Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I Think I Can, I Think I Can!

Month 3 in the Year I Said No already? Ooh, this one is a good one, and probably much more fun than saying no to financial powerlessness. I am to say no to avoiding tasks that seem outside my domain (Yes to trying things I don’t think I can do).

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I tend to pigeonhole myself. You know, leave certain tasks for Tom because they are areas he seems to have more affinity for, or because they are “guy things”. But there’s a distant voice in my head, that of Steve, my first really serious boyfriend, who gave me a memorable left-handed compliment once. He said, “You’re not afraid to try anything; you just go ahead and do it. Even if you end up being not that good at it.” Well, I could take that two ways. The first was, maybe I really suck at a lot of stuff. But I decided to embrace the positive part of it, the recognition that I was not afraid.

Now, Steve was not talking about skydiving, extreme sports, or any such daredevil mischief. He was referring more to everyday things, things that I am guessing he may have avoided, perhaps because they might make him look a little foolish or inept. Since then, somewhere along the way, I have gotten a bit more cautious. Some of it is natural, I suppose; just a result of becoming a mother and middle-aged. But some if it can be a negative side effect of married life, one I plan to eschew a bit more vigorously than I have been.

Take last weekend. I got myself into quite a hot spot. I mean cold spot.

I was feeling very optimistic about the comparatively mild weather and the streams of water flowing down the curb, so optimistic that I decided I could drive my Pontiac Bonneville right over the foot plus of snow in “my” section of the driveway, the section that allows me to park in my own spot without constantly having to arrange with Tom to move his car, or vice versa.

Well, my optimism suddenly seemed more of a delusion when my car got firmly implanted in the snow. Logic’s not my number one asset, and it took me a while to figure out that my problem was much bigger than tires spinning on ice. My entire undercarriage was jammed with snow! Snow in every crevice, between pipes, so packed in and pushed up that the car was so going nowhere really fast.

At first, my thoughts turned to Tom. I needed a man to push me out. Or pull me out. Preferably my man. And then I thought that even “mighty Tom” with his big truck might have to do more than just push or pull. And then I thought how embarrassing this predicament could turn out to be. I mean, duh. Did I really try to crush a massive volume of snow with my ’98, nearly 230 thou mile car?

Of course, it was raining (at least it was warm rain). So I spent a wet, merry hour experimenting with my lack of common sense. Before I realized the enormity of the glut in the undercarriage, I was convinced I could melt it all away. I ran in and out of the house for pitchers of hot water. Oy. Ultimately I realized that dig I must, and I dug, and dug, and dug, hair in my face, glasses falling off, probably at risk for dying if I just once forgot to click back into park after another fruitless spin of the tires.

Then, finally, victory. How good (and soaking wet) it felt. I did find a silver lining. Surely my workout exceeded any Wii Fit boxing points I had scored that week. I felt slimmer and more independent all at once. 

Next on the agenda: tackle some household thing I'd never normally take on, like stripping old paint off a closet door or repairing something mechanical. Why do I avoid these things? Well, I know I'm not a natural. I know I risk getting judged, mostly by Tom who tends to be a perfectionist with little patience for the unfortunate technically inept. And I know I can get someone else to do it!

But then I remember my mom, who really was powerless to do much of anything technical in the household after my father died. We were all so admiring (seriously) when my visiting Aunt Norma did a simple fix on our nonworking toilet. She really did save the day, considering we only had one bathroom.

I don't want to be that person who doesn't try, nor to set that example of "giving up before you even start" to my son. So off I go, to broken nails or at least a fine crust of dirt beneath them.  Vive la grease, grime, owner's manuals, and elbow  grease! 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ducks in a Row: Herding the Finances

So, February’s nearly gone. Maybe too short a month to completely succeed at saying no to financial powerlessness. But not too short to point myself in the right direction. Of course, as we all know, the hard part’s staying on the path.

There are so many ducks to get in a row. We had a good start with complimentary telephone credit counseling from a nonprofit group, one I researched that lived up to its “no scam” appearance: Money Management International. For Tom and me, a lot of what we heard on the call reinforced what we had already suspected about our financial habits: sloppy, not really taking the proverbial bull by the horns. But it had the power of helping because it came from outside our dysfunctional, homegrown microeconomy.

It still amazes me that I had to reach 43 before I came up with a budget-minded and predictable process for food shopping. I’ve learned that, yes, it really does help to pick a day for shopping and stick to it. And before you even contemplate going to the store, to make a list of meals that drives a list of ingredients. Finally, to have a rule that you don’t deviate from list. For more sensible folks this may seem ridiculously obvious, but for me it has been a boot camp in self discipline, and so far I don’t feel like going AWOL. In fact, I welcome the structure.

There are so many online tools and smart phone apps these days that it’s hard to find an excuse not to become a better planner. Take the free Cozi family planner shopping lists, for example. For a while, Tom and I shared our grocery list this way (although now I have a truly "dumb phone" in keeping with the budget, so I must now keep a list with the rather antiquated pen and paper. Isn't it ironic?). But gosh, it feels good to get organized.
My sister found a good site that includes a free money journal when you sign up. It attends to the psychology part of the equation, and I’m starting to see you need equal parts of structure and psychology to make any headway with disordered finances.

Although I’ve never wanted to deal with finances head on, I’m found myself almost wishing February were a longer month. Not that I can’t keep tackling this stuff throughout the Year I Said No. It’s just that I’m on to month 3 before you know it: No to avoiding tasks that seem outside my domain (Yes to trying things I don’t think I can do). It should be interesting quest.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Month 2: No to Financial Powerlessness

Month 2 of the Year I Said No is a month of regaining control over how money is spent by turning away from the situations and habits in which I lose power over my financial life. Something about that wording sounds like a 12-step program, and that’s not intentional. But yes, I do need to admit that I have a problem and seek help, and also to take serious inventory of what I have and what my habits are. I think that’s 3 steps’ worth right there.

The month started well. Tom and I met with a credit counselor, who helped identify some problem areas in our budget. A common mistake? Not categorizing expenses. Our “miscellaneous” category for tracking costs was a huge catchall born mostly out of laziness, with a hefty dash of denial: haircuts, random day trips and museum visits, books, coffee, snacks, and meals purchased on the road (nearly a daily expense for Tom), to name a few.

Also, we apparently spend at least $300 more per month on groceries than a typical family of 3 (we were told $700 could be more than enough). We have only just started to make a weekly meal plan, a weekly shopping list to go with it, and plan to stick to a predictable day for shopping for only items on the list.

How can 2 smart people be so dumb about money? My theory is that long after some money I had when I was young dried up and long after Tom stopped being a salaried worker, we continued to act as if our coffers were full and Tom’s income was regular (and quite large!). It’s called denial, and it’s caused a vicious cycle. We must work hard to stay on top of the mountain of credit card debt, this hard work makes us too tired to have the wherewithal to plan, and we pretend all these little expenses, like another meal out, are justified by our hard work and besides don’t add up to all that much.

Already I see we’re making some mistakes on our new budget, which looked quite lovely on paper. Check out this short column on what NOT to put in “miscellaneous”. 

And these 73 tips on debt elimination are a nice mix. I like that they are not all boring budget tips; some are attitudinal adjustments; just as important, I am finding out!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pondering Postconsumerism

I experienced several pangs of consumer craving yesterday and was quick to sate them all. We drove up to Blue Back Square in West Hartford, a very aesthetically pleasing, thoughtfully structured outdoor mall. It’s bordered by a huge Whole Foods store. I often find myself thankful that Whole Foods is quite a distance from my home, because I could spend a lot of money there! Everything smells and looks so good, and you get to feel (pun intended), Wholesome when you shop there, because, hey, it’s all organic and socially conscious and healthy.

But before Whole Foods, we were lured into the larger-than-life Cheesecake Factory and a postprandial wander through Barnes and Noble, where I just had to buy a nonfiction writers’ workbook chock full of exercises that will make me a stellar wordsmith. (I’ve got to plug the book, Now Write Nonfiction; it really is put together well).

Nothing wrong, on the surface, with any of this. Each individual purchase was pretty modest. I got a couple of small plates and some wine at Cheesecake Factory and the book I bought is in lieu of a writing class that I can’t afford right now—I really do need some structured exercises. Little damage done at Whole Foods—a couple of chocolate truffles and a coffee for the road. But what bothered me was my need to rationalize all this because our finances are dipping low and we should have delayed some of this gratification. [HEY, that’s month 2 in the Year I Said No—credit card debt (stay tuned for our first credit counseling appointment).] Actually, we didn’t charge this experience, but the point is it leaves us with less to pay the credit card bill, which is already considerable.

A couple of years ago I responded to a call for essays on the theme of life satisfaction. Since then the “Get Satisfied” movement has widened into postconsumerism, an effort to help people get past addictive consumerism. On the TV front, I found a quote at postconsumers.com that captures what I am striving for with my (mostly) TV-less month:

"Becoming a postconsumer means to me that I am going to attempt to be less wasteful in all aspects of my life. Just buying less is only the beginning, the challenge is to 'spend' my time more wisely. That will be the real savings to me and my family." -Karen Aubry

Next blog: how people with less time often spend more!!

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Confession, and Going Deeper with No

I’ve got to say it. This month has not been 100% TV free. The exception I have made is reruns of Monk on Netflix with Gavin, basically limiting myself to one 45-minute spot but sometimes dozing through the start of a second episode. In my blog for writing moms I revealed it may be the pleasure of watching someone more neurotic than myself, plus the strange magnetism of Captain Stottlemeyer that keeps me coming back.

Here’s the thing: Gavin and I enjoy this moment. Cuddling, commenting on the murder mystery at hand, having a snack. And, yes, we could be doing something more enlightening. But we are tired and the snuggle under the TV blanket feels good.

One of the things I have been saying no to since October is overeating, thanks to Weight Watchers online , and I’ve learned a few things along the way, things that I’ve read and knew instinctively but for which I’ve needed some reinforcement. I even wrote about one of these concepts as the theme of my piece in the Get Satisfied anthology (How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough)---extremism doesn’t work, at least not for me. I need to allow myself to be human, to crave the occasional chocolate, hold myself to a lower standard for productivity once in a while.

On the other hand, my sister and I have both noticed that making exceptions is a slippery slope. Take Thanksgiving. It should have been one day of gastronomic indulgences, but that one feast led to 3 days of extremely poor accounting in the calorie department, for sure. So I guess the rule for me is to pre-set a time limit for the whims I cannot deny—yes, I can have my 45 minutes of TV, yes I can eat with relative abandon for a day and a half. Then it’s back to my higher standard. (And I do think, by the way, that ultimately TV's got to go away completely for me).

This Year of Saying No isn’t only about habits that are less than ideal. It’s about granting myself the quality of life that I want, the relationships I want. It’s about recognizing the self sabotage of not “sticking to my guns”, of failing to make room for deeper gratification by clearing out the BS that I sometimes let encroach upon my life. Oh, yes, there’s TV, and debt, and other common American overindulgences. But there’s also the need to avoid choices based on fear and to stop acting out of guilt or obligation, more deeply rooted and perhaps more spiritually damaging practices.

If you’d like a list of my “nos” for 2011 (and these include the world of yeses that they will make room for), please drop me a comment and I’ll send them along. 

I’d love to see your list!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Wee-Hour Energy: New Habits for a Very Old Case of Insomnia

It runs in the family, and I’ve got it. Usually the “early morning awakening” variety, not the “can’t fall asleep” type of insomnia. This time I can blame it specifically on the cat. She got into some noisy mischief and after that I just lay awake.

Laying there rubbing my face (cat dander) became intolerable, so I landed on the couch. And I eschewed the habit I normally turn to—a good crime drama (there is always one on), or, and I hate to admit this, some rerun of Real Housewives or that Millionaire matchmaking show or TMZ. For a while I kept finding Sandra Bullock movies on at 2:30 AM, then I’d get into them, feel I had to finish them, and end up crying with sympathy for Bullock into the couch pillow instead of being lulled to sleep.

It’s hard to be very motivated when your mind and body haven’t completely refueled, but I’ve always wished I could harvest that wee-hour energy, however misplaced, and apply it to my writing life. How refreshing it feels to sit in the quiet, hearing only the purr of the furnace and my fingers on the keyboard. I've been wanting to work on a poetry chapbook. Working a poem against the hushed backdrop of a sleepy house sounds like an ideal pastime that will far surpass TMZ.  

Have you heard about David Katzmaier’s Diary of a Cable Cord Cutter blog? Maybe not, because he lasted a month, according to his recent interview with NPR. While he recognized economic benefits to abstaining from cable, the Mrs. wasn’t thrilled, and David missed his ready access to sports TV.

My sister’s household on a rural road in Vermont became cable and satellite TV-less by default. No cable access, and no technician, despite several house calls, was ever able to fix the problems with (expensive!) satellite transmission. The Smiths now download shows through the Internet, and Linda says it was a happy accident that the quality of what they watch has gone way up.They're much more selective than if they were just channel surfing. Lots of fascinating lectures and forums, for example the ones on PBS, and of course now so many shows and movies can be downloaded to the laptop. So no TV doesn’t have to mean no entertainment. Of course, is watching Internet shows any better than watching TV, in terms of my month of saying no to TV? Well, no, because I'm trying to find time for nobler pursuits. Perhaps in the future online PBS will be one of my lower-tier nobler pursuits, but for now what I chase is primarily a richer creative life in which I choose not to be sedated.

A good compromise I’ve read about more than once: move your TV so it isn’t at the center of your living room. For example, it could be housed in a guest bedroom. That way, if there’s something you find really compelling, maybe the presidential inauguration or a family member adding their 2 cents on a local news channel, you still have access. But it's not the main event, not the focus of our living space.

Hey, check out these 18 reasons to keep the TV out of the bedroom! Better sleep and sex? Great incentives for my month of saying no to TV.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Less TV, More Reading and Sleeping

Last night was an easy one. It was my free night. Tom and I have an arrangement where we each get 2 free nights during the work week; this has been a life saver for me. Gavin had borrowed a Godzilla movie from the library. So it was very easy to decide to take a bath and then do some reading.

I can't get anyone in this house to play Scrabble with me more than 3 times a year, but I still love it. So I starting reading Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. The cutthroat Scrabble world is quite a subculture, but it sounds too exhausting for me to ever contemplate competing.

It occurred to me that perhaps I should be writing, but actually my body and mind were screaming for some R and R. I conked out before 9. And, of course, I am writing now. Outside of the many "nos" I want to work on, I have also decided to get up by 4:30 every day and reclaim an hour for myself. This is not hard for me; I am an extreme morning person. What IS hard is reminding my fellow early riser, Gavin, that if he comes down before 5:30 he is on his own until Mommy lifts the "cone of silence." This is a way-outdated cultural reference, so Gavin had never heard this and thought is was hysterical. Score for me; keeping him laughing works wonders.

It occurred to me that's it's lucky our household only has 1 TV. When we do watch, there's more sense of community. And there's less temptation overall. Did you know the average American household has 2.93 TVs? Only 1.1% has no TV--I am shooting for that eventually, but I fear I may be vetoed in my efforts.

I read up on 20 ways to say no. Handy, but it occurred to me that the hardest people to say no to are often your own family members, who are so on to you.