"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Monday, March 31, 2014

Time or Money?

 Today I read this post on a financial blog I follow called Get Rich Slowly. It talks about work/life balance and the trade-offs of working long hours to make a larger salary. I've spent an awful lot of time thinking about this lately wondering how much money I really need to be content with my life and what I have. Which do I value more - time or money?

That's an easy one for me to answer. I'll take time over money. Of course we all need a certain amount of money to live, and not having enough definitely sucks! But I refuse to be a slave to making money. My mantra has always been "You have to work, to eat, to live." But I definitely don't live to work. My work is a means to an end, which is living my life. I agree with the author that money is just a tool to get us the things we want in life. The trick, or really the challenge, because I think it is a challenge for most people, is learning how to effectively use the tool. 

I've always been pretty good at managing my money and spending conservatively, but last year I was starting to feel pretty stressed about money. I make a decent income, but I will definitely never get rich working where I am and I've always had to carefully budget my money. I'm pretty proud of the fact that I've been able to support myself and my daughter for the last 11 years, including buying a house, with just my salary. We've even been able to go on vacations and enjoy plenty of other fun, frivolous things. But somehow over the last several years I had started to be less vigilant about making and sticking to a budget. Sure, I had one. Sort of. In my head. 

I knew what I had to do and knew how to do it. I needed to put a budget on paper and I needed to follow it. Easy, right? I'm embarrassed to admit how many years it had been since I had an actual, real, tangible written budget. I work at a credit union! We preach budgets. I oversee finding staff to provide or assist with financial literacy training related activities in schools. I have pages about budgeting and debt reduction bookmarked on my computer at work! I know exactly how it's done. And yet, I wasn't doing it, at least not 100%.

I spent most of 2013 half-heartedly creating and tracking my spending on budgets I made in Excel. It never lasted more than a month at a time. I knew I needed a different system. According to my spreadsheets everything should be fine, but I was still feeling pretty stretched most months. So I looked around for a system that would work. After hours of looking at different methods and systems I decided to commit to Dave Ramsey's money management techniques. What he teaches makes so much sense to me. He's all about being debt free. His plan is simple, but that doesn't mean it's easy. 

I created a new budget, and I also created a spending plan so I know exactly what I'm paying out of each paycheck. The thing that helps me the most is using cash with specific amounts for different spending categories in designated envelopes. When it's gone, it's gone. No cheating allowed. If I spend all my grocery cash from one paycheck and need more groceries I can't take cash out of another budget envelope to pay for groceries. Being aware, and knowing I have to pay with the cash I have in my envelope vs. paying with a debit card has made me a committed menu planner and frugal grocery shopper. Spending with cold, hard cash instead of using a card makes a huge psychological difference. It's much harder to spend real money!

The plan is working so far. I've paid off some debts much sooner than I ever thought I would by being very disciplined and focused about my spending. Sometimes it's tedious keeping track of everything in such a detailed way. Occasionally I'm really tempted to take money out of my grocery envelope to pay for a latte when my latte allowance envelope is empty. So far I've only fallen off the wagon once, taking liquor store envelope cash and using it for a chai latte. Liquor. Coffee. Same difference.They're both unnecessary vices, right? At least that's how I justified it to myself. 

I keep reminding myself my short-term sacrifices will be worth it in the long term. Money isn't what I live for. I want my money to work for me so I can enjoy life doing what I want, like traveling more and spending leisure time with the people I love.

What's more important to you? Time or money? Why?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Next Door Neighbors

My next door neighbor died last week. It was a sad day for me, our neighborhood and our community. Dr. Farr was known and loved by hundreds, if not thousands. He practiced as an obstetrician in town for over 40 years. In fact, he delivered some of my siblings. I forget why he didn't deliver me. I think I was too quick for him and he didn't make it to the hospital soon enough. My mom will have to correct me if I'm wrong. 

Our houses are extremely close with only about 15 feet between our side yards. My kitchen window looks directly into theirs, giving me an odd, voyeuristic and intimate view into their life over the years. Their house sits lower than mine, so they can't see into my kitchen from theirs. When I moved in 11 years ago I was leery of having neighbors quite so close. I felt that I was somehow violating their privacy if I even looked their direction when they were in the kitchen. Those fears where soon put to rest when their oldest son, Ricky, waved to me from their kitchen. Ricky is mentally handicapped, so although he's in his late 50's, he functions at a much younger level.

I'll never forget the advice of the woman I bought the house from. She explained to me that Ricky was a talker. He'll talk for hours without any break in a conversation that allows one to say goodbye and walk away. She told me I'd have to learn to just walk away and go in the house when I'd had enough, and promised that he wouldn't be offended. She was right. At first it was a bit of an annoyance, but I quickly learned to appreciate his chatter and company as he followed me around as I worked outside. He's also good for helping lift and carry things that are too heavy for me or need two people to manage. 

Mrs. Farr died about two years ago. She was an incredibly sweet woman who loved to talk and visit. Between her and her husband, I couldn't have asked for better neighbors. On one of my first visits to their house to drop off some holiday treats she brought up my view into their kitchen. I'd always wondered why they didn't have curtains on that window. Their visibility to me didn't bother her one bit. In fact, she told me that the daffodils under their window were planted specifically for the pleasure of one of the previous occupants of my house, as they were a favorite flower of hers. She told me how she watched out for the woman who lived there just before me. She'd lost her husband and a daughter in a horrific car accident and was severely hurt herself. In the months following the accident, Mrs. Farr was very concerned about her. She asked her to get up every morning and turn the light on in her kitchen to signal she was okay. If there was no light, Mrs. Farr knew to come over and help. 

My Lucy and the daffodils under the Farr's window.

I often marveled at the patience and dedication they both showed to their son. Every weekday morning Dr. Farr made him a hot breakfast before Ricky headed off to his job, usually pancakes or french toast and eggs . Saturdays were their days together, which they spent doing yard work and other chores. Up until last fall, Dr. Farr, who was in his mid-eighties, was outside doing his own fall clean-up and keeping his immaculate yard in tip-top shape. 

Watching the routine and rhythms of their daily lives over the years was a pleasure. The predictability of their life brought me comfort. Breakfast was always at the same time. Dr. Farr was often baking and Mrs. Farr talked on the phone a lot, always the social butterfly. On Sundays I'd often hear the scrape of their back door as Dr. Farr came out to the patio to grill something for dinner. In the late fall their window awnings would come down, signaling that winter would soon be upon us. Every spring they went back up, as much a sign of the coming spring as the crocus blooming. Each May their patio filled up with potted annuals, which they would take up to their summer home as soon as the danger of frost was gone. At our annual July 24 street party there was always Dr. Farr's homemade raspberry ice cream for dessert. In the fall he would show up at my side door with a bag of peaches he'd bought from a roadside fruit stand. At Christmastime he would bring over some of his homemade chocolate chip cookies. 

When I stopped seeing Dr. Farr in the kitchen each morning and noticed his daughter and granddaughter at the house every day I knew something was wrong. Within a short time, there were strangers in their kitchen making Ricky's breakfast, home health care aides who were there 24 hours a day. When the light in their main level office was on in the evenings and the middle of the night, I knew Dr. Farr's office had become his bedroom so he would no longer have to take the steep stairs up to his bedroom. The same thing had happened during Mrs. Farr's last weeks when she was on hospice care. All of the signs were there. Something was seriously wrong. My suspicions were confirmed when I ran into their daughter at the grocery store and learned Dr. Farr was suffering from a rapidly advancing form of Parkinson's Disease. I only glimpsed him a few times after that, stooped over at the table and barely able to eat. Ricky was often in the kitchen alone wandering like a lost soul. His breakfasts were solemn affairs now and he often ate alone. It made my heart break. When all of their adult children and grand kids showed up, I knew the end was very close and I watched every morning for signs that Dr. Farr had died. 

Now the house sits empty and still most of the time. When I look into their window I see only darkness. All of their family have returned to their homes. Ricky has moved into his sister's home a few blocks away. He'll be back every week for a while to take the garbages out in the neighborhood, a job he insisted on doing for neighbors around us for several blocks. The house will be sold soon. I'll have to learn to remember when it's garbage day and get my containers to the street. Eventually I'll have new neighbors. I wonder what they'll be like. Will they put curtains up? Will they fit in with our street where we all know just enough of each other's business to know when something isn't right? Will they understand what big shoes they have to fill? For now I'm waiting and hoping for the best.

The view from my kitchen window into the Farr's backyard.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Sharing on StoryCorps

Last fall Mike was contacted by a freelance reporter who was working in partnership with NPR's StoryCorps on a storytelling project for Atlantic Philanthropies. The project would tell stories in several areas of human rights, including deportation and the effect on children of immigrants living in the U.S. During their research for stories to  illustrate the issues they came across some newspaper articles that had been written about Isaac and Mike.

A few weeks later a team of two reporters came to town to interview the two of them. They recorded over two hours of interviews that would be edited and used in the final video. Several weeks after that, Harvey Wang, a photographer/videographer from New York came to Ogden to record video footage. 

Over two days he followed Mike and Isaac around, taking video of them doing a variety of everyday activities. On his last day here he came over for breakfast which was when we discovered he's a very talented photographer and filmmaker with an impressive portfolio of work. He's even won Emmy's! Who knew? Definitely not us, we just knew he was working on the project as a freelancer. 

We introduced him to O-town and its charms, and he kept us entertained with stories about his different projects. He even joined us for Salon Sunday with our group of friends from Foley's MMA Training Center. The group includes some MMA fighters, not the kind of guys you'd expect to find hanging out, drinking beer, and getting salon treatments. Salon Sundays aren't complete until we've had our nostrils waxed. I know, it sounds weird and painful, but don't knock it until you've tried it. After some cajoling, we convinced Harvey to give it a try. Yep, that was one of the Ogden highlights we had to share with the Emmy award winning artist from New York!

After he left we waited, and waited, to see the finished product. Around Christmastime a package arrived with CD's of Mike and Issac's complete interview, a thank you note and some pictures from Harvey. Still no finished project though.

Yesterday, curious and wondering why on earth we hadn't heard anything, I did some searching. Within minutes I found the video on the Atlantic Philanthropies website. As far as I can tell the entire project, which is being produced by a not-for-profit production company called LongHaul, isn't complete yet. But the video is. I think it's great! You can watch it here.