Election 2012 is a No-Brainer

It seems to me that political races usually boil down to ideological differences. I’m not going to go into that, because in my opinion, there are so many other things in play here that the traditional ideologies hardly matter.

Because this year, even if you have always believed in Republican views regarding economics, there are so many more reasons to view the Republican candidate for President with alarm. And I’ll just say here that, for me, the fact that he is a multi-millionaire is not one of them, although it does bother me somewhat that as a retired teacher my income tax rate is twice what his is. The truth is, I don’t mind paying taxes for things that are important to me, such as schools, communities, roads, etc. Civilization does not come without some cost.

I will say that it bothers me a lot that someone who supposedly loves our country well enough to run for President seems to think he shouldn’t have to pay his share, though. And that he thinks if he didn’t take advantage of every loophole in the tax code he doesn’t deserve to be President. Really?

But let’s just ignore all that and move on to the other reasons Mitt Romney is a scary guy.

Foreign Policy

I realize this is not a big concern for most Americans, who tend to think the problems of the world are not ours because we are too big and mean for anyone else to screw with, but as someone who has traveled a bit and who does pay attention to events in the rest of the world, I have to be concerned when I think of Romney as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Guys, we aren’t the only ones with nuclear bombs.

For me, the scariest part is Romney’s ignorance of foreign policy. His views on the subject, on the few occasions he’s expressed them, pretty much center around “Obama’s foreign policy sucks” and “We need to be so tough and mean nobody will want to screw with us.” And then there’s his comment in Israel that the Jewish people must be economically better off than the Palestinians because of their superior culture. Really? Does anyone not think we have enough enemies in the Middle East, many of whom have nothing to lose if they declare war on us? Do we need to give them even more reasons to hate and resent us?

Romney’s foreign policy advisors are the same as George W. Bush’s. Considering how unpopular the Iraq war has been—not to mention the Afghanistan war—do we really want to return to that? I grew up during the Vietnam War and I thought it was normal to see photos of fallen soldiers in the paper every day or so. Is that really what we want? Because frankly, I’m sick of it. The Iraq war was a GWB ploy for revenge. The Afghanistan war was a lost cause from the start. The drones that are invading other countries and killing civilians make me want to vomit. Romney promises to be tougher than this. The Republicans want to spend billions more on defense than even the Pentagon itself requested. Really?

Oh, and let’s not forget that all the while the Republicans are eager to send our young men off to battle, they are also intent on reducing veterans’ benefits and making it really hard for wounded veterans to get the medical care they need (and fully deserve). Really?

Job Creation & the Economic Crisis

Romney promises millions of new jobs as a result of the policies of his government. But he doesn’t really explain how he’s going to fulfill that promise. He does promise to eliminate regulations that he says prevents companies from expanding, such as environmental laws, product safety laws, etc. I guess I have to question why it should be thought necessary that we live with polluted water and air, not to mention potentially dangerous products, in order to motivate companies to do business here. It’s bad enough that this happens in third-world countries; is that what we want to happen here? Maybe if we refused to buy these companies’ products, they’d reconsider.

In Scandinavia, the IKEA company has a fine, upstanding reputation, or at least it did. The unionized workers are well-treated, well-paid, and happy. And the company prospered. Then it decided to open a plant in Norfolk, Virginia, where the labor rules are minimal. I suppose they expected the workers would be so grateful to have jobs that they wouldn’t mind being exploited. Apparently, however, the workers weren’t total idiots, because they started quitting in droves, and weren’t quiet about it either. It didn’t make much of a splash in this country, but it was a huge scandal in Scandinavia. That a great company like IKEA would treat workers in the U.S. like bugs they could squash. . . simply because the labor laws are so lax here.

So when Romney promises millions of new jobs, I have to ask myself, “What kind of new jobs?” Because if they are sweatshop jobs like this, are they worth having? Is this what you envision as the future of our country? And before you shake your head and tell yourself this will never happen here, you need to open your eyes: it is already happening here. And if Romney and other Republicans have their way, more labor laws will be struck down, giving employers all the cards, while their employees have no choice but to accept whatever their employer metes out—or starve.

No Safety Net For Lazy Bums

According to Romney, people who are struggling to make ends meet should simply work harder. Hard work is the universal answer to economic hardship.

I suppose for someone who has never seen the harsh realities of life, that makes sense. I mean, I personally have never gone hungry or without health insurance. If I hadn’t been around a long time and seen a lot of tragic situations, I might think people down on their luck are just lazy too. Having seen lots of horrific scenarios, however, I can no longer make such judgments. There are many reasons for someone’s economic problems besides laziness, and it blows my mind that anyone can still think that after so many people were laid off in the recent economic crisis. Here are some I am aware of from personal experience:

  • Mental illness, medical expenses, etc.
  • Layoffs of one or both parents in a family
  • Devalued home results in bankruptcy or struggling to make mortgage payments for a home worth half what was paid for it
  • Failed business (including a bad weather year for farmers)
  • Older workers (50+) get laid off and can’t get hired anywhere else

Admittedly, there are people whose poor decisions caused or exacerbated their problems. However, as someone who has had her own issues in the past with things like credit cards, I cannot condemn others who have made the same mistakes. The economic climate practically begged us to spend money, like good patriots, to support the economy. Financial experts encouraged us to buy bigger houses than conventional wisdom would advise, telling us that the value of our homes would keep going higher, and giving us a huge return on our investment. Should we have known better? Probably. But the financial experts really must have known there would be repercussions eventually. And it bothers me a whole lot that the mortgage industry remains essentially the same as it was, with nobody having been prosecuted or sent to jail, while one in eight mortgages remains underwater four years after the scandal first came to light.

And Romney promises to deregulate Wall Street even further. Is this what we want? Really?

Bigotry

If there’s one thing that has become crystal clear to me in the past year since the Republican governors started their attack on worker rights and schools (when my eyes were finally opened), it’s the judgmental attitude of the Republicans toward other races and cultures. An atmosphere of fear pervades the party, undoubtedly because their policies protect the rights of white males above any other group, and that sector is rapidly becoming outnumbered by minority groups. Not only is this attitude repugnant, it is also a losing proposition. Because unless the intention is to go back to giving only white men the right to vote, the Republican party will be swept out of existence within the next 10-15 years.

Nevertheless, almost every day I hear another racist or sexist remark coming out of a Republican’s mouth. Does this mean they all feel that way? Of course not, but it is significant that more and more Republicans feel secure enough to spout off the ignorance they would have kept silent about only a few years ago. I would imagine any informed Republican would be concerned about what is happening to their party; however, most of them are keeping their mouths shut, and this bothers me even more. Are you willing to accept a return to the Fifties’ era bigotry simply to win a presidential election? What does this say about you?

Family Values

This country was founded for the purpose of giving people the right to choose their own religion—or no religion, if that is their choice. Historically, most countries did not allow that right. While there may have been Jews and Catholics in 17th and 18th century England, they weren’t treated the same as those who embraced the state religion. That’s why many people came to America in the first place, and that’s why the founding fathers insisted that freedom of religion be included in our Constitution.

But now that the Latino population is increasing so rapidly, as well as the growing numbers of immigrants who adhere to Muslim and other non-Christian religions, the Christians (especially the Protestants) are beginning to feel threatened. Freedom of religion is fine and good as long as their religion gets preferential treatment. Otherwise, laws need to be made ensuring that these other upstart religions don’t get too uppity.

And this is where their social agenda comes from. God meant marriage to be between a man and a woman, so gay people can’t be allowed the same marriage rights as everyone else. Uh people. . . that may be the tenet of your religion, but hey, freedom of religion, remember? Shouldn’t we all have the same rights? Even those who don’t believe in your god?

Nor should a woman have a right to disrupt a pregnancy, according to these people. Not even in case of “genuine rape.” One gets a feeling these people don’t believe in rape at all—even though I know several people who have been raped and probably more than that who are too ashamed to admit it. Incest, too, is a lot more common than any of us knows. But the worst part of all of this is the assumption that anyone should have the right to tell a woman what to do with her body, or make judgments about women who become pregnant without attaching the same stigma to the men who are at least equally responsible.

Folks, if you are serious about wanting to reduce the number of abortions, put your energies into helping out women with the babies they already have and can’t take care of. The irony of the Republicans’ condemnation of government programs like Medicaid and WIC, which are indispensable to a lot of women with children they cannot support, is that their message seems to place a higher priority on an unborn child (or a fertilized egg) than a living, breathing child.

And if you don’t believe the Republicans are serious about repealing Roe vs. Wade, or birth control pills, or in-vitro fertilization, just take a look at the various “personhood” amendments that are making their way onto state ballots. Do you really think this is just smoke and mirrors? Get your head out of the sand and imagine a world where women and doctors are jailed for abortions and birth control pills, and more and more women die in botched, back-alley abortions. Is that what you want for your daughter? Really?

If nothing else, imagine the cost to the taxpayer of jailing all these people. That should give you pause for reflection, at least.

Education

I almost did not include this in my tirade, primarily because I am almost equally disgusted with the Obama Administration’s education plan as the Republicans’. However, I was a teacher for thirty years. I can’t suddenly stop caring about what is happening to education in this country, and I have to say, the Republicans’ agenda includes completely dismantling public education, while Obama’s, at least, does not go that far.

The average taxpayer does not understand why the schools are so strapped for cash these days. Even my financial counselor thinks it’s because (1) the schools aren’t managing their money wisely, and (2) the economic crisis means there’s less money to go around. While there may be some grain of truth in some circumstances, there is much more going on than that, and it dates long before Obama or the radical Republican governors took over.

In Ohio, at least, for well over a decade, money formerly earmarked for public education has been gradually directed to charter schools and voucher programs, so that people can use state money to send their children to what are essentially private schools, many of them religious-oriented. While in some manner that might seem fair, even if you discount the separation of church and state thing, it does leave the public schools short. This siphoning off of public education funds has caused more and more financial problems, which the more prosperous communities have managed to offset by passing levies to make up the difference. The less-well-off communities, however, do not have the same options, and have to cancel programs and lay off staff, until they get to the point where they’ve eliminated everything except the programs required by law, and even those are decimated to the bare minimum. And yet the cuts still continue.

Few people realize how much of our state taxpayer funds are going to billion-dollar corporations to bribe them not to go elsewhere. Bob Evans got eight million dollars to build a new headquarters sixteen miles away. Are you telling me Bob Evans couldn’t afford to pay for it themselves? Diebold got something like ten times that. Proctor & Gamble donated money to our governor’s campaign fund and got a $100+K grant. These are not tax abatements, folks. These are taxpayer dollars going into the bank accounts of companies that could buy our state ten times over.

The Nitty-Gritty

And yet our politicians, as well as society in general, call teachers and public workers parasites and leeches? Get real, folks.

Like me, you may have some issues with the Democratic agenda. It’s not perfect either. There are going to have to be some hard decisions to be made in the future. A lot of compromises are going to have to be made on both sides. What I have seen in the past couple of years, though, is that the Democrats were the only ones making them. The Republicans seemed to think they could putter away two good years doing nothing but block the Obama Administration to prove how dysfunctional the Democrats are. Vote in more Republicans and you won’t get compromise; you’ll get a dictatorship. A country ruled by and for the large corporations and billionaires. And if you think they aren’t capable of changing the laws in their favor, all you have to do is see what is happening in 23 states with voter suppression laws. Do you really think those came about because of widespread voter fraud? Really, folks? Really?

Because what it boils down to, at least with today’s Republicans, is that the Republican party is all about selling us out to the billion-dollar corporations. According to the Supreme Court, they are people too, and really the only important ones, because they get to keep their money to buy our elections with while those of us who are dependent on them for jobs pay for the roads, schools, public parks, and yeah, even the wars that they send our young people off to fight.

If this is what you really want, I guess you’ll be voting Republican this year.

But don’t give me any crap about the Republicans being no worse than the Democrats and how you’re not going to vote either way because you’re just fed up with everything.

Because this year, the difference between the parties is as wide open as the Grand Canyon. And if you don’t like the responsibility for being an informed voter, maybe you should move to Cuba. I hear people don’t have to make tough choices there. And they say it’s pretty warm in winter there, too.

Posted in hypocrisy, middle-class, politics, poverty, public education, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Post-Retirement Pitfalls

I retired last fall at the age of 55 from teaching. I wanted out at the earliest opportunity because my job was going nowhere and I had decided to start a second career as a novelist.

In case you are wondering if I feel any regrets about school starting without me for the first time this year, the answer is no, not at all. I was definitely ready to move on to something else and still feel it was the right decision for me.

What I was most assuredly not ready for, however, is the feeling of abandonment now that nearly all of my friends are going back to work.

By nature I’m something of a stay-at-home, hermit-like person anyway, and if anyone had ever told me I’d be going through such horrible loneliness, I’d have laughed my head off in disbelief. For the first nine months or so, I had enough other adjustments to deal with that this did not seem such a crippling problem. But now that I watch all my teacher friends prepare to go back to school this year—realizing that they will be bombarded with home and family responsibilities as well as schoolwork even when they get off work—I’m starting to feel rather abandoned.

Retirement was great at first. It was wonderful to have so much freedom, but I discovered that it wasn’t as easy as I expected. For one thing, the day goes awfully quickly when you don’t have time commitments. While it’s great not to have to rush around all the time, one has to accept that putzing around—which is really not a bad thing at all; who needs the hassle of rushing around all the time?—eats up more time than one would expect. The other thing is that without external deadlines, it’s often hard to sit down to work at the computer every day to write when you’re not always feeling inspired.

What I’ve been attempting to do is set up a sort of schedule or general plan for managing my time each day—one that is not so strict that I end up abandoning it altogether, nor so flexible that it allows too much procrastination. While I’ve managed to do this somewhat successfully pre-retirement during the summers off, it’s not quite the same when you don’t have that August deadline staring you in the face. I mean, when you tend to procrastinate and you have the rest of your life to complete a project, well, you have to find some internal self-discipline somewhere, or else become a couch potato the rest of your life.

Self-discipline? You mean, forcing myself to do something I really don’t feel like doing simply because I know it’s good for me? Hey, I managed to do that with the treadmill for the last seven years (with a few lapses due to recent back issues). I got up an hour early and got on that treadmill five times a week whether I felt like it or not, and it has proven to be really, really good for me. I just get on there and do it. Period.

So I need to do the same thing with my writing. And my household chores, particularly the de-cluttering efforts. And I do think that once I start finding some success in these areas, I won’t feel the loneliness so much.

But I am still looking for activities to get me out of the house at least a few times a week. And I realize I can still depend on some of my working friends for regular support and accountability, even when their lives are crazy busy.

My friend Ellen said that she noticed from her mother-in-law’s experiences that the first of her social group to become a widow had the worst time adjusting. Those who joined her later found it a much easier transition to make, which is not to say that losing a spouse is an easy thing; it just helps when you have close friends with similar experiences for support.

While it would be great if my friends could join me in retirement sooner than later, I realize they have their own lives to live and enjoy, their own timetables to follow, and I would not wish them to be deprived of a moment of it.

My advice to you all is the same as to myself: treasure each day as it comes rather than always anticipating some future day when you will finally “be happy.” Because, in case you haven’t noticed, that future day never comes, and before you know it, you find you have missed out on the most important moments of your life.

Posted in depression, motivation, persistence, retirement | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Standing in the Truth

This morning I was watching Suze Orman and Till Debt Do Us Part and I started thinking that learning to budget your money isn’t really that hard. I admit to feeling somewhat proud of myself for managing to save more than I spend.

However, it occurred to me that managing the numbers isn’t really the challenge for most people. Even people who make minimum wage can probably manage if they share living quarters and learn to economize. (Exceptions might be those who have lost jobs or who have large medical bills, and in these cases, bankruptcy may be a better solution than budgeting.)

The real challenge is. . . drum roll. . . standing in the truth. Yep, this is Suze Orman’s mantra, and she is correct. You have to force yourself to sit down and face the facts: you have X money coming in and Y money going out, and if Y is greater than X, you are going to have to make some adjustments.

This used to be easier before people started using credit cards to pay for everything. I mean, in the old days if you wrote a check at the supermarket and didn’t have enough money in the bank to cover it, you would face some consequences almost immediately (insufficient funds fees), not to mention that such behavior could result in a jail term. If, however, you pay for everything with a credit card, you can keep adding to your debt until you reach your limit, and even then, if you are paying at least a token amount each month, you can probably get a higher limit or another credit card. Of course, eventually you will get to the point where you can’t pay enough to keep your creditors happy and then you will suffer the consequences, but that could take years, and will probably not land you in jail.

An irresponsible person may not care all that much to have trashed credit and have to go through the humiliation of bankruptcy court. They may have an endless number of friends and relatives to mooch off of, and if they have kids, well, let them fend for themselves or end up in foster care. I’m told by my social worker roommate that there are plenty of people like that—and I think my brother and sister-in-law who have taken in and adopted foster kids would agree—but I think those people have more problems to deal with than how to handle their money.

But I think that most responsible people—those who have not been brought down by unforeseen disasters, that is—who fall into debt problems are quite capable of running the numbers well enough to figure out a way to get themselves out of it. That part is relatively simple, at least for anyone who passed fifth grade math. The hard part is—as Suze warns—making themselves stand in the truth. The truth about what they make and what they can afford. The truth that things cannot make you happy, that life is still worth living even if you have to cook your own meals or drive a ten-year-old car. The truth about how being in debt makes you feel like a slave (yes, that is in the Bible) and how paying your own way through life makes you truly free.

I know how it feels to be caught in the debt cycle because I was there once, and not so long ago either. It was so easy to buy whatever I wanted and not worry about having the money to pay for it. I always paid more than the minimum balances on my credit cards and my credit score kept going up. The banks loved me, even though I minimized interest fees by frequently transferring balances. But I knew that if I didn’t get a handle on things, the bubble would burst at some point, and it started to bother me. When my jewelry from QVC arrived, I started thinking it wasn’t nearly as pretty as it looked on TV. It was interesting to note that the process of ordering the item gave me more of a good feeling than actually receiving it. But that wasn’t enough to stop me.

Frankly, I used to avoid financial advice shows like Suze Orman’s because they made me feel guilty about my irresponsbility. But I happened to run across one where Suze was confessing about a time when she was $250K in debt—even as a financial advisor! And I suddenly realized that Suze is human and I’m human and that making poor decisions does not make anyone a horrible person. I may not be able to do anything to change the past, but I can change the present. And so I did.

It was remarkably easy to stop buying stuff. All I had to do was ask myself if I really needed this item or if not having it wouldn’t really change my life in any significant way. I also tried to remember that there were so many people truly suffering financially and that the money would be better spent in a donation to a local food pantry or some other charity. It got easier and easier to deny myself, especially as I started to see my savings accounts grow and the household clutter dissipate. Oh, I still indulge myself sometimes, but only as far as I can justify the numbers.

Taking It a Step Further

Okay, I give myself a pat on the back: when it comes to finances, I can stand in the truth. But. . . this morning I realized that I need to stand in the truth about other things too. And the latest one is living healthy.

In recent years, I have found it harder and harder to control my eating. My craving for ice cream or cookies is every bit as dangerous as the TV shopping—and even more so considering I can satisfy it immediately and not have to wait several days for it to be delivered. Sometimes I will be so obsessed with satisfying my food cravings that I can’t do anything else until I give in. And if I do, it only makes me feel good for about 15 minutes, after which I feel guilty.

Sadly, when you get older, guilt isn’t the only consequence of unhealthy living. There’s even something worse than growing out of your clothes, and that’s ruining your health and eventually, shortening your life.

When you’re younger, you don’t think much about dying or retirement because, well, you just can’t believe it will ever happen to you. When you’re actually retired, you have to start thinking about death, because you realize that people your age are dying all the time. Thomas Kinkade died the other day at age 54—a year younger than I am. My grandmother died at age 57.

Between physical therapy and specialists and cataracts surgery, I’ve spent more money for medical co-pays in the past two years than I have spent in the last 20 years at least. And I’m starting to see that quality of life is as big an issue as length of life. How enjoyable will it be to be stuck in a nursing home instead of living independently and traveling the world and doing things I’ve always wanted to do?

So. . . now I’m vowing to make myself stand in the truth in health matters like I did with my finances. Will going out for ice cream really make me happy or will an orange be a choice that my body and my conscience can live with long-term? I can’t erase the past, but I can control the present, and frankly, I have too much to live for to allow myself to continue sliding down the path toward disability or death.

It’s a day-by-day thing. Although I am now able to watch QVC without feeling obligated to buy everything I see, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to keep sweets in the house without feeling impelled to eat them. C’est la vie.

And life is worth living even I can’t have everything I think I need.

Posted in binging, buying stuff, craving, emotional eating, failure, greed, motivation, persistence, poverty, retirement, saving money, self-acceptance, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Defining Success: A Writer’s Musings

What does success look like to me?

Well, who doesn’t want to become rich and successful? But I’m not sure at this point in my life that I really care that much about that. Being rich is not all it’s cracked up to be, and no matter how successful you are—thinking of Diana Gabaldon—there are always going to be people who hate your work. And if you should happen to lose your love for writing, you will end up turning out formulaic trash. It happens to nearly all of the romance authors I have read over the years, although some of them manage to avoid it by switching genres.

On the other hand, I would like to supplement my income to allow for more travel and also to build up more of a nest egg than I have done so far. I’m not greedy; another $10K a year would be great. But I wouldn’t turn down $50 either.

I write mostly for myself, because I have all these stories in my head and I want to make them “real.” Every time I find myself disappointed with the books I am reading, I can’t help thinking that I can write better than that. Frankly, I get just as much enjoyment from writing my own stories as I do from reading others’ work, maybe even more if the work in question is fatally flawed.

But I guess I do want to be published too. At least I want to put my writing out there and see what others think about it. But that’s a very risky proposition. If everyone hates my work, will I be totally devastated and give up writing entirely? I don’t think so, but it would be a blow. Still, there is always the challenge of trying to improve. Even the best-selling authors have room for improvement.

What would I consider failure?

Hmm, that’s a tough one. I think if I were to let myself become intimidated and give up writing altogether out of fear of rejection. . . I would consider that failure. On the other hand, if it ever happens that I find I do not enjoy writing as much as I do now, it would be appropriate to give it up, at least for a time.

If I never make a cent from my writing but continue to plug away at it for my own enjoyment, I don’t think I would consider that a failure. Life is too short to give up an activity I find pleasurable out of disappointment that the rest of the world doesn’t appreciate my efforts. As long as I feel validated about my own work, what everyone else thinks just does not matter.

Posted in failure, motivation, persistence, success, writing | 1 Comment

Budgeting 101 or Learning to Live Within Your Means

Facing Financial Reality

No matter how much money a person makes, it will never be enough unless one learns to use it wisely. When I read about millionaires complaining about taxes or the cost of maintaining their yachts, I find it difficult to sympathize. Very few people can afford to spend money indiscriminately, and I’m not so sure having all that stuff makes them that much happier than the rest of us. I have a lot more sympathy for the average family whose home is underwater and the parents have to work evenings and weekends just to keep gas in the car and food on the table and still manage their mortgage payments.

The first thing you have to do to be a successful manager of your money is come to terms with your own financial reality. (Yes, I got the term from Suze Orman. I watch her show a lot and I think she gives great advice.) While you may decide you need to find a way to make more money, until you do, you have to accept today’s financial reality first and make it work the best you can.

After you create a budget, you may decide you need to work another job or even take in a roommate to provide additional income. Or you may have to find a cheaper place to live. These are not easy decisions to make, and sometimes there are consequences that cause resentment.

Why do I have to spend so much time working? I deserve to have my evenings and weekends off.

Why do I have to put up with my roommate’s untidy and inconsiderate habits? I deserve to have a place of my own.

Why can’t I go on shopping sprees (or eat out) with my friends? I deserve to have new clothes (or restaurant trips) as much as they do.

Why do I have to keep driving this old wreck when my friends have newer cars? I deserve to have a decent car too.

For too many years, I spent money however I wanted, without worrying too much about where it was going. Based on a conviction that money (or keeping it in the bank) was evil, I built up credit card balances and rarely had more than a couple of thousand dollars in the bank. Oh, I always paid my bills on time and my FICO score was healthy, but my debt kept growing, especially after I bought a car with a home equity loan and my total debt nearly doubled. Whoa!

But that didn’t stop my out-of-control spending. I spent a lot on clothing and jewelry from QVC, and my debt kept growing. It wasn’t until I started seriously thinking about retirement that I became aware of the psychological reasons behind my extravagance. Buying stuff gave me a feeling of power that I did not have in my life. Often, by the time the package arrived in the mail, I would feel let down and guilty about spending money I didn’t have. The fact that I had a walletful of credit cards with large limits made me feel like I could do anything I wanted to do, and it was a heady feeling. But it never lasted, because it was an illusion. And having six jewelry boxes full of necklaces and earrings from QVC became a burden more than a blessing. What should I wear today? I haven’t worn these things in months. Why did I spend so much money on this stuff?

And frankly, when I considered the prospect of retirement, I thought it unlikely that I would need to wear jewelry very often anyway. So I quit buying jewelry. In fact, I started asking myself before purchasing anything if I really needed it. Was it important enough that I wouldn’t mind delaying my retirement to buy it? Usually the answer was no, and I put the phone (or the computer mouse) down. And you know what, it wasn’t that hard to do. Because I really, really wanted to be able to retire while still young enough to enjoy it. And I had begun to realize that having a lot of stuff was making me miserable.

Saving Money

When I was younger, I never thought about retirement any more than I ever thought about getting old. I guess I never expected it would happen. Fortunately, I was in a profession where 10% of my salary was invested in a pension fund, because quite honestly, I would never have socked that much money away if I had had a choice in the matter. Because even though I started a 403(b) account about 16 years ago at the age of 39, that amount would never have been enough to retire on, without the pension.

But getting control of my spending in the past few years has enabled me to build up a healthy emergency fund (which should be eight months’ worth of expenses, according to Suze), and given me the skills necessary to make ends meet on my retirement pension, which is significantly less than my former salary (although it doesn’t really seem like it).

If I could do it over again, however, I would have started saving for retirement from Day One of my first job, even if it could only be small amounts at first and meant eating rice and beans twice a week. I would make sure to keep that money safe and growing and not touch it for any reason until retirement. And I would put away some money regularly in an emergency fund as well.

If we have learned anything as a nation in the past several years, it’s that we can no longer keep spending as we used to do. What we expected yesterday may not be realistic in the future. Today’s downsizing may seem painful now, but could well mean a much brighter tomorrow.

The truth is that money is not evil. Love of money is evil, but spending money indiscriminately is also evil. Putting it away in the bank for future use is prudent.

And frankly, economizing may not be as unpleasant as you think. Feeling in control can be almost euphoric!

Keeping Separate Accounts

I have two checking accounts, one for monthly expenses and the other for longer-term expenses. (I keep an extra thousand dollars in each account for a cushion against overdrafts. I find paying bank fees abhorrent.)

The monthly bills, including cash withdrawals and groceries, come out of the first account. Once I have a workable budget, it is fairly easy to keep track of these expenses. If the account is a bit low one month, I hold back on cash or groceries the next month. If there is a surplus, I can indulge myself a bit if I want to or donate it to a worthy cause.

The second account is for things like insurance, automobile expenses, professional expenses, home repairs, vacations, gifts, and clothing. I keep track of these expenses on a spreadsheet. At the end of each year, I create a budget for each category. Some things, like insurance or gifts, may be based on what was spent the past year. Others, such as home repairs, automobile expenses, or vacations, continue to accumulate from year to year if the money allotted is not needed. This allows me to save for long-term things like cars and home renovations without having to touch my eight-month emergency fund.

Once the amount for each category is determined, I simply total it up and divide by the number of paychecks, and arrange to have that amount deposited into the account from my paycheck. Sometimes I have to play with the amounts a bit to get the total to work with the rest of my budget, but once that is done, it is a simple matter to have the spreadsheet keep track of how much remains in each category.

Having money in this second account makes it so much easier when there are unexpected expenses (and there are always unexpected expenses). Paying the plumber $125 or the car dealer $900 is no big deal when the money is there in the account, and I don’t have to worry about not having the money to pay the mortgage or buy groceries because those expenses come out of the other account.

I suppose this account is much like an emergency fund, but I prefer to keep a separate savings account for that. It doesn’t earn much interest, but it’s there if there are any really huge emergencies or in case I need to transfer funds for some reason.

Creating a Budget

I use the budgeting function on Quicken to keep track of my overall income and expenses. It’s somewhat awkward, and I could probably do the same thing on a spreadsheet, but it works for me. It allows me to create categories for all of my expenses, including taxes, and shows a running total of how they stack up against my income. Some items, such as mortgage and security monitoring, are fixed. Even though my electricity and gas bills are on the budget plan, the amounts vary slightly month-to-month. The water bill is quarterly. Things like groceries and gasoline may vary a bit as well, so it is good to allow a little surplus in the budget to account for such fluctuations.

Don’t forget to include the amount you are having deposited into your second account in your budget. I make sure to include savings as well. It is a good feeling to see the savings account growing steadily.

Monitoring the Budget

Each month when I receive the credit card bill, I go through and list each charge on a piece of paper in its proper category, whether it is a monthly expense (the first account) or a longer-term expense (the second account). I can easily see if I am spending too much on groceries or things like Kindle purchases (I have learned to keep a handle on those or they will add up fast!), and make adjustments the following month, if necessary. I note the longer-term expenses on the spreadsheet, which gives me a running total of amounts in each category. Then I simply total up the expenditures and arrange the appropriate online payments from each account.

Once this is done, I have a good idea how things are going and whether or not I need to be a bit more cautious in my spending. Oddly enough, I really enjoy doing this every month, so much so that I usually do it the same day the credit card bill arrives. When I remember how I used to dread getting the credit card bill every month, it amazes me that things could have changed so drastically in only a little over three years. My credit cards have all been paid off and I have a decent (not huge) emergency fund, and I was able to retire last month. I’m not a millionaire, but I feel like one because I can pay my bills and still pay my taxes (without complaining, I might add). And sometimes I have a little left over that I can use to help others who are not so fortunate.

Confession is Good for the Soul

When I was spending wildly and weighed down with debts, I felt like an idiot. I kept it secret because I felt so guilty, and the end result was that I kept spending more and more because of the rush of adrenaline that came with each purchase. . . even though, as I have said before, it was an illusion. It only made things worse in the end.

I also avoided watching financial programs for the same reason. But one day I happened to see Suze Orman when she was telling about a time many years ago when she found herself $250,000 in debt. . . and she was a financial advisor! She worked herself out of it and became a multimillionaire. You know, that really inspired me. Because if Suze Orman, a financial advisor herself, could have been stupid enough to get over a quarter of a million dollars in debt, I guess my own stupidity didn’t make me the horrible person I thought I was. It just made me a fallible human being like everyone else. And even though I might not become a multimillionaire, I did have the power to change. And little by little, I did.

Suze is not the only financial advisor to have made poor financial choices. Dave Ramsey went bankrupt at one time as well. And there are a lot of us—probably more than you think—who have made poor choices with our money and have suffered or are now suffering the consequences. But making mistakes does not make us horrible people, and I really think a big step to solving the problem is admitting that we have one. For one thing, it means not having to pretend we can afford to keep up with the Joneses. (Very likely the Joneses can’t afford it either, but that’s their business.) There is a very real feeling of relief when you can be honest about your problems.

I want to add that I know that there are a lot of people whose financial problems cannot be so easily resolved. So many have lost their jobs or have mortgages underwater or simply have low incomes. It also becomes more complicated when you have children to support or student loans or no medical insurance. How can you save money for an emergency fund when you can barely pay your monthly bills? I do not have all the answers. For every millionaire who doesn’t want to pay his taxes, there are so many more people who are losing their homes through foreclosure because of bank fraud and job loss or those who are working slaves trying to keep their homes and still put food on the table. For these people, I feel your pain. All the millionaires who think they are mistreated can go hang, for all I care.

Posted in buying stuff, greed, hypocrisy, middle-class, politics, poverty, retirement, saving money, self-acceptance | 1 Comment

Financial Reflections of a Retiring Teacher

Preserving my assets (such as they are)

With retirement looming only months from now, I have been doing some serious thinking about finances. While most of my life I have pretty much just managed to get by on my modest teaching salary, in recent years, I have been motivated to get serious about controlling my spending and building some savings. The STRS seminars and materials have been immensely helpful, and I have become something of a financial show junkie as well, especially Suze Orman’s on CNBC. My favorite segment is the “How am I Doing?” segment, where Suze analyzes someone’s financial history and gives them a letter grade. One area that most people fail is in having a will and a revocable trust, which Suze insists that practically everyone should have.

If you are a parent of minor children, you no doubt have a will already in place. So if you have already done that, why do you need a revocable trust? What in the heck is a revocable trust anyway? In my case, being single and childless and clearly not overburdened with assets, it seemed like a lot of fuss over nothing.

However, as my teaching career comes to a close and I move on to the next phase of my life, I have had to start thinking of how I want my assets—such as they are—to be disposed of. In addition to deciding who gets what and how much, it makes sense to try to preserve as much of it as possible by planning ahead and trying to minimize the damage that will be imposed by probate and estate taxes. The advantage of putting everything into a revocable trust is that nothing in the trust has to go through probate, which means that the bulk of those assets, thus protected from excessive fees, will be distributed according to my wishes.

However, it makes no sense in my situation to spend thousands of dollars in attorney fees, so I looked around for web-based legal tools, in the end choosing Suze Orman’s web-site. For less than $30, I was able to set up my revocable trust as well as update my will and health care power of attorney in a single morning.

In the afternoon I had to go off and find witnesses, get documents notarized, and begin the paperwork involved in changing names of accounts in order to fund the trust. Most of this has been relatively easy. The bank manager who notarized my documents made the account changes at the same time. I called the STRS office and my 403b financial manager to get “change of beneficiary” forms so that I could transfer everything to the “Barbara Andrews Revocable Trust.” For the Roth IRA, all I had to do was go online and type in the new name. I suppose I should include my school life insurance even though that disappears upon my retirement. All in all, though, this has been pretty easy to do.

My assets are now owned by the trust, of which I am the sole trustee. The name changes, but nothing else does. I still manage everything the way I did before, even using the same checks. The difference is that when I pass away, most of my estate is settled without the complication of probate. And since it is revocable, I can revoke the trust at any time. What’s not to like?

Changing the title of the house, however, seems to be a bit more complicated and requires recording fees and so on. For me it’s definitely worth doing, although the bank manager told me that she recommends not including the house in the trust if I expect to refinance very often, as that involves extra costs. In my case, I think I’m done refinancing, though.

Creating a Legacy

The hardest part by far of this process has been forcing myself to think about the end of my life and the legacy I want to leave behind. If I live to the age of 90, there won’t be much left, but if I die before my pension account is gone, there could be a decent amount there for someone to inherit. Where would I like that money to go? Yes, I have nieces and nephews galore who will need to go to college in the future, but there is a part of me that would really to see some of it go to helping college students study abroad.

I wasn’t able to study abroad in college myself, and consequently found myself ill-prepared to teach foreign language when I finished. I left teaching for three years and lived in Ecuador, and after returning to the classroom, I was able to participate in many summer study-abroad experiences. I have to say that my life has never been the same since. Not only did I come back each time with a renewed interest in teaching and lots of wonderful authentic materials to use to inspire my students, but my world view was forever changed. Going out of my comfort zone to live with strangers and expose my insecurities about my language ability was the best thing I ever did for myself, and not just as a teacher either. Studying abroad made me a better person.

In my opinion, everyone should have this experience. Because it’s really hard for people who have always lived in the same place to truly comprehend what the rest of the world is like. The problem is that they can’t possibly understand what they are missing without actually doing it. (This is a big problem with legislators, in particular.)

But study abroad is absolutely essential for anyone who plans a career in foreign language teaching. And although there are plenty of summer opportunities available these days, I am convinced that it is best done during the college years, such as a junior year abroad. Because, as I’m sure you have discovered, once you start teaching, you get sidetracked with all kinds of bills, then mortgages, then perhaps marriage and children, and before you know it, your choices are limited. If you get your study abroad year in before all that, you will have a solid foundation on which to build your career, and then, when the opportunity presents itself, you can supplement that later with shorter refresher courses.

However, it is unfortunate that most college students are overburdened financially; how can they afford the additional expense of a year abroad, no matter how essential it is to their chosen career? The overwhelming need far outweighs the number of existing study-abroad scholarships. There comes a point when a student has to make a decision to either continue on without the proper preparation or to move on to some other career. Can the foreign language teaching profession afford to lose so many promising candidates because of lack of resources?

I know I’m preaching to the choir here. Economic realities being what they are, it seems like a hopeless cause. But maybe it’s not. What if those of us who understand the importance of study abroad could do something to help? Maybe I am living paycheck-to-paycheck right now, but I can make a bequest to the OFLA in my will to be used for the purpose of helping deserving teacher candidates to study abroad. There is a certain satisfaction about knowing that my passing will give some future language teacher an opportunity to experience the world and become an inspiration to her students.

While it’s true that I don’t have the resources on my own to make a significant impact, imagine what could happen if each one of us were to make such bequests in our final documents? The OFLA Foundation could become a powerful force for global understanding in a world desperately in need of it.

That is the kind of legacy I want to leave behind. What about you?

Posted in diversity, giving, retirement, saving money, study abroad | Tagged | Leave a comment

Howdy Neighbor!

This is a letter I wrote to distribute to my neighbors to introduce myself and let them know I am working to repeal Senate Bill 5 and that I have a petition they can sign if they are interested.

[Add Photo]

May 6, 2011

Howdy Neighbor!

My name is Barbara Andrews and I’ve lived at [address] since June 1992. . . almost 19 years now. You’ve probably seen me out working in the yard or mowing the lawn in the spring and summer. (I tend to hibernate in the winter.)

I have been a teacher for 29 years, 26 in the Maumee City Schools, which are rated excellent, and I’m concerned about Senate Bill 5 and legislators making decisions about our schools that will have serious consequences for teachers and students. Of course, I am also concerned about the effects of this bill on policemen, firemen, and other public workers, as well as municipalities, whose budgets have been cut to the bone. The state claims that this is necessary for budgetary reasons, and yet at the same time, the state has not only given huge tax breaks to large corporations, but has also given taxpayer dollars to multi-billion-dollar companies such as Bob Evans and Diebold to build larger and more luxurious headquarters. How can a state that is hurting financially afford to do these things? And even more to the point, why are schools and public workers and municipalities being forced to absorb the costs of these corporate giveaways?

It is unfortunate that our neighborhood has been deteriorating in recent years. (My house was valued at $121,000 in 2006; in 2007 I spent $20,000 remodeling the kitchen; now it is valued at $95,000.) I shudder to think what the neighborhood will be like a few years from now when kids who should be in school are roaming the streets looking for drug money and there are not enough policemen to handle all the crime. What about fire protection and roads and garbage collection? Who will be responsible for trimming the trees and hauling away branches like we had in the last ice storm? What about road and sewer repair? You know, before they repaved our street about four years ago, every time there was a hard rainstorm, my garage flooded (one of the hazards of having a sunken driveway). One time, it almost flooded into my carpeted basement, and only the assistance of my neighbors Kirk and Sandy in bailing out the driveway in a thunderstorm kept it from making a huge mess. I REALLY appreciate the work the city did to protect my property!

The truth is, I really like paying taxes for important things, things that make my life worth living. I don’t mind paying my union dues either, because being part of a union means that I get some say in making decisions about my working conditions, such as class size. In Maumee, we have negotiated to save the district money for health and dental care, and we agreed to a pay freeze in 2010. We come home every night with papers to grade and lessons to plan, and during the summer we take classes to keep our teaching licenses and write units and plans for the coming year. We are NOT parasites and leeches, as some have portrayed us. We love our students and our families and have modest expectations as far as lifestyle is concerned. (My other neighbor, Derrick, is also a Maumee teacher.)

I realize this is a rather long introduction. Perhaps I should just get to the point. I am currently circulating a petition to put Senate Bill 5 to a citizens’ veto referendum. If we get 231,000 signatures by June 30, there will be a referendum to repeal this bill on the ballot in November 2011. This means that Ohio voters will be able to vote whether or not they believe this bill should be repealed. Signing the petition does not obligate you to vote to repeal the bill in November. All it does is help us get the issue on the ballot so that we Ohioans can decide for ourselves.

If you are interested in signing my petition, please give me a call [insert phone #] within the next week or so (since I have to turn it in soon), and I will try to stop by when you are home. Or you can stop in at my home (after 4 p.m. on weekdays). In any case, I will be glad to meet you and talk to you, and maybe the next time you walk by while I am working outside we will have something more to say to each other than “Hello” or “Have a nice day.”

Thank you for considering my request.

Barbara S. Andrews
[Insert address/phone number]

P.S. Petition signers must be registered voters who are not on probation from a felony conviction.

Posted in greed, middle-class, politics, public education, Uncategorized | Leave a comment