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)
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 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.

I Don't Wanna Pay…

I complain about costs a lot and for good reason. However I also have a selfish reason for my anger against the current system.

Sometimes it isn’t about my inability to pay a high medical bill; it’s that I simply don’t want to…in the same way I don’t want to spend more than X amount for a leather purse. (My personal purse price threshold is $300 but I only paid that much one time)

Of course there is an obvious difference between healthcare and consumer goods/services. You can easily walk away from a pretty purse; it is not so easy (or wise) to walk away from a specialist visit or medical testing ordered for your benefit.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of my cousins saved big bucks on a MRI when she bypassed the insurer-approved radiology lab and went to a profit-drive MRI center that advertised $250 per test.

Most people with insurance, however, will go to the doctor-recommended radiology lab. They will likely pay even more than someone without insurance who gets a “cash price”. Healthcare providers routinely set higher prices to offer discounts to insurance companies. To me, it is no better than price gouging.

“…Good people….have inherited a bad system of jacking up prices each year for the purpose of offering bigger discounts to insurers….Itemizing their true true cost to calculate a real price has never been required by the market.” Marketwatch
Image by Pixabay on

Sure, there are business costs for operating a medical practice. However, operating costs alone do not explain the disparity in pricing. If you want to compare apples to apples, search for a medical procedure and average pricing in your area. You will be astounded by the wide range of prices.

Healthcare providers don’t offer a consistent reason for their pricing practices. And because healthcare pricing is shroud in secrecy, they do not have incentive to offer competitive prices.

Most Americans probably feel that the radiology lab and other healthcare providers are entitled to make a profit. However the question is how much is enough….10% profit? 50%? 1000% or higher? A transparent marketplace would allow consumers to compare and give incentive to offer fairer prices.

As I said, it is the lack if transparency and unjustifiable high prices that bothers me the most. I’d rather spend my hard-earned money on a pair of shoes…No, just kidding. I would probably spend it on home renovations.

How to save hundreds on a MRI

Hopefully you never have to get a brain or spine MRI. However if your doctor recommends one, you should know that you can save hundreds by choosing a for-profit MRI center.

I didn’t even know about low-cost MRI options until recently. Like many Americans, I would have gone to the radiology lab referred by my doctor, or at least one that is in-network with my insurance company.

That reasoning made sense in the good old days, when your insurance company co-pay would likely be the best deal. If someone has pricing amounts from 10 or so years ago, let me know!

Nowadays, many people pay through the nose even if they have employer-sponsored health insurance, especially those with high deductible plans (HDP). As the name indicates, HDP insurance plans have low premiums but high deductibles (a specified amount of money that the insured must pay before an insurance company will pay a claim). It is intended to incentivize people to compare prices for healthcare services.

One of my favorite cousins has a high deductible plan with a 30% co-insurance for most services, including MRIs. While she is young and in fairly good health, last year she experienced mysterious dizzy spells. Her doctor recommended a MRI.

My cousin called several in-network radiology labs for pricing. No one could or would give her an exact price. The cost would depend on a variety of factors: 1) Negotiated price they billed to the insurance company, which varied widely; 2) the individual’s co-insurance, co-pay and deductible; 3) medical code used; and 4) the biller’s mood that day. (#4 is kind of a joke).

When she went for a second opinion, her new doctor requested another MRI. I forget the reasoning for a 2nd scan but almost a year had passed since her first MRI.

At that point, my cousin had already paid $520 out of pocket for the first MRI and could not afford another costly scan. After some research, she found several for-profit MRI center with good online reviews that charged $200 – $250 for the same scan — basically a 50% saving!

My cousin reported that the facilities and personnel were very good. Her doctor had no issue with the MRI, which means that the quality was good.

A quick Google search for ‘low cost MRI’ pulled up a half dozen results, including Radiology Assist, Nationwide MRI and Affordable MRI. I can’t vouch for any of these so be sure to do your own research.

I wonder if other lab services, such as mammograms or biopsies, have for-profit options that cost less than insurance. As shown by my cousin’s experience, it never hurts to look for alternatives!

Down the Slippery Spending Slope…Mostly due to COVID 19

It has dawned on me that ALL my recent big purchases are resulting in additional purchases. And it’s not a good feeling for an aspiring minimalist/ frugalista / zero-waster like me.

I bought a kiddie pool, which is overpriced due to high demand. Then I had to buy an air pump to inflate the pool. Now that I have the air pump, I am experiencing inflatable infatuation (a common disease among suburban parents). I can keep my kids occupied all summer… There are inflatable slides, bouncy houses, punching bags, pool toys, water sprinkler splash pads, and giant roller wheels waiting for their forever home!

I blame Covid 19 for the inflatable pool. My spouse and I have always been content with swim lessons at the local YMCA. Now we have an obnoxious giant kiddie pool in the middle of our lawn.

Unfortunately, the pool was only the beginning. I’ve since purchased new bikes for the kids. Then I found out that air pumps for bikes are different than those for large inflatable pools. Oh and I need to buy new helmets…

We also bought new patio chairs, which required new cushions. To protect our pretty chairs and cushions, I bought teak oil, chair covers and a patio umbrella.

I’m totally blaming Covid-19 for my indiscriminate shopping spree. The kids are destructive when bored. My husband and I have more time to stare at our neglected backyard. I just hope our spending returns back to normal once schools and camps and YMCAs are allowed to open again, whenever that might be.

Has COVID 19 changed your spending habits for the worse?