Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Financial Update: Two (small) Steps Forward

I expected to feel elation. Joy. Or even relief.

I paid off the high-interest credit card. I got to click that button that says to pay the entire balance. I've been thinking about this day for weeks. In the days preceding, I was looking forward to the glee I expected to feel when it was done.

Instead, I felt (as the song goes) nothing. Except curious why I didn't feel more.

Maybe because last time, I felt too much elation and then deep despair when I had to use it again. While I feel fairly confident that won't happen again, I think that must be it. Not fear necessarily, but a need to keep vigilant.

There are a lot of family bdays coming up, and then the holidays. And the Car account, while not completely empty, is not quite plentiful, either. 

And a few weeks ago, I did something that might sound crazy. I finally upped the amount of my retirement contribution to get the full 4% match my employer offers, and that decreased my weekly take-home pay by $26. When you're living paycheck-to-paycheck, that makes a difference.

I've been avoiding this for too many years, though. I was losing a lot more money in the long run than $26/week. Still, the reality of the harsh difference reminds me that I still have a long way to go until I feel financially secure.

While in years past, I would've taken the amount budgeted for the high-interest credit card towards paying the remaining credit card, in my new plan, that's not the recommended path. Instead, I am using some towards building a Presents account, adding a little more to my grocery budget (a line item where we've been most likely to go over), and a little more to the Fun category.

See, here's the thing about only paying the minimum and not adding to the credit card balance. Eventually, that minimum decreases. At that point in time, I don't actually decrease the budgeted amount towards the credit card so that even this month, I'll be paying slightly more than the minimum. And my X has been a lot better lately about sending me child support, so I use some of that towards credit card debt which also helps.

By adding budget items, I am more likely to stay in budget and not add to my credit card. Especially with all the gift-giving that will be going on in the next few months, I will probably still dip into my savings, but at least it's not the credit card. I have recognized that my grocery budget wasn't high enough, so I'm funding that more appropriately. And, yes, I'm even treating us a little bit by adding to the "Fun" category (only $3 a week, but proportionately, I'm okay with that).

Progress may be slow, but I have now accomplished two important financial goals. By paying off one credit card and meeting the contribution match, I am starting to step slightly beyond merely paying bills on time. I am starting to build a financial future. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Tips for the Single Parent

In 10 years of single motherhood, there are lessons I have learned. Some of them, granted, everyone has to learn for themselves, but I also appreciated others before me who taught me by their own experiences. So while we celebrate #National Singles Week, this one's for my fellow single parents:

Don't look at single parenthood as a transitory state. Whether it may or not be is not the point. The point is, you and your child/ren cannot stop living life while you are a single parent. And this is one I learned the hard way. I kept waiting for something to happen until eventually, I realized that I had to make things happen. So I went back to school, and I researched alternative schools for my girls, and I planned events for the three of us to enjoy our lives now. I think that most days, most of the time, we can each say that we love our lives.

Be realistic about what you can accomplish. There is a lot of pressure on single parents to be and do absolutely everything for their children. You are still just one person, and in order to be the best parent you can be, you have to allow yourself some down time. We can and do perform daily miracles, but we have to know our limits, too. You are not a "bad" parent if you opt out of PTA meetings so that you can be home with your children, or you can't take your kid to a birthday party because of your work schedule. And guess what? You're not even a bad parent if you miss the science fair! I missed one once, and while Sylvia does remember that, she also remembers all the times that I was there. Yes, we want to be there for every special moment, but I reconciled it for myself by remembering that we are indeed separate people. I may not always be there for everything physically, but my heart is always with her.

Your child will misbehave. Because they are children. Not because you're a single parent. I definitely threw myself on the cross more than a few times in the first few years, telling myself that none of this would happen if they had two parents. Which, of course, now I look back and just shake my head. All children push parents' buttons. It's their job! And it's our job to muscle through and deal.

Ignore the vampires. In [title of show], there's this great song ("Die Vampire, Die") which describes the naysayers as vampires because they attempt to suck the hope and joy out of our lives. There will always be people who don't get it. Don't waste your time and energy (which are both limited with our lifestyle) trying to convince them to validate your life or your family. There are so many better ways to use that time and energy. Like, playing Words with Friends or sleeping. I mean, almost anything else is a better use of your time!

When it all gets to be too much, get out of your own head. Your feelings are absolutely valid, and I am the first to say cry it out or see a therapist or talk to a friend about how frustrated or lost or alone you feel when you feel that way. But eventually, you have to get out of your own way and the best way to do so is to be there for someone else. And I don't mean your children. I mean, volunteer for a charity.  Or help a friend move or write a resume or just listen to them talk about their lives. Helping someone else is the most powerful reminder of the vastness of the world and our part in it. Single parents have an enormous capacity to be there for other people. And sometimes, we have to give of ourselves elsewhere to be better parents at home.

Finally, don't forget to celebrate! Celebrate #singles week, celebrate getting to work on time, celebrate when your checkbook balances. I mean, don't go overboard and buy yourself a gift you can't afford, but at least smile. Revel in your kid's laughter and the beauty of your child sleeping peacefully and the quiet soft love in holding their hand. Listen to music you love while you wash the dishes and make their lunches. Celebrate their milestones, and your own.

You probably don't hear this often enough, so come back here and let me be the one to tell you, you're doing a great job.

Monday, September 16, 2013

National Singles Week 2013

I'm thrilled to once again participate in National Singles Week (Sept. 15 - 21). 

A few months ago, I had the honor of meeting Bella De Paulo, arguably this nation's foremost expert on singles issues. I am thankful that she always has the info to fight those certain stereotypes against singles and single moms. Please go to her site, buy her books, and learn about why these issues are important in her post kicking off the week.

Singles issues aren't just for people like me that relish in their single lifestyle. Bella's research has shown that more Americans live the majority of their lives as a single person than as a married person. It affects all of us at one time or another so I love being a part of #singles week.

I've already written plenty of times about why I love being single, so I should address when it's not so great. But just like with everything else in life, you don't have to be great at doing everything alone to like being single.

For most people, the scariest part of being single is being alone. I will admit that I still don't feel comfortable dining alone in public and I avoid it. And really, it hasn't been an issue. It's cheaper to eat at home anyway. Most days at work, I bring my lunch and eat at my desk. Which isn't as bad as it sounds. I search for Broadway videos and always end up smiling. Otherwise, I eat lunch with friends or at committee meetings for the non-profits I support.

There are certainly times when I feel like the odd man out. At work, the majority of my colleagues are married. Most of the time, it's not an issue, but there are times when I feel like the odd woman out. Still, they are short-lived and certainly not the only times of discomfort in my life. And most definitely not enough of a reason to search for a relationship that I don't really want.

I suppose the most annoying thing of all is the conception that being single is a transitory state. And I think it annoys me most of all because I was also guilty of believing that for a very long time.

When I first started googling for single mom support groups or single mom bloggers, the focus was mainly on dating sites and government assistance. I stopped using Google Ads and changed my profile because saying I was "single" meant the ads were all focused on becoming un-single. Somewhere along the way, I found Bella and others that delivered what I was really searching for: a community that wasn't trying to change my status.

Other sites celebrating National Singles Week: Onely, The Spinsterlicious Life, and Unmarried Equality.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

6 years later...

I'm still a blogger.

Maybe not as frequently, but I'm still here. 

Today is my 6 year blog anniversary!

I've done several posts already reflecting how grateful I am to be part of the blogosphere, so I won't dwell. I'll just blog.

Continuing my financial update...

When summer began, since I didn't have to allot $$ for the girls' school lunches anymore, I made both a "Sylvia"  and "Riley" line item to my budget. They also get a portion of the child support that I receive from X if and when he sends it. I knew that since I was producing the musical, and still working full-time, I would be gone from before 8 a.m. and get home close to 10 p.m. every weeknight. Which meant there'd be little time or energy left for household duties.

Previously, I've tried to pay the girls per chore, but it was just too much trouble. Instead, we made a deal that they would each get $20 per week for doing pretty much everything I told them to do.

I didn't have to do laundry all summer, and man, that was heaven for me! They also did dishes and other daily tasks, which was a big help. And they didn't use all their cash.

I've sat down and shown each of them my Magic Little Notebook so that they understand how I keep track of everything. They would ask for $10 here and there to go to the movies or eat out, but they both did a great job of keeping their own notebooks to track their "accounts."  Mind you, I did not tell either of them to do so; they just did it on their own. (Proving, once again, they learn from our actions and not our words.)

I also explained to them that some things were going to have to come from their accounts, like new school clothes and supplies. They both did an excellent job of finding things that they really liked that fit within their budgets. They also learned the actual cost of going out after a performance, since I would allot their portion of the bills from their accounts. They grumbled a little at first, but understood. 

I used to worry that I was running out of time to teach them these kinds of money lessons. Turns out that just being open with them about our household finances and involving them did a lot more than I expected. 

Sylvia wasn't crazy about the fact that I did take some of the costs of her art supplies (which ended up totaling $255) from her account, but after reminding her that I spent three times more than she did, she has accepted it. She tends to let her account dip very low, so I've implemented a rule that they can only take out half of what they have. (She wanted to spend her last $20 so I told her she had to wait until the following week when she would have another $20 in there.)

Riley started saving of her own volition because she wants to buy a laptop, so she only takes out small amounts.

We depleted my Miscellanous, Fun and Dining Out buckets almost completely going out with friends after shows and grabbing a bite on the way to the theatre, but we are slowly working, one paycheck at a time, to build them back up. At least it didn't go on the credit card, which again, is better than last summer! We'll see where we are next summer, and just hope it continues on the upward trend.

Thanks for being here to help me celebrate 6 years of blogging! Hope to still be here next year, too.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Financial Update: The Car Saga Part Umpteen

I've written many times before how maintaining my car has been a major stumbling block in my hopes and dreams of getting out of debt.

I've been working my new financial plan for about 6 months now and the real test came last week when it was time for another oil change/maintenance check/smog certification.

After a few weeks of working the new plan, I figured out that any money left over in the car budget every week should stay there. For just these occasions. Since I didn't have to make the commute for the girls' schools over the summer, that money added up. I knew I had over $800 and that would pay for the expected costs (he'd already warned me I would need struts - or something. To tell you the truth, I zone out on the actual words and just focus on the amount, which had been quoted around $500) and my smog check, but one never knows. Or, at least, I don't.

I think he was really surprised to hear my sheer delight when the amount came to $620. Not only could I pay that, I can also still pay for the car registration and still have a little left over in the Car bucket! That is the first time in ten years that I've been able to pay a bill like that completely out-of-pocket.

I'm telling you, this budgeting thing works.

Now, I'm still keeping a realistic outlook. I'm already concerned about the next one since I am back to the commute and won't be able to accumulate quite as much in the Car bucket as quickly. And right after that, I ended up having to take $200 out of my savings to pay for Sylvia's art supplies. Every time I get just past one-month's worth of living expenses saved, something happens where I have to dip in there. But last year at this time, both of those types of expenditures would've gone on the credit card.

I have not used either of my credit cards in over 6 months. My monthly minimum just dropped $50 on my highest balance credit card (with the lowest interest rate), and I am less than $100 away from paying off my high interest rate credit card completely. Again, I know, but I think this time it really might be for good.

Another big change. I finally had a friggin' "a-ha" moment which I should've had a year ago. I'm lucky enough to work for a company that offers educational reimbursement. But it is reimbursement. I have to pay for the classes, the books and all that up front, and then after I finish the class and get my grade, I can submit for reimbursement.

In the past, I have used that $$ towards credit card payments and stuff, but then, I finally got smart and put it away in another account entirely and then, used it to pay for this semester's costs. I feel incredibly stupid that it took me this long to figure that out, but at least I did and that's another expense that got put on the credit card last year that I was able to pay out-of-pocket this year. (And this should be my penultimate semester.)

There's more to say about working this plan, what the girls learned about $$ this summer, and such, but this post is long enough as is!