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.

The Princess bone

It has been a long day at the office, and for the second night this week, I found myself hanging out with the bosses while they enjoyed a beer (or 3). We started out in an actual meeting discussing our upcoming recruiting efforts and how the rest of the staff are holding up under yesterday’s events. In truth, I got very little actual work accomplished today, outside of attending a couple of meetings with clients. The rest of my time was spent reassuring staff and helping with reorganizing workloads and office spaces.None of this was unexpected.

My bosses are very good guys. They are extremely disciplined professionals with high standards and expectations for themselves as well as the staff they employ. However, they are also good guys, close friends as well as business partners, and I have falling into the fold nicely. So in many ways, I am conversationally one of the guys.

Since all 4 are in some stage of single and dating, the topic comes up fairly routinely. While I am not quite old enough to be their mothers (and I have met all their parents – lovely people), I am pretty far removed from the women they tend to gravitate toward in social circumstances. The joke is if there is a second or third date, I start wondering if I need to invite them to a office lunch so I can size them up for myself. Hopefully they continue to be secure, confident men who are highly unlikely to ask me what I think about their squeezes;  my honesty could go to war with my sense of employment self-preservation.

Just last week one of them told me my “Build a Better Butt” project (as I refer to my ongoing training with J and exercise pursuits) was working out well for me. I jokingly reminded him that he should be careful what he says to a female subordinate, that sort of trash talk could find him on the wrong end of a harassment complaint. He gives me the puzzled face – am I insulted? Should he not compliment me? Is the workplace hostile because he thinks I am looking fitter? Because I know he’s teasing in his defense, and genuine in his compliments, and not a slap-and-tickle disrespecting mysogenist, I do not take it seriously and have to laugh with him. Plus I take it as a huge compliment that he and the other bosses feel comfortable enough with me to know that I am not going to take their kindness in a wrong, litigious sort of way.

So today we somehow got on the topic of breast implants. One of their sisters is in her mid-30s, getting married later this year, shopping for a wedding gown, and considering breast enhancement surgery. The boss is very upset about this, feels his sister is absolutely beautiful just the way she is and immediately suspected this was coming from the fiance. Since we were just shooting the breeze anyway, he brought it up and asked me what I thought about it and what else he might say to try and get her to embrace her unaltered shape.

The whole conversation made me vaguely uncomfortable. Not because I was talking boobs with men I work with, because that part was perfectly fine. No, I was vaguely uncomfortable because I find the topic of plastic surgery of any sort makes me uncomfortable. And I am not precisely sure why, although I did try to articulate my general thought that while it seems like a bad idea she may come to regret, I was sort of stumped as to why it is I feel that way. But thinking about it driving home, chatting with M about it, I think I have a better and more complete reasoning on the subject.

Essentially, I lack the princess bone. Or gene. Or whatever it is that makes people have more vanity than I seem to possess.

When it comes to bugs, vermin, snakes, and frogs, I got a big giant body of skin in the princess game. I want someone to take care of the bug, vermin, snake, and frog post haste, while I cower on a high surface where the evil creepy things cannot get me.

But when it comes to issues like plastic surgery, it all seems rather pointless to me. And for someone who has felt like being invisible is preferable to being recognized for my basic average (at best) appearance, my logical mind says my insecurity about my appearance would make me a prime candidate for anything that would make me appear more mainstream pretty. Except my mind does not work that way. If it did, I would probably have a drawer full of cosmetics that I paint on daily. Instead, I have an new tube of chapstick waiting to be deployed when I lose the one in my purse right now, a rarely used tube of mascara, and I think maybe a lipstick that might have escaped my most recent decluttering mania. I could write whole blogs on my anxiety about cosmetics and fears of being viewed as a clown school candidate reject for my efforts in using them effectively.

With any type of elective surgery, my mind says it is dangerous, painful, not covered by insurance and therefore ridiculously expenses. And for me personally, really kind of pointless at this waypoint in my life. Many of my friends have had some work done, or are desiring to have some work done, and frankly my understanding does not seem expansive enough to be able to successfully empathize with them on the subject. Everyone ages. Everyone has some piece or part of their body they wish to change, and I am not sure doing so that way is ever going to be a good idea. Then again, I am not the one who has to be convinced or encouraged to embrace their new look. If you are my friend, you with less wrinkles and perkier butt or boobs or flatter stomach is not going to do much anything to alter that.

I think my discomfort comes from someone else’s level of dissatisfaction with their own body. Believe me, I have plenty of body issues myself and if elective surgery did not have risks and was not painful I might be tempted to consider that route to altering body as well. But it does have risks and surgery is painful, so I shall continue my build a better butt project within the confines of the gym, thank you very much.

I also think know there are reasons well beyond vanity that people undertake such drastic measures, and somehow it’s easier for me to understand breast reduction than breast augmentation. Removing patches of skin cancer and maybe having some nipping and tucking done at the same time seems reasonable. Having noses reshaped while having some sort of sinus problem repaired seems perfectly understandable. Essentially, if there is some medically necessary reason to go under the knife and you a couple of upgrades, it does not seem like such an extravagant decision.

Obviously, at my core, I am a practical person.

But for a young woman to consider breast implants before getting married just seems extreme and wrong. I would rather see her invest the money she would spend with a good therapist talking about why she wants to do such a thing and seeing if improving self-esteem without surgical body modification.

Sometimes it seems many of my male friends do not know any regular, down-to-earth women they can have candid conversations with, or I am just naive enough to be perfectly honest about what I think and how I feel. I was telling M about this exchange tonight and he says it’s probably because of their current relationship status. Maybe. Divorce does skew your perspective for awhile, as does ending of long-term relationships.

At the end of our conversation, I simply told my boss to continue to remind his sister that she’s a beautiful young woman and perfect just as she is right now. Because maybe that’s what she needs most of all: encouragement to be comfortable in her own skin and to be both supportive and specific about why she is beautiful, inside and out. With family and family dynamics, I am kind of fuzzy about whether or not such statements make a difference. In my own family of origin, it was not normal or natural for my sibling or my parents to compliment me ever. With M and my children, though, I am unwavering in my support and encouragement of the development and good people qualities, including physical appearance when appropriate. My theory is that sincerity of affection is more meaningful than being told not to do something because big brother does not like or is terrified of the consequences of such action.






The Honor System

A lot of places I frequent have these boxes labeled “candy for charity.” The idea is you put in your quarter or whatever amount and take a piece of the candy in the box. While I typically see them on counters manned and lightly supervised by a business employee, occasionally the boxes are left somewhere else in a higher traffic but mostly unsupervised area of the business.

Such is the case in a restaurant M and I were in earlier today.

Now, in general I am rather cynical about these charitable efforts; I do not actually believe any of those funds make it to a worthwhile charity. But I am not utilizing a business with intent to judge them on their pseudo-philanthropic endeavors. It’s just one of those things I tend to notice in the places I go, probably because I am still in vast, lifelong sugar withdrawal and my eye is always going to be drawn to candy, even candy I do not particularly want to eat. Once an addict, always an addict.

Anyway, M and I were eating our meal and chatting about our day. You know, usual stuff. This mom and 2 young children came in with an elderly couple that were probably her parents. Mom went up to the counter to order, elderly folks took the booth right behind us. Little boy, probably about 4, dawdled at a display about 10 yards away and right within my line of sight. He had discovered the charitable candy box. As I casually observed he carefully took out several suckers and pieces of candy, unwrapped at least 2 of them, put them into his mouth and then those back into the box (I know – totally gross!), and then walked away with 3 suckers in his hands.

While I could get extraordinarily distracted by the poor parental supervision going on there, I will give that a pass this time. The other child with them was a toddler being carried by grandpa when they walked in, and just as brother sat down at the table with his booty toddler began talking and screeching loudly. Perhaps he wanted his share of what older brother suddenly had? I was curious as to how mom and grandparents would react to this sudden appearance of several suckers, right before dinner.

Next I know grandpa is approaching the candy box and taking several pieces from it, without depositing the donation for the candy. They were speaking in a foreign tongue, so perhaps it’s a cultural thing they did not understand, but I was disappointed. I tend to obey rules and most social conventions that make sense to me, and while I believe the owners of such establishments are likely very lightly padding their own pockets with the candy for charity scam, I do not know that with any certainty. It’s the context of a child being allowed to casually take something that is not provided as a customer courtesy, and the adult in the party participating in this behavior as well. That little boy may not grow up into a spoiled, entitled brat who has zero respect for boundaries or other people’s things, but in principle observing the behaviors disturbed me.

It just seems wrong.

I can justify this in my own head to a degree – the business owner leaves a box of candy unsupervised and within reach of children. Mom is busy, grandparents are obviously not from around here and may not even read english.

It just seems wrong. It is wrong.

Wrong for mom not to investigate where the ill-gotten sugar came from and either make the child return it, or for the stuff in the box that was way past that point, pay for it. Wrong not to explain the process to grandpa if there is a cultural/communication issue, or to quietly pay for his pilfered sweets as well.

In my mind it seems so very black and white, and to probably everyone else it seems like such a small cakes, what-does-it-matter type of event. Maybe it is small cakes. Maybe this is appropriate karma. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all.

Except to someone like me, who is honest and desires others to try to be honest as well. To honor the honor system when it is in play. To teach children it is not appropriate to take things that are not offered to them as a courtesy.

Because maybe, in the great big bigger picture, it is the small cakes events that matter most.

Work related musings

My little self-employment business is nearing its first anniversary and thriving. However, because of my part-time job for the law firm, I am more of an almost-full-time entrepreneur. If I wanted to indulge my inner workaholic, I could be part-time employee and full-time-plus entrepreneur. But what would I cut? Time with M? Hanging out with friends? Family dinners? Gym? Reading? Blogging? Any other hobbies I may wish to pursue?

Money is not everything. I want to work to live, not live to work. I have done both and this work/life balance when it is done right is worth every single penny I am not earning. And I understand I can say that because I am comfortably compensated and meet my financial obligations and objectives. Not everyone is so fortunate.

The arrangement as it stands actually suits me very well, because I enjoy the interaction with my associates at the firm as well as the benefit structure and reduced costs for health insurance for M and I. While I am extraordinarily disappointed with my Kaiser experiences, it is/was good for me to go through the experiment and find that no, mass production medical care does not work out that well for special-snowflake-in-this-regard me. Being a diabetic is unfortunately a far too common problem, and I think for 90% of the diabetic patients out there Kaiser probably does as good a job or better as any medical bureaucracy as any other. For a diabetic who is trying valiantly to stay in good control of the condition and more wisely manage her overall health, Kaiser kind of sucks.

But I am grateful that the firm offers me very affordable health insurance, and when open enrollment comes around I will simply switch to a more expensive high-deductible HSA plan that allows me to see the private practice physicians I trust. When I went away from meeting my new doc yesterday, I was thinking it must suck these days to be a physician, especially a Kaiser physician. And I actually prefer to have my village staffed by starters who actually think about me, individual person, not be second string, check-box-that-seems-appropriate-for-this-situation type people.

Spoiled, I know. But at least I am honest about my expectations.

So for a part-time gig, I have terrific benefits from the firm. But while that was a big part of my decision to join them, it was not the only factor. I like the way the partners manage their business, the manner in which they do strive to offer their employers an intellectually stimulating and productive work environment with superior benefits and compensation. I really felt as if I were a good fit for their philosophy and the type of environment they wanted to craft, a place where people are encouraged to work hard and put in the hours as necessary to make the firm a success with a bonus structure to make the periodic work/life balance inequity tolerable.

For the most part, like 90% of the employees, I think the bosses are largely successful in their approach and management. However, there always seems to be some small minority of holdouts who want to bitch, moan, complain, or simply not participate in the culture of the firm. I find it peculiar, because from my experience and observations with other firms, requests and demands upon time are straightforward and fair. Yet always there is someone who will not participate because it is not mandatory – which is fine – and if it is mandatory then they whine because it makes for a long day or infringes upon their personal time or they just don’t want to and therefore should not have to.

To them I say … suck it up, buttercup. I mean, seriously – I do not particularly want to have an administrative meeting every month either, but it’s part of our firm’s culture that we come together and talk about all those pesky administrative and operational details. Because we all know how we suffer through these things, we bring food and drink. Granted it’s not the adult beverage variety, but we do what we can to make it tolerable.

For a small firm like ours, coping with the 10% minority is a fairly straightforward process – someone in management talks to them. Those who tend to complain, who wish to be outliers and only work as part of the team effort when it is convenient for them or under some sort of threat or other coercion, tend to either clam up, put forth a realistic complaint that can be addressed, or not last very long around here. My former receptionist is a terrific example of what I mean.

At least a portion of my office days are spent listening to someone talk about problems and issues with their jobs, relationships, lives, work/life balance, or all of the above. Big problems, little problems, issues of all shapes and sizes. Some of them are within my realm to resolve, some would need to be elevated for discussion, a lot are just people venting or blowing off some steam. I get it; I just happen to have a blog where I do the majority of my weenie-whining about my first world problems.

Earlier today I was reading a blog about a woman getting laid off from her job, yet immediately before that she was writing about expectations from the team she has been assigned to for the last 6 months and wanting to fly under the radar for a few more years until retirement. A lot of the first post was complaints about her large-scale corporate employer – meetings in other cities, long days with no compensation for an overnight stay instead of 3 hour drives on either end of a day of meetings, working remotely from the rest of the team and making little effort to participate in opportunities to meet with and integrate with them, etc. And the layoff was a surprise? In my opinion flying under the radar like that at a large organization makes you a primary target when cuts must be made. After all, unless your work product is uniquely spectacular and valuable to the organization, tolerance is limited for prima donnas.

I recognize my own bias and tolerance of what I consider penny-ante bullshit, and that particular brand of mindset is a big part of why I hope to not ever have to return to a larger corporate environment for the balance of my career. I like feeling as if my input makes a difference to my firm and directly to my clients in my self-employment gigs. I really do not want to be another nameless, faceless worker bee cog in a big giant corporate machine. Been there, done that, retired the t-shirt long ago.

As I am getting older and becoming more and more aware of the limitations and opportunities for someone in my realm of experience and maturity, I understand the frustration of my boomer peers when coping with the competition of millennials and their fresher, hipper, current outlook and experience. They feel undervalued, their experience now worthless. At the same time, I can see and feel the hubris when faced with a modern employment market. Quite frankly I am not certain I could compete these days, and the idea of it kind of terrifies me. I cannot deny thinking these sorts of thoughts, facing up the reality of these kinds of fears factored into my better health quest. It is bad enough being an older worker, but being a heavy, unfit older worker? Seems like the kiss of death for acquiring another position that I might enjoy.

I do consider myself quite lucky to have landed on my feet as I have. My law firm bosses are smart and thoughtful people, the associates – even those given to more frequent bouts of whining and complaining – are professional and seem to be very focused and into the work they are doing and their chosen career paths. As for my little business, it is about as big as I want it to be right now, yet it is still so hard to turn away new opportunities. My current strategy is to simply ask top dollar when it’s a small engagement that does not particularly excite me or for which subcontracting or referring to someone else is resisted by the prospective client. I have thought long and hard about hiring some help, but for the moment, I prefer the absolute control and perspective of being a solo operation. Essentially, I really do not want to supervise someone; reviewing the work done by the couple of subcontractors I use is more than enough.

But it is so hard not to just say yes to every little task. And turning away work is not because it feels too small or somehow beneath my skills and qualifications, but because I am seeking my own life/work balance and feel just slightly over capacity most of the time anyway and really pushing hard to stay ahead of the overwhelmed curve when a special project arrives in my inbox. While I enjoy the challenge of staying busy and the adrenaline rush that comes with a short-fuse deadline, it is truly no way to live 24/7. Pacing and balance are important in all things and not just my Lists of the day at the gym each morning.

I am actually in a bit of a cranky mood tonight, as M is miserable with some sort of ongoing back ache, will not reduce his high mileage days much less take a day off (and if you ever wonder why I am as persistent as I am about my own practice, this is the attitude I live with and yes, it influences me very directly). When M is miserable and hurting, I tend to be just miserable to some degree as well. He is not a good patient. He is short with a tendency toward biting (which I think of as the male form of bitchy). And while I am sympathetic and tolerant to a greater degree than usual, when I have had enough, I have had ENOUGH.

And that’s the phase of this that we are at right now. So reading stuff about getting laid off, how shocking it is, yet in the previous post complaining about the demands her employer was putting upon her … it is a huge challenge for me to muster sympathy and compassion.

I will be out of my snit with M soon, because I cannot stay irritated about this kind of small-ball stuff and just need a little room to bleed it off. But the rest of the world? I suppose I am pretty old fashioned in my belief in that if you are engaged and being paid to do a job, you do it, and if you really want or need to retain that job, you do it well AND you play nice with the rest of your team and the firm at large. Or you find another job, a situation this woman was forced into. Having had shitty jobs with awful bosses and coworkers, I understand not wanting to be there, do more than is absolutely necessary and clinging to her job description as support for that attitude. As someone who has hired and fired people throughout the course of her career – and has been fired myself from a job for not being quite grown-up enough to understand these basic requirements for paid employment – I know when it comes down to having to make cuts, it is not the minimalists I tend to retain.

Mind reminds me we have an extra early practice tomorrow, so time to power down. While I do not envision myself walking through the gym doors just after they open at 4:30, I am going to try to get there by 4:45. While it’s only about 15 minutes earlier than my lately usual start time, it sounds ghastly early.