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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Is Piano Essential?

You're probably familiar with homeschooling, and of course you know what private schools are, but you may not have heard of something called afterschooling. In a nutshell you look at what your child's school does well and supplement with afterschool, summer school, winter break and weekend activities. For example, if art education has been cut waaaaay back in your school district, you might choose to enroll the kid(s) in an art class through Parks and Rec. If the organized sports are less than sporting, chances are there is an athletic league that fits your family's bracket. The point is, kids' activities outside of school help round out the kid.

Well, all that is fine and dandy when you have a steady paycheck and time to play taxi mom. What happens when the purse strings tighten up? Our family is cutting back to the bare essentials – no more audible.com, traded in the Blockbuster movie pass for Netflix on demand, and are eating in (except for things like potlucks, networking lunches, and dinner with friends.) Those were easy decisions to make. Far more difficult is looking at our munchkin's schedule and deciding what stays and what goes.

The first thing we did is to look at all the family activities to see what is free and what isn't. Free activities are easy to keep on the schedule unless they have secondary costs associated with them like travel time (gas money) or entry fees. Most school clubs such as chess club and drama club are free, although many of them will have fundraisers to help with activity costs.

Next we considered the long term benefits of the activities that have a fee. An out of work friend said “I'd sell my teeth to keep my girls in ballet” and I would probably do the same for our son's piano lessons. Generally the more organized an activity is, the more likely it is to have scholarships or fee waivers. The application process can be as simple as a check box on the registration form or may be as complicated as a separate form, interview, and income verification. When you're signing the kids up for karate or baseball, take a look at the form to see if there is any mention of scholarships or fee waivers. If there isn't, ask the person collecting the registrations if that option is available. If you don't want to ask in front of the kids, try calling in. A lot of times you can ask over the phone and don't even have to leave your name or give any personal details. If you haven't already done so, check with the school to see if your lowered income qualifies your family for free or reduced price lunch. Eligibility for free/reduced price lunch qualifies many kids for automatic fee waivers and reductions for a lot of programs, especially those that are run by city or state departments like Parks & Recreation.

Activities that are less structured may not have a formal scholarship or fee waiver process, but chances are that fees can still be negotiated. Start out by talking to your child's instructor.  To avoid embarrassment you may want to do this over the phone or have the kids wait outside while you talk. Explain your situation and ask if it is possible to reduce or waive the tuition. The instructor probably has other students in the same situation you are in, but even if he doesn't, he may be willing to come to an arrangement.

Keep in mind that some or all of this may be a little uncomfortable for you. Don't be afraid to write out what you want to say. Practice it in front of the mirror or have it in front of you when you make a call. Keep in mind that you're doing it for your children, and they will reap the benefits for the rest of their lives.

Times will get better, and when they do, please return the support of the people and organizations that supported you and your family.

Monday, December 14, 2009

How Can I Help?

How to Help an Out of Work Friend

While there are a lot of ways you may have heard about helping an unemployed friend out professionally (recommending your friend on linkedin.com, proofreading resumes and cover letters, forwarding job leads) there are a number of things you can do to help out the whole family.

First of all, do not pull away or assume “If they need anything, they'll call.” Instead, let your friend know that you're still around, and if at all possible, make a specific offer of help.

Even if your friend has funds to make it through to the next job, it's likely that the family is scaling way back on eating out, family activities, and purchases. This is your chance to:

  • Offer to take the kids to and from activities, especially if you have children participating in the same activities. This is especially helpful if you have children on any kind of travel team. In addition to the cost of traveling to compete in another town, there may be hotel room and meal expenses involved that can be hard for the unemployed family to bear.
  • Invite the children in the family or even the whole family to come with you on outings. If you have a trip planned to a local museum or theme park, ask if Johnny and Jenny can come with your family to the park. Let your friend know that you don't expect them to cover the cost of the tickets and whatever you do, don't ask within earshot of the children.
  • Have your friend over for dinner. If your friend has scaled way back on eating out, this can be a welcome break from meal prep and a good chance to socialize, and may even help out with the family's budget. Keep the dinner simple, though. This isn't the time to break out the caviar and champagne.
  • Schedule a playdate for the kids or offer to babysit on a moment's notice. A scheduled playdate gives the kids and the parents a date to look forward to, but a voucher for babysitting may be even more valuable as it frees the parent up to go to an interview or a networking event. If you are able to, feed the kids while you have them. It's one less thing for your friends to think about when they pick their kids up.
  • Declutter. I know this sounds strange, but go ahead and clean out the closets and the basement. It's something you were planning to do anyway, but instead of taking everything directly to a donation point, call up your friend and ask if they are interested in anything you're donating. An old smartphone may be an incredible boon to your friend, and new-to-them video games and toys might be great for the kids.
Here are couple more ways to help, but keep in mind that there are lots of things you can do. Let your relationship with your friend and her family be your guide.
  • Offer to help with housework, yardwork, or with helping to fix up the house, especially if you know the family has put the house on the market or is planning to.
  • Be honest. If your friend asks you for your opinion, offer it as gently as possible, but honestly. It's so much easier to hear a negative review from a friend, and it is possible that you may be the first and only person to pass something on.
  • Listen. One of the hardest things some people face when out of work is the loss of the daily companionship during the workday. If you're asked for help or advice, by all means offer it, but realize that sometimes your friends may just want you to listen.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cinderella's Sisters

Cinderella's Sisters or This Shoe Doesn't Fit

I have too many clothes. From what I understand, this is true of most Americans. There is a massive industry in the United States to help us sort, organize, and store our clothing, shoes, and other items. I'm not expecting too much trouble shopping my closet for the forseeable future.

Unfortunately, there is a member of our household who won't be able to shop his closet for more than about three months. This is the kid who literally grows overnight, and once abandoned a pair of shoes almost the day we bought them because they were too small. I personally fit those shoes to his feet, and there was well more than a thumb space of room between his big toe and the front of the shoe. Let's face it: kids are going to grow whether we like it—or can afford it – or not.

The silver lining to this cloud is that just as you will soon be getting rid of all those jeans, sweatshirts, and shoes currently hanging neatly from the closet rod and lined up perfectly by the door (yes, I am dreaming, but I get to do that when I write!), somebody with a child larger than your own will also be emptying out their kid's closet as well. Now here's the tricky part: how do get your hands on those clothes?

Free Options:
  • Ask around – It's likely that you already know someone ready and willing to pass kids clothing on. If you are actively looking for someone to pass clothing on to, you'll probably come across a couple of parents with kids larger than your own who'll say “What a great idea! I need to do the same thing.” That's your chance to say “Let me know when you do because I'd be interested.” Voila. New clothes for your kid, easy schmeezy pumpkin easy.
  • Organize or attend a clothes swap – I personally love clothes swaps. I've been to them for both adults and for kids and they are a blast. There are some great guides on the web on how to organize a clothes swap so I won't repeat all the steps here. They're a great activity for any group because they're so budget and earth friendly. Generally clothes swaps operate on a bring one, take one principle – for every item that you put into the pool, you get to take one out. They're a great way for you to find a home for the smaller items you're passing on at the same time that you are getting new items in just the right size.
  • Freecycle.org – Freecycle (sounds like recycle) is one of the neatest ideas I've ever heard of. If you have something that needs out of your house you list it on freecycle in much the same way you would post a classified ad. Others read your ad via email or on their website and respond directly to you. In some cases the items are picked up the very same day, generally it's gone in less than 3 days. The nice thing is that this works both ways – if you need something, you can post a WANTED ad on the website. This tends to work best for individual items, not for an entire closet worth of goods, although I have occasionally seen people giving away giant bags of clothing at a time.
So let's say you tried all of these and you're still not getting enough clothing for the kid, or you're not staying ahead of her growth spurts. There are some other options out there that beat heading out to Kohl's at 8:00 at night to pay full price for a pair of shoes.

Cheap Options
  • Garage Sales – generally held in the summer months, these can be hit or miss. When you hit the right sale, though, you can hit it big. Be sure to read the ads in your local paper, on craigslist and in any local classified papers to find the sales, and have a map and a driving plan before you leave the house. If you find a jackpot sale with just the right sizes, consider asking the person holding the sale if they would be willing to contact you directly next time they are cleaning out closets. Have an index card or a piece of paper with your contact information and the sizes you're in the market for ready to give to them.
  • Thrift Stores – I love thrift stores. Usually more expensive than garage sales, the chief benefit to thrift stores is that they are available on a more convenient schedule, which means I don't have to pick between soccer and garage saling on Saturday morning. Many thrift stores are operated by charitable agencies and are not out to make a profit, which means that the clothing is at a very low price. There are exceptions though, so you may have to look around. A quick google search with “Thrift Store, MyTown, State” should give you your local options. Stores vary, too. We lived in one town with multiple branches of the Salvation Army. One location mostly had furniture and larger items, another focused on adult clothing and the third had the largest selection of kid's clothing. I made a point of stopping by the branch that had kid's clothing on a regular basis just to see what was in. Five to ten minutes every two weeks or so was more than enough time to keep ahead of a growing kid. The best part? That location charged $1 per item of kid's clothing. Nice, right?
  • Craigslist.org – Craigslist is an online classified service. People can list what they are selling and then you can contact the person directly. A lot of time people will either post photos or are willing to send you photos of the items they are selling. Personally I've never used Craigslist to buy and sell kids clothing because I've always been able to find what I needed from a friend or at a thrift store. You also have the option to post what you are looking for.
  • eBay.com –An auction site, eBay is a great place to look for really nice items and specialty items. If you have a wedding coming up and need a kid's tuxedo, I'd look on eBay first. Similarly, if your child grew out of those $60 wrestling shoes and you need a new pair, eBay is the place to look. People will also sell lots of clothing (multiple items on one batch), sometimes at prices as low or lower than garage sales. Keep in mind that you are paying shipping, which can eat into any of your savings.
  • Retail Store Sales – Let's face it, sometimes you want to buy things new. A good store sale can help you out with this. Now, I'm not talking about the “Sale” that goes on right before school starts, I'm talking about the deep down clearance rack closeouts that go on before the school sales and the change of seasons. These require an act of faith and some storage space, but you can easily find items marked down 75% or more in July and in late January/early February. Be very very careful with these. Buying that ultimate goose down parka two sizes larger than your child is now will not help you any if the child grows three sizes between now and next winter. I like to browse these sales every year to see what is available. I will generally pick up seasonless items such as shoes and pants in larger sizes, but I tend to stay away from sweaters and shirts because it's harder to know what size our son will be when that season rolls around.
In the end, keep in mind that sooner or later you're going to hear your child quote Cinderella's sisters: “This shoe doesn't fit” and the cycle will start all over again.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Pregnant

Losing Your Job Is Kind of Like Being Pregnant...

So we started telling people that he lost his job... and it turned out that pretty much everyone has lost a job at one time or another.  Here's a typical conversation:

"Hi!  How've you been?  It feels like forever since we saw you last."

"Um.  Actually, I'm not sure if you knew but my husband lost his job."

"Oh.  I'm so sorry to hear that."

At this point one of two things happen.  Either the person looks left and right and starts to back away from the jobless person, or (and this has happened more times than I ever would have imagined possible!) the person leans in and says, "I (or my partner, spouse, brother, mother, father, lover, neighbor) lost my (his her its) job, too.  It's the best thing that ever happened to me (him, her, it)."

What?! I guess not having a job is kind of like being pregnant.  Before you get knocked up you never notice anyone pregnant unless they are in your face, and I mean IN YOUR FACE.  After you realize that you indeed have conceived, you suddenly notice that pregnant women are all around you.  Well, once we started networking (which has lately become meeting for a cup of 99 cent coffee instead of lunch) we discovered that the formerly jobless were all around.  They had some great advice, too, but I'll save that for a later post.

By the way, I'm not pregnant and (neither is he).  Just in case you were wondering but didn't want to ask.

Caesar

Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s (“Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τῷ Θεῷ”) (Matthew 22:21).

I know this is probably going to come up sooner or later, so I figured I ought to just address it now: Why is your blog called Me, Family, World. Shouldn't it be God, Family, Country, Self? Well.... someone far wiser than I said “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” Basically, this is a blog about what's happening to me, our family, and our relationships with the outside world. I'm not blogging about my faith. Oh yeah, and the folks that do google “God, Family, Country, Self” probably won't be too thrilled with my blog. That's it. You're probably going to hear plenty about our church in the posts to come, but I'll try to keep the focus on our daily lives and adapting to being jobless and out of the pews.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Bread Pudding

Bread Pudding... or How to Stay Social When You're Broke

We're a pretty social couple, and I would also venture to say that we're pretty generous. We've been known to fry half a dozen turkeys, roast a pig in a fire pit, and smoke enough meat to feed variously the entire library staff or the entire college or the entire neighborhood. When we lived in Texas we would host monthly get togethers for the student workers in his office. My husband would always cook about three times more food than anybody at the party could possibly eat. We'd send home all the leftovers with the kids, so often and so much that they started bringing their own tupperware.

Usually we look at the upcoming holidays as a chance to spread our culinary wings and try new foods and new techniques. On year we imported the ingredients for Thai food from the west coast, another time we had crayfish shipped in from New Orleans. Um, I don't think we'll be doing that this year.

So what to do? I need people like I need air. Seriously. I would die if I did not have frequent human contact. Of course, it's more than just that: strong networks help keep us mentally healthy and interacting with the people you know exposes you to more opportunities. At the same time, we need to hold on to the money we've got because there isn't any coming in right now. What to do? Enter bread pudding.

A while back I discovered that Wal-Mart has a rack of discounted loaves of french bread. Instead of the wallet busting $2.00, they're down to 90¢. In addition, if you buy a flat of eggs, it's $3.00 instead of the $5.00 you'd pay to buy the eggs in dozen cartons. Add a quart of half and half, a slug of Mexican Vanilla, a cup of sugar and a cup of raisins and voila! Bread Pudding for 50 for about $7.00. The best part? I never bring any home.

The Social Cheapskate's Bread Pudding
I usually make a double recipe for church and other large gatherings

1 dozen eggs
1 quart half and half
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
Vanilla to taste (1 tablespoon? I never measure this, just pour in a generous slug)
1 loaf french bread, cubed
1 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease the sides and bottom of a 9x13 pan. Mix the eggs, half and half, sugar, pie spice, and vanilla. Gently add the bread cubes and toss until well coated. Fold in the raisins. Toss until well mixed, pour into greased 9x13 pan. Bake at 350° for about 45 minutes or until the top is wel browned. Top with warm cream sauce.

Cream Sauce
1 can Sweetened Condensed milk
1 cup milk
Flavoring of choice (vanilla, rum, cardamom, cloves, sky's the limit)

In a small saucepan over low heat mix a can of sweetened condensed milk with a cup of milk. Add in the flavoring agent of your choice, usually rum or brandy in our house, but sometimes cardamom and cloves. Serve over bread pudding.

Home Sweet Home...Until the Mortgage is Due

Home Sweet Home... Until the Mortgage is Due

We sat down and took a good hard look at our finances. As it is for most people, the biggest drain on our resources is the mortgage. Using a spreadsheet we typed in our monthly expenses and our savings. It was amazing how much longer we could live on our savings alone if we didn't have a mortgage payment. The decision was easy: we really have too much house for three people.

The decision was also hard: at the time that he lost his job, we had been living in the house exactly one year and one week. Our son still hasn't completed a full year in his new school. We have amazing neighbors and we're in a great part of town. This is a completely silly reason, but we bought the house so we could have friends, coworkers, and neighbors over for parties, and after a whole year we had yet to have a really great shindig.

The decision was easy: There are three new apartment complexes close to school, we keep in touch with our neighbors via facebook as much as we do in person, and honestly our whole town is pretty cool.

In the end one of the major factors that made us decide to list the house as quickly as possible was the knowledge that it had been on the market for over a year before we bought it. We know that it's the perfect house for a certain kind of family, now we just need that family to find this house.

You Need to Come Home Now

I had just finished a committee meeting at our son's school and was discussing lunch plans with the group when I got a phone call from my husband.

"You need to come home now."

I knew he had a meeting with Human Resources that morning, but this didn't sound good. I had walked to the school that morning, figuring that I could catch a ride home with one of the committee members, but when I looked around I realized everyone had already left. I put the phone away and started my walk home.

I'm not a patient person, so about 5 minutes into my walk I called him to ask what had happened. “They fired me.”

It's a good thing I was walking, because if I'd just been standing I probably would have fallen over. We'd moved across the country and had bought a new house in a new town barely more than a year ago for this job, and he had the only income in the family.

He went on, giving the details of his morning. What struck me was how the note of stress that had been present in his voice for months was completely gone. Gone. He sounded like a different man.

I finally got home and he looked like a different man. He'd been getting more and more serious as the budget cuts grew deeper and deeper. In front of me was my husband, but not the serious husband of the last year, but one who was laughing. To say I was surprised was an understatement.