune, are an old tradition of African, Caribbean, French and Carolinas origins. Often cooked with onion and bacon, black-eyed peas, also known as cow peas, symbolize coins. Greens symbolize money, corn bread symbolizes gold and tomatoes, health.

While none of us know what awaits us in any year, starting out with a hot meal of black-eyed peas (which are actually a bean high in soluble fiber and protein) and rice is both filling and a reminder that no matter how humble our food, it is sustenance for which to be grateful. I will be eating the leftovers tonight and tomorrow which is a nod to frugality and also believed to increase one's wealth in the coming year. This is the perfect meal for a cold, gray day.

I wish all of my readers a wonderful year ahead along with my thanks for your continued interest and comments.