Friday, May 4, 2012


For me, the least glamorous vacations have always been my favorites. Despite my love of foreign cultures, I always find international travel incredibly disappointing. Maybe it’s because my experiences have been limited to Europe, but the whole experience always lacks the “wow” factor I expect after shelling out thousands and taking extensive time off of work.
Give me a (fully furnished with running water and a working kitchen) cabin in the woods where I can eat my breakfast outside in my pajamas. Plan nothing. Wake up every morning with no agenda or expectation. Take a random road trip with no maps. Journal, do puzzles, hike. Spend an hour getting to know the local coffee shop owner. To me, that’s a vacation.
My single favorite vacation activity ever was spelunking at Laurel Caverns. When I first got there, I dreaded the idea of climbing around in a damp cave for 2 hours. Then they made us put on these ridiculous looking hardhats and I looked forward to it even less. It turned out to be the most memorable experiences of my life! According to our guide, our small group got further into the cavern than any other group he’d ever taken. It was physically demanding, mentally challenging, and visually surreal. And I think it cost like $15.
After a vacation like that, I always get home and calculate how long I could live on my savings and just live a simple life like I did for that past week. Then my calculation turns into a spreadsheet, and a goal in a 10-year plan, and before you know it, I realize that the only vacation I need is from myself.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sometimes It DOES Take a Rocket Scientist

It drives me crazy when my husband claims that he doesn’t care what our children choose to do in life “as long as it makes them happy”. Really? Exotic dancer? Mob boss? I equally hate feeding my children the line “you can be whatever you want to be” because I’ve lived long enough to know that’s just not true. We have each been blessed with different talents, and we each lack certain abilities. It doesn’t make us failures, it makes us human.

Unlike many American parents, I hope my kids are average.

Some of my best friends are those in the top echelons of the intellectual food chain. My crew includes all those cliché careers: brain surgeons, rocket scientists, and a few others whose patents have changed how we communicate in this electronic age. I have witnessed firsthand that what to some would be seen as a blessing, can also be a personal prison. Responsibility vs. passion becomes a life-long battle. Whether it’s the brain surgeon who wants to be a stay-at-home mom or the rocket scientist who wants to be the frontrunner of a heavy metal band, the “right” thing to do is a gray area. My husband votes for the personal fulfillment of being the mom and band member, while I say the brain surgeon and rocket scientist owe it to society to share their gifts.

If you haven’t seen the movie Being Elmo, I highly recommend it. It speaks specifically to this issue. The puppeteer who is Elmo has missed out on his daughter’s childhood in exchange for bringing to life one of the most beloved puppets of all time to millions of children around the world (including joy and comfort to children struggling with terminal illnesses). Did he make the right choice? His parents supported his passion but were they doing him a disservice?

As a parent, how are we expected to temper pushing our children if they show a natural ability while helping them grow and develop a satisfying personal life? How do we foster contentment?

I fear the answer is to pray that they aren’t cut out for being a brain surgeon, rocket scientist, or Elmo.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I'm giving up stress for Lent

I'm a confession regular. As a Catholic, I never really thought of confession as a burdensome requirement. For me, it's free therapy.

Yesterday, a dear priest and friend heard me recite my standard list of sins which always seems to include being "short" with my family. I figured for Lent I would give up yelling and losing my temper. Sounded easy enough, until my trusted confidant reminded me that if it was that easy I would've done it long ago. I had to get to the root of WHY I am losing my cool so easily.

Stress. Taking on too much. Not making time for myself.

What?! "Making time for myself"? Where does the Bible say I get to do that? I thought my job as a mother and wife and a good Catholic revolved around self sacrafice and unconditional giving.

Then he reminded me of the many times that Christ went away to pray....and be alone. He allowed me to accept that I have nothing to offer if my own well is empty. What good am I to my family if I am physically present but mentally spent? I need to give myself permission to make my well being a priority for the benefit of them.

The other problem is that I've never been very good at stress relief. I have one gear: overdrive. There is only one activity I have ever found that I enjoy, is relaxing and that I have not turned into an obsession. Yoga.

Yes, yoga is going to cost money (need to adjust that budget already). Yes, it will eat into the free time I otherwise would've spent with my kids (yelling at them to clean up their room). However, despite all the reasons not to do it, my husband's "yes" seemed a little too enthusiastic when I suggested it.

While it may hardly sound like a sacrafice, this Lent I will be the lotus, warrior and downward facing dog that my family deserves.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Food or Free Time?

Cooking is a love of mine. I probably don't cook the same meal more than 2 times a year. This equates to an expensive food bill and a lot of wasted food (how many recipes do you know that call for garam masala? If you need any, I have a whole jar minus a tsp of it.).

The kids seem tired of being recipe guinea pigs.

More than half of our weekends are spent on food purchase and preparation.

Over time, this hobby of mine has slowly escalated to a level of priority that it doesn't deserve.

I'm taking back my weekends. We're going to try meal planning. I've read about this idea on other blogs (,, many times but felt that it was nutritionally lacking or just plain boring. Then I read this book called Simplicity Parenting that outlined the pros of meal planning that outweighed my cons. While we all know kids thrive on predicitablility in the home, I never really equated it to what was served at mealtime. I equated it to when and how we ate, but not what we ate.

So we're giving it a whirl. Each day has a general dinner category. Ours will be:

Ethnic Food
Pizza (homemade)
Leftovers/Eating Out

Then I, along with suggestions from other family members, will create 6 weeks worth of dinner menus. Breakfast and lunch will be the same every week. I will also make a master weekly ingredient list for each week to help simplify grocery shopping, and save money by loading up on regularly used items when they hit rock bottom prices.

As for my cooking hobby, this will give me the opportunity to "perfect" the recipes in the meal plan by making them more often. It also will allow me to focus a little more on efficiency by using meals I can make in bulk and freeze.

A project in improving efficiency?! Sign me up!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Missing Money Monday-Part 2

Don’t you ever wonder what other people’s household budgets look like? It’s not exactly coveting as much as it is curiosity. Did you know that the average family of 4 in America is living on about $64,000/year? We live in an 1,800 SF house (with a 20% down payment) and at that income, I don’t think we could make the mortgage payment, heat the house and feed everyone. I truly sit in wonderment for those who do it. Clearly, I’ve got a lot to learn.

My husband and I debated on going completely “open kimono” with our budget for the sake of instruction, accountability and transparency on this blog post, but my company has rules against revealing my income, so instead, I’m going to reveal our budgeted expenses as percentages of income. Yours will not be the same, nor should it be. Budgets are a reflection of personal priorities and unique family circumstances. Our priority right now is to save for retirement (15% +) and start saving for college while slowly ramping up charitable giving.

Notice I did not suggest drafting it in stone. This is not the 10 commandments, this is your life. Resist the Type A urge to be inflexible. After only a few weeks living with this budget, we realized that some categories are running a bit short and some expenses weren’t budgeted at all (one time retreats, tax preparations fees). We set up a contingency line to cover these types of expenses while we refine the budget. Two items that are not reflected in the budget, but are accounted for are school tuition and a full year’s worth of car insurance (we only have one car). Those items are paid for out of my annual bonus. Every year, we just pray that it comes. On the other hand, should we experience a windfall, it will go toward home repairs. We live in a 75 year old house. There is no such thing as a minor repair or remodel.

Also not reflected is our already funded 9 month emergency reserve. If you don’t have one of these set up, make it a priority. This account is the reason I sleep at night. Not only will this cover us for awhile in case of an unforeseen layoff or medical emergency, it also is a moral escape hatch should I ever find myself being asked at work to do anything I find significantly reprehensible (my friend calls it her “FU” account).

So here is our preliminary budget:
401k 8.0%
Train fare 1.1%
Medical Insurance 1.8%
H.S.A. 2.1%
Taxes out of paycheck 19.8%
Life Insurance 1%
Lifetime Fitness 0.1%
Mortgage (incl. insurance and taxes) 17.5%
Charitable Giving 2.2%
Gas 0.5%
Electric 0.9%
Phone-Internet 0.3%
Phone-Cell 0.9%
Water 0.4%
XM 0.2%
Garbage 0.2%
Gasoline (car) 3.6%
Dog 0.5%
Lessons 1.3%
Food 6.3%
House Supplies & Toiletries 0.9%
Housecleaning 1.7%
Babysitting 0.2%
Haircuts 0.5%
Car Maintenance 0.9%
Gifts 1.3%
Dry Cleaning 0.1%
Recreation & Eating Out 1.8%
Contingency 1.3%
IRA 7.2%
Kids College 5.4%
Home Care Fund 2.7%
Vacation Fund 1.1%
Car Fund 3.6%

Next week I'll reveal what we are doing to stay ON budget.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Budding Historian or Hippy?

Elliott recently had a family heritage project for school (yes, another school project) where he was asked to interview his grandparents about our family tree and any memorable family stories. In true big-sister, alpha-dog style, Bella has hijacked the project. She has always loved all things “hippy” (ok, not ALL things, just the G-rated stuff.) but only recently is maturing enough to really understand the era of the Vietnam War. One story from my mom struck a chord with Bella.

She told the story about a POW bracelet that is stored in one of her infamous “memorabilia” Rubbermaid tubs in the storage closet. For those of you pre-Vietnam, there were bracelets you could get that had the name of an actual prisoner of war on them. The idea was that you were supposed to wear the bracelet until the POW returned home (love this story of a woman who has been wearing hers for 40 years). One day, my grandmother was watching the nightly news where they were talking about some of the POWs that had been returned to the US. One name sounded familiar. Sure enough, my mother could take off her bracelet.

“How cool would it be to send the bracelet to the soldier?” suggested my husband this morning over coffee. Seeing as the bracelet is not ours to give, Bella mentioned it might be nice just to send a letter that, at the very least, let him know that his years of service were not forgotten. With the Internet, a few keystrokes may very well pop up a way to contact this former POW...or his family in the even that he has passed away.

My fear is that it will bring up memories that he has long since tried to bury. My hope is that he has worked past the scars of war and is now enjoying his own grandchildren or living out whatever dream may have played over in his mind while he served our country so bravely.

What started as a trendy fashion piece has now translated into a story of war, politics, suffering and rescue two generations later. It is a tangible piece of history. The question is whether this history should be left as our family story, or shared with another.

Friday, January 27, 2012

My School Project

I hate school projects.

My daughter loves them. In fact she seems to love them so much that she chooses the most complicated topic or book available. One time she even requested that the teacher allow her to do TWO topics. She was only 7 years old. When I was 7, I think I was still learning to tie my shoes. And break dance.

The current project strewn across the dining room table is a non-fiction book report for “Grizzlies and Other Bears”. The book has like 30 chapters. Grizzlies are the first 2 and the Other Bears are like 28. Rumor has it that the other children will be organizing their reports by using the chapter names—because their books have 4 chapters. We’ve designed a matrix.

Yes, I said it. WE. How on earth is a 3rd grader supposed to know how to organize a 30 chapter book into a 3 minute oral presentation and poster? As a parent, my brain knows that letting her struggle through is how she learns (even if all she learns is to select an easier topic next time), but my heart wants to save her from late nights and lost weekends.

By the end of the project, I’m exhausted. I’m mentally spent from correcting grammar and explaining why scratching out and huge eraser marks don’t qualify as neat. My undiagnosed OCD takes over and all lines must be straight and all colors coordinated. Usually the final project looks perfect. Too perfect. I know I’ve overstepped.

I imagine this struggle to let her learn on her own will only get worse the older she gets. Next time it won’t be just a book report. It will be solving an argument among girlfriends on the playground, or selecting what she will major in, or deciding who she will marry!

On second thought, I love school projects.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Missing Money Monday-Part I

Both my husband and I had humble financial beginnings. Very, very humble. Like the WIC program and used Christmas presents humble. Our college tuition, wedding and every car and house we’ve ever owned were paid for 99.9% by the two of us. I’d love to tell you the story about how our meager upbringings gave us the skills to be frugal and make a buck stretch, but our story doesn’t go like that.

When I entered college, I didn’t know squat about finances. I worked typical low paying jobs in high school to be able to keep up with fashion trends but had zero idea about what I was signing when I took on thousands of dollars of student loans or signed up for that first credit card (I just wanted the free t-shirt!). Four years later I graduated with arguably one of the most prestigious Economics degrees in the world. And I was in debt up to my eyeballs.

My husband and I put a down payment on our first house by taking a cash advance on our credit card. I thought I was an absolute financial wizard when I came up with that “solution”.

At our worst, we had over $20,000 in credit card debt and couldn’t get additional credit. We were making the minimum payments, but nothing more. Luckily, booming economic conditions at that time bailed us out. Our income increased over the next few years (unexpected year-end bonuses came) and the real estate market boomed. We realized it was time to stop buying and start crushing the debt. Over two years we paid off the credit card and never looked back. Ironically, we left a potentially devastating financial situation with an amazing credit score and enough equity in our home to buy a larger home. It was either dumb luck or part of a divine plan.

I am thankful for being raised broke. It gave my parents the chance to teach me what really matters to children is generosity of time and unconditional love. I’m thankful for going deep into debt. It taught me that even really smart people can make really dumb financial decisions.

But I have a confession. Despite living below our means, we aren’t tithing 10%, we don’t have a cent saved for our kids’ college and based on a fancy retirement calculator my financial advisor gave me, I’m scheduled to retire in 2145. Much like socks in a dryer, I think there is a monster that is eating my paycheck.

It's time to do something about it. It's time to get real. It's time to make a household budget. To be continued next Monday.....

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bed Hog

My baby will be 1 year old in 25 days. That means I have gone for exactly 340 days without a good nights sleep.

During my pregnancy I read a number of heartwarming books written by Dr. Sears which suckered me into a method of child rearing known as "attachment parenting". Form a close bond with your baby in infancy with the promise that will become a secure adult. Sounds beautiful. My husband and I followed it to the letter. Babywearing, breastfeeding and co-sleeping. It worked like a charm. Now we have a VERY attached baby.

Our marriage now consists of four members: my husband, myself, God and little baby Simon. We all go on dates together and enjoy late nights awake together.

And one of us is a serious bed hog. He may only be two feet tall, but he prefers to sleep short ways on the bed, leaving his father and me exactly one foot on each side of the mattress.

He also has this magic sensor that shocks him awake if you hover him over his crib. He can go from being in a coma-like sleeping state to a screaming banshee if you bring him within 3 feet of his crib. You never even get him to the mattress. So forget that advice about pre-heating the crib with a heating pad. Won't work.

The advice about letting him cry-it-out isn't working either. He has amazing stamina.

I have some bad news for the late night party animal. The party is coming to an end! Mama and the staff at the Crystal Lake Library are researching No Cry Baby Sleep Solutions.

I just wish they had a No Cry solution for Mamas.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Fishbowl Freakout

Some people are hoarders. I'm a purger. I believe the politically correct term is "minimalist".

My biggest pet peeve: birthday party goody bags. Little plastic yoyo's, random pencils, single pieces of gum, temporary tattoos, ultra mini water guns and those dreaded animal-shaped elastic bands. If it were up to me, the goody bag would go straight from our car to the outside garbage bin.

While we regularly donate our gently used items, I don't donate the contents of goody bags. I feel like if I do, I'd be doing some other parent a disservice.

At one point goody bag pieces could be found in my vacuum, all over the kitchen counters, in every bin in the playroom, and even on their way into my baby's mouth! I wanted every little Chinese-made trinket out of the house. The kids balked. My husband just wanted peace. For awhile, he got me to secretly agree to a 24-hour "pitch it" rule. The rationale was that given the lifespan of the toys, most would break on their own within the first day. The rest would never be missed. So I diligently waited the required time, hunted the next day for the pieces, and buried them in the garbage bag. My covert operation was working.

Or so I thought.

I sorely underestimated my children's intelligence. One day as I was purging summer clothes in my daughter's room (while she was out collecting another goody bag at a birthday party), I found a drawer full of the dreaded Chinese trinkets. Not one or two, but 30"x12" full of them. I had to face the harsh reality that my daughter is a goody bag hoarder.

...and so is my son. He had a drawer, too.

Have you ever watched the show "Hoarders" and wondered how relatives of those hoarders let it get that bad? I do. "No way are my kids going to be on that show", I mumbled to myself. "I'm helping them now" and I dumped the drawers.

When my daughter discovered the freshly cleaned out drawer, it was as though I had dropped a bomb. War ensued. My daughter brought out the heavy artillery. Tears. Wailing. Something about a painted shell. While she was flailing her arms and yelling something about a super special painted shell, my husband silently put on his coat, went outside and started digging around remnants of that mornings' breakfast.

Like waring countries working through an interpretor (aka Dad), we agreed it was time for a ceasefire. She could keep the retrieved shell if she agreed to limit her "collection". We came to an agreement that an empty fishbowl (which was also a remnant of a past goody bag) would hold all future goody bag contents. If they didn't fit, Waste Management got to keep them.

Saturday is Elliott's birthday party. In an attempt to not be a complete hypocrite, I didn't put them in bags, so I'm calling them "parting gifts".

Monday, January 9, 2012

My Life as a Dropped Stitch

Corporate photos are deceiving. They make me look like I have it all together. "Trust me with that multi-billion dollar account because I know how to match my necklace to my suit jacket". The purpose of these photos at my Fortune 500 employer is to remind the executives who I am at bonus time because they may not actually know my name. Welcome to corporate America.

In reality, I often feel more like a dropped stitch in the knitting project of life. Things are cruising along just fine and then without even knowing it, a big gaping hole appears. The big question is what to do next. Do I rip out the entire 4 rows of knitting to erase any indication that the slipped stitch ever happened? Or do I repair the miss, even if I will still see the repaired flaw every time I wear the scarf?

I am a ripper. Make it go away. Perfect it. Start over.

Yesterday I had these grand plans to start the 21-day Vegan Kickstart Program and follow it through painstakingly for the full 3 weeks. I made it to lunch. Dinner was at a football party, with football party food. I started with the veggie tray and ended with a miniature cheesecake. Don't ask about what was in between those two. Hint: it was not good for my arteries, or the environment, and probably involved a mistreated cow. I actually weighed the fact that if I die a day sooner because of it, it was worth it. It was that good.

But today is a new day. A fresh start. A corporate photo. It's all good. Bring on the soymilk!

Friday, January 6, 2012

If a Tree Falls in the Forest

The new year rings of opportunities! Opportunities to prioritize, organize, goal set, budget, list, and fill up that crisp 2012 family calendar that is the single most important means of communication between my husband and I. While I multitask for sport, my husband is much, methodical. If it isn't written down, it doesn't exist in his world. Kind of like the tree falling in the forest thing, only it involves the dentist and girl scouts.

And like many things in my mind, if one is good, more is better. In addition to the main refrigerator calendar, I also have a calendar on my desk at work, a pocket calendar I carry around, and an electronic calendar on my computer. Let's face it, there isn't enough room in that little 2"x2" square to list everything for a given day. I NEED 4 calendars. Either that or I need less to do, which is #12 on my list of New Year's resolutions. Given that most people give up on their ONE New Year's resolution by the end of January, I figured I'd better buy my 4 calendars before the stores clearance them out.

This year my 6 and 9 year old children asked for calendars for their rooms. I'm not really sure if this is my obsessive compulsive time management rubbing off on them, or if they fear that their father's genetics predispose them toward forgetfulness. I'm hoping that it's just that they really wanted to decorate their rooms with Angry Birds.