Saturday, January 28, 2017

Inch One Hundred Fifty-Five: What Norm Said

With most of January behind me, and two paychecks deposited and accounted for, I am surprised at what I have already learned from my new way of tracking my expenses and monitoring my spending. 

What have I learned? Tracking my cash flow visually instead of mentally makes me far more inclined to watch when, where, and on what I am spending money. Given that I do not spend casually or freely to begin with, this revelation has made my current strict money policy a little more flexible.

So I was thrilled to read that my personal discovery was validated by Norm Brodsky, a columnist for the magazine Inc.

Inc. is a magazine aimed at entrepreneurs, business start-ups, and small businesses. I first read it back in the 90s after I received a free subscription as a lawyer. A few years ago, after a long hiatus, I subscribed again.

I'm not an entrepreneur. I'm not a venture capitalist. I am not burning (or even warming) with desire to start a business. But I do find the magazine irresistible. One of the many features I look forward to is Norm's monthly column, "Street Smarts."

In the most recent issue, Norm wrote about getting a feel for one's new business by setting aside the spreadsheet and the P & L statements and approaching the company finances differently. "By writing the numbers down [by hand] and doing the calculations yourself, you begin to have a feel for the relationships between them."

Norm is right. And somehow I managed to stumble on that insight when I reassessed my financial forecast for 2017.

February is almost here. January held an unexpected medical test. With my insurance out-of-pocket costs reset to zero at the start of the year, my projected out-of-pocket contribution (payable at the time of the test) hit my expense account. Hard. Thanks to my paycheck exercise, I could see where the balance of the cost would come from without threatening my fixed expenses. Better yet, I could pencil (well, pen) out my numbers and see the the deposit that would start replenishing my depleted account.

By working the numbers by hand, instead of whirring through them over and over in my brain, I could feel it. What a great thing.

Just like Norm said.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Inch One Hundred Fifty-Four: Women's March

On the courthouse steps. Photo by Adam Stiffler
I had a lot of friends head to D.C. this weekend for the Women's March. I have seen pictures popping up on Facebook all day as this friend or that friend posts pictures from the march.

Some of us in this town held a kinda last minute mini-march in solidarity with those marching in D.C. This came together late on Friday, having been hatched on Thursday, and emails crossed and recrossed on the electronic highway.

I walked from our house to the Andrews House in downtown, our community gathering spot. My excitement grew as I realized there were a number of others headed the same way. Halfway there, friends Sally and Kris came down a side street and we walked on together. All in all, there were over 100 of us: women, men, children, toddlers, babies in strollers, and dogs on leashes.

Penny, one of the march's organizers, gave us the rules: "Stay on sidewalks, don't block intersections or crosswalks. Stay off of private property."

"Be respectful. Be positive."

We walked. We talked. Cars went by honking horns and waving. Some drove by and glared. One shouted an obscenity. But by and large, it was positive.

It was sunny. It was warm. I slipped off my jacket. Others shed scarves and gloves.

The destination was our county courthouse, which is an imposing Italianate structure with wide stairs that sweep up to the front door. (Note: the public can no longer use the front door, because of security reasons. Everyone enters through the rear basement door. But I practiced law long enough ago that I had the pleasure more than once of climbing those stairs to enter the courthouse,  and had the thrill after a successful hearing once to burst out those same doors and laugh all the way down the stairs.)

At the courthouse, the walkers in the front of the group (which had loosened up and strung out in downtown due to crosswalks) stopped, uncertain of what to do.

"I think we have to stay on the sidewalk."

My friend (and fellow lawyer) Judy and I quickly replied.

"Oh, no," said Judy, "this is public property. This is our property. We have a right to be on this property."

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely," I said. "We can go right up on the steps. That's what the First Amendment is all about."

And with Judy leading the way and me close behind, we walked to and climbed the courthouse steps.

Afterwards, I hugged Judy goodbye as she headed off in one direction. I said goodbye to Sally and Kris, who were headed to our downtown diner for coffee and rolls. And I stopped to thank Penny, one of the organizers.

Penny, a Republican demoralized by the 2016 political scene, said she was just looking for a way for people to come together and express their concerns. She noted that there was so much anger and despair and that the goal today was to accent the positive.

Mission accomplished.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Inch One Hundred Fifty-Three: Stringent Monetary Controls

I have a large personal expenditure coming up in the next few months. I had a large personal expenditure last month, when I bought a new used car after five months of making do (walking, borrowing my dad's truck, borrowing Warren's car) when my old car died. That was $1900.00 cash, plus another $150.00 for title, plates transfer, and sales tax ($133.00). The car purchase knocked down what I call my "expense account" (a separate checking account I use as savings) considerably. The 3% COLA I received at work just about equaled the increase in my health insurance premiums. (I am not complaining; we have Cadillac coverage and only pay 10% of the overall premium.) And it being a brand new year, all of my health insurance deductible and out of pocket amounts have reset to zero, so I am looking at some sizable medical expenses early on in 2017. Oh, and did I note that my copay for oncology went up, as did the cost of my oral chemo?

In short, money is tight. In response, my overall goal for the next four months is to live as close to the bone as possible.

Fortunately, except for the medical costs, my needs are fairly small on a daily basis: food, gas, utilities. My wants tend to be things that don't cost money (or very little): books from the library, walks when our temperatures are not sub-arctic, time with friends. And I am fortunate beyond words to be married to a man who likewise takes pleasure in leftovers, making do, and coming up with inexpensive ways to spend time and life together. (Not only do I have someone on the same page as I am when it comes to being budget conscious, but Warren can sometimes underspend me!)

All the same, I find myself pondering how to keep the outflow of money as low and arid as possible. It is so easy to take out the debit card and buy the whatever. Although I am not buying high or even medium whatevers as a rule, even inexpensive ones add up. What to do?

What I have ended up doing is printing off my check stub on payday (every two weeks). I have long categorized my pays as "1st pay" and "2nd pay." (Twice a year there is an extra pay, as we get paid 26 times a year, but I keep my focus on 1st and 2nd.) By sheer repetition, I know which set bills and expenses (utilities and oncology copays, for example) come out of which pay. I take the printout and write out, deducting from my take home pay as I go, all the fixed expenses that have to come out of that paycheck. What is left over is my spending money for two weeks.

Groceries, coffee with friends, postage come out of spending money; gasoline, in contrast, is a fixed expense. After I did the above exercise for the first pay of 2017, I had $89.00 left over. With a week to go, I still have $30.00.

I can't remember when, if ever, I charted out my expenditures looking forward. While I always did that mental exercise in my head with each pay period, my actual tracking was usually with hindsight. (How much did I spend?) It's an interesting exercise, seeing visually my declining account balance before the spending occurs.

Some frugalists out there make January a no-spend month. Check out the Frugalwoods, who I just stumbled across thanks to Katy Wolk-Stanley,  the Non-Consumer Advocate. Katy is a member of the Compact. (Compact members are committed to not buying new things. That's a simplistic version; you can go over to Katy's website to get a better idea. While you're there, read any posts titled "Goodwill, Badwill, Questionable-will" just for sheer laughs.) Me? I'm somewhere in the middle, with strong tendencies towards being a member of the Compact.

We do have one bigger than typical expense coming up  in February. Old friends of mine are flying into Chicago February to rendezvous with us. I am not too worried because we have a joint travel account which will be pay for our trip and, even with that earmarked account, we tend to travel frugally. We have free lodgings (our sister-in-law's condo in Oak Park), we'll buy a CityPASS to see the sights (as our California friends have never been to Chicago, I imagine the Art Institute, the Field, and other places are all on the list) and so save on admissions when seeing those sights, and Warren and I eat cheap no matter where we are, usually splitting meals. (I know you are wondering who visits Chicago in February, right? We do. And the old friends are headed to the Antarctic in March, so Chicago should be a piece of cake. Unfortunately for three of the four of us, it will not be baseball season when we are there, but you can't have everything.)

I get paid next week. Because I have credits at both the oncologist's and primary physician's office, the money I set aside last week for copays for those appointments will go into my expense account next week after I get paid. That will inch me a little bit closer to meeting the large expenditure I mentioned when I opened this post.

I never took economics. I don't closely follow the financial world or even government (at any level) budget talks. But I know that by applying stringent budget controls, I should be able to meet my goal.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Inch One Hundred Fifty-Two: Soapbox

My friend Margo summed it up best. "I'm learning to be loud."

I don't like confrontation, which is why I never enjoyed trial work. As a mediator, my goal is to find common ground. I don't typically engage in electronic shouting matches or post political memes on Facebook (although I often "like" them).

But sometimes I read something and think "I have to say something." And this is that time.

In last week's post, I wrote of my fears and concerns about the incoming administration. A longtime reader, a friend and fellow blogger in the blogosphere, took me to task: "Please don't believe everything you hear, especially about the election. News media is very bias[ed] and most of what gets reported is not correct.Wait and see of what comes of this new administration. My bet is that it will get better."

Give the President-Elect a chance? He has already announced Cabinet choices, most of whom I disagree with politically and morally. Rex Tillerson? Steve Mnuchin? Betsy DeVos? JEFF SESSIONS????

So with all due respect, I think the President-Elect has already indicated the tone his administration is going to take, at least out of the gate. So I don't think I need to wait and see. 

The second comment was far more upsetting and this had to do with the upcoming planned armed Neo-Nazi march in Whitefish, Montana, against the Jews in that town. Armed march, mind you, because that's how hate groups roll. The blog comment was "I just saw what you were talking about at Whitefish. A bunch of idiots, who were not supported by those in charge. I don't see this any different that 'black lives matter' groups that condemn white people."

I agree that the President-Elect has no connection with or endorsement of the Whitefish march. But I am stunned that a man who is on Twitter relentlessly, a man about to become President of this country, who can chastise a Broadway cast or a SNL skit at the drop of a hat, cannot bring himself to tweet a criticism, even a mild one, about Whitefish. Or one about the Klan marches in North Carolina on December 3. Or about the Hitler salutes thrown at the alt-right conference in D.C. 

Hoping I was wrong, I spent time on Google hoping for a tweeted comment or criticism from the President-Elect. Nothing.

I find that silence, especially in light of the man's volubility, disingenuous.

But what struck mw to the core was the casual comparison of Neo-Nazis and the Black Lives Matter movement. The latter is a movement arising out of deliberate and unlawful killings of citizens, primarily black men and usually unarmed, by law enforcement. Period. It is not a "let's kill the white people" or even a "let's kill the police" movement, despite what FOX News reports. (Talk about "most of what gets reported in not correct.") Black Lives Matter is about calling attention to the very real threat that millions of Americans live with daily because of their skin color. The Whitefish march is about threatening and intimidating a population because of its religion. I cannot begin to connect those dots.

In my gut, I feel my personal security and civil liberties are threatened by the upcoming administration. So are the safety and civil liberties of my sons (Hispanic and Jewish), my daughter-in-law (Native American), and my granddaughter (Native American, Hispanic, and Jewish). And so are the civil liberties of million of American citizens because of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual identification, disability, and gender. Regardless of what the President-Elect may believe, he has surrounded himself with staff and cabinet choices who are against me and others of us in this nation. Think of Steve Bannon, chief strategist for the President-Elect, and tell me I am wrong.

Three final comments and then I will step off my soapbox.

First, contrary to others in my circle of friends, I do know people who voted for the incoming administration. One of my very closest friends, Katrina, campaigned for the President-Elect. We may have to tiptoe around political discussions for a long time. Yet I am confident that our friendship will last because I believe that should my worst fears be realized, she would not turn her head and pretend she did not see. Katrina would have her Colonel Welch moment.

Second, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote The Wave of the Future (subtitled A Confession of Faith) in 1940, a little book which was seen at the time and forever after as an apology for and a plea for accepting the evils of Nazism and fascism as necessary to better the world. (Among the many critics of her work was E. B. White, in his December 1940 essay "The Wave of the Future," in which he neatly dissects her disturbing position.) AML followers like me now know that Anne was heavily influenced and pushed to write this by her husband, Charles, who was anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi and may not have had any choice to do otherwise. That's not the point. That book cost Anne her reputation for decades. I own a copy of the book and have read it, but I cannot bring myself to read it in 2017.

Third, I am not allowing comments on this particular post. It is a soapbox of one. In my personal life presently, there is too much going with friends and family to respond to "yes, but you didn't consider this" comments. This is not an equal time open forum today.

I wish I were braver. I wish I were louder. And I fervently hope that, when tested, I speak up and say "this is wrong."