Pandemic Spending (and Drinking)

Now that many people are acting like the pandemic is almost over, I thought I would reflect on COVID-19′ s impact on my finances.

The Good (Big savings)

  1. I’ve spent zero on clothes, purses, and shoes for work.
  2. Working from home allowed us to cut down auto-related expenses. We sold one car, reducing wear and tear on our remaining car, and have lower insurance costs. As for gas, I fill up once a month, if that.
  3. Entertainment budget consisted of a Netflix subscription. No travel. No concerts. No meet-ups with friends. Nothing.
  4. While take out and grocery delivery added to our food cost, this was offset by zero restaurant excursions.
  5. I haven’t had a hair cut since March 2020.
  6. Like many people, I started taking fewer showers. Not only did this help reduce our water bill, this also extended the life of our soaps and shampoos.

The Bad ( Spending increases)

  1. I bought some comfy home clothes since working from home allows me to live in tshirts and sweatpants.
  2. We ramped up home renovation spending, although this was mostly for outside projects.
  3. We bought toys and things to keep kids from getting too bored. I even considered getting a bounce house!
  4. We splurged on higher end food items to make up for lack of entertainment and restaurant outings.
  5. Electric bills have increased. We try to be frugal in this area but with four people being home all the time, this was bound to go up.

The Ugly (Pandemic drinking)

Wine and beer consumption went way up for both of us, which I attributed to the sudden lack of entertainment options.

However as the months dragged on, I think the stress and isolation were the true culprits. I had the same workload and a boss who did not sympathize at all with the plight of parents. I was frequently interrupted by kids and spouse. While my husband did the bulk of zoom classes, there were times when I had to fit in a school zoom session between meetings. I should also mention that we didn’t have a nanny for a few months which increased our childcare load at the worse time possible.

It also seemed like pandemic drinking was one big joke.

I began looking forward to the evenings because of the cold beer or red wine waiting for me at the end of a hard day. One drink per night increased to one per weekday and two per night from Fridays through Sundays. I made special trips to the drugstore or market to ensure I had alcohol on hand at night.

A close friend expressed concern, which I ignored.

That same friend later emailed me an article about the effects of even moderate alcohol consumption on the human brain, including increased risk of Alzheimer’s. I started to worry a bit, but did not stop drinking.

What finally make me cut back? Money!

Financial gurus would be proud that saving money was the main incentive for quitting. I calculated that I could save roughly $60 per month by drinking less.

The secondary reason is altruism. I wanted to expand my giving to animal rescues and this was a simple, concrete way to make it possible.

Did you succumb to pandemic drinking or any orher vices? Did money ever motivated you to quit a bad habit?

Photo by Pranidchakan Boonrom on Pexels.com

Owning a home is like having a child

My good friends warned me. Once you buy a house/have a kid, all your money and energies will be absorbed by that entity. Obviously I did not listen.

Here are some ways that the two experiences are alike:

Never-ending Upkeep

Before we bought a house, I noticed that my home-owning friends always seemed to be in the middle of repairs or renovations for their house. And in the rare moments of peace, they were doing the upkeep — re-staining decks, caulking, polishing, sanding — or searching for a good handyman.

How is this similar to kids? Well, apparently there is a lot of upkeep after the hazy, sleepless newborn/infant years.

Kids

  1. Feedings – three meals. plus snacks per day
  2. Cleaning – of bodies, bodily fluids, and general mess

House

  1. Cleaning – of kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, living rooms
  2. Gardening – water, prune, and fertilize plants you want. Kill plants you don’t want.

You also need to make improvements! Most of this work falls on you.

Kids

  1. Basics – reading.writing, arts and crafts
  2. Social skills – sharing is caring
  3. Hygiene – No, you cannot pee in your pants. Yes, you must wash hands.
  4. Educational – If you have extra funds, you can outsource improvements via coding class, swim lessons, karate, piano…the list is unlimited!

House

  1. Insulation of entire house
  2. Landscaping ($7,000+)
  3. Replace light and bathroom fixtures
  4. Repaint kid bedrooms

Let’s not forget repairs, which are not fun and often expensive. Below is the tally so far.

Kids

  1. A playtime accident that resulted in an ER trip and stitches.
  2. Two emergency room visits

House

  1. Water heater repair ($200)
  2. Fence and gate repairs ($250)

Pride of ownership

Yes, I know that we don’t own our children. However I am using that phrase because the feeling of pride is commonly caused by home ownership and having kids.

Home ownership does feel different than then renting, just as being a parent feels different than being the aunt or uncle.

I have to restrain myself from talking about my home renovations and kids too much, which brings me to…

Bragging rights

Excessive pride of progeny or homes is common, resulting in long, boring conversations about either topic. Yes, some people may be genuinely interested. Unfortunately, parents and homeowners are unable to recognize signs of disinterest.

For many people, pride also leads to competition. I suppose it’s natural to compare your kid’s development with others. However,this unhealthy obsession can lead to escalating expenses.

You know what I mean. Your neighbor’s kid has bouncy houses and magicians at his/her birthday party. Now you feel the need to do better or at least match their party. Your neighbor builds a beautiful redwood deck and now your outdoor set-up suddenly seems sad.

Have I missed out on any other similarities?

The Missing $6,000

Last week I logged into my online broker to make my 2021 Roth Ira contribution. As I scanned past transactions, I realized that I had NOT contributed in 2020! I’ve been contributing yearly for ages. Even when money was tight, I contributed something.

2020 was obviously a traumatic year but I should not have skipped a year.

Then I looked at my checkbook records and saw an entry in the amount of $6,000 toward my Roth account in March 2020.

My heart dropped. I quickly went through my bank account to see if the check had been cashed. Luckily not!

Another thought hit me. How could I not noticed that my 2020 contribution was never received? This means I did not try to allocate the money; $6,000 would have sat in my account for more than a year as a cash balance (with a low interest rate).

In a way, that is more unbelievable than not noticing the missing check. I knew I was overwhelmed but surely I could have moved the money at some point before June 2021!

I still need to put a stop payment, right?

Not so Great Expectations (of the Middle Class)

I started this post more than three years ago. My main argument was that today’s middle class (non-Boomer generation) could no longer aspire to a “typical” middle class life: Own a house, afford to help kids with college tuition, have a healthy retirement fund (maybe even a pension!) and take one ‘big’ vacation per year.

Due to increased cost of living, healthcare costs, wage stagnation and other factors, owning a house is simply out of reach for the middle class, especially in high cost of living areas. Renting is the new reality for the middle class, and I wanted to argue that this might not be a bad thing.

However, several years and big rent increases later, I no longer believe renting is a feasible longterm option for middle class families with school age kids. For many families, rent takes more than 30% of income. Yearly rent increases are the norm while pay increases are not.

Home ownership hasn’t gotten more affordable either.

Does this mean the middle class is completely screwed? Yes and no, and yes.

In urban areas, a common solution for middle income families is to buy or rent way outside the city center. You could be fortunate to work at a company that is located in the suburbs, too. For me and most of my dual-income friends, at least one spouse always ends up with a hellish, hour plus commute.

My spouse and I settled on another option in order to purchase a house without adding a long commute. We sacrificed our children’s future…. By this I mean we picked a neighborhood with a subpar school district, knowing we can’t afford private school.

We have a special needs child and school rankings do not take that into consideration. However, it is reasonable to assume that well-funded schools will have more resources for both regular and special needs kids.

We have not started a college fund and won’t be able help much with tuition. Our special needs kid will probably have to rely on the kindness of government and strangers…a scary thought. At this point, our priority is saving enough for retirement and paying off the mortgage (which we hope can be sold at some point to support our special needs kid).

From the blogs I read, our decision is NOT common among PF bloggers, who tend to have 529 accounts and prioritize school district when buying homes. However, this was one of the few areas we could afford to buy. Even renting in a better school district was out of our reach.

Don’t get me wrong. The area is safe. The majority of our neighbors are gainfully employed, quickly remove their trash cans from view, and keep their lawns immaculately green and trim. We have a quiet life and can still take part in all that a major city has to offer.

I tell myself that I went to so-so schools and turned out okay. Even if we could pay for college, wealthier families have already upped the game by supporting their progeny way beyond our reach anyway.

Upper middle class parents can fund science camps and a wide array of extacurricular activities and pay for college tuition, enabling their kids to focus on studies and unpaid or low paid internships if needed to get a foor in the door.

Wealthier families can easily support their kids through grad school (which in case you haven’t heard is the new B.A) or even bribe their way to top tier universities. Their kids are graduates, they can connect them to resume-building internships, anything to give their kid an advantage.

I guess we will have to see how our choice affects our kids’ future.

Random Updates about Money

1) Why do I tempt myself by browsing Nordstrom’s half-yearly sales? Under $80 for cute leopard print boots!

2) It turns out that my husband has been donating on his own. We both do small amounts (max. $30) but it adds up. We have to coordinate to avoid duplicate gifts. His favorite causes seem to be political campaigns and system changes. I tend to donate to political campaigns, kids related causes, racial equality groups and random gofundme recipients based on their story.

3) Husband went on his own health plan. It is much cheaper but we don’t know if this also means less coverage. However we will save almost $4,000 per year. My work plan isn’t great anyway.

4) A will is #1 priority for 2021. However I am not even sure we have enough money left for a trust, assuming most of our money will be eaten up by retirement and healthcare costs. Maybe we also need a financial advisor.

5) Layoffs are coming. I think maybe 1-2 more months… Can I retire early? The answer is no.

6) I was thinking about working for a non profit even if pay is low. Then I read in a Slate advice column (of all places) that the weirdest work related questions come from the non profit world. Anyone with insights on this? I imagine that non profits attract certain types of people. However, people working for racial equality would be very different, I think, from someone promoting animal adoption, right?

7) I almost maxed out my retirement last year, and I am counting the catchup amount for people 50+.

I started writing about recent purchases that I love or regret, but that deserves an entire post.

The Art of Doing Less at Work

After some thought, discussion with friends, and good advice from well-meaning internet strangers, I’ve decided to remain at my job for now.

In the meantime, I need to care less about my work and slack off to save my sanity. There is no point in working late or doing my best in this situation.

The problem is that I am not sure how to slack off at work.

I really love my field and enjoy challenging new projects. Even if I can change my mindset, I have a ton of projects with tight deadlines. I can’t delegate my work to someone else.

On the plus side, I don’t think my boss will notice any major changes in work quality and productivity since s/he already focuses on my errors and weaknesses.

Below are the steps I’m currently taking:

1) Make sure I take regular breaks and lunch hour. Do not work past 6:30 p.m. (This is a bit of a gray area since I am frequently interrupted during regular work hours)

2) Don’t come up with new projects for myself.

3) Don’t volunteer for extra work. (Truthfully I’ve stopped doing this long ago because of my boss).

4) When boss asks for different options, come up with three at most and don’t kill myself trying to be super creative. S/he often pushes me (and other team members) to provide more creative ideas and then picks the safest option.

Do you have good tips for doing the minimum at work without jeopardizing your job or reputation?

“Retirement” Countdown

As I mentioned in my last post, I don’t know if I can retire early or if this is a temporary break in my career. I do know that quitting in the middle of a pandemic and recession at the old age of 50 is NOT smart.

From now until my last day, I am taking small steps to make the transition to one income as painless as possible.

1. I looked up my husband’s health plan. It looks fairly comprehensive and affordable but I would need to find new doctors.

2. I cancelled AAA membership. $33 refund coming.

3. At the recommendation of Grumpy Rumblings, I am reading Crucial Conversations, an excellent book about communications. I think it’s too late to make a difference with my boss, but I definitely want to use the book’s tactics in the future.

I have so much to do!

Retired by 50?

Five years ago I wrote a post about retirement at age 50, not by choice (FIRE) but due to a layoff and age discrimination. Now I think early retirement might be in the cards.

First, my company is not doing well this year due to COVID 19. The economic situation looks dire for my sector. Even if the economy rebounds, I think reducing expenses for 2021 will be a company priority.

Secondly, I am not on good terms with my manager.

To sum it up, my boss has a tendency to focus on others’ mistakes – major, minor and imaginary. By imaginary, I am referring to anything s/he perceives as a mistake simply because s/he would have done it differently.

S/he has admitted at times that many of his/her corrections are personal preferences, which would be fine if s/he didn’t view these as mistakes on my part.

There are two sides to every story and I’ve made my share of mistakes. However I am not the first employee to have a strained relationship with this person. One of her/his employees abruptly quit one day after a particularly nasty email from my boss. Two others complained about him/her around the same time, causing a supervisor to express concern about her/his management and communication style. S/he tried to change for a while and then slipped back to old ways.

My confidence has plummeted as a result of this strained relationship. I also have contend with a newer, superstar employee. My boss takes every opportunity to reward and praise her (via employee recognition, public praise in group emails or at meetings with higher ups, etc). I get it. She is hard working, smart, enthusiastic, and very nice. She volunteers for extra projects with a smile.

To the best of my knowledge, my boss hasn’t badmouthed me to others. However I am sure others have noticed the myriad of accolades for one and the dead silence for me and my work.

My mentor has encouraged me to prove my value at work and make myself more visible to others. I have tried on some level and it helps. However, I need to really up my game if I want a chance for a transfer to another manager or get a promotion.

But even before COVID 19, I was on the fence about advancing my career. Now that I’m working from home with two young kids, I am struggling to stay productive. I have two major projects and certainly don’t have time or desire to volunteer for extra projects. My boss is childless and not at all understanding toward working parents.

Part of me really hopes that I land a better job with a great boss. However, my gut feeling is that job searching in your 50s (without managerial experience) is a losing proposition. Another part of me wants to retire and not deal with work-related politics and bull#$!# anymore.

I don’t know if I can muster enthusiasm for any type of office job. The protests have opened my eyes to other possibilities. I could contribute my time and skills to advancing racial justice, instead of selling things to make our company even richer.

The extra time at home also makes me realize I am needed at home. My husband tries his best but patience is not his strong point. I want to grow a vegetable garden, learn to prune, teach my kids, even learn to sew. I don’t want to compete for my boss’s favor and constantly feel second best in a never-ending rat race.

Of course the final piece of the puzzle is finances. Can we afford for me to retire? If medical insurance and cost was not a factor, the answer is maybe. I need to crunch some numbers and figure out what is realistic…

2020 Decluttering Challenge: Mid-year Update

My goal was to get rid of 1 thing a day, or 365 items by year-end. Progress had been slow due to other priorities and difference of opinion with my partner about what stays or goes.

Then Covid-19 happened…

Goodwill stopped accepting donations, I stopped selling on OfferUp, and school closing left us quarantined with super needy, bored kids.

Below is a list of things we’ve gotten rid of in 2020 so far…

  1. Sound system (sold $200)
  2. Guitar (sold $200?)
  3. Heart rate monitor (sold $15?)
  4. Phone wall charger (sold $10?)
  5. Kitchen shelves (sold)
  6. Compact mirror (gifted)
  7. Silk shirt with rips (repurposed)
  8. Bags of kid clothing (sold, donated or trashed depending on condition)
  9. Light fixtures (2, donated)
  10. Toy Blocks (sold $5?)
  11. Guess who Board game (donated)
  12. Kid sneakers (new, sold)
  13. Box of books (donated)
  14. USB drive (gifted)
  15. Notebook (gifted)
  16. Old leather purse (donated)
  17. Ipad case (donated)
  18. Old bedsheets (trash)
  19. 10 year old lip gloss (trash)
  20. Christmas candle (donated)
  21. Laminated picture cards or PECs for ABA (free)
  22. Old backpack (trash)
  23. Old hammock (trash)
  24. Legos (sold $5)
  25. Fencing wood (free)
  26. 5 Terracotta pots (free)
  27. Math books (free)
  28. Two old pairs of men’s shoes
  29. Box of Misc. Kitchen supplies (Offer up)
  30. Car detailing products ($15)
  31. Lawnmower ($200?)
One of the few stock photos showing a man shopping

Below is stuff that we accumulated during the same time period (not including toiletries and necessities). I always try to include taxes in the total.

COVID-19 QUARANTINE Spending begins at item #16.

  1. Large indoor plant ($120?)
  2. Large gray planter
  3. Children books (4 used)
  4. Laptop bag ($27.60 used , eBay)
  5. Fake hedges for privacy ($58)
  6. Recycling bins (2 for $38) because cardboard boxes won’t do
  7. Replacement cellphone for GPS tracking purposes ($50 + shipping)
  8. Child harness
  9. Light fixture for kitchen
  10. Sweater (secondhand, $53 plus shipping)
  11. Athletic sneakers ($100)
  12. Pool noodles
  13. Small heater ($40 new)
  14. Computer keyboard ($38)
  15. 4 sensory friendly bodysuits for kid (on sale! I couldn’t resist)
  16. Two plush toys ($15 new, ebay)
  17. Hammock (new, $40?)
  18. Patio dining table (new, $200)
  19. Patio dining chairs (4 new, $300)
  20. Kid clothes (new $68 total incl. shipping)
  21. Bicycles (2 new, $84 each?)
  22. Small folding table (new, $43, replacement)
  23. Inflatable pool ($101)
  24. Bubble machine ($20)
  25. Electric air pump ($24)
  26. Swim trunks (2 new, $28 total)
  27. Rash guards (BOGO, new, about $16)
  28. Pajama sets (4 new, $46?)
  29. Sneakers (1 pair, new, $40)
  30. Safety latches ($7)
  31. Balloons ($20+)
  32. Balls (2 new, $12)
  33. Overalls (1 used, $40)
  34. Drill attachment
  35. Shrubs and 2 plants ($220)
  36. Shower curtain (new, $60 including shipping and tax; supports independent artists)
  37. File cabinets (2 used, $80)

As you can see, more items came into our household than out. A big decluttering failure. I thought that many of my purchases are secondhand but the list clearly shows that isn’t true. I have to make more effort to buy less and used!

Are you currently decluttering or cluttering your home? Has COVID 19 impacted your spending habits?

Black Lives Matter

I have re-focused my charitable giving to organizations that fight for racial justice, especially for black people. At the same time, I want to continue giving to causes such as special needs, schools/education, domestic abuse, and child abuse.

Anyway my donation list is short, amounts are small, but it will grow… The truth is I probably dropped more money in one zulily.com shopping trip than all the donations below combined.

On non-money related front, I am educating myself to be an ally, following BLM and other similar organizations. I signed up to volunteer but have yet to join a protest. I really hope to join one soon because it is vital that all races show up for this fight.

Like many people, I have been aware of institutional racism and police brutality against black people for years. I was angered by the injustices and lack of accountability for so many lives. Yet until George Floyd, the names of previous black victims and circumstances surrounding their murders disappeared from my mind.

Eric Garner? Something happened in Ferguson. Breonna Taylor. Trayton or Travyton Martin. Arbury, unarmed jogger in Georgia. A man shot in the back at his bachelor party. Man shot in the back at Wendy’s. And so many more.

The George Floyd video is not something you ever forget…Eight minutes of a man being choked to death, gasping his last words, helpless bystanders who yelled but could not do more, four dispassionate murderous cops who may walk free one day.