Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Financial Literacy Month: Changing My Financial Attitude

I've been watching The Suze Orman Show for a few years now, and credit her greatly for getting me on a better financial track. So I was surprised when I found myself disagreeing with her recently.

A caller asked whether or not they should use an account that had been gifted to them to pay off their credit cards. Suze's answer was based on interest rates, which, sure, makes financial sense, but I was surprised Suze didn't explore how the credit card debt had been incurred in the first place.

After having been there, done that, at least three times in the past 10 years, I know that just using a large chunk of money to pay off credit card debt doesn't mean I'll never incur credit card debt again.

And that's been the biggest change in my financial attitude recently.

As much as I've wanted to believe "never again," the biggest financial hurdle has been having to do things I never wanted to do again.

In November of last year, when I had to charge my car repairs again, I was thoroughly bummed out about it. Then, right after the holidays, I had to pay for my textbooks, another expensive item that could only be charged. I felt like I was right back where I had been three years ago, and that did not feel good at all.

It completely wiped out all the joy and freedom I'd felt just a month before, when slowly but surely, I paid down a balance the hard way...one paycheck at a time.

I started looking into second jobs or freelance work - not really viable when I only have about an hour to myself daily a few times a week. But then school started, I was busy with that and my non-profit stuff and work and kids, and I just resigned myself to being in credit card debt for the rest of my life.

I was pretty sure I'd be putting even more on the credit card during my trip last month, but then I came upon the Magic Little Notebook method. While I did take some out of my savings, I also took some out of other weekly budgeting items that I would not be needing since I was out of town, and came up with an overall budget, plus a daily spending plan for my 6 days away.

I would check my progress every night. The first day, I spent less than I had budgeted, which meant I could spend more for the rest of my trip. Same for the second day, and then again, the third. I went the entire week without incurring any credit card debt.

My progress is slow, for sure, but what's most important is getting used to not using the plastic crutch. And also changing my attitude so that if I do need to use it, I don't get completely bummed out and fall into a vicious overspending cycle.

Interestingly, on that same show, Suze said her show is more about relationships than just money. I totally agree. I am working on changing my relationship with money. I am working on feeling like I am in control of my credit card debt, rather than letting my debt control me. I am working on feeling powerful over my own paycheck, rather than feeling powerless over the money that goes out. I have long taken pride in being able to pay my bills on time, and now I can take pride in watching my savings (finally!) start to grow at the same time the credit card bills decrease. And, we shall see that, if the next time I have to use the plastic for a bill that's bigger than what I have, I can at least feel grateful that I have the credit card as an option.

There will always be those with a lot more than what we have, and I'm good at not trying to keep up with them. What I need to work on is recognizing that we have a lot more than others, and all things considered, we're doing pretty okay.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Budgeting Update: Financial Literacy Month

I've been using the debt-free Magic Little Notebook for over a month now, and the best thing I am getting out of it is how to change my attitude so that I can continue to (1) pay off my debt, a little at a time, (2) build up my savings, a little at a time, and (3) play with my budget when I find myself straying.

I have already revised my budget items a few times. Beyond merely just building up my savings account, I am attempting to create cushions in the areas where I know expenses will only continue to go up faster and greater than an annual salary increase.

For instance, I started off budgeting my usual $80/week in gas - the amount I was spending when CA gas prices were at their highest. While I'm not spending that now,  I wanted to make sure I kept it at a level that I might have to spend, since we don't have any alternatives to our daily commute.

For the first couple of weeks, I took the excess and funded other more fun areas of the budget. But then I realized, I should re-name this line item "Car" so any amount over actual gas can start going towards car maintenance and repairs. Most likely, I will still have to dip into my savings from time to time, but hopefully not as much as I start to build that amount.

Speaking of savings, I can't explain exactly how it happened, since I only budget $25 a week for savings, but I still managed to grow my savings by $200 in one month. That even includes a momentary lapse where I put something on my credit card!

The very next day, I felt so bad about it that I transferred the $50 I'd spent to my credit card from my savings. I've previously used a lapse as an excuse to just keep spending blindly, but by being able to pay it off immediately, I felt like I really hadn't lost any ground and could just keep going.

There is one line item amount where I go over every week, my Dining Out category. On any day that I don't have lunch plans, I bring my lunch but, being a single working mother, lunch is usually the easiest plan to make with friends, and I sometimes have meetings related to my Board commitments at lunch time. I just can't resist it.

While I ask myself every week (around the time that I go over) if I should just increase that line item, I manage to find the amount I've gone over somewhere else. Other categories are over-funded to a certain extent because I divide monthly bills into 4 weeks and there will be a few bucks left over here and there or because my gas or electric bill aren't as high. So I leave the Dining Out category amount as is, and then just find the money (but not from the Car line item).

I am learning to resist from time to time. There was a recent lunch event that I was invited to, but I knew it would go way beyond my Dining Out budget. Not just a few dollars, but like double the amount. So I declined, and said that my budgeting wouldn't allow it. No one tried to coax me to change my mind, nor did they make me feel embarrassed about it. The truth was accepted by everyone, but most importantly, by me.

And while it's not a lot, I'm paying at least $15 more than the minimum required for both of my credit cards. If I just keep paying the same amount I've budgeted without adding to the balance, eventually that will turn into $20 more, then $25 more, etc. I'm still not convinced I will ever not have a credit card balance, but that realism should help me (not literally) die a little less next time I have to use a credit card.
I am also building the "Fun" and "Miscellaneous" categories. They are great to have when Riley needs new uniform pants or we want to buy an iTunes song. Still, I am most proud that I am funding them more than I'm taking from them. I just need to make sure that stays the case as much as possible. 

There are still some things that frighten me - like having to pay a car payment or buying Sylvia a prom dress. I'm skeptical that my turtle-like time table will be quick enough for what may came up. But there's only so much I can do, and there's only so much I can stress about the unknown.

For the past month or so, nearly every day, I feel like I am making the right decisions and doing the best I can with what we have.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Balancing Work and Single Parenting

BigLittleWolf posted about a single mom who is looking for advice on how to manage her work life with life as a single parent - without the other parent around. I don't mean to hijack her post, and I strongly recommend anyone looking for such advice should go read all of the thoughtful comments that have been left - and add your own.

It did get me thinking about my first few weeks with my brand new employer, post-separation/cross-country move.

I was on a long-term temp assignment, with the potential for permanent employment so of course, I was eager to please and impress.

Just before the end of a workday, one of my bosses gave me an assignment I was to tackle first thing the next morning and have reviewed by another lawyer in the department. I was so excited for the opportunity!

Of course, the next day, before I could get to work, I got a call from the day care center that Riley (not yet 3 at the time) was sick and needed to be picked up.

While I had moved back to L.A. to be close to my parents for their support, on this day, neither could help. My dad was in a deposition, and my mom wasn't available, either.

I was so bummed when I had to call in and say that someone else would have to complete the assignment, and I was really afraid that I'd just blown my chances. They said it was fine, but I still felt like I let them down.

It did take another week or so before I was given such an opportunity again, but eventually, I was hired on permanently, and five years later, promoted.

While there were other instances where I had to miss work for a child's illness or had to leave early or take a long lunch to be there for the girls, thankfully, almost everyone in our department also had children and understood.

Someone said in the comments of BLW's post that if your employer doesn't understand, they might not be the right employer for you. While I agree with that wholeheartedly, I also know that we aren't always lucky enough to have options.

Just keep showing up, and be fully present. There will be times when you can chat (and hopefully bond) with colleagues about your kids, but you should not be the one to bring it up if you're starting a new job as a new single parent. I had heard horror stories about single parent discrimination in the workplace, so I was sure to keep my focus on the tasks at hand.

While I made it clear at the beginning that I would have to end my workday at 5 p.m. to pick up the girls from child care in time, I tried to give my all up until 5 p.m. And there were times I asked my parents to pick the girls up if I knew it was important to my boss, and my boss appreciated that.

Just the other day, one of the lawyers was talking about how he thinks of things he needs to do at home while at work, and vice versa. I realized quickly that I couldn't do that. I could only do well, both at my job and as a parent, if I was focused on what was in front of me.

I was recently featured in the mom.me article, 9 Secrets of Busy Moms, and I talked about how I can't multi-task. That goes hand in hand with being fully present.

Of course, there are times when I have to answer a work-related email while with the kids, or one of the girls will call me when I'm at work. It's not that they don't blend together ever, of course, and you have to prioritize the urgent and time-sensitive matters (both at work and at home). But for the most part, I have learned that I'm more efficient and can achieve better balance when I stay focused on accomplishing one thing at a time.

And if you are stuck in a dead-end job with people who don't understand, keep looking for a new one! Finding a great place to work has been a key factor for me in feeling like I have crossed the threshold from surviving to thriving as a single parent.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Where the Boys Aren't

I generally don't enter the dance studio where Sylvia assistant teaches on Saturdays because the kids are younger, which means the lobby is full of parents and siblings. But on this day, I had to sign for her costumes, and so I went in. And I felt my heart sinking and my blood pressure rising all at once.

My heart sank as I watched the boy playing a video game while his sister got exercise. My heart sank for the boy crying from boredom, who might have had a blast in the studio, jumping and turning. My heart sank as the TV monitor showed all the dance classes currently in session, with only girls in attendance.

I was extremely frustrated with these parents, mothers and fathers, who seemed to think it was all perfectly fine for only their female offspring to participate in dance.

Having been in the theatre world since I was six, I can tell you with unqualified certainty that there is a place for boys in a dance studio. And not just in the hip-hop class. In tap, jazz, contemporary, and yes, ballet class, too.

Now I'm sure some will want to tell me that the boy probably participates in sports, and therefore, is fine. It's not the same thing.

In the sports world, there are winners and losers.

In the theatre world, everyone on that stage has worked together to make for a successful opening night.

In the sports world, the opportunities for players to thrive starts dwindling in high school, and only a select few actually get to make a living in their dream field.

In the theatre world, we are always looking for brilliant male dancers. No, you won't get every part, but you will at least get more opportunities.

I have tried to make this point to parents of sons, who claim that the dads wouldn't hear of it, or dismiss it in a way that sounds like they think I don't understand because I have daughters.  As a mother of daughters, I am supposed to tell my girls that they can do anything boys can do, but parents of sons don't have to do the same?

If we want things to be different, then it can't always simply be up to the mothers of daughters to take on the task. Parents of sons have a role in this as well.

Now, of course I know there are some male dancers out there. If you're a parent of such, then this doesn't apply to you. And there are some genres where males are more socially permissible than others, but dancers who are well-versed in ballet or contemporary have the advantage of stronger technique and to deny a dancer that is limiting their future.

And yes, I even know the stereotypes of male dancers, and many who fit that bill. But the only way to change that stereotype is to have more male dancers, period! I simply do not care what their preference is, but if you are stopping your son from dancing for that reason, then frankly, that says more about you than it does about your son or dance.

And I am not saying every boy has to dance, either. But if you are signing your daughter up for dance, and you have a son as well, then let them both dance. Or, if your son shows no interest in soccer, consider a dance class instead.

Now that I'm back in the theatre world, I can tell you as a producer, we would love to see your son at our next audition!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Taking Care

I'm trying not to watch too much coverage of the explosions in Boston today. While of course my heart goes out to the families affected by what happened, and I want to know what happened, I have no power over any of that.

I can be there for my girls. I can keep doing what I need to do every day to end my day knowing I've done all I can today.

I will, as always, revel in the time I have with friends and family.

I will keep myself informed on what happened, and what I can do to help those harmed.

I will do what I can to take care of myself and my loved ones. 

I will not live in fear, but take comfort in the daily routines of living the fullest life I can. 

Today, like every day, that's all we can do. Today, like every day, I have to balance the day's events with everything else in life.

I hope you take care of yourself and your loved ones, today and every day. Take care.

What This Parent Wishes to tell Teachers

Circle of Moms had a feature article by Amanda Morin entitled What Teachers Wish They Could Tell Parents. I find this ironic since it seems like I'm always hearing from teachers what they want from parents, and often in this type of "lecture" set-up with little opportunity for teachers to hear back from parents.

Whether or not you want it, here is one parent's response:

1. Morin wrote, "Dealing with parents is sometimes more difficult than working with students." My reply: "Dealing with teachers can be more difficult than dealing with my own child." I do not have the benefit of having been in the classroom when you assigned the homework or project. Even with your emails or online grade book (which not every teacher uses), I still wasn't in the classroom with my child and sometimes even when I try to help, I either can't because I don't remember the formula, or what I'm trying to explain is different than what you explained. And, sometimes, it is difficult to deal with my own children. Maybe your family life is perfect, but ours isn't, and the mother-daughter dynamics definitely can interfere with us having smooth communication all the time. And often, it's at its worst when we're working against a project/homework deadline.

2. Morin wrote, "The 'I wish I had a job that gave me June, July, and August off' comment gets old, fast." My reply, "While I realize teachers don't have summers off, I am not necessarily "off" every night, either." I get a little tired of the sanctimonious "I'm so busy" attitude that I hear from a lot of teachers, like they're the only ones with a demanding job. I work full-time, go to school part-time, volunteer my time for three different non-profit organizations, commute 3 hours a day, and am a full-time single mom. I'm not asking for your sympathy, but I don't necessarily have any to give to you, either.

Even more importantly than that, I am not always available to play the role of teacher's assistant while my daughters are doing homework. I don't always have the money in my budget to buy project supplies. I would like a more active role in deciding what my family does during non-school hours.

3. Morin wrote,  "Parents do not understand that their child isn't the only one in the classroom at one time." My reply, "Teachers do not understand that I have more than one child, and many other responsibilities, too." Actually, I am aware that there is more than my child in the class because I'm not totally stupid, but thanks for your condescension. At the same time, it's my job as my child's parent to be their advocate for that very reason. In this situation, you're the professional, and you're the one expected to act like one. I get to take this personally, because it is personal to my child.  I'm the mama bear and when necessary, I will act like one.

4. Morin wrote, "So much emphasis is placed on testing that we forget why we are really there." My reply, "We feel the same way." Look, we can get caught up in it too, at times, but much of that comes from the same place as you. We're trying to understand the impact on our own children and their futures. I feel like the only ones winning in this battle are the select few multi-billion dollar companies that make the tests. Wouldn't it be amazing if parents and teachers all came together and did something to change it?

5. Morin wrote, "The truth is we are overworked, underpaid, [and] frequently disrespected." My reply, "The truth is we are overworked, underpaid, [and] frequently disrespected." Yes, we feel exactly the same way. Do you actually think that our children respect and appreciate all that we parents do for them? Do you not realize that most of us are also living paycheck-to-paycheck? That we're going to school or working multiple jobs? And the majority of the time, all we hear from schools and teachers are all the things we're doing wrong as parents, and being ordered to stand in lines and wait patiently, help our children with homework we had no say in assigning, and fundraise, fundraise, fundraise.

And here's what I would like for all parents and teachers to realize.

If parents and teachers worked together as partners in education, we might actually be able to make a difference. 

We all chose this. We chose to become parents or teachers, and it's not all sunshine and lollipops for any of us. But the more we bicker at each other, the more our students/children lose.

Yes, there are bad parents. Yes, there are bad teachers. But I still have to believe that a lot more of us are trying to be the best parents and best teachers that we can. Instead of blaming each other, we have to start working together.

We have the same common goals. We have similar obstacles. If we played on the same side, we might actually make a positive difference for everyone. And I truly believe that quality education is the best tool there is for changing the world for the better.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The 40th Birthday Post

Other than the decade-early postcard from AARP, I'm feeling pretty good about turning forty!

I'm reminded of my 30th birthday, where I ended up crying at the end of the night. It had been an okay day, but there was no area of my life that wasn't in complete shambles.

I'd told my husband it was over a couple of months before that, but we were still in Rochester, and I was waiting for Sylvia to finish kindergarten before we moved back to L.A. I liked my job, but my boss was a nightmare. I knew I was going to have to live with my parents (at 30!) and start completely over again. I had only enough money to take the cross-country flight, no car, and no job prospects.

Turning 30 had been the impetus for making some drastic changes, but I had no idea where I'd end up.

Here I am, ten years later, in a fairly quiet, but completely full life.

A few years before turning 30, as a stay-at-home mom in Pittsburgh, I thought about starting a blog, but I never had the guts. A few years after hitting that reset button on my life, I just did it already. I know that starting this blog has played a huge part in finding my confidence again, but I had no idea how many wonderful people it would bring into my life. 

I really wasn't sure if theatre would ever be a part of my life again, and here I am, in the midst of producing a musical.

I'm in a job that I love, working with people I love, and I go home to a teenager and nearly teenager that actually want to hug me and tell me they love me daily.

Things are not perfect. There aren't enough hours in the day, budgeting is important, and sometimes it scares me how much I still need to teach the girls before they're off. But I had no idea, 10 years ago, that I would be loving my life as much as I am, and I'm so glad that I didn't waste another 10 years!

I have no idea where I'll be 10 years from now, but I do know that if little has changed, that would be pretty great. And 10 years from now, I'll even be okay with getting another mailing from AARP!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Only Actual Single Parents are Actually Single Parents

This has come up from time to time, and Michelle Obama's gaffe has made this an issue once again. Maybe some of us make single parenting look too good sometimes, I guess, because it seems everyone wants to call themselves one!

To be clear, if you are married to (or still in a relationship with) your child's other parent, you are NOT a single parent.

I don't care how many hours they work or how often they travel, they are spending their hours doing what's in your child(ren)'s best interest, as you are. You can still email, Skype, text or otherwise communicate openly about your children and your feelings about how you're parenting. You may disagree (and sometimes, from what others tell me, I appreciate that I don't have to get anyone else's approval or buy-in), but you know that even when you disagree, you both love your children and would do anything for them.

Single parents, whether divorced or by choice, do not have that. While I know that co-parenting is all the rage, and some do it quite well, it is still not the same as what married couples have. (Otherwise, I'm guessing, they probably wouldn't be divorced.)

I can't speak for all single parents, but I can say, as a divorced mom with full-time, sole legal custody, I cannot relate to you married mothers who try to tell me that you get it because your husband's out of town for a week or a month, or even a year. Sure, we might be able to relate on having to be two places at once, but you cannot relate to having no one who loves and cares for your children like you do.

One of the main reasons I divorced my husband was because he couldn't do that. He couldn't put their needs before his. I never had that, so I don't know what it feels like, and I could be suffering from my own delusion of the grass being greener, but it does sound pretty good. It wasn't the lack of his physical presence, but the loss of moral and emotional support that put me into therapy.

I'm not trying to say who has it better or worse, but I wish the married moms had more appreciation for what you do have. (And I'm guessing your spouse/partner doesn't like when you call yourself a "sometimes single parent," either.)

I don't know what to say when women complain about their husbands because they spent too much money on a present, or tried to solve a problem instead of just empathize, or forgot to pick up the dry cleaning. I know I'll sound like I'm trying to play the "woe is me" card if I say anything that tries to remind them that those problems are the good kinds of problems to have, but at the same time, it's bothersome to me to see women not appreciate just what good men they have in their lives.

And if you don't have that? Then maybe you really are a single parent, and I will be there with my moral and emotional support (and my therapist's number).

But if your spouse is merely physically absent, we can bond about how to overcome the challenges of too few hours in a day and being outnumbered, so long as you understand...and appreciate...the moral support of your spouse.