Budget sacrifices

We have a couple gifting occasions coming up this summer. Normally I don’t give it a whole lot of thought – if it’s a wedding I go to their registry, pick something out, order it, ship it, done. If it’s a baby shower, I do the same thing. If it’s a baby announcement, though, I like to go to some baby explosion store and buy some cute wearable. Because it’s a baby and they have amazingly cute, tiny things. And it’s remains a novelty for me to shop for tiny things.

Essentially, I make giving gifts all about me in the convenience and fun factor. Plus buying from a registry ensures the couple or parents get what they want or need, and the post delivery baby gift selection is typically functional as well as ridiculously cute. At my core I am pretty practical.

I never think about whether I’m being cheap or anything else. I typically have a budget range in mind that depends on who the person is in my life, their own circumstances, etc. In my mind gifts should be given and accepted graciously with little or no thought to cost. Of course, I am a complete Pollyanna who truly believes it is the thought that counts.

Lately here, discussion in my own life about weddings and baby showers are coming up more and more, and there seems to be a great debate over how much to spend on a gift. With 2 kids having weddings last year, apparently I should be more in the know about this stuff? Nope, not this mom of both a bride and a groom. The kids are adults, capable of handling their own gifting and financial affairs, and frankly the biggest concern I had was being the mother of “those kids” who did not write their thank you notes in a timely manner. Thankfully, both of mine got theirs done within a month of their weddings.

Sorry friends, I’m the last person you know to ask if a gift makes you look cheap. If you put some thought – even if the extent of the thought was to check their registry and select something – it counts. A few years back a client’s son was getting married and when I checked the registry, a single piece of their china was over $100, crystal was expensive as well. I felt weird giving a coffee cup or salad plate, so I wandered over to towels and such and purchased a set of towels that happened to be on sale. It was a registry item; obviously that’s what they wanted. I didn’t blow my budget and got them something they indicated they desired. My work is done.

This comes up periodically because I work with younger folk, many with a lot of student loan debt hanging over their heads and influencing their choices in jobs and career pathways. Something like gifts for a wedding and a shower can be major budget busters. One of my associates was recently asked to be a bridesmaid. She immediately said yes but is now having serious reservations about the idea once she began adding up the costs. There is an engagement party, so that means a gift. A shower gift, a wedding gift, the dress and shoes and jewelry, the bachelorette party, and it’s also a destination wedding. Ugh. I would have been tempted to say no to the invitation out of budget constraint, but I’m also middle aged and if my friends are getting married now, they are more far less concerned with the modern day wedding experience.

When is enough I wonder? I don’t know. I had the minimalist experience with my daughter last year and then the more modern tradition with my son. Both turned out beautifully and all parties are happy. My daughter had the small courthouse wedding she wanted, my son and daughter-in-law had the wedding of the decade (it was so much fun). The work leading up to the bigger wedding event was enormous, but that was what they wanted, so that’s what they had. I think they did a good job of managing costs and expectations, but it was still an expensive event. I also think it helps enormously that G and K are reasonable people – no -zillas that I saw or heard about – and were able to work with their friends to make the important parts of the wedding happen.

But I still know a lot of folks who worry about appearances. I suggest to my peeps that living within your means always looks good, but when you are a young attorney saddled with debt, most people only look at the profession and make the assumption that passing the bar automatically equates to healthy salaries. Perhaps, but when you factor in long hours, living expenses, and the burden of 5 to 6 figure students loan debt, they healthy salary sudden feels a lot like minimum wage.

This does not mean feel sorry for the well educated young professional, they have such a rough life. But it does mean that their lives are not so rapturously golden because they have a law degree and a professional job.

Once upon a time I was a budget coach, in that I helped people figure out their income and expenses and all the live they were presently living and really could not afford. It was some of the worst and most painful work of my life. Going through it myself was bad enough; trying to help people understand that their “needs” did not equate to cable television, 2 cars (with car payments), new electronics every year, etc. was a huge challenge. Once they realized they would have to give up most of if not all of their wants to pay down their debt, they wanted to get out debt as quickly as possible, which meant unsustainable budgets and more month than money and having to hit the credit card again for basic living expenses.

It was an ugly cycle.

I rarely do that kind of thing anymore. Dave Ramsey has getting out of debt pretty well covered if someone is serious about taking those steps. But chatting with my associate and her stress about the minimal expenses and bridesmaid obligations saddens me. Her heart is in the right place, her friend is her best friend since childhood. But the expenses are going to pile up and she is not going to be able to afford a cup of coffee for the next 7 months unless she diverts any bonuses (90% of which have been used to pay down her student loans) for the wedding expenses.

At least she has options; few people get work bonuses. Small comfort when she is trying so desperately to relieve herself of the debt burden.

Hard choices, difficult conversations ahead. But no, I don’t think she looks cheap for not wanting to spend thousands to be in her dear friend’s wedding. And yes, I do think her friend should understand if she says she cannot afford to be a bridesmaid and attend a wedding in Hawaii. If anything, I wish everyone were as disciplined and as driven to break out of debt enslavement. Law school was worth it, and student loans felt like her only choice at the time. I don’t care about that; what’s done is done. But I very much respect her smart choices now and the sacrifices that may have to be made to slay that dragon.

I am very proud of her, no matter what happens next. I advised she be true to herself, her values and priorities. True friends will understand or work with her to make it happen.

Death and financial train wrecks – different types of devastation

While the post title sounds like related issues, in fact they are two separate soundtracks running through my thoughts the past few days. Nothing pretty to see here, so if you are looking for my usual glitter-bombing unicorn outlook, this may be the post to skip.

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours with my client who lost his 13-year-old son last week; the young man took his own life. While he is a client, most of my self-employment clients are people I consider friends as well, the business just another anecdotal box of experiences we happen to share. Understandably, he is completely broken, destroyed by what has happened. That little boy was the sun and moon and stars in his world, and now he’s gone. Interlaced with grief, though, is this intense, white-hot anger from the circumstances that may time will cool and bring peace. I am not an especially religious person; I offer no platitudes about better places and safe from harm. As a mother who has been through the grief that comes with the death of a beloved child, such statements tend to piss me off even as I know that my children are only on loan, they are meant to grow up and become independent beings well outside my scope of control and direction. But 12, 13 – it is way too soon. Please do not ever suggest to me it’s God’s will, or it’s part of a bigger plan, or they are happier in their place in Heaven. Fuck that shit. Our children – we are good parents; our children should be her on earth with us, getting awkward and hormonal, getting angry and screaming at us, assured in how little we know and growing up into people who again like and respect us for the mere mortals we are as they mature into adulthood and realized that their parents are imperfect, do not have all the answers, but try their best.

In a lot of real and direct experience ways, I am someone who understands. I listened and pretended not to notice when he cried. There are no words of comfort in these situations, and sometimes it is only human warmth that makes us feel less alone and lonely with our tragic losses. As I still think to this day, when there are no words, hugs speak volumes.

Into this profoundly emotional and poignant time with one slice of my life, comes all the bullshit and pettiness of small-ball problems. Comparatively speaking, anyway. There are no universal bandaids that remove physic pain and perceived injustice, and sometimes my patience with those who want to escalate petty grievances into something bigger, badder, much more complicated and time-consuming – let’s just say I’m short and dismissive. Every person I know who works or has any type of relationship with expectation of performance and results has similar stories of such disagreements and less motivated, less first-choice options for bosses, coworkers, worked hired out. So I know I am not the only manager at any level in the world having to deal with people and their problems. And I also know what is a Very Big Deal to them is smaller than small-ball to me. Most of the time, I try to deal with them professionally and compassionately, even while telling them to grow up and get real.

In other words, more drama in the office. And it is not that I don’t care – I care very much, particularly as it impacts perceptions about me and my performance of my job functions – but when you are dealing with a slice of pirated information (salaries) and without complete context, the leg you’re standing on is kind of weak and shaking. When it comes up, I will deal with it. Right now, my head is filled with thoughts of death.

And I hate it.

I hate that my client and friend is suffering so miserably. I hate that another dear friend is thousands of miles away and alone and facing a procedure on his brain. I don’t think it’s just me that gets nervous when people speak of brain surgery, and to not be able to be present and there at this time – it’s really, really hard. While telling myself thousands of times daily that it will be fine, he will be fine, I cannot get my mind to buy the reassurances. Sometimes being a “hope for the best, imagine the worst” version of Pollyanna does not work out all that well for me.

Truthfully, I cannot imagine my life without him somewhere in it. M is far more stoic than I am, thankfully, but even he has his reservations and concerns. It’s BRAIN surgery, and no matter how normal and routine it might be for the surgeon and the specialized team of doctors and nurses, this is someone we love and it is a world-class BIG DEAL to the rest of us sitting on the sidelines and metaphorically wringing our hands and trying not to be consumed with worry.

So yeah, head is kind of stuffed to overflowing out my ears with thoughts of death and what life is like imagining and trying to shut off the imaginings of life after the worst.

Ugh.

Another of my clients asked begged (his term, not mine) me to work with his niece on her finances. I thought it would be relatively straight-forward; after all, my client is very intelligent and sensible, his sister (the referral’s mother) seems the same in the times we have met. I figured at worse she would have student loan debt and need some help with her budgeting.

Oh my, I was so very wrong.

We met yesterday, and after 30 minutes of discussing the state of her life, I put away the green tea I was drinking and order the fully caffeinated, full-sugar version of a coffee-flavored milk drink to fortify myself. It is quite ugly.

She is a college graduate with degrees in chemistry and literature. Her parents paid for college so no student loan debt. Her home was gifted to her from her grandmother along with just over 6 figures in cash. She is employed in the local hospital system, which brings to mind decent wage and benefits. The car she drove up in a later model Camray – nothing fancy or flashy. While she is telling me all this, I am listening and nodding and thinking she needs a financial planner more than she needs a budget coach.

Then she pulls out the sheaf of check stubs, bank statements, credit card bills. I am still thinking, okay, everyone gets into trouble with credit cards; it’s almost a right of passage. I can help her, I’m sure.

It is with the documents that the real story comes out and why her mother and uncle asked me to talk with her and see if I can help her out.

This girl is 29, working at a job that pays about $42K per year, because she only works part-time (20 hours per week) by choice. There is a maxed out line of credit on her paid-off home, she has less than $500 in the bank, and an astonishing amount of credit card debt racked up in just a few years. On top of which – before inheriting her home and money, she had declared bankruptcy because of other credit card debt accrued in college.

I asked her how all this debt came about and got some pretty vague answers about shopping and paying for a couple of fender benders to keep them off her insurance and travel and charitable giving. I asked what happened to her inheritance, and got similar responses, with the addition of … plastic surgery. Did I mention she is turning 30 in a couple of months?

Ugh. Financial train wreck? More like mushroom cloud of financial devastation.

While I suspected this was going to be a huge challenge, I valiantly tried to help her.

Does she have a budget? Yes, but she routinely runs out of money and has to use her credit cards. Okay, can she show me her budget. Well no, because she keeps it in her head. She does pay all her bills when she gets paid and lives on what’s leftover. Except with this much credit card debt, there is a whole lot more living going on than a single person should be doing.

Or so goes the judgmental budget coach in me.

I did not have time to crunch the numbers to even get a sense of where she was, so we set up another appointment for this weekend after I had a better chance to look through her stuff and figure out how truly bad things are for her. And after looking through all her stuff last night, it’s really bad.

Since I know quite a few people in her age bracket, I know it is not just an issue of financial literacy. Yet I cannot fathom how someone could go blow through a just over $100K in inheritance, take out (and then max out) a line of credit on a paid-off home, and run up enough credit card debt to owe just over $150K on a $42K per year salary. And yet, I have seen so much worse through the years.

I know and have heard all the arguments and sob stories about the evil banks and credit card companies taking advantage of the consumer. Bullshit. No one makes us take on debt, although I do know sometimes it’s an uncomfortable only option we have. My sympathy in this is primarily with her family, who – rightly – refuse to bail her out of this mess and merely try to find her resources to help resolve it.

The discord in this is that she is in such a deep, dark place of denial. The typical millennial mindset is stronger than average in this one (and I do apologize to all my very level-headed millennial friends who may be reading this vent).

Either way, she’s in a huge financial bind and it will get worse long before it gets better. I want nothing but success for her, but from conversations with her uncle and her mother, she is not listening to them and is unlikely to listen to me. However, I will do my best.

I think she sees herself as living a life of freedom, whereas I see a young woman anchored by debt and being smother by the increasing interest and monthly payments. She could sell her home – the only assets I see that she has – which would likely clear her debt. But I know already the idea will float like a lead balloon.

At a very minimum, she needs to request a full-time schedule and accept every single hour of overtime that is offered to make more cash. With some negotiation with her creditors we might be able to get her squeaking through each month and with a very strict beans-and-rice type budget.

Buuuuttttt – one of the first comments out of her mouth is that she is unwilling to work more hours. Her debt is a combination of shopping, world travel, philanthropy, and just plain deranged, out-of-control spending. Seriously, I cannot think of another way to describe it.

I cannot save anyone, except perhaps myself. For the sake of my client, I will do my best to create a realistic plan … that she’s unlikely to agree to much less follow through with. When I met her, before we began discussing her finances in detail, I thought she was smart, funny, interesting, and quite physically beautiful. We chatted briefly about fitness – she works with a trainer 3 times per week and does yoga religiously 4 or 5 times per week – and I briefly, VERY briefly, thought she should meet trainer J. Or one of the associates I work with.

No, oh no. I love and adore my trainer, I really NEED my trainer, and I simply cannot do such a horrible thing. And my associates, it’s important to me to maintain my professional relationships. My goodness – what if someone I happened to introduce her to actually likes her? No, just no.

I was actually relieved to find out she likes girls.

The bottom line, at the end of a difficult day on a multitude of levels, what I find almost sadder than the real life agony is this silly, silly girl with the great big entitlement boulder resting on her shoulder.

Some things, some choices, some events are so far beyond my understanding. Where I can help, I try my best to do the right thing and provide what assistance I can. Sometimes it’s out of my realm of expertise, and the eventual outcome is in the hands of others far more skilled and more knowledgeable than me.

I have my hopes for the people in my life – I want what I want for them, whether it peace of mind or recovering their health. When someone new wanders into my midst, if I can help I will try. If they refuse help, I can and will step aside and let nature take its course.

Doesn’t mean I have to like it much, any of it. Sometimes I just wish people did not have to endure so much hardship, and sometimes I just wish people would be realistic and make better choices about their lives.

Money, credit cards, paying the stupid tax

I had 2 instances last week of paying the stupid tax. One was kinda/sorta my fault, the other is completely on me.

The first, more benign of the 2 was actually much more expensive. A year or so ago I took a course at an online university, paying my tuition with a credit card. However, the charges never appeared on said credit card, although I was assured last time I spoke to them (sometime in August 2015) that it was in the system and being processed. I thought no more about it, and frankly we run so many of our expenses through our credit cards I simply forgot all about it. I was also still with my former full-time firm, and they typically reimbursed me for CPE type credits, so I figured I must have put it on my company credit card. Either way, there was no communication from the school until last month, when I received a very nice letter from the attorney/collection service they use for old debts and then a follow-up phone call early in the month.

I called her back last Friday, determined that the debt was real and in fact mine. I explained the situation and circumstances as I recalled them, and she very kindly waived the late fees and interest, leaving only the original tuition amount that I actually owed. I gave her my credit card number (same one I believe I originally tried to pay for these courses with), and waited until she ran it and received confirmation from the company that it was paid. I jotted the confirmation number and all is well in that corner of my world once more.

The second one is an annual fee for a credit card I never use and have not given a thought to in 3 or 4 years. Because I signed up for online banking back when we originally banked with the issuing bank (for all of about 2 months, when they screwed up direct deposits twice in 2 months), there was no fee for this credit card. Now, because I no longer bank with them, because I never use the credit account, or just because they can, there is a $20 fee, which they billed electronically and the email notifying me of the statement went into my spam folder. A month passes, no payment, and I am dinged with $2.23 in interest charges, and this time I do actually see the email that I have a past due amount.

This one is completely my fault and I own it. I called, paid my debt, and asked them to cancel the card. No, I don’t care that I am good for another year; I have zero plans to use that card and have no desire to be having this same conversation about a late payment again next year. Cancel the card, close the account; I’ll wait.

The process got me thinking about the stack of credit cards in our gun safe. All these credit cards are from various periods in our lives or opened for rewards, etc. None of them have balances or annual fees, and if the physical cards are in the safe, they are not active and could/should be closed.

I waver and waffle on this topic. Between M and I we have 4 cards we use for varioius purposes. One card is for our regularly occurring bills on autopay – utilities, cell phones, storage rent, pest control, etc. Another is for online shopping. Then M and I each have our own cards we use for our purchases while out and about; makes it simpler to sort out receipts and categorize our spending. I have a separate business card for business-related expenses, and we also have branded cards for Costco and Sam’s Club.

All our credit cards are paid in full when statements are issued.

That leaves us with another 26 open credit cards and combined credit limits into 6 figures. Excessive much? Time to do some housekeeping.

I do not plan to close them all at once. While we have no immediate plans for big-ticket purchases that require financing, I recognize the need to simplify and decrease our credit exposure and let our scores recover if they take a bit of hit over the course of this process. My current plan is to close 2 or 3 per month. Some are in M’s name, some are in my name.

By the end of this process, we will have a few special-purpose VISA cards, a MasterCard, an American Express and a Discover card. I like some variety, and each offers unique rewards and no annual fees. M and both have our primary cards and will use our Costco VISA when it is issued next month for our backup cards. The rest will probably reside in the safe, except for once a twice per year we use them for holiday shopping (extra department store rewards) or travel.

But man, I wonder how I just ignored this for all this time. When I had more regular gigs as a budget coach, I used to counsel my clients to pay off their debts and then close the accounts. We did that as we got out of debt, for years using just one card and paying it in full as we paid off the rest of our debt. I have no idea when we turned this corner of playing the credit card rewards game and not closing accounts after collecting or utilizing our bonuses.

No more, though. Going forward I’ll try to close an account if we should open a new one, or close the new one within a couple of months of collecting the sign-up bonuses. I think the new system I have in place should keep us on a cleaner credit path going forward.

Or so I hope, anyway.

 

Money-related stuff

I am in the midst of waiting for brokerage statements to finish our personal taxes. Yep, with some trepidation I am attempting to do them myself again this year. For whatever reason they seem a lot more complicated in this transition from most of our income from a full-time, permanent, salary-and-benefits job to the bulk of our income from self-employment and only some income from a part-time, permanent, salary-and-benefits job. Next year could be the time to take all my crap paperwork to a CPA and let them sort it out for me. Maybe. Possibly. I have another 365 days to mull it over.

But for this year, I have all our stuff together and entered into the tax program. With a maximum contribution to the HSA opened for our new health insurance plan we go from owing money (again) to having a refund due to apply to our first quarter estimated taxes instead. Amazing, happiness-inducing event.

Between January being its business-as-usual busy, hectic, crazy, I have barely bothered looking at our personal budget for stuff we are doing, planning to do, wanting to do in 2016. The deck estimate has not arrived yet, but I have lit a fire under our contractor and am threatening to withhold his beloved diet rock star or worse, donate it to trainer J if he doesn’t get my deck estimate done soon. Not that I would ever actually do that (well I might donate to trainer J, only because it takes up so much space in the fridge), but what else can I say? Don’t make me call your wife? Yes, I know you’re busy remodeling kitchens and bathrooms and building decks for other clients, but damn! I have a wedding coming up in September and need my decks in working order this spring.

Until I get that piece of information, my home improvements planning is at a standstill. I would like to get the exterior of the house repainted and some cosmetic fixes done, but the deck is the priority. Seems like we will be heading to the home and garden show this weekend to see what’s new in the home improvement world, and maybe we’ll find some amazing painter who works really cheaply (not likely, but I can dream). I would also like to get M building planter boxes for around the deck and want to look at some of the displays for ideas for nice flowers and plants. We tried really hard last year, even going so far as to spend a minor fortune on pretty flowering plants that sort of died when we went on vacation and I forgot to ask C to water them when she came by to feed the fluffbuckets. M has plans for a drip system in conjunction with the flower boxes so that should alleviate the watering issue.

It would also be nice to have something other than dead lawn out front, where everyone and all their pets on leashes see it daily, but again, we are waiting for a M’s bestie, a landscape contractor, to be less busy with everyone else’s lawns and gardens. I freely admit to not being the most patient person, but it’s been nearly a year since the new concrete was poured, we still have nothing but dead grass out front, and I have yet to do more than make an idle comment when we discuss other items on our 2016 list and 2015 project carryovers. If it were not so ridiculously expensive I would have lobbied harder for fake grass and a fence to keep the dogs of the neighborhood from using our front grass as a toilet on their daily rounds.

That is truly the most pressing budget issue right now; everything else seems to be on autopilot based on the salary I pay myself and M from my little self-employment business and my part-time job with the law firm. Food is probably our biggest issue as far as the budget goes, in that we are still exploring and experimenting with what we want/like to eat versus what is most convenient to prepare and eat at home (aka mostly prepared and processed food). M likes the smoked meat that comes from the Traeger, and I think the crockpot is the best invention for the busy person who dislikes working with food. Like so many other things between the 2 of us, our taste in food varies widely. He uses this horrible smelling spice that apparently makes beef taste great, but I cannot get far enough past the smell to actually taste  the beef. Most of what I prepare he enjoys, once he has doctored it up with pepper and the spicier flavors he loves. We are working at continuing to clean-up, tighten up our diets; it is an ongoing process, not really a once-and-done or even a goal-oriented task.

Looking back at our healthcare expenses in 2015, the biggest line item was the prescription drug costs. The insulin was greatly discounted through the mail order pharmacy, but between the medications, the syringes, and pen needles, my out-of-pocket cost alone easily topped $100/month. When I add in the oral medications I was taking, the test strips, and the lancets, I averaged about $160/month for prescriptions drugs and supplies alone – just to manage my diabetes and the preventive protocol for the other complicating conditions. This year, down to the single oral medication and continuing with test strips and lancets, my bill should drop to about $30/month, an 80% cut in out-of-pocket expenses.

Looking ahead into 2016 expenses, I think the biggest discretionary expense line item is our gym dues and my personal training expenses. M mostly leaves money management issues to me, but we talk about our financial priorities a few times per year and pencil in and/or update our plans and goals as they materialize. On the gym and the training, he feels strongly that is the final frontier in our spending and other things should be cut or eliminated completely before gym dues or training are presented for consideration. While I really do not disagree, it seems selfish for me to protect something that primarily benefits me and me alone. Although J has offered to let M come and train with me sometimes, that is a nightmare scenario that is simply so apocalyptic in nature that I cannot bear to even consider it. Thankfully M would agree with my assessment; we are simply not a couple who can pursue our fitness objectives together.

The little financial engine that could continues to power our household and is chugging along nicely. My self-employment venture got off to a strong start and is steadily growing and most definitely thriving. We continue to fund our even older and grayer years, save for 2017 adventuring and home improvement projects, and just toss some coin into the “impulse” bucket that adds some zest to our relatively simple life. It will be an extra exciting year with G&K’s wedding and its social events, plus our usual summer weekends and weeks of hosting out-of-town runners.

Life is good and continues to improve. Money and it’s tracking has gotten simpler for me as the months and years have passed, and I can realistically expect my low-stress levels in this regard continue. It is all good that I primarily have to worry about other people’s money and that they pay me for my efforts.

And would you look at that – an actual money, finance, budget-related post. It has been awhile.

Happy Friday everyone!

Work services and budgets

It’s Wednesday, trash night. I am hoping my recent emotional funks are on the curb with our trash and recycling cans this evening.

Intriguing work news to report – my daughter and I are undertaking a brave new venture for a few of my clients: we are going to be personal shoppers and small party planners for the upcoming holiday season.

Yes, it is true – between us we have waayyy too much experience as shoppers and might even go so far to suggest that shopaholism is a hereditary condition. As far as personal shopping experience for others, I have assisted my original part-time job #2 boss with this for the last couple of years. This year, he has recommended my services to a couple of other business associates, and now that I am establishing myself as both accounting and business concierge service, my client base for this has suddenly tripled. It’s primarily holiday gifts for employees, clients, and a few elderly family members. There will be lists and guidelines, and then I will turn C loose on the internet to shop until she drops using someone else’s money. For my part, I will take the suggestions she finds back to the client for final approval, before we make arrangements for purchase. We will then wrap and creates a beautiful presentation package; C does amazing things with gift wrap and ribbons, having spent her high school and early college years working at a party supply store and doing gift wrap at both Nordstrom and Macy’s. If there is need for specialized baskets, we both have experience in that as well. Someday we may learn diaper cakes, but as yet there has been no need.

Despite my social anxiety and lack of event planning experience, I have actually pulled off a few small party events (20 to 40 guests) for PTB #2 and PTB #1 in the past. I have found it is primarily the logistics of establishing budgets, finding vendors, making arrangements, getting approval from the client, following up on arrangements, and having a plan B for every possible thing that could go wrong. I am not foolish enough to attempt anything larger and more “themey” than planning and arranging holiday meals or employee parties, but for at-home events and a couple of larger restaurant/destination events described to me I will be able to manage it with assistance from my daughter and possibly K, who is a fountain of ideas for this sort of thing.

Speaking of K, the marketing genuis of the family, she has a lot of ideas to market and grow my little business. I keep putting her off, because at present I have more than enough work and seem to be naturally diversifying by the hour. Her new job is going very well, and she’s very happy learning the ropes of this new organization. G is back in school and still working as well, so there is time when she’s at home alone or looking for new things to help challenge her.

In other work-related news, my long-time PTB #1 boss has asked me to lead/teach a small budgeting class – he thinks I would be a natural at it because I do not come across as an accountant or a finance person (I think that is meant as a compliment). I would explain the basics of budgeting, the pitfalls of debt, and why having a spending plan (or budget) is so important in one meeting, then go over the moving parts of a budget (income, monthly expenses, periodic expenses, debt, savings, etc.) and how to establish one in a second meeting, and then meet with couples individually in a series of 3 appointments (each) to establish, monitor, and update their personal budgets. This would be a program through a nonprofit group and would initially involve 10 couples/families, so there is a 20 to 25 hour time commitment over a 3 month period.

This is not a done-deal by any stretch of the imagination, merely something being explored as community service. I know Dave Ramsey’s financial peace university is offered by a lot of churches in the area, but it has not been especially well received by the group my PTB #1 is associated with. I am still thinking about the idea, because nothing is every as simple as it sounds. For me to be approved by the group’s leadership, I will have to prepare an outline of my budgeting approach and the basics that I plan to present in the two meetings, followed by a simple budgeting template for the participants to use either online or in paper-and-pen format.

Although I am completely flattered and freaked-out at the same time by the proposal, the rational parts of my head know I can and would do well at this. I have budget coached others in the past and they still speak to me regularly. I am also more compassionate than judgmental about the decisions people make, because personal finance should be just that – personal. And anyone who knows me or reads this blog for even a little while is aware that I have a very real understanding of how difficult it is to change habits and make better choices. Sometimes it does take a village to help us as individuals muster the courage to make the harder choices and then support us over the lumpy bumps in the path to our goals.

How this all figures into my own big-picture budgeting … I don’t know yet. For this year, I believe my fledgling business is rocking right out the gate and that I can look forward to a good, profitable first few months. M and I are living on what we refer to as the “starving artist” budget for the most part, even though I/we are generating quite a lot of income right now. But we agreed that it was better to limit ourselves for now with me drawing a regular salary from the business to meet our basic budget and his contributions from his income-generating efforts adding to the wants and whims that may come up.

A lot going on in just a few hours and a few dozen emails today. Still, progress is progress, and I am still going to the gym tonight to get my workout done. Bear planks await me – oh boy.

New car opportunity and personal finances – part 1

This post started out describing the “great opportunity” local dealerships are offering me to trade in and upgrade my present vehicle and morphed into musings about finances and family budgeting. It grew so long I felt compelled to break it up. Part 2 coming soon.

I bought my 2013 Rav4 in October 2013, and for the first 14 months of ownership, it was the go car. Anywhere and everywhere M and I went together, we were driving the Rav. M has always had his own vehcile, and places where the Rav was “too nice” to travel (mountain roads for hiking or running), we took M’s former car, a 1999 CRV.

In December 2014, we acquired M’s present car, a 2007 CRV. It has replaced my Rav as the go car, and the Rav has been relegated to being the very nicest of commuter cars for my 16 mile round trip to the office each day. Saturday I am taking it in for its second oil change and 20K check-up and expect no surprises, and I realize at this rate of driving it will be 2023 or later before I reach 100K on the odometer. This is not a bad thing under any circumstances, just different than what we anticipated for this vehicle. When we were both working and commuting, it was not unusual for us to drive 20K miles or more on both vehicles in a year. These days we barely approach that for all vehicles (we actually have 2 others available to drive – a full-size truck and a work-in-progress Honda Civic project car) in a year.

But the vintage of my vehicle apparently makes it/me an attractive target for dealerships looking to boost inventory on popular models. Today I got my third call from my third dealership looking to entice me to trade for a new vehicle. I said no immediately. But the first time I got that type phone call was from the dealership where I bought it, and I chatted with the sales manager about it simply because I was curious. I wanted to understand what he could possibly offer me that would make the idea attractive.

His pitch – with my trade, he could get me into a comparable model 2015 Rav4 for a lower monthly payment that what I have now. Considering I work in accounting and worry about money for a living, I asked some very pointed, direct questions about interest rate and loan term to get that lower monthly payment. I asked no specific questions about what I would get in trade versus the cost of the newer vehicle, but he was able to confidently quote me a “lower” payment than what I had now based on the initial paperwork in his possession. Of course, my term would be back to 60 months, versus the 40-something months on the original loan, and with a simple calculator I figured out it would actually cost me several thousand dollars for a 2 years newer car.

I never did find out what financed amount he was basing that payment on or the interest rate he was using. It was simply impossible for him to offer me enough for my trade or attractive enough sale price on the newer Rav to make it worth my while. I thanked him for his time and interest in working with me and said it was not practical to trade my Rav for another vehicle at this time.

Now, when I purchased my car, I got a very low 0.9% financing for 5 years, and I paid it off about 6 months later. I hate car payments, hate that feeling of not owning my vehicle, and simply decided my aggravation with the payment was not an equal trade with whatever interest income I would make by continuing it and leaving the cash in savings. So there was that strike against the dealer and his offer. He was unwilling to share real numbers for trade, new vehicle, best interest rate, and I could not imagine a deal where he could make money and I could not lose money on such a transaction. There was simply  no win-win possible. I am a very poor candidate for such great sounding ideas.

I suppose from the dealership standpoint it is a numbers game – call enough buyers with a car payment and a desirable vehicle and there are going to be a percentage that are drawn in by a newer model and the idea of a lower payment. I also happen to know many folks who believe having a car payment is just another monthly expense, like paying for electricity or natural gas or internet service. Once upon a time, a very long time ago, that was me. Fortunately life slapped me upside the head and I listened and learned the lesson.

For every personal finance decision, there is a person behind those choices. If you want to drive a new/newer vehicle every couple of years and don’t mind/can afford the payments, great! More power to you. In our case we’re inching ever closer to older and grayer years, where maybe I cannot or do not want to work as hard or as much and such choices have to be given a good, hard look with respect to how we spend our money. A newer version of my exact same car is not making the cut this year. Now that I have officially quit my full-time job and been reinvented as a part-time employee, I expect to be shouldering a larger contribution to our benefits next year. That’s a need; brand new wheels is pure want.

But maybe a kitchen update? Or more concrete? Or any number of other home improvements we would really enjoy right now? Those are still wants, but they are wants I would prioritize ahead of even newer wheels. Just not right now.

Work insanity

Last week was the week from hell at my full-time job. Without going into all the drama surrounding the final outcome – 20% cut in salary started yesterday. Unfortunately there is no correlating 20% cut in work hours as yet, which would make this easier to swallow. The blow to employee morale is understandable as are the angry attitudes and sudden refusal by salaried staff (myself included) to do a single minute more than 8 hours on our Monday through Friday schedules. In addition, the after-hours on-call duties are being refused by everyone.

I understand the reasons behind the cuts, but I vehemently disagreed with that deep out the gate and before addressing some of the other layers of fat in our overhead expenses. I am pretty direct about my thoughts and opinions even when it comes to work, and to be fearful of voicing an opinion in management meetings with the owners would have had me on the pavement and seeking another job years ago. At the end of the day, we are each left with a choice about staying or going, accepting these cuts in pay or seeking other opportunities. For me I will stay for now, because I am not yet ready to seek out another full-time job with comparable benefits. While we are a small business, we have pretty comprehensive medical plans, something that is critical and important to me.

That said, and while the majority of our staff are furious about this situation, I do not expect too much voting with their feet. The flexibility we offer our employees – everything from flexible schedules to working remotely as needed – is almost unheard of for small businesses in our area. In my assessment of our financial standing being flexible with our employees about where and when they get work done is not a factor in our struggles. Unfortunately our owners are seeking quick and easy relief and the salary line item is the most efficient cut to make. There are others as well, of course, but I see even more areas for cuts that they are reluctant to completely unwilling to consider or address.

It is frustrating on so many levels. Bottom line – this is their firm, not mine. I can advise, I can suggest, I even have quite a bit of lattitude in cutting expenses and collecting revenue. Their sacred cows remain sacred, and none of my practical business or basic common sense appeals have been successful. Stand-off? Not at all, not when they possess the ultimate veto power.

In my part-time employers I have a completely different experience. Periodically I do get irritated with them, but usually that’s because of their overall organizational disfunction and reinforces why I take care of their financial and other administrative matters for them. The second quarter just closed, and our financial agreements provide for a modest bonus for me based on various performance measures. Since the quarter just closed and it will be another couple of weeks before I can finish the books, both have indicated they will be giving me a generous bonus because I am so awesome. I think it is just because they are nice, grateful that I am patient when they lose their shit, and probably no one else would put up with them without charging in quarter minute intervals.

After accounting for the taxes I set aside from every dollar I receive from my part-time gigs, M and I should be successful in meeting our 2015 financial goals even with the pay cut. Our vacations and home improvements may have to be curtailed, tabled, or savings money used rather than cash flowed, but I recognize we are blessed in our ability to weather the storm of this cut. Of course it impacts us, but we can still pay our bills and save for retirement, have some fun adventures and finish the home enhancement projects on the schedule this year. Vacations may have to be more modest, or fewer days, or eat cheap while we are away, but we will be together and still have fun.

I also know other than healthcare, we could and would survive on expanded part-time gig income with some cuts to our spending. We could probably handle the healthcare costs if I picked up another gig or expanded hours at my existing jobs, but I don’t necessarily want to do that. But I could. I have options. I could probably find another job, but it’s hard to imagine another place where I have as much flexibility and freedom to do my job well. Plus I am now 54, and age discrimination is alive and well, even if it is mostly disguised.

After a long week of listening to my coworkers vent about the salary situation, I am so ready for a long weekend away from here.