Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Life gets in the way

So I make my big goals for the week on Sunday and then get sick on Monday and have spent the past day and a half lying about in bed, feeling miserable.
Yesterday I managed something like 5 1/2 hours of very distracting time online.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

January is almost over

Taking my computer to work was helpful. I brought it home for the weekend. But overall my productivity was pretty good this week. This weekend is a different story and if they awarded prizes for procrastination, I would be in the running for sure! Getting up early to get on the grownup job track has been difficult, because I would like to continue on the night owl track as well. I can't do both and the more tired I am, the more I am prone to procrastination.

We had our family fiscal meeting today. Overall we are doing pretty good. I need to be more vigilant about bringing food to work and we need to drive less. Our grocery bill was $200 over budget, and we might still have one more trip before the end of the month.

We bought a video camera today. The boys have desperately wanted one, and Luigi consistently is incorporating videos into school problems. They were able to borrow one from school last project, but that was only because Rin was the official video dude for a class assignment. The price of good cameras is disheartening, but Rin did the footwork and found the camera they borrowed from school (and liked) on Amazon, refurbished, for $100.

I am trying to spend 4 solid days at school. This week I might try to flip things on their head and leave my computer at home. Thursday the lure of the internet was strong and I finally had to leave my office (and my computer) and go to other rooms in the building for solid reading time. We have a computer lab I can use if I need to write, and on that computer, I am very focused. Also, even though my laptop is only a couple pounds, add in the cord and it gets a wee bit heavy.

I am going to start keeping a running goal list at the bottom of the post. See how it goes.

Goals for this week:
Finish articles for class one day before class
Go to the gym or walk to and from campus at least 5 times
Finish the first part of my survey
Prep for discussion section the day before class
Grade papers before the weekend
Organize my exam reading lists
Watch a movie

I want to be more of this:

And less of this:

Monday, January 21, 2013

The rabbit hole attention span

One of the best ways I can save us tons of money is to finish my program as quickly as possible and get a real grown up job. When I do I can stop the borrowing and start the earning and paying off. This is at least 2 1/2 years off, if I finish in 5 years total. However, finishing in one's sixth year or later is pretty common. I would like to try to guard against the extra year, due to the above mentioned financial issues.

In the next 7 months, I need to:

Learn 2 bodies of literacy to mastery and take 2 examinations to prove my knowledge
Finish coursework in two classes
Defend my thesis
Write a dissertation proposal
Design and test a survey
Work on articles from my thesis and thesis data
Help keep out finances in order
Prepare and present my work at a conference in March
Find a place to live
Do my research assistant/teaching assistant gig
Help boys with homework and general living issues
Student edit a journal article every couple weeks
Prepare food
Possibly participate in a second research assistantship
Clean some bits of the house
Attend to dogs

Kind of a lot. What stands between me and my success?

Tonight the Dude was playing Scrabble with the boys and I was going to hang out on the couch and read for class. Instead I got sucked into the never ending vortex of the Internet. Ironically enough, I wasted the evening reading productivity blogs. And doing some Facebook chatter. But mostly productivity sites. Random internet use is the number 1 time suck in my life. It is one of the main reasons I refuse to get a smartphone. I am online nearly constantly when I am home. I don't need to carry this pattern out into the world. I also want to contain it in the house.

Biggest problem, hands down. I am a news junkie. I can read news and blogs all day. And each one sends me off to a new link, or I read the comments for that nugget of wisdom. I don't usually comment on them, and I hardly ever game. But news and blogs and other social media takes hours away from my life.

I will be good and on the right track for a day or two. I use RescueTime to track my usage. I use Facebook Nanny and Stay Focused to keep me off of certain websites. When I use these tools properly, they help a lot. But all the tools in the world will be useless if they sit in the shed. I am trying to become better. I have set goals on Rescue Time: at least 4 hours of very productive time and no more than 2 hours of very distracting time every day. I am making myself log in to Rescue Time often during the day. And for the most part, this is helping a lot. Until I run into a day like today, when I simply do not want to work anymore.

I read this great article the other day. I really do feel like my brain has changed and my ability to focus on something, especially if it is boring or difficult, has shrunk in recent years. I think that there are a few things that make the internet a perfect storm for me. I am a news junkie . I can never get enough news and analysis. And there is always more on the Internet. I am a lazy extrovert. I like interacting with people, but I often have trouble taking that step that involves leaving the house. In this way, the internet is perfect. To bastardize Genie: Unlimited information, vast living space. And of course, give my obsessive need to overthink and over research, I am spending vast amounts of time trying to find the perfect time management product, and distraction information.

However, the main problem, and the one I am grappling with most, is the set up of academia. It never turns off. There is no place in the day where the job ends and the leisure time begins. I never clock out. Because of this, I never feel done because I never am done. Let's say I have all the work for my RAship and TAship done, and I am all caught up on my reading for class for the week. Well, now I should be prepping for exams, or working on my survey, or reading for my proposal. See? Never done. I have been in higher education with children in tow for 7 1/2 years now, and I am starting to feel a bit burnt out. Also, there is very little accountability, so I can slack off quite a bit if I want to. And it's not like it matters when I take the time off, because I don't have any kind of set schedule. This lack of accountability coupled with the notion that I am never going to be finished with work, has had some pretty  bad results on my productivity lately. I am looking for that magic bullet to fix this, but I don't think it exists. Good old fashioned will power is what I need. But where can I find it?

I could try monetizing it. Making myself pay a dollar every time I wandered into the depths of the Internet. Because time is money and the more time I waste, the longer I will be a poor grad student. But everyone needs some breaks. And the internet surfing can happen so fast, it is hard to even notice I am falling down a rabbit hole sometimes.

I think though, in another baby step, I am going to leave my computer at my work office. I am pretty productive when I work from there. I am far less likely to mindlessly surf. I have my iPad at home, so I can still read some news and take notes. But I do a lot less on the iPad and it will serve as a good reminder. I am thinking of it as an early Lenten sacrifice. Although I am not a churchgoer, I am a fan of Lent. I will let you all know how it goes.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Things to do while bored

In my last post, I mentioned our new list of activities. This is now posted on the refrigerator and may give the boys some ideas when they are feeling bored.

We have also created a shared dropbox folder where all family meeting notes and documents go, so they can pull this up there as well, if they like :)

Things to do
Choose a chore
Go downtown
Practice instrument
Board game
Card game
Play with dogs
Draw comics
Create a game
Learn/teach how to draw
Model building
Bike repair
Bike riding
Science experiments
Listen to music
Take a walk
Walk the dogs
Learn a skill
Write and perform a play
Magic tricks
Do SAT practice books
Learn a new math skill
Read a classic
Nerf gun battle
Write a letter

Socks and computer stuff (two great posts rolled into one!)

As I mentioned last week, socks get eaten here. It is also cold, not getting above 30 degrees all week. I decided to go sock hunting. We are fans of thick socks, which cost more.
A little online sleuthing netted me a deal! I perused the clearance bin and found 2 packs of heavy socks for $4.35 a pack, when we added in shipping. Happy me, I planned to get 20 packs, which would give each family member 8 pairs. I was pretty happy about this, and ran it past the Dude. He was a little weirded out at spending $85 on socks, but also saw the wisdom in bulk buying and the overall savings. We would spend all that and more if we bought them in the store.

I forgot about placing the order for a couple of days and then went back to visit. The sale price was due to two separate promotion codes, and one had expired. Sadness. I put the order in the cart anyway, to see what the total was. Well, now that one coupon code was gone, my order now hit the $75 total needed to trigger 30% off my entire purchase!The socks now went down to $65 total with shipping, or $1.66 per pair! Happy dance. Of course the boys then tell me that they don't like the socks. But, there should be enough of the older socks around, now that 2 or 3 of us will be wearing the new socks. Did I mention that my entire family has the same shoe size range and socks are interchangeable here?

In other news, report cards are coming out soon, and some boys who will remain unnamed are sweating it out to get decent grades. These are really smart boys, but seem to have trouble with focusing. They (we) are all spending way too much time connected to little electronic screens as well. At 1 this morning, while sitting up with a boy who was cramming in an assignment before Monday, I came up with a list of new house rules. I would be a lot less frustrated about this if this assignment wasn't assigned months ago. Or if during the many times over winter break I asked him about it, he would have gotten in touch with his teacher to find out exactly what he needed to do. Anyway, I a posting the list here in case anyone else is dealing with this and needs ideas. I will update to let you know how it is working.

C+ or below on a report card-lose recreational electronic time for 1 semester
C+ or below on Skyward Access*-lose recreational electronic time until grade improves
First thing on the computer-check Skyward Access and check library account
Note missing assignments, renew books, gather those that are due
Missing assignment-email or speak with teacher immediately to find out what it is and how to make it up
Finish homework, play instrument, do chore, then you can have computer time
2 hours on electronics per weekday-maximum
No electronics after 9 pm
On weekends-2 hours base time-want more time? Earn it with chore, playing outside(all boys), reading (Luigi), math practice(Magnus or Rin) or extra instrument time
*Skyward Access is the computerized gradebook the schools use now, parents and students can log on and access grades, missing assignments, lunch accounts, attendance. It is not perfect, but it helps a lot. 

Each family member signed it and it is now posted on the refrigerator. Also on there is a chore list broken down into short, medium, and long; a calendar for boys to check off when they have completed a chore for the day, and a list of "what to do when I am bored."I will include that list in its own post. We had a long meeting this morning to discuss new expectations. We are setting up homework accounts on each computer. They must use that account while they are doing their homework, and it will have leechblock or Stay focused, depending on their browser. 
I am struggling to find this balance in my own life. We have not had a TV for years and years, because we found it too big a time waster. Once we got rid of it, there would be an adjustment period, and then it was okay. But the computer, you can't just get rid of it. The boys do school assignments on them, they have creative activities, be it blogging, deviant art, making Minecraft mods. Luigi is currently teaching himself Java. Rin has mad programming skills, and wants to work in that field when he is grown up. I need it to do my school work, and to maintain this lovely blog. We bill pay on it. But it is so hard to place limits around it. Every quick check of email or facebook adds up. One article links to another, links to another. And then there are all those cats. And netflix! It becomes harder and harder to shut it down. 
And we don't even have smart phones. I see how ubiquitous those become in people's lives. I was standing and waiting for the bus the other day. It was cold and it was snowing. There were maybe 10 other people there, and we waited for 10-15 minutes. In that time, I saw two people pull out their phones to take pictures of themselves. One picture taker was with a friend and cold and bummed about standing there. A bus had come and they had hoped to get on it, but the bus was full and they had to wait longer. She was laughing and talking with her friend, but then she pulled out her phone and they both made sad faces for the picture she took. Even though she was laughing the whole time, right after she took the picture, she said, "I am really not having fun here." I found this interesting-her performance for facebook altered her perception of her current state of mind. I am surely reading too much into it and I know it wasn't that black and white for her, but I found it striking nonetheless. So, dear readers, I would love to hear about the parameters you have surrounding personal computers, tablets, and smartphones in your lives, for yourselves and your children. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Organization and saving money

I am learning the hard way how expensive disorganization can be.
Last year (sometime) we discovered that a camera cannot go through the washing machine and come out functional. It just doesn't happen. So, when a camera is left in a pocket and that pocket endures the heat, agitation, and wetness of a washer and dryer, the pocket's owner may need to buy a new camera. We found a good price on a camera that got good reviews. This was a painful purchase, since we had just bought the now really clean but non-functioning camera 3 or 4 months before that. Nevertheless, we bought the new one for around $200. It has been a great camera. A bit bulky, but it takes good pictures. Until it started to have a malfunction. The camera believes the lens cap is still on and so won't wake up properly. We called a camera shop and they told us we should find our warranty and receipt and get in touch with the manufacturer. Ah, but there is the problem. We cannot find the receipt. The dude saves receipts like nobody's business, but we are missing everything from March through October. Just gone. No envelopes for those months, no receipts anywhere. So, we decided to go through credit card and bank accounts to find it. They handily track purchases now. Apparently, we paid for this in cash (???)

In the meantime, we were missing the ability to take photos. We have prepaid dumb phones that do not snap high quality pics. Tablets are awkward cameras. Rin has been asking for a video camera. So we found a super cheap one and bought it for him with the stipulation that we could use it until we get our camera fixed. Sadly, this video camera takes terrible pictures. Rin doesn't like it at all. So, we decided to return it. Okay, and where is the receipt? Who knows! Finally, after a week of searching, we located it in the Dude's still unpacked overnight bag. So, at least one problem is solved. But we still haven't found the warranty info on the other camera. Also, I had purchased printer paper that had a rebate and promptly lost the receipt and paperwork. A couple of days ago, the Dude went to Ace to buy Rin a pair of YakTrax (seriously one of the best products ever if you live in icy country) and forgot the $5 off coupon that has been sitting in my desk basket for a month. We are going to take the receipt and coupon in and see if they will work a deal with us. I lost so much money to Rite Aid by forgetting to keep track of the rewards dollars. We bought the boys each a pair of ice cleats, similar to Yak Trax, but cheaper and smaller, since they only go around the front of the foot, not the whole foot. We didn't have a set place to put them, and two pairs are now missing. We bought Rin a pair of YakTrax because the other kind weren't fitting his feet well, but I was fine with an extra pair of these kicking around. Now we are missing 2 pairs. At $10 each, this makes me sad. Never mind the things that we have to buy again because we think we don't have any. And the socks. Oh the socks. Our household eats socks. It is very scary.

I have decided to try to fix some of this. I have pinned a very large envelope to our message center by the front door.

This is the coat rack that greets you at the front door.

This now lives on the end of it. 

 I will force myself to place every receipt I come across into this envelope. The Dude can move them to his envelopes as need be.  But when we have to search for one, they will be in one or two places, not in various bags and baskets throughout the house. I have designated a shoe box by the front door as the place for yak trax and ice cleats. I have hung the Ace Calendar on the message center so we can find and remember the coupons. I need to come up with a system for other coupons as well.

We have started tying allowance to chores. Not specific chores, but they need to be contributing to the household tidiness if they wish to receive allowance. This can be simple to elaborate. If someone has a lot of homework, they can pick up socks and put them in the hamper. If they don't have homework, they will need to do something like clean the kitchen or bathroom. Having them each do their part will help keep the house organized without so much work and will also help them get in the habit of cleaning as they go. I need to find a way to create a list of possible chores and check when they have completed theirs each day. Maybe an app.

Hopefully these will small changes will help get our lives in order and bring our bills down.

This is our lovely but non-working fireplace

And here is the little dogs' new bed. An old box and a pillow by the fire (which is also next to the heater). They are happy. 


Saturday, January 5, 2013

For these I am grateful

Ever have one of those moments? You are in the shower and suddenly awash with gratitude? Well, maybe you are just awash with water and soap, but I find gratitude. We are poor as a family of church mice, but we are so fortunate. I was standing in the shower and thinking about

The hot water that comes right from the tap. Turn the dial, bam! Hot water. What a miracle. We can shower every day, three times a day if we want to.

Here are some other things that fill me with gratitude. Of course, I am grateful for health and love and my awesome family. But this post is specifically about modern miracles and conveniences that we in the States often take for granted. They are not universal rights, and many of them did not exist 150 years ago.

Trash service

Right out the front door, we put our garbage and recycling, and these guys just take it away. No living side by side with our garbage, no need to burn or bury toxic waste in our back yard. I realize there is a lot wrong with our current system of trash disposal, but still I am grateful for this service. And as more cities offer things like curbside recycling, the options get better.

Grocery stores

Exotic and mundane foods live side by side, ready for purchasing. We do not need to hunt and gather unless we choose to. Years ago, families would have to carefully plan their trips to the trading post to stock up on staples. Now we have an overwhelming decision to make each time we want to buy mustard.

Clean drinking water

It seems like such a simple, automatic thing. Turn the knob, fill a glass, and drink. If I am feeling fancy, I will add ice. Or a lemon wedge. But there are millions of people in the world who lack access to this most basic need. I am profoundly grateful for clean, regulated water.

What comes in must go out. Next on my list, indoor plumbing

Although the concept has been around for a long time, indoor plumbing as a household necessity is new and definitely not worldwide. The convenience of staying in the warm house in the middle of the night is wonderful. Sharing 1 bathroom with 4 other people is a drag sometimes, but it is nothing compared to the one toilet shared by 11 households that lived in a lane in Limerick, Ireland. But of course, the true joy is in the sanitation system that magically carts the waste away. This saves us all from all sorts of terrible diseases.


Flip a switch, the light goes on. Magic. This magic allows for other magic.

Indoor cooking

Regulated  temperatures, lots of cooking space, no fire to make, right inside and next to the refrigerator.
We even have a microwave that can heat dinner in minutes.


Not our dogs, but they share the sentiment.No firewood to gather, no cold mornings, just set the thermostat and go on with our lives.

What once looked like this

And was a marvel
Now looks like this

And this

And is a marvel

And of course add this

And you have the most incredible tool ever-news, connections around the world, Netflix! Cats!

All of these wonders are housed in my house, and my house is next.
Even though we are surviving on two small incomes and a student loan, we are still able to afford to live in a house that is adorable and fits us all.

There is more of course: cars, lights, health care, travel. The list goes on and on. Even at the bottom of the income barrel, we live abundantly. For this I am grateful. I know that, even in this country, not everyone has these luxuries.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Grocery day

We are trying to bring the grocery bill down. Last week we did a really big shop, so this week it was more fill in. We stayed in town and only hit three stores-the IGA, Safeway, and Dollar Tree. The Dude and I both went through our Safeway Just 4 U cards and got our best deals. Luigi wanted cereal, and had quite the conversation with us about the importance of buying cereal and the types he was hoping for. The IGA had a sale on cereal. We got a few boxes, some at $2.50 a box, some at $2 a box. I decided that I would talk to him about cereal, but bought it today because I told him I would. I headed to the milk aisle. In our area, $3 or more per gallon has been the norm, although lately we have been able to find it on sale for $2.50 a gallon pretty consistently. I was planning to pick up some milk for $2.89 a gallon. However, when I got to the aisle, I saw a handwritten sign that said marked milk was 50 cents. I was feeling pretty happy, 50 cents off $2,89 is a good price. However, a closer look revealed that the milk was 50 cents. It was for gallons with a sell by date of today. I did a small happy dance, and grabbed a few

We are freezing those we can't use right away (currently on my back porch, which is below freezing) but I expect that this will last us about a week. We go through milk pretty quickly. My 7 gallons cost $3.50, or what a gallon typically costs when not on sale.

We went to the Dollar Tree for toilet cleaner and I found some cereal there, 14 ounce boxes for $1. I got 2. We picked up a light for our lava lamp, a bottle of spray cleaner as well as the toilet cleaner, and a few bags of sugar free hard candy, which is our South Beach indulgence (40 pounds lost and holding!). At Safeway, we got some produce and scored some turkey sausage on clearance for 75% off. This brought it down to a dollar a pound. We stocked up.

This afternoon I had the cereal talk with the boys. It went like this: You asked me to buy cereal, so I bought lots of different kinds. However, we have to rethink our use of cereal. That is $15 in cereal. We are trying to spend around $90 per week on all groceries, and so $15 represents a significant portion, and it is basically snack food. For instance, this box of Honeycomb was $2.50. You all can eat that in about day (realistically, the three of them can blow through a box in one sitting). And it isn't just cereal, there is also milk. So, let's say you had that for breakfast. $2.50 for a box of cereal and $1.50 for half a gallon a milk if it is $3. That is $4.00 for breakfast for the three of you and you will need to eat something else soon because cereal is not going to fill you up for long. Compare that with bagels. We pay $1.85 for 6 bagels. Add half a package of cream cheese for an additional 50 cents and the whole family has a filling breakfast for $2.35, with a bagel left over. We need to start considering cereal as occasional treat food, not a staple. Granola is okay because we tend to sprinkle it on yogurt, not gulp it by the bowlful.(We have made a few attempts at making our own granola and they have failed, but if we can find a substitute for granola, we will). From now on, I will no longer spend more than $1 (or maybe $1.50) on a 13-15 ounce box of cereal. When we do buy it, you will need to make it last.

Luigi asked if we can occasionally buy more expensive cereals and I said yes occasionally. The Dude chimed in and told them they need to make this cereal purchase last 2 weeks. They were all pretty amiable about it. We will see how it goes in the long run, but I think this is a good start. In other good news, Rin has figured out that it would be easier to set aside half of his allowance as soon as he gets it, in order to save. We told him we can take it right off the top, so he wouldn't even have the temptation of the money. He said he would need some kind of documentation from us as to where the money is (smart kid :) ) but thought that could work. He is 13 and already embracing the principle of "pay yourself first."
And I will leave you with this photo of the littlest dog in our lives, the little red monster who is the most fiercely loyal dog I have ever met. Ms. Lucy Lu. I am including this picture for no reason at all except that she is adorable and looks so noble in this photo.

Lucy is commanding us to hand over that extra bagel!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Musings on poverty

I have been thinking about American perceptions of poverty.

We value it and we despise it
We watch movies about the poor at Christmas, and the Christmas story is based on a poor family whose child was born in a barn. We watch, we listen, we sigh, and we go out and spend spend spend to give our families a little bit of materialism for Christmas. I think many of us have overdone and overspent, feeling regret after the event, although maybe not of this magnitude.

We look at the families who make do with less-either Americans from long ago or those who struggle to feed their families in many parts of today's world. We think them noble and wonderful. However, when we have o have a poor day, yuck we feel terrible! Like we are not fully citizens if we cannot go out and shop. We judge those who struggle to make ends meet in this country-they must be lazy, or stupid, or addicted, or lacking morals, or all of the above. We are bombarded with advertisements about all the cool and wonderful stuff that will make us better people if only we buy it. Then we get mad at the poor for wanting it and buying it. They are being irresponsible with their money. Unlike the middle class Americans who live comfortable lifestyles but have credit card and mortgage debt and are just a few paychecks away from devastation.

Americans like to spend thousands of dollars to visit countries where poor people live. This is often a life changing experience that causes them to reconsider their relationship with money and stuff. However, the irony of spending the money to have the trip often seems lost. Also, I rarely hear about people having the same life changing experiences when they drive through poor neighborhoods near their homes.

We want to teach our children the value of thrift and frugality, but then we get iPhones for our 13 year old children. In the letter, the mom writes: "You are a good and responsible 13-year-old boy and you deserve this gift." While I think the sentiment is normal, I caution parents to think about tying deservedness to iPhones and other gadgets and gizmos. We should be careful not to wrap a person's worth in the stuff we can give. Do the poor lack material goods because they do not deserve them? When a kid is a struggling 20 something, are they more likely to put those goodies on the credit cards they can't afford because they "deserve it?" I think that the idea that we should buy stuff because we deserve it is a common one in our society, and one that advertisers feed into consistently. But we are also constantly hearing about the fiscal cliff, the crappy economy, and the environmental and human rights abuses that go hand in with modern consumption. Maybe this dichotomy contributes to the high percentages of mental health issues in our country? We have all these conflicting messages and no way to sort them out properly. I know that, for me, the conflicting messages are sometimes at the heart of my bad money decisions, and I plan to try to unearth them when I am about to slip away from my financial goals. Hopefully this will help me stay on the frugal path.