Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Squeaking by in style

If you read this regularly, then you are already aware that we've been treading water in some uncertain seas here at our house. The world of part-time, freelance, and contract work is financially a bit unpredictable; in addition, it is a world of pay-for-your-own-medical-benefits. Combine those two things and you have a serious need to cut out extras and live close to the bone.

I'm not complaining (at least not right now! ; ) I like to think that tight times, like hardships, build character and fortitude. I also believe that we as a country are a wasteful, greedy, spoiled bunch of brats for the most part. I don't want to represent that growing segment of the population.

Take those health benefits: I've had person after person tell me that I should try to get them for free, or less. It's the same story with every assistance program out there: "The help is there, you might as well use it," they say. I try to point out to these "helpful" sorts that we still have two running vehicles, jobs we can do, skills we can use, good and plentiful food from all the food groups, a home with heat and even A/C when it's stiflingly hot, a home computer, enough money to occasionally do something just for fun... I can see from the glaze in their eyes that it's not sinking in, but what I'm saying to them is true: we are not destitute. We have all the requirements for life and far more. If I can still pay for my health benefits, I will; I don't care that the state wants to give them to my kid. I don't care that we might qualify for some sort of assistance. We do not want for ANY necessities; that's enough information for me to decline all the handouts. If I really, absolutely, positively must take them, I will. If I am wanting for necessities on a regular basis, I will accept assistance from those programs, because people in those straits are the folks for whom such programs exist. But I'm not there yet.

You see, a lot of Americans have pride about the wrong things. They have no qualms whatsoever about taking any and every thing the government will give them, but they turn up their noses when I mention shopping second-hand. Or ALDI. Or knocking on a neighbor's door to ask if you may use the apples that fall from their tree and rot on the roadway. Why are we collectively more ashamed of shopping in the wrong stores, of looking less than wealthy, but not ashamed to accept handouts? Why are people reluctant to use coupons at the grocery, but unapologetic that they still get checks or money equivalents from Uncle Sam? Is is because Uncle Sam spares them the embarrassment of being forced to use coupons? What is wrong with coupons?

I don't mean to harp and rant. I realize we are all making our own choices and that is part of what I love about America. I also realize there are a few people in this country who are truly doing without the basics and suffering. I just wish the idiots in charge would stop giving it all away to anyone who asks; they're creating an ever bigger, uglier monster of laziness and entitlement.

ANYWAY. That wasn't supposed to be the point of this post. This post is about squeaking by without feeling squeaked.

The other day, I saved my grocery store receipt to show my husband. Why? I was proud of that receipt. It wasn't for a huge purchase or anything; I simply pointed out to him that the amount of the purchase was $12.97, and the amount saved was $12.60. That's how I shop, people. One good thing about having more time and less money is that you can dedicate as many minutes as needed to planning and scanning: planning your list and menu, and scanning the store flyers to see where your best deals are.

I've put together a quick list of tips and methods on which I rely weekly. Following this list pretty much guarantees you'll save money. However, it's just like a diet—not following it guarantees nothing. Diligence works, while distraction and lack of discipline do not.

Cheapskate Mel's Shopping Tips

• Always keep a list of needed items in a central location. Write down each item immediately upon thinking of it. If you always buy certain items at certain places, then keep multiple lists titled by the appropriate store name. (Don't write the list on a chalkboard, whiteboard, etc. because then it is not transportable. The list must be easily transportable or you will not use it.)

• Use coupons, but only use them for items you already buy. Do not use them as a way to buy something unusual, unless it is something you've really been wanting to try anyway. Keep the coupons in your wallet, in your handbag (if you're a woman), or in the car that you drive. Do not keep them in the desk or on the table in the office, because you will never have them when you need them. Clip them together or contain them in an envelope. Before you go into a store where you plan to use them, take out the stack, find the one(s) you need, and put those coupons on top of the stack so they're handy when you check out.

• If your list is short and/or does not contain heavy, awkward items, do not get a cart; get a basket instead. Or, put the items to purchase into your reusable tote. (NOTE: I can employ this tactic now because I'm typically shopping alone; if your little one is still coming along, ignore this tip for now.) Having that basket limits you from impulse purchases. If you can't comfortably carry the impulse item, you will likely not buy it.

• Shop ahead of time and always have back-ups in the freezer or pantry to help you avoid panic purchases at more expensive, more convenient locations. Stocking up ahead of time allows you to take advantage of good sales involving multiple items. It also saves you from, when in a hurry, being forced to buy a pricey brand-name item because the convenience store doesn't offer generics. Ideally, you should buy an item only when it's offered at a sale price. Usually, with prior planning, that is an achievable goal. (This works best if you have a good idea of what things cost when they're not on sale.)

• If your list involves only one part of a large store, do NOT venture into the rest of the store. You will most certainly find things you think you "need." Fight the urge, check out, and leave the store.

• If you really have a hard time controlling yourself, use the cash system: roughly figure how much your total purchase will cost, and then take only that amount of money into the store. A limited cash "cache" will force you to restrain yourself and stick to the list. Apparently, gamblers do this, I've heard—they take with them an amount of money they can afford to lose. Um, hello? If you can afford to lose more than a couple of bucks, then please invest that money wisely instead of flushing it down the toilet!?! (Dave Ramsey, debt-free guru, frequently recommends a cash-only method to families; he calls it the envelope system, and suggests that financially strapped people set up envelopes each month, labeled by expense and based on what they can afford and what they realistically need to spend in order to survive. We haven't yet resorted to the envelope system, but I'm not ruling it out...)

• Plan your meals based on what is in season and what's on sale. Buying fresh food in season costs sometimes half as much as buying the same food out of season. It's better for the environment anyway; stuff that's out of season has to be shipped from far away, likely picked before it's ripe, and possibly preserved en route by the use of unhealthy and unnatural means.

• Like to read? The library is still free. Remember the library, before all those big-box book-and-coffee stores? And oh, yeah, they have movies at the library, too. If you have extra money, that would be a great place to donate a few bucks; thanks to our stupid leaders, public libraries really need more funding.

• Eat at home. I've already hit on this several times in past posts, so I won't go on and on. It's cheaper, healthier, and better for your family (if you have a family). I know it's hard to do sometimes, thanks to different schedules, sports, work, etc... Do what you can. Slow cookers still work well, and fresh food doesn't take as long to cook. Not to mention this is still excellent grilling weather.

• Make it known that you happily receive hand-me-downs. We have several folks who kindly share with us their kids' goods, and since I have more time, I can sort through them, label them, store them, and pass on any excess. Sometimes people have nice clothes, toys, books, etc. that they'd like to give to someone, but they're hesitant to pass things on in fear of insulting the recipient. Let it be clear to others that you detest waste and will accept with gratitude any of those items they're planning to unload.

• Shop second-hand. It's just smart. You pay $30 for something, and I pay $3 for the same item. I wash it, and it's clean. This is especially true of household items and furniture. Obviously, I won't buy anything that looks worn, beat-up, or straight from the 70s, just like I won't buy an article of clothing that's stained, or pilled, or has holes. I don't want to be a bum. I just want to spend money on things that really matter. (No, I don't buy undergarments second-hand. I have common sense AND standards.)

• Make a deliberate decision to live low-tech. We have done so and it saves us a ton. I know some of you may think this is easy for me to say because my child is still very small. However, remember that America is known for helpless children and helicopter-parents who hover. Maybe the answer is having emergency-only tech tools, just for older kids who are unsupervised more often. Perhaps we should all stop running around so much. Easier said than done, I realize—but some of our own suffering we bring on ourselves. Don't worry about keeping up with all the great gadgets. They're amazing, they're fun, and...they're expensive. Get by with the minimum, forget the frequent upgrades and newest versions, and have a face-to-face conversation or look up from that screen to see the world around you. The technological boom has done a huge disservice to free thought, creativity, and common sense. In my humble opinion, of course. As I type this on a computer. But hey, it's 4-1/2 years old already and it was the cheapest Mac available at the time.


Okay, okay. I'd better stop. I'm starting to preach, and no one wants to read that. Seriously, though, it is possible to cut corners and still live large. I'd welcome any additional money-saving suggestions!

To squeak by, you need to sort of rethink and question our culture. You have to pretty much forget about the Jones family and focus on the really important things in life. Thankfully, those things aren't terribly expensive, at least in dollars. And if you're worried that you'll short-change your kid, I disagree: you'll be teaching the younger generation that there is more to life than Wii, Abercrombie, new cars, the current restaurant fad, and the latest iPhone. Now, that's a lesson we all need to learn.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What I've been up to

The cardinal sat, half-finished, on my easel for months, probably since mid-March. Now, at last, he is free to fly.

And the other came together rather quickly, from real life; the tomatoes and little jack came from our garden.

Fun, fun!

I'm thinking more and more about starting a little shop on Etsy and selling prints and/or notecards featuring some of my favorite paintings. I'll keep you posted.

Hope you're having a lovely autumn.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Throwing in the dust cloth

I quit the cleaning job.

I feel awful. I feel like a quitter. I guess I am a quitter.

I feel relieved, in a way, because I did not enjoy it and I felt my brain beginning to atrophy. And yet. Did I do the right thing? Time will tell.

I didn't think through the initial decision; I see that now. I didn't even make it through the first week of school before I slipped into panic mode and began making arrangements to jump into this job. When will I actually live the "trust God" theory that I regularly recommend to others? Why do I even believe for a moment that I am in charge and can change things? Why can I never wait?

I didn't think through the sheer labor involved in deep-cleaning for hours at a time. I did not think through my blood sugar issues in the morning. I did not imagine that I would be required to carry heavy supplies up and down stairs, nor did it occur to me that people who pay for cleaning services sometimes have giant mansions. I never considered how the immensity and extravagance of those homes would gall me. I did not entertain the thought that I might not be good at cleaning. I forgot that instead of having my sweet boy interrupting my thoughts and making me long at times for privacy, my dearest little guy would now be gone all day, every day, and that my loner tendencies might be exacerbated by even more time spent alone or around people who are trying to ignore me.

I just did not think hard or long enough about this decision.

The part-owner who's been trying to train me was not amused when I shared the news. I don't blame him. I'm sure this happens a lot, and I caught him at a bad time, and while I was trying to end the situation before it became even more complicated and clients started to know me well, there really is no good time to bow out and leave people in the lurch.

So, he can be cranky with me and I will bow my head and bite my tongue because, frankly, he probably has the right.

What am I supposed to be doing? I just don't know. I do feel pretty certain, though, that cleaning is not what I'm supposed to be doing. The deciding factor was Gramma Sally's apartment.

One of the places I tidied last week was absolutely charming. When I stepped in the door, it felt as if I'd stepped into an embrace. Walls were filled with artwork, beautiful stuff, warm colors and nature everywhere. Rich-colored pottery sat on shelves, cozy and comfortable furniture beckoned, simply pretty curtains adorned every window, and beyond the sliding doors was the most inviting little porch I've seen outside of a magazine. Photos filled every flat surface, and a knitting basket adorned a chest at the bottom of her bed. (I knew it was a woman's home as soon as I entered. It just reeked of woman.) It was not a fancy place, it was not luxurious in any way—it was wonderful and homey to the extreme.

As I went about my work, I did some light dusting in the office. Sally (not her real name) had left some letters and envelopes out; I glanced at one of the papers, then was curious enough to examine some of the paintings on the walls. Sure enough, the name was a match; Gramma Sally was the artist of nearly all the framed pieces.

And I stood for a moment and pondered: here is this woman, talented and crafty, and she has made all these beautiful things and surrounded herself with them. Why am I here, cleaning her home, admiring her craftiness, instead of trying to create my own? Is this really what I am to do? Is this really the area in which I excel?

The answer was a resounding no. Couple that with the mantra that had been swimming 'round my head all morning ("Clean your own damned house") and you can probably see why I was having a hard time with this career move. Everything about it felt wrong. It's not using my strengths; it's keeping me from performing tasks that I do relatively well. Ultimately, I may not be engaged in even remotely artistic or creative work; still, I had to admit as I stood there that I possess many other strengths that lay cast aside while I struggled to do this job instead.

So, there it is. I'm unemployed again, but hopefully a tad wiser. I really need to stop worrying and rushing. I'm not supposed to worry; doing so implies that I don't think God has it under control. Rushing isn't very smart, either, because it gets you into positions that compromise your integrity and makes you do things that you know are not cool. For example, quitting a job after a couple of weeks. That's not cool. It's been a learning experience, and I'm a better cleaner because of it (in theory, at least) but I've thrown a wrench into the works for those hard-working people who own that business. That was not my intention. When I rush in like a fool (hence the phrase), there will be consequences.

I really hope I get some direction from God soon. I feel rather adrift. Sailing is okay, but it's more comfortable for me when I can glimpse the next island on the horizon. Right now? No islands in sight. Floating. Floating. I know He will hold me up, but I'm still going to scan for that island.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The perils of not drinking wine

So, my husband turned 40 recently—if you read this blog regularly, then you already know that.

For his 40th, he received a bottle of sparkling red wine, purchased by a loved one especially for consumption with walleye (a tasty and locally available fish). Todd placed the bottle atop our dining room cupboard, which is graced with a pretty little wine rack shaped, oddly enough, like a fish. There the bottle has rested for a couple of weeks, lying on its side in proper wine-storage fashion. We didn't think too much about it, because we're all relatively short here in our house, and it hurts my neck to look that high. So.

Saturday night, Todd worked and the kid and I went to a marching band festival. Fabulous weather, a pleasantly cool evening, good music and big crowds... we left shortly before the festival ended, since my boy was fading fast in the past-bedtime night, and we arrived home saturated with the sounds of tubas and trombones, with batons flying in our minds. Into the garage, through the basement, up the steps, ready for a quick snack and a cozy bed... but wait: where had all that blood come from? The blood on the dining room floor? Spattered across the room, on the walls, into the kitchen?

Marcus heard my gasp (he was coming up the steps behind me). "Momma, what is it?"

I pondered how to answer that. Where had blood come from? We currently have no pet, and although we are babysitting a small goldfish, he couldn't possibly have made that much mess! Anyway, he was still swimming in his tank (out of reach of the blood, thankfully).

Then I realized what I was really seeing. I looked up, at the top of the cupboard. Sure enough, the cork was missing from that bubbly bottle. Also, the open vessel appeared to be the release point for the mess of red that decorated our walls, floor, and table. To further confirm my suspicions, there was the cork lying haphazardly on the other side of the room, far from its blasted beginnings.

People, I might have said some bad words. I was so annoyed that they might have slipped past my less-than-vigilant lips. And I apologize for whatever I might have muttered. After I had misspoken, instead of relaxing and reliving the music we'd heard earlier, I helped the kid slip past me into Legoland (our living room) and I retrieved the mop from the basement and got busy.

Three moppings later, my feet no longer stick to the wood floors. Sadly, the many blue lines left by rivulets of wine are still running faintly down our dining room walls. Cream paint, red wine—apparently they love each other because one can't seem to release the other. I see an unplanned re-painting in our future.

I am going to write a letter to the vineyard guilty of this explosive little gift, as soon as I'm not so irritated. I know they didn't mean to pummel us with their product, but I do think they should know what happened. I am really glad we weren't home when it exploded, because it literally could have taken out someone's eye. I am not so glad that we didn't come home sooner, because I might have been able to save our walls.

Is that not bizarre? And you see what happens when you don't just crack open that bottle of goodness and enjoy it—hence this post's title. Now, go drink your stored wine; it's for your own safety. Really.

Monday, September 13, 2010

On switching gears yet again

So, I was a little bit stir crazy that first week of school. I'd been watching our savings account slowly dwindle over the summer. And I had been looking at jobs online for weeks; I'd been noticing a disturbing trend among the so-called "writing" jobs.

Writing does not require any real training or skill these days—did you know? Any opinionated fool with an internet connection can share his or her lunacy, however poorly worded or ineffectively expressed, for the entire world to consume like soda pop and salty chips.

I knew it was coming to this, I did. I foresaw it with texting, and responses on YouTube, and comments on every online article (even the news), and even in the rapidly growing number of blogs. I could easily predict that the value of the word would plummet as words became more and more common and available. And indeed, that has happened.

The turning point was a writing job advertised on craigslist, which specified that no writing experience was necessary. I followed that one by clicking on a cleaning job that paid better anyway. You can probably guess what happened: I called about the cleaning job. And got it.

I don't know how long I'll last. I've only been at it for a week, and part-time at that. I've been in some unbelievably swank, sumptuous homes—the kind of homes I did not believe existed except among celebs and sports heroes. In fact, I've been in a celebrity home of sorts, a name you'd recognize (no, not a sports hero, so get your skivvies untangled). It's been eye-opening to say the least. If this is the world of home-cleaning during a recession, then HOLY COW, people, I don't think I'd be able to take it when the economy's good. I might end up at Gatsby's house, and then who knows what could happen...

I've learned that I'm actually not such a good cleaner. All this time, I've been known as a neatnik. Some people (including me) actually thought I had OCD tendencies; not so. Actually, I am only bothered by clutter. For all these years, I've been absentmindedly avoiding the real scum in my home. Well, I can't do that any more—my blissful, if smudgy, ignorance has been wiped unforgivingly clear. Happily, I've also begun to learn some of the tricks of the trade.

I've suddenly become mindful of how a single hair left on porcelain can undo an hour's worth of scrubbing in the eyes of a client.

I've learned that even rich people's kids make messes with toothpaste, and sometimes miss the toilet.

I've learned, too, that I never want to own stainless steel appliances.

I've learned how one industry is taking advantage of the two income, work-or-run-constantly lifestyle, and making it profitable. More power to them; these people earn every penny. I never dreamed this was such grueling work. I thought I was in pretty good physical shape, and knew how to get a house in order. Wrong. I will never again take for granted a shiny hotel shower, a perfectly vacuumed carpet or spotless tiles. Those cleaning people, carrying a giant bucket of supplies, toting a mop or broom? Never again will those people go unnoticed by me. They are slaving, doing an honest day's work. They deserve my recognition.

I've learned there are far worse jobs than this one. While I'm scrubbing, or dusting, or whatever, my mind is focused on the job at hand. When I'm done, I'm weary, sometimes sore...but not in a bad way. I don't have to feel guilt about what I've done. I haven't talked an older person into an unnecessary home improvement. I haven't sold a gadget that doesn't work. I haven't contributed to someone's poor health by creating an unhealthy food item, or selling cigarettes or trans-fatty donuts. I haven't even been forced to make yet another round of pointless, expensive changes to a client's advertisement, newsletter, or catalog.

Still. This is hard. And humbling. And I don't know how long I'll last. It's money, it gets me out of the house, and it's probably good for me. Is it ultimately what I'm supposed to be doing? I don't know. Is it using my best God-given talents? Doubtful. And might I be fired because I stink at it? Perhaps. I've left every job by my choice, in my time, except for one: the first I'd ever had, where I was let the local supermarket. It seems I do not excel at the menial stuff. Hmmmm. Go figure.

I'll keep you posted. Until then, say hello to the next cleaning person you see. And if it's me? Try not to snicker.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Deliberately preserving a memory

I just spent some time viewing images and videos from September 11. Yes, it was upsetting. Yes, it made me feel ill; it always does. Yes, once again Google has failed to observe this day in any way, even though they celebrated the invention of a toy recently, and a somewhat obscure artist's birthday, and all sorts of wishy-washy, grey events that offend no one. Pansies.

I remember being at work that day. In the kitchen at the office, which was always crowded on Tuesdays because, in the golden days, Tuesdays were "bagel days." The toaster got a workout, the butter and creamed cheese ended up smeared on the counter, and while we were milling and toasting and spreading fatty goodness, a co-worker stepped in from the back door and announced that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center.

We were all stunned. At first, people thought it was a small plane, some clueless person, perhaps a pilot who'd suffered medical duress. And it went on. I remember when we heard about the second plane, saying to someone, "This is an attack." I knew it, then. No accident, no human illness had caused such damage. And again, it went on. More people hurt and killed. More flames and debris, paper and soot raining down on the streets of New York City, at the Pentagon. We all gathered in a back meeting room, someone found the old TV on a cart, and an intern acted as a human antennae so we could get a clear enough picture to view the screen without headaches—and the view was so clear that we watched the second plane hit the towers. The woman next to me gasped when it struck, inhaling with such horror that the sound represented every agonized soul in that room.

A friend called me when I was back at my desk for a brief moment; he was in some other, far-flung state. Texas? I can't even recall. He'd heard about the Shanksville plane before I did. He told me another one had gone down, not far from Pittsburgh. "What the hell is going on?" he asked me, aghast. I did not know. We hung up, and I found more updates confirming what he'd said. No one really knew what the hell was going on. We knew it was bad, very bad.

Another friend who sat across from my desk was frantically phoning her husband, a pilot. Who'd flown out that morning. Was he okay? Yes. It took many minutes, but she reached him. He'd had to fly back, or land somewhere unplanned. He was okay.

Should we stay at work? Should we go home? No one knew what to do. We were on the North Shore, not really downtown, and even though the folks in the heart of the city were evacuating, many of us were loathe to do the same for reasons we couldn't quite express. Was it fear? Many of us were young and single, living alone. Perhaps we glimpsed the terror and uncertainty that waited in our empty apartments. At the office, we were together, united, shocked as one. We knew, even then, that leaving that communal space and returning home meant hours and hours of watching the coverage, reliving the stomach-turning moment of those buildings imploding in a downward peeling motion. Most of us stuck around until mid-afternoon; nothing was accomplished.

Even in the days that followed, little was accomplished. Everything was changed. I remember walking to get lunch somewhere, and looking up at the beautiful, clear, empty skies. No planes, No air travel whatsoever. The vast blue was strangely silent, after years of constant airport and hospital traffic. It was eerie. It made me feel like hiding. Even when the skies reopened, I can remember rushing out to look when a plane sounded too close, an awful fear clamping down on me when anything looked remotely abnormal up there.

It will never be the same. I still cannot comprehend that sort of hatred. I found a little editorial that pretty much captures my feelings, so I will defer to this fine author and let my flag and my defiant Christianity say the rest. I know the Crusades happened, and were misguided and terrible; I'm sure those aren't the only negative examples of my Jesus-loving forefathers. However, I also know that the faith I follow today, the faith that predominantly built this nation, condemns heinous acts like those of nine years ago.

I encourage you to read this (below). And AGAIN I apologize for the non-link; please just copy and paste it in your browser. I think I need to switch servers, for many reasons.