44 posts categorized "Money Talk"

"Mama: Why can't I go to the petting zoo?"

April 08, 2014

Some schools or daycares just don't let up on the endless "optional" offerings: the pizza party for $7, the school tee for $10 or the petting zoo for $5.  Then, there are larger requests: yearbooks for elemtary kids for $30 or a mid-week family camping trip for $100 per adult (so, wait: I'm going to pay for daycare, then I will take days off from work, and then I will pay still for my kid to go camping then for me to camp with him? Holy wow).  I cannot keep up; these costs add up across multiple kidlets.

While this is the reality, it can be sad.  Tonight, my boy said: "Mama, why can't I go to the petting zoo?"  Well, we just don't have another $5 for you to pet the goats that they are bringing into the school yard tomorrow.  

Sad face.

What else are you going to do? 

Working mothers, hipsters, and what we see when we look at other moms

February 17, 2012

My blog buddy Liz Gumbinner won an award for being a fabulous working mother. And while I don't know any of the intimate details of her at-home life, beyond those on her blog, I can attest that she gets so much done I quake in her shadow, amazed, and her children always wear the most adorable clothes! But, as she says, she doesn't do it all. There are sacrifices she makes -- some so dear she writes long blog posts about them -- and she wanted to acknowledge that. That none of us "have it all." She wrote of the other honorees, "...mostly there a lot of [acceptance speeches] stories in which everyone has a perfectly supportive husband, doting children who never miss us, stellar colleagues, and no need for “me time.”"

Continue reading "Working mothers, hipsters, and what we see when we look at other moms" »

TriMet Fare Proposal Forces Families on the Road

February 08, 2012

When I first clicked on a link to TriMet's fare increase survey, I looked over the options with growing fear. Where was the choice that would give TriMet more revenue -- but not make my daily riding vastly more expensive? I'd be happy to pay, say, 40 cents more per ticket for my own ride, especially if I could get more (a longer transfer, maybe), or even buy day tickets if I had a great option for my family -- wouldn't it be great if an $8 ticket would allow one adult and all her children to ride for a whole day? This weekend, for instance, I had made plans to pick up one of Everett's friends, who lives more than six miles from us -- neither family has a car. We were going to meet at the intersection of our bus line and theirs, and I was going to return with four kids. This sort of time-consuming trip would be ok, I thought, if I didn't have to pay so much to bring her back home ($1.50 for each kid under today's rates = a lot for one four-mile bus ride. Each way).

Continue reading "TriMet Fare Proposal Forces Families on the Road" »

urbanMamas 11: Charities we think are worth the endless emails

December 31, 2011

You know what I mean: the organizations one supports these days bombard you in new and different ways. Gone, for the most part, are the address labels and thank-you cards showing up every month in your mailbox. Today, it's emails (sometimes two or three a day!) and the pledge drives. I was surprised to hear the one-day pledge drive NPR put on this week; reinforced with, yep, daily emails reminding one that the December 31 tax deadline was fast approaching. I've even been getting emails this afternoon. The political campaigns are almost there!

In the spirit of end-of-the-year lists, the urbanMamas team put our heads together and picked 11 favorite local (and a few with lots of local impact) non-profits that are worth the endless communication and begs for just-five-more-dollars...

1.Portland Fruit Tree Project. It makes us sad to see a sidewalk or a front yard littered with spoiling fruit from perfectly good fruit trees. It makes us even sadder if that's our own fruit tree and, due to babies or work or the craziness of family life, we haven't gotten to picking it. Portland Fruit Tree Project to the rescue -- the organization matches volunteer pickers with volunteer tree owners, and half of all the fruit picked goes to the Oregon Food Bank. It's the Biblical concept of gleaning, gone 21st century.

2. OPB. Say what you will about pledge drives and stereotypes of Northwest denizens, most of us get all of our news from OPB. As local television has become more and more sensationalist, fear-creating and celebrity-focused (no, I don't care to know what's going on with the latest reality TV star), OPB and its NPR affiliates are doing the kind of in-depth investigate news and serious journalism that explores topics we really care about -- from autism to breastfeeding to those beautiful stories about families that make us cry (I cried twice today already!).

3. Community Cycling Center. OK, so we love a good bike nonprofit, but this one's particularly great: in addition to being a great neighborhood bike shop for its Northeast Portland community, the nonprofit gives camps, classes, and ongoing support for low-income young people to "broaden access to bicycling and its benefits" and "bikes accessible to people of all ages, abilities, and incomes."

4. Morrison Child & Family Services. A lot of us have gotten services for our children through the county or the school district, and those of us who've been through it know how little they can provide due to budget restrictions and enormous needs of our children. Morrison Child & Family Services fills a gap with "a comprehensive continuum of mental health, substance abuse and prevention services for children from birth through age 21."

5. Growing Gardens. We're all passionate about how life-changing access to good, local, organic food can be; but not all of us have the money or bandwidth to get the good stuff. That's why we support Growing Gardens: the nonprofit organizes "hundreds of volunteers to build organic, raised bed vegetable gardens in backyards, front yards, side yards and even on balconies," supports "low income households for three years with seeds, plants, classes, mentors and more." The "Youth Grow" and "Learn & Grow" workshops and work parties help teach all ages of community members about eating and growing good whole food in backyards, porches and community gardens.

6. SMART (Start Making a Reader Today). Love the library but have a hard time with returning books or making time in a work day to get there before closing time? Wish your kids had better access to a variety of new and classic picture books? And for the low income families among us, it's even harder. SMART sends red book bags filled with books home every week to a bunch of preschoolers who are in early intervention programs and selected day care and preschool programs; kids just bring the bags back every week or two and get a new one. No hassle and kids and parents get lovely new books to share together. I've found many of my now-favorite picture books through SMART bags, and I love how simple it is to impact families with this program.

7. Playworks. I've seen Playworks in action so many times that it brings tears to my eyes just typing this. I shake my head at the "it gets better" campaign which seeks to bring "awareness" to bullying. I firmly believe that bullies are not criminals just waiting to turn 18 and go to jail, but real kids who just are dealing badly with anything from a developmental delay to learning disability to a difficult home life. Playworks is a much better approach to playground problems; whether it be leaving children out of games or aggressive behavior; by teaching older kids to be "junior coaches" that have skills to help younger kids work out problems. I've seen junior coaches negotiate arguments about rules for tag that were about to escalate into shoving and fists; I've seen them start new games to involve all the kids on the playground. Playworks, works, and I'd like to see it at every school.

8. Wordstock Festival. As a writer, I love Wordstock for the access to fantastic authors and workshops cheaper than just about anything but the occasional reading at Powell's. But Wordstock isn't just for writers; it's for readers, too, and kids of all ages get in free. With all the high-cost conventions and festivals and museums and camps, Wordstock makes me giddy -- for $7 to $12 for adults, or even free for volunteers, Wordstock gives free books and author readings and access to interactive storytelling activities for a blissful weekend.

9. Bicycle Transportation Alliance. After many years of believing that the BTA didn't spend much of its advocacy time on child and family biking issues, that has been changing and I, for one, have been keeping my membership up to date. The BTA is one of the hardest-working advocacy groups in Oregon, and we believe this kind of advocacy makes streets safer, not just for bicycling families, but for all of us (especially pedestrians -- and our kids are all pedestrians sometimes).

10. Oregon Environmental Council. As I struggle with three boys, each with a different sort of developmental disorder that challenges my everyday, I look more and more to blame environmental toxins -- much research lately supports this, from data that living near high-traffic areas increases attention disorders to research linking autism to high maternal and infant pesticide exposure. And really? Don't we all want our kids to enjoy rivers teeming with salmon and lakes that are swimmable? This nomination comes from urbanMamas reader Brenna Burke, who says: "Oregon Environmental Council is on the forefront of making sure that our families stay healthy and our state's resources remain sustainable."

11. The Dougy Center. This is also a nomination from Burke, who's very passionate about The Dougy Center, which "provides support in a safe place where children, teens, young adults, and their families grieving a death can share their experiences." Burke writes, "the Dougy Center has helped families grieve the loss of a loved one for more than 25 years. It is free for families and provides a service to those it helps that means more than anything. It has personally been a great place of support for great friends of mine."

 (Apologies: this list was later than I intended, and, as I compiled it, discovered was insufficient to the task of representing the many wonderful nonprofits in our community. I've already thought of a half-dozen I'd like to include had I chosen a higher number -- but it's almost the end of the year! Please include your favorites in the comments.)

Escaping the post-holiday "I want"s

December 26, 2011

I'm feeling it as much as (or more than) my kids some years -- the post-holiday "I want"s. These come from such innocuous activities as talking to my friends, browsing Twitter, or looking at the Facebook photos of my community. So you got a Garmin, hmmm? I could have used one of those! A new iPad? Never mind that I already have an iPad (it's a work tool! I swear!). Somehow the fact that someone else got one for Christmas puts my own gifts in stark relief. Let's just say, regarding my Christmas take, that "modest" is an understatement; though yesterday I felt warm and happy and loved thanks to just those modest tokens of generosity.

And those photos of Christmas dinner! My parents us invited us to their house for my mom's longed-for new "tradition": cooking a lasagne for Christmas dinner. But we didn't have transportation and, well, Thanksgivingtime was oh-my-god-stressful. We had dinner at home (roast pork loin and apples from my tree -- which turned out fantastic, and easy to boot, and all out of the pantry or freezer so there was no new expense: frugal!). So when I opened Instagram to bountiful pics of rare roast beef and fancy wines and well-dressed families around a big (and, note: clean) dining room table, well. My heart twisted a little with the desire. I ate on (lovely) thrift store plates while watching Leverage with the boys who hadn't fallen asleep yet. I drank tea.

My kids want a Beyblade top, each. They want 2000 or 3000 Nintendo coins for new games. They want another remote control for the Wii (the big present my husband bought this year -- against my early best judgment). I wish I'd got them Legos -- not in the budget this year. They want more gummy bears and to go to Starbucks and to order pizza. I want new yarn and a new pair of running shoes and wouldn't it be nice if I had some new books to read?


I don't have the money for any of it (well, maybe the gummy bears, but I said "no" on principal of "too much sugar already"), so I'm having to take a deep breath and get away from the wants somehow. Here are a few ways I escape:

  • Going for a run. Even if I don't have the latest gear or running shoes without hundreds of miles on them, running clears my head and gets me wanting only more running.
  • Reading a book. I know, I'd like new books! But I have a bunch of old ones that could enchant me perfectly.
  • Organizing something. I have any number of corners and shelves and whole rooms which could benefit from a deep clean and organization. And I always discover things I (or the kids) have forgotten about -- satisfies the "I want" urge too!
  • Make something new out of something old. I have a pile of pants to patch or hem, and an equal pile of old clothes and thrifted bits of things ready to be used for something. I made a couple of pretty potholders out of some old quilt squares of my grandma's, and that was ridiculously satisfying -- and quelled my desire to buy some potholders with graphic (and brand-new) fabric.
  • Give something handmade or unneeded. It's amazing how giving something to someone else can reduce your wanting for things. Something about how generosity fills you up instead of shopping. Is that a real thing? Oh well. I like it.
  • Practice. What is your practice -- a musical instrument? Yoga? A foreign language? A craft? Meditation? Prayer? Calligraphy? Knitting? Or even, just seeing the world around you? Practice it. Become the person you want to be.
  • Asking yourself, what would I do with a gift of time? Remember when I had that day alone? Almost all of the things I wanted to do didn't involve any expense, and none of them were acquisitive. Your ideas were equally nonmaterialistic. Consider this time a gift, and use it accordingly. (And if you can get a spouse, family member or friend to give you a truly free, kid-free amount of time, do one of those amazing luxurious things!)

Now: to practice what I preach. Off to sew, run, and organize my kids' book nook!

Of School Fundraisers

October 20, 2011

Och! School fundraiser season is upon us, and if you want to get my blood boiling, ask my five-years-ago self to have my kid sell frozen cookie dough and cinnamon rolls in order to earn cheap prizes probably made in China. Go ahead, make my day!

But when Truman brought home the fundraising forms last week -- Delicious Delights! like the Thaw-and-Bake Blueberry Muffins ($16) or the Pizza Pail ($16, too), full, I was sure, of all kinds of ingredients I try to avoid, not to mention expensive (win a Sling Shot Plush animal! a plastic crawling bug! A Tornado Mug!) -- there was a bit of a surprise. The PTA letter that accompanied it judiciously mentioned that the school would get 40% of the proceeds from the sale of these caloric firebombs; or you could write a check and the school would get 100%.

So, I was getting ready to write a check for $20 (with "donation in lieu of fundraiser" in the memo line) when I saw a comment thread from another Portland Public Schools mom. She was lamenting the state of her PTA's fundraiser, which hadn't been accompanied by a letter like mine. Another mom on her thread said her school (in the area, I assume) had given parents a donation goal for the year -- $500, plus fundraisers.

Meanwhile, I'm helping the cross country team raise money to go to invitational meets and buy uniforms. Nearly all the money for sports is now provided by parents -- the coaches' salaries and the cost of buses come from the sports fees, and fundraisers pay for uniforms, and the Booster Club pays for end-of-season "banquets" (which are usually potlucks) and awards. Volunteers often end up paying for the privilege through t-shirts and Chinook Books and (in my case) babysitting. When I do the math, I realize that high school students who are involved in a few activities do pay $500, plus, a year for the privilege of going to public school.

What is there to say about this? Sometimes I feel like the school year is one big revolving hit-up. I'm hitting other parents up for Chinook Books for cross country while they're hitting me up for Run for the Arts laps while the schools are hitting us up for snacks and boxes of tissues while my friends' school are hitting me up for Burgerville and Pizzicato fundraising nights. I remember writing at least five or six checks for field trips last year. One of the cross country runners rolled his eyes and said, while we talked about the lap-a-thon we are planning for Friday, and the book sales, and the other money-raising ideas, "why don't we just ask people for one check?" Indeed.

Why don't we? Wouldn't it be easier and simpler? At the beginning of the school year, principals could come out to us and say, "we need $12,000 per kid for what we want to do. The state gives us $10,800. Pay up (if you can)." Obviously, we all couldn't afford to make up the difference. But at least we wouldn't have our kids pushing sweets and pizza and those endless forms at us -- the kids could focus on doing arts and PE and (I don't know) reading and math and not on raising money for it.

If you ran the world (or even just your own PTA), how would you fix it?

Today: we opened the kids' bank accounts

June 16, 2011

I was searching our archive to see what we had previously discussed regarding kids & bank accounts.  I was surprised to find nothing except our conversation on smaller banks, from the parent perspective.  And, while we've talked about kids earning money, we've never really talked about where to put it.

Today, prompted by a solication for free money from a big-bad bank, I walked into my local branch of a national operation, my bag weighted down with the contents of two large piggy-banks that have been collecting cash since we lovingly painted them almost 8 years ago at Mimosa Studios.

I was overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the options, all at the same time.  This particular bank's account options for minors had major limitations from my perspective: no ATM card, savings-only option (no checking), and limited online banking capability.  The advantage, however, was that there was no fee for the account.

I am all for walking into the branch, filling out a deposit slip, and waiting in line for a teller, but I can't tell you the last time I did it.  The reality is that my banking behavior is limited to infrequent visits to the ATM, mostly taking cash back on rare occasion at the supermarket, lots of debit transacting, and lots more online transacting for almost everything.  I really needed to have the option of the online/ATM banking.

In the end, I ended up getting a new checking account, in my name, with two associated kid's accounts.  In each of their respective accounts, I deposited their piggy-bank contents.

I would love to hear what kinds of bank accounts you have opened for the kids.  What are key features?  Drawbacks?  Did you go to a smaller, local bank?  A larger chain?

At Risk: the Employment Related Day Care (ERDC) Program

February 07, 2011

Many of us use daycare outside the home for our children.  Some of us need assistance to be able to afford that care.  The Employment Related Day Care (ERDC) program helps low-income families pay for daycare so that they can continue to work. 

ERDC helps approximately 20,000 Oregon families every year pay for child care for approximately 35,000 children each year.

(Here's a great policy paper (*pdf) with some stories about mamas & papas who need this program.) 

Our state is facing a $3.5 billion shortfall, and legislators have to choose where funding cuts will be made.  This program has already been cut; participation is limited to 10,000 families.  The program could be cut even further or - even worse! - cut completely.  Families rely on this assistance.  Without help to pay for daycare, some of us working mamas and papas may no longer be able to afford daycare.  Cutting the program will mean lost jobs for those who work at these daycares.

To let legislators know just how important this program is for the state, there is a rally planned for Wednesday, 12 noon, outside the Capitol Steps.  Details here.  Consider joining in or even sending in a letter of support would help.

Eat Organic & Local on a Budget: HOW?

August 16, 2010

I mentioned the other day that our lemonade stand featured homemade product made with organic lemons and organic agave sweetener.  I did not mention that we do not normally stock these products.  My husband bought the lemons when they went out for a walk, and they were considered a "treat" for the kids.  The agave sweetener was on sale at the market and - with a Chinook Book coupon - was cheaper per unit than sugar.  

A couple of years ago, we talked about how to balance our food buying: how can we buy healthful foods on a budget?  Where are you shopping now?  How have you changed what you buy?  Are there items you buy only organic, but others you buy conventional due to price?  Do you take advantage of local fruit and veggies, canning, preserving, and freezing for later in the year?  Buying clubs are also on the rise locally.  I myself am a new member of the North Portland Buying Club, and another urbanMama (Sarah) is a member of Know Thy Food.  Perhaps you are a member of a group purchasing club in your neighborhood?

breastfeeding is best, to the tune of billions

April 05, 2010

When I first saw the news, I wanted to just, you know, sigh. It's a drum many Portland mamas have been beating for at least a decade, probably several: breastfeeding is not just great for a baby, it's cheap, and not just for a family's budget during those first several months but for society. (And I want to say here that I know some mamas want to, but aren't able to, breastfeed because of work or health reasons or adoption or just some rare bit of fate that comes between a baby and "breastfeeding success," and that I don't want to call out the mamas for whom it doesn't work out -- except to offer my sympathy and support and love.) But, says my friend and fellow finance geek Melly, a "recent study published in Pediatrics found that poor compliance with breastfeeding recommendations costs the U.S. at least $13 billion each year, with nearly all of the cost related to infant morbidity and mortality."

Well. You know if the finance geeks, the AP, the Daily Mail and Business Week and CNN and the rest of them are putting the word "breastfeeding" in headlines and -- it's not just a casual glance at the practice, they're encouraging it -- you know times, they are a-changing. And I appreciate the specificity of the facts here. Another bit from Melly's piece: "In 2006, only 13 states met the quite low 17% target set by the Healthy People objectives for mothers exclusively breastfeeding their infant through six months of age." Wow -- I know Oregon is one that easily met the target, but 17%, and we know why (poor social support, terrible workplace conditions for breastfeeding moms, tiny or non-existent maternity leaves, too many low-income working and single moms, too much -- too effective -- marketing by the formula companies). Mamas in Portland and elsewhere are working on that stuff; a press release even this weekend from the Nursing Mothers Council of Oregon offers support to businesses to give moms a place to pump at work -- see more info from Marion Rice about that, after the 'continued' link. But we can't even get 17% of moms (theoretically, quite a few more than 17% are able to stay home with their children) to breastfeed for six months, even though it's far cheaper?

Here's the part that had headline writers clucking and the news anchors squawking: "The study authors listed direct and indirect costs associated with illness and premature death due to the current poor levels of compliance compared with 90% compliance in 2007 dollars." I'll go ahead and list the ones Melly put in her piece because, they're not shocking to us who've been stressing about how easy it would be to make the beginnings of so many little lives better. Here it is:

  • $4.7 billion and 447 deaths due to sudden infant death syndrome.
  • $2.6 billion due to 249 deaths from necrotizing enterocolitis, a common gastrointestinal syndrome in premature infants.
  • $1.8 billion due to 172 excess deaths from lower respiratory tract infections, such as pneumonia.
  • $908 million due to otitis media (ear infection).
  • $601 million due to atopic dermatitis (eczema).
  • $592 million due to childhood obesity.
Umm, wow, again. And I decided in the end that I shouldn't sigh or roll my eyes or wring my hands one more time and ask, "why? how? what the heck have we done, modern society?" but just be hopeful, because to have finance geeks and news anchors and CNN talking heads well, talking about this is an awesome way to get breastfeeding more accepted. And really, money that we all are spending on ear infections and eczema and obesity and death should get us sitting up and paying attention, and then sitting back down in our favorite cozy chair to breastfeed our babies.

Continue reading "breastfeeding is best, to the tune of billions" »

Garbage-less: An urbanMamas green thing

March 01, 2010


It wasn't hard to reduce the volume of our trash; many of the lifestyle changes I've made over the past few years, like getting chickens (who eat many of our food scraps), composting (the rest of 'em), and changing the way we eat (buying in bulk, cooking from scratch, avoiding plastic, and reusing containers religiously) meant we were already generating far less trash than before. Other things, like our recent tight budget that had me seriously considering every purchase (and thus, its waste-generating packaging) and going out to eat less (no more takeout containers or Burgerville bags) helped, too.

I'm barely even recycling much; I've been reading more about how little of what we recycle actually makes it back into the product stream (newspaper has the best chance, FYI) and how much energy and byproducts are used and spewed to recycle. A glass jar at People's Co-op noted that it takes 90% more energy to recycle a glass jar than to return it for re-use under a deposit return program -- this is probably even a bigger differential for the jars I bring to fill with maple syrup or olive oil. Because of this, I try to stick to packaging that can be either reused or composted.

I still have a long way to go, of course! But today marked the first month I'd managed to generate only one can of trash for the whole month. I'd cut off my weekly service at the beginning of February, and here I was, March 1, wheeling out one 32-gallon can. A major cleaning project had meant it was well-filled, but still! No bags lolling off the side, splitting because they'd been so tightly packed. (And this is even with disposable diapers still in use for Monroe; I have never made the leap to cloth diapers, much as I know it would be a good thing for the landfills and my own sense of responsibility for the planet.)

Here's the thing, though, that bothers me about all this: I'm barely saving any money at all. Weekly pickup for a 32-gallon can is $25.30 (it's a little bit more on the west side). Monthly pickup for a 32-gallon can? $16.45. I reduce my trash by roughly 77%: and I save 35%. There's no every-other-week option and the smaller can, a 20-gallon minican, only saves $3.10 per month of the regular rates. I've looked at rates for other cities that I could find on Google; barely any localities offer the monthly pickup (yay for Portland on that), but in most Washington towns I found, the rates were more sensible, paying per gallon (roughly) for your trash generation.

Of my bills, this is one of the littlest, so it's hardly breaking me to pay the (as I perceive it) $11 more than what's fair. But it seems a little cockeyed to build a pricing structure in a way that seems to give an incentive to produce more trash -- or, put another way, subtly encourages us to produce an average amount of trash. Average is an American who throws away 4.39 pounds of trash every day. Seems as if Portland could strive for better than average.

I know some of you have reduced your trash, too; I heard the story from one woman who, with her husband, only generate a can every six months -- I think they call the garbage company for special pickup on "trash day." Another woman is so focused on trash reduction, her garbage fits in a coffee can. I've mulled over the idea of asking a neighbor to switch off weeks with me; I'd save more that way, even if I had more trash! Crazy. Have any of you found other solutions? Does this (admittedly small) financial incentive misalignment bug you, too?

Seeking Bankruptcy Consultant: when ends don't meet

January 27, 2010

There are times when the logistics of finances catch up with the rest of us.  In an ideal situation, 3 minus 2 would equal 1, where our income exceeds our expenses, and we are left with a little extra.  In a decent situation, 2 minus 2 would equal zero, where we would make just enough to make ends meet.  However, in many situations, 2 minus 3 would equal negative one, where we can't even manage to make enough to keep up with life's daily expenses - food, shelter, medical care, and clothing.  The situation may worsen with years in the negative, where the number could just keep growing and growing.  Perhaps even it may seem that all cards fall in the wrong place, where what little income we may take in, suddenly makes us unqualified for other benefits like food stamps.

An urbanMama recently shared with me a little bit about her situation, where the ends just don't meet.  Feeling underwater and deep in debt is never a good feeling.  Bankruptcy may or may not be an option.  Do you have some resources to share, where she can consider her options, whether it be filing for Chaper 7 or 13, or perhaps negotiating payment plans with creditors?

Work at Home (WAH) Options?

November 30, 2009

Staying at home with babe is not necessarily a financially advantageous situation.  Many mamas try to craft a work plan that allows them to stay at home, while also trying to make ends meet.  An urbanMama's sister-in-law recently emailed, to see if the rest of the community had suggestions:

My brother and his wife recently had their first child and we are all thrilled. She teaches and has worked it so that she took her maternity leave at the beginning of the school year and will have to be returning to teach in December while my brother takes all his sick days to stay home and take care of they baby.

My sister-in-law would would love to work from home and take care of they baby full-time, but she doesn't have a job that will work like that at the moment.  Financially, they both need to be working. I know it's going to be really tough for my SIL to go back and I'm wondering if you have tips on things she might be able to do from home in order to keep ends meeting and still be with the baby.

Do you know of work options that could allow a mama to stay home with the baby?

In which I drive a hybrid Ford for a weekend

June 16, 2009

Most of you know my family is fully car-free (we finally got rid of our three-years-lying-fallow car last month). And at least one of you expressed shock to hear I was test-driving a Ford Escape hybrid this past weekend. Was the world coming to an end? No, the people in Ford's social media group are working to create buzz about their hybrids by offering 'em to mama bloggers for test drives, and I was an eager participant. So was my husband, who, though he was weaned from his mother's chauffeur services on his 10-speed, and actually spent some time in the early '90s as a bike messenger, is a bit of a car addict.

One of the reasons I was eager to forgo our car was his nasty habit of driving to Trader Joe's... three blocks away. But when we found out he'd be going to Iraq this summer; changing our financial situation from just north of "desperate" to a few ticks shy of "flush," he began to sneak this phrase into conversation: "I've been thinking when I come back, we could use some of my money to get a hybrid..." Or this one: "If I get that job as a cop I could drive to work in a hybrid..."

"No!" I'd say, firmly. "No cars!" I love the money we save, $200-300 per month just in gas, insurance and tags; I love that we have to think carefully about all our bike trips, keeping us closer to home; I love my conscience, clean as the air around me as I bike. I've made a significant reduction in my workload so I can spend more time with the kids, in the garden, cooking food; we don't have room in that budget for even the barest car expense. I don't want that to change.

But. I'm all for a test drive. Just to see. Thursday morning, some nice people from Ford delivered us the sparkliest Escape Hybrid you've ever seen. I immediately hopped in with Truman and Monroe to pick up some film on the way to preschool (an impossible task on the bike; my fave film store is Citizen's Photo, about 4 miles from home). They leave us with a rundown on our car... $33,725 including "destination and delivery" for the model in our driveway. But "THIS VEHICLE NOT FOR SALE," said the page. At least there's that...

Continue reading "In which I drive a hybrid Ford for a weekend" »

How to discuss the economy with kids?

May 26, 2009

Our new economy has left us in a myriad of new/different situations as it relates to our family finances.  We, as adults, are exposed to these realities every day, whether we are affected directly or less directly.  Our children are also increasingly exposed to these realities, and sometimes it can be a difficult topic to broach.  How are you discussing the recession with your children, if at all?

I need help from those more versed in economics than I. My 9yo hears a lot of talk about the bad economy. He knows that people are losing their jobs, that school days in our district may be cut, that Obama is trying to fix things, etc. But except for the tanking of his college fund and our retirement (which I see no reason to get into with him), we've been lucky enough not to be affected. To him it's just this thing, "the bad economy" that he hears about.  Last night he asked, "Why is the economy so bad now? What happened?" And I really didn't know how to explain it to him. Heck, I barely understand it myself.  Can someone help me out with a simply-worded explanation for a reasonably bright kid?

Two incomes, can't afford child care: Let's potluck this to a better way

April 19, 2009

I did not have the intended response to the front-page article in the 'O' section of today's Oregonian. The writer meant for me to be sympathetic with the plight of the family depicted; two parents in what seemed a loving, functional marriage with two children under four. I think it was the way the writer approached the story, obvious scrabbling to paint a sad picture of a family left exhausted and strung out, juggling two jobs and only one car.

While I can relate to the stress of the enormous, far-too-dear cost of child care for young children, I came away from the article wishing to share my perspective as a mama of three boys, having drastically changed my work schedule in the past year; though I fear the chasm between the ways we look at life is great. The two parents are working alternate schedules; mom at Costco, dad in sales at a construction and industrial supply company. They pay for only about nine hours of day care a week, or $480 a month, and together make $64,000. They live in a two-bedroom, 800 square foot apartment somewhere in Tigard. No, their schedule doesn't allow for matinees, pedicures, or post-work beer with the guys. Yes, they're "trapped" with one parent, and the car, at work when it rains. The fun for the kids, according to the article: a walk to a toy store, cartoons on 'On Demand,' the shopping mall play area. [The article's writer explained the day she followed the family, it was raining, so they decided not to go to the park; there are parks close by, though the original article wasn't clear on that fact.]

I wish I could fix it for them. What's obvious at first is that we all need a better link to community; to friends who can share childcare providers or swap care for free; to people who can provide that post-work beer experience with the kids; to occasional potluck dinners so each night doesn't seem so harried and lonely. My life today is not perfect (far, far, far!) but thanks to my perspective I can see a number of choices that are worth re-thinking. The sidewalk-less suburb is just one; I know that prices don't vary much from the middle of my neighborhood in inner SE Portland to Tigard, giving the parents far more places to connect and allowing mom & dad to get rid of the car altogether, choosing Tri-Met or the bike for commuting. Then maybe one parent can quit or reduce hours, relieving the pressure and the exhaustion considerably. Harriet calls this concept "householding," and I'm a big fan. (After hearing from the writer who wrote the story, I deleted my comment about food.)

Instead of sitting here frustrated at how isolating, stressful and perhaps more expensive than necessary are the lives we're asked to sympathize with in the Sunday paper, I'll make a challenge. [And judging from the age of the photo illustrating this post, it's a challenge I need badly.] I'll make it easy, because frankly, sharing child care is enormous thing to think about on such a beautiful day. Invite someone over for a potluck dinner -- or invite yourself to their place, if they have more room to set plates and cups. Connect in a simple, relaxed and nonmaterial way. Spend as little money as possible; yes, a carrot and lentil chili and a big salad, with water or homemade iced tea to drink, is perfect. Skip the cartoons and toy stores. Talk about the best place in your neighborhood for nature walks. Make it a regular thing. Start the change small, and see what happens.

Healthy & Environmentally-Friendly Shopping in the Recession: What gives?

March 30, 2009

It was almost a year ago when we started talking about our weekly grocery bill, finding ways to trim.  Now, with our local unemployment as one of the nation's highest and with many of our families in the throes of the recession, cutting costs is more important than ever.

With the economic downturn, I'm wondering how mamas and families are weighing shopping for healthy and sustainable food on a budget. I used to buy the organic milk, no question. However, our family often can't drink a half-gallon before it goes bad, and I haven't found organic milk in half-gallons. So now that I'm on a budget, I'm buying the quarts of local, hormone-free but non-organic milk. Same with eggs. The enviro side of me says go for the organic, but the thrifty side says the cage-free eggs are a good compromise. (Yes, backyard chickens are a good solution, and we're working on it, but that isn't for everyone.)

Do others have the same conflict? And if anyone has good leads where the two meet I'd love to hear. For example, I found the whole-wheat organic bread made at New Seasons is good stuff for $2.99 a loaf, cheaper than other organic breads and locally made. And if they happen to have some cooling in the back before they put it in bags, I can reuse the bag from the last loaf (if I remembered to bring it). You have to keep it in the freezer or it gets moldy fast.

Are you buying less organics due to the cost?  Are you finding organic products are increasingly available as affordable options?  Or, is the point moot because you find yourself shopping at discount supermarkets anyway, where organic goods are hard to find?  Are there economical ways to find healthful, minimally-processed food options?

Wills, Powers of Attorney, and Lawyers

February 02, 2009

When we become parents, it becomes all the more important to plan for the future, including a future for our children that may not include us.  An urbanMama recently emailed to see if the rest of the urbanMamas community would share their insight and recommendations:

Well, we're now the parents of TWO children, ages 5 and 0.5, and we STILL haven't done our wills and all that ancillary and extremely important legal stuff to protect them if we die. It's a daunting prospect to figure that all out, but it is certainly past time to have gotten the ball rolling.

So...any urbanMamas out there who have used a family-friendly and knowledgeable lawyer that they can recommend? What did it cost? And what documents and services did you get for that cost? Any and all advice/recommendations would be appreciated!

On charitable giving (and receiving)

December 28, 2008

Charity is very much top-of-mind this week. My husband is in the Army Reserves, and either we are the only large-ish family in his unit and thus deemed needful of charity based solely on the number of mouths to feed, or perhaps he has slightly exaggerated our financial plight (I'm freelancing as our main source of income right now, and while the work is plentiful, my time is not so much). Either way we have received two gift baskets in the past week, both stocked with hams, a pound of margarine, and various canned goods and other nonperishables. I am grateful. And yet, given my now year-long commitment to feed my family organic, fairly traded, as-local-as-possible food, it's been a challenge deciding how to face a six-year-old who I found hoarding two boxes of cake mix and a package of Sara Lee dinner rolls in his bedroom. Among other things. One day I'll let the boys gorge themselves on Trix, Campbell's chicken noodle soup, and chocolate icing straight out of the carton, the next day I hide it all and force-feed them sourdough whole wheat baked goods and raw milk. As a culture, we believe that one should not look a gift horse in the mouth and that those receiving charitable assistance should be pleased to eat whatever GMO-ridden, conventional, processed, sugar-packed, wrapped-up-in-excess-packaging goods the givers choose.

I am torn. I wish to be grateful and am thrilled that such largess exists. I know that those who assembled the gift packages did so out of a genuine and generous wish to make our lives better. (And the PGE gift card that was included in one of them will, indeed!, make our lives better. If anyone should be struggling over what to get for a needy family -- go with the PGE gift card!) And at the same time I wish I could somehow send a message to all those who shop for holiday gift baskets and ask if they might consider getting big bags of Bob's Red Mill organic whole wheat flour, and a dozen eggs from Kookoolan Farms, and perhaps a nice local ham from Sweet Briar Farms or the Pacific Village cooperative.

Continue reading "On charitable giving (and receiving)" »

Our new economy: where has it left you?

November 20, 2008

About a month ago, I received a bleak email at 1am on an early Monday morning.  It was from the president of my organization.  I read the email on my smart-phone: they were announcing layoffs and paycuts for all remaning staff.  The announcement left me unable to get any more rest that night.  While my job was spared, I was still left a bit numb and sad. 

Layoffs are happening around us in our families and among our circles, left and right.  Unemployment benefits will dry up, and, when it does, will we find new jobs?  Our IRAs or 529s or other investments are half the size they used to be.  News reports constantly read "down with the dow".  And, now, businesses in our beloved Portland seem to be shuttering, one of which is an all time family-favorite, Sip 'n' Kranz (mentioned on neighborhood notes).  (Note: We stand corrected, Sip 'n' Kranz is still open! We still notice shuttering businesses, including Sal's Favorite Italian kitchen in NPDX and Mercato in NW PDX.)

Will it ever end?  How has the economic downturn hit your family?  Has your family's economic state been shaken or does it still feel a little status quo?

I quit! Now... what am I going to do about health care?

October 23, 2008


Yesterday was my last day at work. It's a complicated story about "not giving 100%" and needing to spend way more of my percentages here at home on my kids. I'm starting a new freelance career that will pay a lot less than my former career, and naturally, includes only the benefit of complete freedom from externally-imposed responsibilities. Health insurance and maternity leave and retirement? I'm hoping my good, nourishing cooking and royalties from my soon-to-be-pitched book will cover me. (It's good to think positive.)

I can't afford Cobra and I think my income will be too high to qualify for the Oregon Health Plan (though maybe I'll be close). We get supplemental insurance through the Army Reserve's Tricare program for $82 a month but I doubt it'll help me without the primary insurance. I'm considering just paying out-of-pocket for services we need (like well-baby visits and the occasional checkup for Jonathan and myself, plus dental visits). Compared to the retail price of health insurance for my family -- between $400 and $1000 a month, plus deductibles and co-pays -- a few hundred here and there doesn't seem that bad. And honestly: I'll bet my out-of-pocket costs with employee-sponsored United Healthcare were at least $2000 in the past year.

Of course, that's assuming that I don't have another emergency like the one where Monroe ended up riding the ambulance to get stitches in his eye. And I have three extremely energetic and risk-loving boys. When I tweeted about my quandary over insurance, I found a few other mamas responded back almost immediately; they, too, were foregoing insurance due to great expense. We've talked before about insurance providers and insurance for pregnant mamas (thank goodness that's not a factor for me right now). While this is a great time to get very, very angry over the state of our nation's health system (John McCain accused Barack Obama's plan of being like England's -- I thought to myself, if only!) -- it's also a time to evaluate the options in reality. For those of you who don't get, or can't afford, insurance through your work or your spouse's work: What do you do?

Update: I wrote a post on WalletPop about "The Gilbert Plan," the way health care policy should be. What do you think about that?

Seeking a smaller bank...

October 18, 2008

2786161034_e651e89a17_m_2 I am no finance expert.  But I know enough about economics to be not-so-thrilled with my bank suddenly becoming one of very few large banks in the U.S.  (less competition being not so good for the consumer and all).  I know there are community banks and credit unions and am 100% sure I want to switch.  Not because I think my money isn't secure (grasping the FDIC thing and the max insured amount, which we're well under), but just have an urge to go small, go local. 

Yeah, I'm likely not the first to have this urge, but I'm ready, as complicated as it's gonna be to transfer the whole kit-and-kaboodle (direct deposit, checks, ATM locations & cards, to name but a few). Thanks to OPB's Think Out Loud crew for covering this one from the local angle a few weeks ago.

So my question is this: do you bank at a small community bank that you'd recommend, where you think there is some real, maybe even deep respect for the community, the every-day customers?   Where we can all just fell the love instead of trading each other to hell and back for a buck?  I really, really don't want to undergo this process twice, so I plan to rely on recommendations.  Got any?

The high cost of gas

May 29, 2008

Gas_5 Our family took a nice little road trip for the recent three-day weekend.  On our way home, when we stopped for gas, I was aghast to see what we were paying at the pump (in a town just north of Seattle, WA): $4.09 for regular unleaded.  It's happened  We’ve broken through another dollar point.  I thought to myself, “Are we the only family taking a road trip this weekend?  Are people staying home because of the high cost of gas?”

When we got home to a close-to-zero bank balance, it feels so urgent now: we are going to take the bus and bike more than ever!  It is time to reprogram Trimet’s transit tracker on my phone's speed dial and commit our favorite stop ID’s to memory. 

What about you?  With gas prices up around $4 per gallon, are you forced to make different transit arrangements?  Aside from biking, walking, or bussing, are there any other suggestions you have for being less car-reliant?  Do you have a way of connecting with other families at your school for carpool arrangements?  Have you given use of your personal car, opting for Zipcar or car rentals instead?

Stimulate this! Great ideas for using your economic stimulus package

April 29, 2008

As soon as I heard about Bush's Economic Stimulus plan, I started in with the subversion. I'd use my stimulus check to buy things, but entirely not the things Bush and big retail corporations wanted me to. My debit card wouldn't be swiped at Target or Sears or Olive Garden; with the whopping $2,100 my family will get (we have three children) I wouldn't buy a single gallon of premium unleaded gas, nor sink a nickel into video poker machines (I'm scandalized and saddened that's where Oregon's kicker went). No. I'd buy things that would work gently against big government and big big oil.

I made a promise to myself that I would spend my economic stimulus money on things that would save me from spending future fossil fuels, future money and future greenhouse gases. I decided I would invest my stimulus package into my little urban homestead's soil, air, and food stores. I'd get off the grid, just a bit, I'd use it to live lighter. I made a list of ideas and (helped by a substantial tax rebate) I've already started in on it. Do you have any ideas to add to the list? Where will your stimulus package go?

Continue reading "Stimulate this! Great ideas for using your economic stimulus package" »

How much is your weekly grocery bill?

April 26, 2008

Last week, the Oregonian's FOODday featured four families that put their family food budgets on a diet, ranging from $100 to $300 a week.

Why are we paying so much more at the store? Blame rising energy costs that make it more expensive to transport food and run a farm; spiking corn prices that inflate the cost of feeding animals we use for meat, eggs and dairy; and a run-up in what food manufacturers pay for wheat, soy and corn sweeteners, the main ingredients in bread, cereals and most processed foods on your grocers' shelves.

One family slashed their eating-out budget and planned their darndest to keep within their budget and scheduled meals.  Another family stopped frequenting all their favorite speciality food shops, opting - instead - to one-stop shop, saving on time and gas and impulse purchases.  The third family, raising two teenage sons, became masters at finding steals and deals, scoring enough milk for the boys' gallon-a-day needs and cheese or fruit for their constant appetite.  And the last family tightened their belts even tighter and focused on from-scratch cooking.

These days, we're talking about tightening belts, but we're also talking about lower-sugar, less processed cereal, peanut butter, and bread.  How do we balance the food budget with all these factors in play?  What is your family's weekly food budget?  What are tips and tricks to keep you within budget?

Happy Tax Day!

April 15, 2008

The day is almost over!  Have you sent in your taxes?  Did you do it weeks and weeks ago and already spend your refund?  Are you deferring and extending the pain until August because you owe the government money (YIKES!)?  Did you file electronically?  Or, will you be joining me at the main post office at 11:59pm tonight?  They're postmarking until midnight just for the occassion!

Are you tightening your belts?

April 12, 2008

I haven't seen it yet, but apparently Portland Monthly's cover story is all about Portland real estate and why Portland is still America’s hottest hometown.  We're not going to try to discuss the reality of the Portland economy here, but we've heard several families recently talking about changes in family finances to perpare for joblessness and other losses.  With this economy doing something funny, are you tightening your family money belts even more, saving more for those rainy days?  What are included in part of your essential monthly expenses and what are more discretionary (and, therefore, disposable)?  Do you feel secure here in Portland, a bit insulated from the housing crisis that hit hard in parts of California and Florida?  Or, have you noticed the chill, in one way or another?

Saving for College, Right.

January 22, 2008

The astronomical cost of childcare is one of my many favorite rants.  As evident by the conversation over at Activistas apparently I may not be the only one.  At the recent Naked Baby Swap, another mama and I engaged again in the topic with a twist.  She confided in me that her childcare costs are $1800/month.  But I then wondered, how are you saving for college?  She said they weren't.  Right, to foot a childcare bill that amounts to a mortgage payment, who can really think about saving for college!

With our childcare bill at over $19,000 over the next year, I too wonder why we are saving for college.  But in the end we feel it's important.  We scrape together a measly $75 a month to go towards a 529 savings plan for each child.  We also try to match 100% of monetary gifts provided by family members.  Are we doing the right thing even though we are still paying off my husband's student loans (which in and of itself is a small fortune)?  Knowing that both my husband and I worked our way through college with very little help from our own parents; and somehow we made it begs a series of questions.  urbanParents:

How many of you are saving for your kids college education?  How much and through what mechanisms (529 plans, etc)?  How much of the decision to pay for college stems from how they were raised and if you got help from your own parents?  If not, why not?  And lastly, are you in agreement with your spouse / partner about whether saving for college is necessary?

Budgeting to Support a Stay-At-Home Parent

January 03, 2008

Kudos to Mary for choosing to stay-at-home despite a drastic income differential.  She's seeking your advice on preparing for the changes in income and budget advice.  She writes:

We are expecting our first child the beginning of July and we are planning on me quitting my job to be a stay-at-home-mom.  And, with thoughts of having  one more and wanting to stay at home with them until they are both at least two years old, we are looking at a dramatic shift in income and the lifestyle that goes along with it for at least 4 years. This is a very scary step for us as our income will drop by over 40%. Does anyone have tips and recommendations for preparing for this income change and for living within a much smaller budget over the next few years?

Toys: What to (and not to) buy from mamas who've been there

December 10, 2007

Everett_with_computerEverett's developmental pediatrician has recommended, among other things, that we organize his toys better; and part of that has been purging lots of the precious whats-its and doo-dads garnered from the Bins, or from a random assortment of relatives and friends. We've been talking a lot about the concept of "quality" here at chez cafemama. And all last week while I had my nose to the corporate grindstone, launching a new personal finance blog called WalletPop, I was thinking about what things I wish I hadn't bought -- instead putting the money into college savings, or a therapy fund.

Today I couldn't help but fall in love with this post about toys you shouldn't -- and should -- buy your kids for Christmas. It's written by the mother of one of the lead bloggers at WalletPop (a financially-savvy 19-year-old). And to her list I'd add:

  • Don't buy: Anything remote-controlled
  • Do buy: Die-cast trains
  • Don't buy: So-called "educational" toys, which nearly always have batteries and only teach your kids how to push buttons.
  • Do buy: Books in quantity
  • Don't buy: Toys linked to Disney movie / Cartoon Network show / video game; why further that vicious cycle of feeding your children to the marketing machine?
  • Do buy: An easel, quality crayons and colored pencils, a big roll of paper.
  • Don't buy: Excessive stuffed toys, especially those with voice boxes; they'll take over your playroom.
  • Do buy: Dress-up clothes (or make them!)

What's on your list?

Seeking Financial Advisor

November 05, 2007

MoneyTalk is important, no doubt.  Kate recently emailed:

It was easy back when our finances were a simple checking and savings account. Now that we've got college funds, IRAs, a mortgage and - happily - some extra to invest, things are a bit more complex. We'd like to sit down with a professional who can help us decide how best to allocate our resources. We're looking for someone who will take the time to understand our individual situation, not try to sell us a financial package, and preferably someone who is familiar with socially-responsible investing. Any recommendations?

Mamas: Your best free activities & low-cost shopping?

October 29, 2007

For some of us, low-cost living is the reality.  We just don't have dual incomes or excess funds to go around.  Even when we are pinching pennies, there is still plenty to do with the kids.  We are sure of it!  What are your favorite free haunts?  Where do you go?  What about for household or children's items?  Where can you find decent quality, low-cost goods?  An urbanMama emails:

Can you give me ideas for how to go out and about (or stay in!) with my 3 kids (ranging 3-12) without spending money - or spending very little?!  I am up-to-speed with the library and the parks, but need more inspiration!  Also, shopping suggestions - both for household and childrens stuff.  Thanks (ps. the naked mamas party was a huge help!)

Wills, Trusts, and Estates

January 17, 2007

Would you say a good attorney is hard to find?  When it comes to setting up wills, trusts and estates, although there are many do-it-yourself resources, sometimes there's greater assurance in using a professional.  Blair is looking for a referral for a lawyer to set up wills, trusts, and the like.  Have you used someone good or do you know someone you'd recommend?  Or have you prepared these yourself a la Suze Orman?  Let us know below.

Money Honey

October 06, 2006

For sure money talks.  What age is the right time to start learning?  How should allowances work, if at all?  Thanks for your email Sadie Rose:
How do we do it??  What is the best way to teach our little ones how to spend, save, earn, value?  Sometimes we can't just rely on example (wink, wink).  But really, I am dying to hear how other uMs and uFams teach their children the best way to handle this thing called money.

Recommend a Financial Planner?

August 22, 2006

Oh yes.  Money talks.  Especially when we have little ones to consider as we plan.  Do you keep it in-house or do you have a consultant?  Jenny wants to know:

Hi! I have 2 girls (ages 2 and 5) and have been in Portland for over 10 years.  I wanted to ask others if they know of a good and not too expensive financial planner. My husband and I are middle class and are not looking to invest, but more to: budget, pay off debt, start thinking of retirement, etc. Anyone know of someone who could help us (preferably Downtown, in John's Landing, or Inner SE)? We are not great with money, but are ready to learn:)

Demystifying Medical Bills - the Impossible?

March 07, 2006

Since we're still on the topic of pediatrician's, Rebecca's interested hearing if anyone has experienced billing woes:

I am in the midst of an conflict with my pediatrician's office regarding billing practices, and it has got me wondering how widespread the problem may be...so I wanted to inquire if other uMs might have had similar difficulties.

My family has an insurance policy through Regence BC/BS which includes 100% well baby coverage for 8 pediatricians visits in the first 24 months of life. The ped group that I had chosen has twice billed two visits in my daughters first 9 months of life with diagnosis codes, thereby resulting in only partial coverage by insurance and me getting a bill. What is so frustrating is that we visited our pediatricians under the impression that they were "well child" visits...we did not make the appointments with specific complaints. Upon researching the charges with my insurance company, I have been surprised to discover the diagnoses resulting in these charges...one of the two visits in our case was "functional disorder of the gastrointestinal system"...doctor speak for constipation. I had mentioned that my daughter was occasionally constipated at that visit, but it was simply mentioned in a conversation regarding the well being of my child.

I am a physician, and perhaps since I have just finished my training and have not yet practiced on my own, I am naive to billing practices. But this does not seem right. It seems to me a clear example of why health care costs are so high.... Anyone out there with similar problems? Thanks!

Accountant Required or Turbo Tax Sufficient

February 23, 2006

Leah emailed me a while back about seeking an accountant, and finally, I am just getting around to posting about it.  We had a couple of posts regarding this around the same time last year.  There was one discussion thread on whether to use an accountant vs. turbo tax and one on babysitter / nanny and taxes.  So, mamas, we need your help again.  Can anyone recommend a good accountant?  What are your experiences with filing taxes?  Are you a DIY or are you the type to pay someone else to do the dirty work?

Work-Life Balance

February 20, 2006

A question from Maple:

Just wondering... what do you all do out there to pay for rent/mortgage, food, gas, bills, auto insurance, health insurance, preschool and all of the other necessary items and also take care of your child(ren)?

I'm currently having trouble figuring out how to balance work, money and spending enough time with my son.

Just curious what everyone else's situation is.

529 Waaa!

January 15, 2006

Experts say it's never to soon to plan for college savings.  With my first son, we started a 529 College Savings plan offered for Oregon last January when he was closing in on his second birthday.  I admit, I'm not sure if the Oregon College Savings plan was the best choice but I selected it mainly because it offers tax deduction for residents, and the fact that I wanted to choose a plan quickly before procrastination would soon kick in.  There are sites like Savingforcollege.com that offer tons of information but I don't have the stomach nor the patience to sift through the dizzying options.  Morningstar suggests Virginia, Utah, and Alaska have some of the best plans for those that don't like the options provided from your home state, but why?  What have you done?  What college savings plans have you opted to invest in and why?  What other alternatives are you seeking if you feel 529s are not the best option?

A Tightwad Shops Local

December 10, 2005

Shopping local in California can typically mean buying from the neighborhood strip mall. In Portland, though, shopping from locally-owned boutiques is a badge of honor.

I prefer not shopping at all, yet I am intrigued by all the start-ups on Alberta Street, my neighborhood thoroughfare. I peek inside the shops on a weekly basis, but am challenged by the $140 sweaters and $20 wind-up toys. It's tough for a tightwad to change her ways but, if I'm planning to buy a gift or a necessity, I'd rather skip Target and walk to my local boutique.

So, this holiday season, I'm slowly devising strategies for shopping local:

1. Buy less--holiday gifts can be fewer and simpler, but from my neighborhood store. I got sweet photo albums at Collage (1639 Alberta) for $5-$8.

2. Buy gifts at the grocery store--in this case, the Mexican grocery. La Playita market, next to the taqueria at 28th and Alberta, has $1.74 Saint candles, way funkier and cheaper than some pseudo-schmancy tea light lantern at Pier One and the like.

3. Think tiny--my son adores collections of miniscule treasures, like the homies from La Playita's gumball machine, the beads & trinkets from Picasso's bead shop (30th and Alberta), and the stretchy reptiles at Grasshopper (18th and Alberta).

4. Try art--this is wild, but small works of art are actually some of the better deals out there. The gallery at 3oth Street is hosting a "Tiny Things" show and has fused-glass bugs for $15. Onda (2215 Alberta) has alebrije ornaments for $20.

5. Aim for maximum style with minimal items--one "Anarchy in the Pre-K" shirt from Wild Child (at 14th, see the website at
http://www.wildchildpdx.com/Index.html) says more than that outfit from Baby Gap.

Be Thankful and Prepared

November 24, 2005

Recently, I got a call at work from my husband.  It went something like this:

Husband:  "Hi. I'm in urgent care.  My headache hasn't gone away, I'm waiting for a CAT scan.  I've been here since 2 pm.  Can you pick up the kids?  You might want to call the sitter. I've gotta go."

Me: "Um, sure.  It's a quarter to five.  It's going to take me an hour.  Have you called the sitter?"

Husband: "I haven't had a chance. Can you?  I've gotta go."

Whaa?  The phone call caught me completely by surprise since (a) I usually don't get very many calls from my husband at work (b) we have not yet encountered a bind where I absolutely needed to pick up the kids (c) I only got enough information for all sorts of crazy scenarios to go through my head.

In the end everything turned out fine.  The diagnosis wasn't conclusive but something to the effect that he probably caught a virus and the side effect was a head-splitting migraine that left him unable to function normally for at least a couple of days.  However, for me, this was a good time to reassess our ability to deal with the impact of these worst-case scenarios.  When you're young, healthy, and financially stable you barely give thought to thing ever going wrong in life.  You start thinking about it more when you have kids.  And, then you really think about it when a situation scares you into more thoughtful consideration.

In my head, I made a mental note to check my husband's life insurance policy.  I have one for myself for enough to probably cover our mortgage, but that's it.  So, I googled to figure out how much insurance we would need. The results are dizzying.  According to a simple lookup table of just income replacement, my current insurance coverage probably would not be sufficient if something were to happen to me.  My husband's coverage would also need significant readjustment.  As a family, we do need to make the time to talk seriously about planning for life insurance. 

As I was chatting about this with a mama friend, she suggested also putting together a will.  So I mentioned this to my husband.  He thought this was a good idea.  "Sure.  Can you search for a form on the Internet?" he replied.  Yes, that's right.  That's what my lawyer advised!  There are plenty of documents that you can find or buy on the Internet to plan out your will and file with the local courts.  So, for those who have gone through both processes, it would so nice to hear from you, to see what's worked best for your families.

Tax Filing

February 01, 2005

Every year, I wonder - should we go to H&R Block, should we find an accountant, should we use Turbo Tax, or should we just wade through the mess ourselves? If I had the time without the kids to worry about, maybe I could dedicate a few hours and do it myself. Right now, that's not an option.

So, can you recommend an accountant? Or should I just use Turbo Tax?

Money Talks

January 29, 2005

I never got around to putting in my two cents, for which you'll really get the value for your money ;). As I have a background on Wall Street, and an MBA, I'm not only in charge of the money (of which we have none right now, but that's beside the point), but this discussion prompted me to inquire about being a financial advisor. I've rolled over three 401(k) plans and would definitely advise you to do so. It's worth the 30 or so minutes it will take you to do the paperwork. You can set up an IRA anywhere - Schwab has a great program - and once the rollover is in effect, you can have complete control over your money. You can keep it in the same funds, stocks, and bonds that it is now (I think that's called an asset rollover) or you can liquidate and just rollover the funds. Then you can control everything from one simple online interface. Mwa ha ha ha! Most importantly, if you need to request a disbursement for any reason, like buying a new house, paying for medical bills, or generally being broke, you don't have to spend weeks going through the HR department of your old job. No looking up phone numbers in your now-broken palm pilot. No spending hours on hold. It's all right there for you. And, if something should happen to any of your ex-employers - I was in this position twice (one corporate bankruptcy, one psycho tax-evading CEO) - you won't have to worry about your money possibly being held up for months or even years while you go through the legal inner workings of whoever's holding your retirement account. As for investments? I'm a stock girl myself. I pick my own, do my own research, buy stocks of companies whose business models I believe in. We're young yet, and if you have a good feeling for the honesty of the management and the quality of the product, it's hard to go wrong. I'm heavily invested in stocks like eBay, Starbucks, and companies I've worked with in my career (one hospital company was sold recently for a hefty premium to the stock price and they singlehandedly increased my portfolio by 50%. course my portfolio is very small right now given the aforesaid disbursements for general brokeness. just because i'm good with investments doesn't mean i'm good with finding jobs that pay the bills and allow me to work part-time. *sigh*). If I was going with a bond I'd head towards a high-yield bond fund. I could give recommendations if you're interested. These are on the safe side of the spectrum, give a relatively stable yield, and since we're young enough we can handle the risk. I'm very anti-mutual fund but it's a bias. I believe that mutual funds are set up to make their managers rich (and lots of my classmates from business school manage funds like this so I know exactly how rich they are ;). They're so hard to pick because the managers, and philosophies, change often. If you have a good amount of money - say at least $10,000 - it makes ever so much sense to me just to create your own mutual fund. I took the hardest class at business school which required me to develop hedged-risk portfolios. It's super technical but I'd be happy to help you out with picking a carefully risk-averse selection of investments if you're into that. If not? Pick a big reliable company like Fidelity or a local fund manager like Columbia and just go with whatever they're offering. It's a crap shoot after you get past the "is this company going to run off to Costa Rica with my money" question. Bottom line - the performance depends on the fund manager and there are often revolving doors for those positions. Unless you personally know the manager you're not going to get any benefit from researching them. It's all just marketing and you know how that goes. Past performance is no guarantee and all that - returns are truly random. And go with the Oregon savings plan, as someone mentioned you get a tax credit. You won't if you go with another state. I researched it in-depth and the fees and minimums are almost identical. Yeah, the Alaska one is supposed to be great but the Oregon state tax credit offsets any greatness in my mind. Then you can invest lots more and a few percentage points more of 100% of your money is a lot less than a few percentage points less of 150% of your money. If that makes any sense at all ;)

Babysitter (and nanny) tax time

January 27, 2005

If you paid more than $600 to any one nanny or babysitter this year, you're required by the IRS to report their wages and you may have to pay payroll taxes on their behalf, as well. Either way, you are going to need their social security number and home address, so go ahead and get that now. The question of the day is, are you an employer or a customer of your care provider? There are a couple of questions the IRS considers. First, is the work performed in your home? If all the care takes place under your roof, you're probably going to be considered an employer. Second, assuming that the care takes place outside of your home (in a nanny share, or in the babysitter's home), do you "control not only the work they do but how they do it"? If you do, you are an employer. You might not be an employer if, for instance, you have a nanny share outside your home where the nanny makes her own "lesson plans" and decides when to feed your child, whether to wash the dishes, etc. In this case, your nanny might be the employee of the primary parent (the one whose home in which the care is given), but would not be your employee. Another instance would be a stay-at-home mom who cared for a few other children in her own home. You might be able to get away with calling yourself a customer of your child's caregiver if the care was provided in your home, but your headstrong nanny told you at the beginning how things were going to work. Are you an employer? You may have to pay federal unemployment taxes, medicare and social security on behalf of your employee (you can choose to withhold your employee's portion, or pay it yourself if you're especially generous - or if you didn't think of this until after the wages were paid. Whoops.). Unless your employee is your spouse, child (under 21) or parent, or under 18, you have to pay social security and medicare taxes to the tune of 15.3% of the total wages. If you're withholding, you can withhold 7.65%. If the wages were over $1,000 for the year, and the employee is not your spouse, parent, or child under 21, you have to pay 0.8% of the total cash wages as federal unemployment tax, up to $7,000 of wages. If you have an employee, you need an EIN. You need to obtain one by January 31 of the year following the payment of wages (if you paid wages in 2004, you'll need one by January 31, 2005). You can obtain the EIN by calling 800-829-4933; by submitting a form; or you can apply online. Once you have an EIN, you'll need to submit a W-2 reporting your employee's wages. The form is here, but it's printed with special ink; you'll need to pick one up from a local accountant or order one from the IRS at 800-829-3676. You have to submit one page to the SSA by February 28 along with form W-3. If you're filing electronically, you have until the end of March. The employee's copies are due to the employee "generally by January 31." If you have determined your provider is not an employee, you'll have to submit form 1096. Like the W-2, this is printed with special inks and will have to be requested from 800-829-3676. Also, it is due by February 28 to the government, and as early as possible to your provider. For some reason, I haven't been able to find verification of this on the IRS web site, but an accountant friend told me this is what to do. Oh, and you DO put an "x" in the box, "if this is your final return, put an x here." Now that you've taken care of your care provider, it's time to take care of yourself. In most cases, you'll be able to deduct the child care expenses up to a limit (the worksheet on the form instructions will tell you how much). The form you need: 2441. Attach this to your 1040, enter your child care tax credit on line 47, and watch your refunds roll in. If you're an employer, you'll need to fill out and file Schedule H with your 1040, as well. What if you are the stay-at-home parent I referred to above? You're probably self-employed. If so, read on for more info.

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