Friday, July 1, 2011

Hitting Bottom. Softly (or so we hope)

The van is cleaned, photographed, and listed on Craigslist. We've gotten several calls. The price we have listed is reasonable, but so far most people want us to knock off a couple thousand. We may do that, but not right away. My goal is to have it sold by the middle of the month, so we don't have to take a low-ball offer right away.

I've gotten everything that was overdue completely caught up, so I feel pretty good about things at the moment. We have three pay checks including today's to work with before we go to unemployment. Or that's what we think. Now his job is hemming a hawing about whether or not Friday is his last day.

We don't intend, at this point, to turn down any work they offer, but the uncertainty is unsettling. We fear they will put him in a situation where he has no choice but to quit and then we will be unable to collect unemployment. Hoping that's not what's going on, but the company appears to have changed in the year he was not with them and we aren't sure what they might be capable of now.

Someone is here to look at the van. Wish us luck!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Chutes and Ladders . . . And Chutes

We got some bad news yesterday. My husband is laid off again. He was laid off just about a year ago, so it's a little like a recurring nightmare. After last year's lay off, he got a job again really quickly, but it turned out that the company maintained it's equipment very poorly. My husband is a truck driver and if he gets pulled over in a truck that violates DOT rules, the citations he gets would come out of his own pocket and would go on his personal driving record. This would be expensive for our family and make it hard to get a job in the future. The company also did not have proper safety equipment and the work was dangerous, both long term (black lung) and short term (one of the men he worked with had bars in his leg from an on the job accident and another had been left in a tank until he had heat exhaustion). So we decided he should leave that job before something bad happened. They contested his unemployment and won.

He took a temporary job. The work was fine and paid well, but they job ended and the only other work the temp company could offer included an hour and a half commute -- not practical when the standard trucking working day is 14 hours. Finally, we decided there was no getting around it. He was going to have to drive over the road. He was home about a day and a half each week. He was living on soup and canned beans, but we were still just scraping by. We do not want to do that again. It wasn't worth it.

We were delighted when the company he had been laid off from last year called and offered him a job again. That was a little over three months ago. Then, last week,  they decided to move the route around, too far for him to commute. They were kind enough not to try to screw him out of unemployment, so we have that, at least.

So here we are. Square One. Again. It's getting old. We've tried our best and the bottom just keeps falling out. We aren't entirely sure what we are going to do. We think we want to sell the Dodge Caravan. We think we can get a couple thousand for it and that will be a nice cushion. Once the last paycheck comes, I will go apply for foodstamps and whatever else we can get, including SSI for our sons.

We may take my financial aid and our tax refund in the spring and buy a small, cheap house for cash. It will be crowded with six of us, but owning something outright would reduce our expenses and provide more security. Something small would also require less energy to heat and cool. I do not know if we will be able to sell our current house. It's possible. We might have to take a few thousand less than we owe on it, but a few thousand is better than fifty thousand. We don't have to make any decisions right away.

In the meantime, I called the cell phone company to see if we could cancel any of our lines. We have five lines, but only a 550 minute plan because we really don't talk a whole lot to anyone outside of our immediate family. They took off one line and since we've been customers for quite a few years, they also gave us a $250 credit on our bill. Since I already paid this month's bill, we shouldn't have to pay another cell bill until October.  I also changed our auto insurance from comprehensive to liability. Once we only have the 90-something Ford Focus on it, the bill will go down more. It's going to be a pain because the Focus only seats five and there are six of us, but other than church, it's rare that we all go anywhere together. Most of us are homebodies and the kids are now middle school and up and prefer to stay home when I'm out and about. I am going to change Netflix to just on demand next. It's only a few dollars, but a few dollars can mean having toilet paper or not having toilet paper and I'm a big fan of having toilet paper.

I'm also planning on a household stuff purge. We have a lot of books and some movies and video games that we can probably sell on Need to go through kitchen stuff, furniture, clothes, shoes, etc. The cash will come in handy and it will make a move a lot easier, especially a move to a smaller place. I don't have a lot of material things I'm emotionally attached to, but one of the daughters is quite the pack rat. I warned her about the possibility of getting rid of stuff today so that she can start getting used to the idea and start thinking about which things she loves and which she can part with. The other kids have purged pretty well already because we switched everybody's bedrooms around a couple of months ago and threw a lot of stuff out in the process.

Last year, when the lay off happened, we dropped the cable and the land line, so can't really cut there. I turned the thermostats on one of the window AC units. I think my husband would notice if I turned the other one up, so I've left it alone for now. I might start clothes-pinning laundry to the fence to get out of using the dryer. We will hang on to internet access until the bitter end. We're paying $40/mo for that now and I don't think I can get it for much less than that.

When we got our tax refund in the spring, I paid for six months World of Warcraft for the guys and the funny thing is, in all of this, my twelve year old is more concerned about losing World of Warcraft than he is about losing the van or having to move to a house where he doesn't have a bedroom.

My husband is very discouraged. He has been working sixteen hour days five days a week for several weeks, so he is exhausted, as well. He does not know what he wants to do yet, but he is going to be more cautious about taking the first job he can get because last time it didn't work out well. He feels as though he was punished for trying to do the right thing, and I can't say I disagree with him.

So I guess we'll see what happens.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On A Brighter Note

Okay, that last post today was kind of a bummer. Not very helpful, either. Here are things I've recently discovered that could be helpful.

Sam's takes food stamps now. I don't know how long they have been doing it, but I just learned this in the last month or so. Also, if you have one person in your family that does most of the grocery shopping, you can split the cost of membership with a friend. Each of you get a Sam's card for around $20/year. Next time my husband is feeling perky enough to make a Sam's trip with me, I'm taking him off our membership and putting a friend of mine on. She has a large family and takes a lot of her older relatives grocery shopping and they use food stamps, so it might work out well for them. With stores like that, it really depends what you buy whether or not it's a good deal. For some families it is, for other families it might not be.

Second thing is frozen chopped green bell peppers. Fresh green bell peppers are on sale at my local Kroger for 89¢ a piece right now and that's a really good deal. They normally run well over a dollar each. In the freezer section, store brand frozen veggies go on sale for a dollar a bag pretty regularly. This is when I buy my chopped frozen green bell peppers. I do not know exactly how many peppers are chopped up in the bag, but I'm pretty sure it is more than one. They are already chopped, they aren't going to go bad if you forget to use them. It's hard to beat that.

Another thing I've done off and on when I've halfway got my act together is to take snacks and a drink when I have to run errands. Even if I go through the drive through and order off the dollar menu and only buy a sandwich and a drink, I'm going to be spending a couple of bucks. With just a little planning ahead, I can take a bottle of water or tea or whatever and a ziploc bag of pretzels along. It's not a meal. It's not delicious. It's not healthy. It is, however, cheaper and probably healthier than a double cheeseburger and a coke. It takes the edge off and helps me to wait until I get home to eat. When my kids were smaller and I took them nearly everywhere with me, it was more of a challenge, but still well worth the trouble when I was able to manage it. Drink bottles can be a pain to clean, but I found wide mouth, durable, plastic drink bottles in the camping department at Walmart. They can be cleaned pretty easily with a bottle brush.

Mixed Results

Well, it worked. Sort of. As of yesterday (Tuesday), we are broke. Actually, I have two dollars in my wallet. We have groceries. The gas tank is full. My husband has his weekly $20 for lunches on the road.

In addition to the planned costs, I bought a second audiobook, and got my and my daughter's hair cut. Waited until Monday to do the haircuts and yesterday to buy the book. It's not great, but it's better.

We will spend less time broke than usual, but there is still plenty of room for tweaking. I love to listen to audiobooks while I work around the house, but they are stinking expensive. I'm going to have to find a work around for that. I'm going to have to pay off our big overdue bill at the public library so I can access the audiobooks they have there. I will only use the ones I can download online (assuming I can figure out how to use their complicated-looking system) then when I get my laptop fixed, I will check them out, download the book only my laptop right there in the library, then turn the book back in. It's just better if I don't borrow expensive things from others. It's too easy for me to mess things up.

I also think I'm going to have to come to terms with the grocery bill. No matter what I do, I can't seem to get things much below $200/week. I keep banging my head against the wall trying to get it lower and it just seems to hover there. It seems like a lot of money. It is a lot of money. But I've seen some stuff online lately about the "Food Stamp Challenge" being done to raise awareness of hunger in America and I realize that we are really not that far off from doing the food stamp challenge every week, even though our family does not receive food stamps. For the Food Stamp Challenge, a person attempts to feed themselves and/or their family on the average food stamp allowance. They generally aim for $3-4/day per person. That's the average, so it works on the assumption that you are paying for part of your groceries out of pocket. That makes the challenge a little inaccurate, but not by a whole lot.

In my state, for example, the maximum food stamp benefit for a family my size is a bit over $900 a month. So it would be more accurate to call it $5/day. That would be $210/week for our family. We are actually doing pretty good because our $200 includes all household spending, including cleaners, paper products, toiletries, and pet food/kitty litter. So I probably need to just accept that it's a reasonable amount to spend and live with it. I know I could get it lower if I could cook stuff I would eat, but when you have people with autism in your household, you have to work with that.

I will keep trying to do the best I can to keep our food expenses down, but I'm going to stop driving myself crazy with it and just budget $225 for food and household expenses. I will, instead, try to work on quality, ease (I will be returning to school in August and time will be at a premium), and using my ability to plan, etc to avoid eating out.

Anyway, I feel a little discouraged because, though I do need to make some cuts on the non-food spending, it's not realistic to reduce spending on our biggest expense - food. I feel vindicated because the reason I'm having trouble reducing it is because, objectively, it really is hard to do, not because I'm a loser spend-thrift (well, at least not on groceries).

At this point, I believe we have cut our fixed expenses to the point that they can reasonably cut them. This allows me to get a realistic look at our budget and, even if I don't like how it looks, I can see where we are in relation to where we want to be. I'll be honest, it's not looking good for the home team. Even doing everything right, our retirement income is going to be low. The odds of Social Security being viable when we retire is also looking grim. And the scary part, to me, is that we are lucky. There are many, many people much worse off than we are. By retirement, our home will almost certainly be paid off and we, hopefully, will have something put back for retirement. For a lot of people, this just isn't possible. There aren't enough jobs and the jobs there are don't pay enough to live on.

Okay. I'm going to stop thinking about this for now. I'm going to put on my headphones, listen to my book, and wash the huge pile of dishes left over from attempting to make homemade Hot Pockets yesterday.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Enemy Number One

Over the past few years, I have discovered that I am a bit of a rare beast -- a religious conservative with liberal political beliefs. I won't go into all the details of why I don't find the two contradictory or how being what I am puts me in the dog house with both groups, the religious conservatives far more often that the political liberals, it pains me to say. That would be fodder for my other blog, if I am ever feeling that brave.

Anyway, I'm a Liberal, so you can just guess how I feel about corporate greed, etc. I don't like it one bit, but as much as I blame the top 1% for a lot of the problems many of the rest of us are facing right now, there really isn't a lot I can do about them on a day-to-day basis. Much closer, and more addressable is the financial enemy that lives in my very own skin. Me.

I spent the better part of my childhood and have spent most of my adult years in some level of poverty. Poverty is more than not having very much money. Poverty messes with your head. When you are always and foreseeably behind the eight ball it gets very, very hard to keep a long-range mentality going. It becomes very easy to think "No matter what I do, I lose, so I might as well do what I want." It leads to a feast and famine cycle and that cycle is self-perpetuating. If you have regular income, be it a monthly government check, food stamps, or a weekly paycheck if you've been broke for awhile and are feeling deprived, it's mighty hard to use restraint and self-discipline when you get those food stamps or that check.

I've gotten pretty good about paying bills first and, unless I really let my gears slip and hit the bookstore too soon, food and gas second. I don't use credit cards, so I'm not digging us a high interest hole that way. But Friday's paycheck is usually gone without a trace by Saturday night, even when we should have had some left over and our emergency fund is non-existent. When you have no emergency fund the first little thing to go wrong is going to either put you very behind or completely cripple you. Not a good place to be.  

If you find yourself in a feast and famine cycle, don't feel alone. You aren't the only one.  According to one theory, self-control is a depletable resource. If you are struggling to make ends meet, you can use up a lot of that resource really quickly, making it harder to make good long-range choices than it would be for someone of greater means. "Many of the tradeoff decisions that the poor have to make every day are onerous and depressing: whether to pay rent or buy food; to buy medicine or winter clothes; to pay for school materials or loan money to a relative. These choices are weighty, and just thinking about them seems to exact a mental cost."

If you are looking for an excuse, that one is as good as any. I don't want an excuse though, I want an emergency fund. I love information like this for a couple of reasons. One, it helps me to feel less like a bum and two, it helps me work around myself so that I can achieve whatever goal I'm working towards. It sort of allows me access to my own control panel so that I can try to tweak my default settings, so to speak.

My current default setting is to get up Friday morning, check the bank account, transfer the cash for the mortgage payment to the proper account, subtract cash for gas, groceries, etc to get through a typical week and divide the rest between the bills, prioritizing by most urgent to least. Then I go out 'running errands.' Usually it involves getting lunch out somewhere, maybe hitting the bookstore or some other fun place. Each weekend, I try to get to both Sam's and Kroger's for groceries. I know roughly what we spend on groceries in a typical week and that remains pretty consistent. But otherwise, I don't keep very good track of things and sometimes I manage to overdraft us. This is not good and it's not helping us save.

I want to break the cycle. I think if I can not spend most of the week completely broke, it will reduce the temptation to spend money I shouldn't on Friday. What I need to do is give myself a little leeway without extending enough rope to hang myself. What I believe I will do this week, is go ahead and pay the bills the way I normally do. Then I will allow myself the treat of an audiobook from and lunch from my favorite Chinese take out (conveniently located in the same strip mall as Kroger's) and I will do the Kroger's shopping. Then I will go home and stay home. I won't spend anymore money until Monday. That is my story. Now we'll see if I can stick to it. If so, hopefully I can at least contain The Enemy Within.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Payoffs and Ripoffs

I cooked most of the day Saturday. Found some good meat deals at Sam's Friday and wanted to make sure it all went to good use. I was beat by the end of the day, but it was worth it because now I don't have to spend every evening cooking. I can just pop the meat and the potatoes on a baking sheet into the oven for thirty minutes and put veggies in the nuker for five minutes and supper is ready.
Yes, that's the top of my washer -- I have a weirdly set up kitchen.


That was the payoff part. Now for the ripoff.

A friend of my family was evicted yesterday. She was renting from a local slum lord because that is what her family can afford. The landlord tried to say she hadn't paid her rent, but my friend had kept her money order receipts, so that didn't work. She said that my friend's family had destroyed her property and, unfortunately, that did work.

The judge did not take into consideration what the property looked like before they moved in. He did not care that they had to use space heaters for three months in the winter because their land lord did not return their calls telling her their furnace was not working. He did not care that the reason the bathroom looked nasty in the pictures was that the toilet had been backing up for months and after trying and trying to get her to repair the toilet, they finally pulled it up and tried to fix it themselves. He did not care.

After my friend's family gets moved out, I will be going over with my digital camera and a copy of the local newspaper to document the conditions of the apartment in an effort to help limit the damages the slum lord will be able to collect from them. I hope it will work.

This is not the first time I've known this kind of thing to happen. I don't know how it is anywhere else, but around here, it's pretty darn common. The judge does not identify with the poor tenants, he identifies with the middle class property owner. The property owner has probably evicted people several times and knows how the system works -- they know what to say and do to get what they want. The tenant has little experience with such things and is already struggling or likely wouldn't be there. The landlord, no matter how heinous, is generally going to win.

All that to say, if you are moving to a new rental, protect yourself. Take pictures of everything that even remotely looks damaged - dings on the wall, chips on the sink, spots on the carpet, etc. Pay your rent in a way that makes it easy for you to prove that you paid it and hang onto your receipts until you get your security deposit back after moving out. Document interactions with your landlord. If you have to call about a repair, write it down in a journal, along with the date. Write down when the problem is fixed or if not, when you have called to repeat your request. Even if they are nice. Even if you know them. Just to be on the safe side because people can get really stupid over this kind of stuff and its hard enough to get by without being ripped off.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Tater Update

The good news is that the twice-baked potatoes turned out tasty -- I think they can even be stored in a bucket in the freezer without plastic wrap. The bad news is, if you've got an electric mixer whose price tag was closer to the single digits than the triple digits like me, you might end up getting a work out.

I think my problem had more to do with the ginormous potatoes I was using. I knew it would take them extra time to bake, so I set the timer for an hour and a half. Only a few of them were done by then, but it took me a little while to realize it. I had already cut most of them in half and noticed that the scooping out of potato guts was not going well, so when I put them in and baked them for another thirty-plus minutes, they got sort of dried out. Then it was a pain in the neck to scoop them and a pain in the rear to mash them. I was determined, though, so I plopped the wedding band on the top of the microwave, washed my hands, and dug in.

I didn't think there was any way in Hades that my family was going to eat potatoes with cream cheese in them -- they are not terribly adventurous in the food department -- and I turned out to have maybe a half cup of milk in the fridge. That's not much liquid for around five pounds of already kind of dry potatoes. I melted some butter in the microwave, poured it and the milk in, then dug out the plain yogurt and dumped the rest of it in, along with some salt, onion powder, and Parmesan cheese.

I definitely plan on trying this recipe again, but I will use smaller potatoes. If it is still a pain in the rear, I might wait to try it again until I get a better mixer and a better mixer is not real high on the priority list right now.