Happy Budgeting – How do you do it?

Nothing makes me feel better than setting a budget and sticking to it. I feel so pious when I make it to my next paycheck with a few dollars to spare. I get a major rush from saving up for something I want and purchasing it with cash, without it affecting my next three paychecks. Living within your means is a wonderful thing. It’s also exhausting.

For me, budgeting everything down to the penny is difficult to sustain as part of a regular lifestyle. It’s about constantly deciding what needs to be bought NOW and what can wait another week or month. Do I pay a little more toward an outstanding bill, or do I buy new socks for my kiddo? Should I get an oil change or new underwear? Stupid stuff. I’m not  budgeting for vacations or an IPad. It’s stuff I will have to get around to spending money on someday.

My husband and I have made some progress this year that I am truly proud of. I have been faithfully putting away a little of each paycheck into a savings account. I am contributing to a retirement account again. We have been diligent about grocery shopping regularly and cheaply, and have cut down our weekly food spending by about $50 or so per week. It seems like I am still doing something wrong though. I often run out of money before the next payday and have to use my credit card for gas or something. I can’t ever seem to get ahead.

The first rule that any financial expert would tell me is to cut out unnecessary expenses. I am not even close to an extreme couponer, a garage-saler or even a good bargain finder, but I don’t spend money on the things most people around me do either. The only items I regularly spend money on that would fall into the unnecessary category are cable tv at $75 a month and lunches or lattes a couple of times a week. Yes, I could take that $3.50 latte twice a week and put that money into savings and end up with an extra $30 a month. Big whoop.  We don’t go out to dinner anymore. We don’t go to movies. We don’t go out for drinks. We don’t pay for entertainment or hobbies. When you consider that, the little luxuries of cable tv, lattes or a bottle of wine on the weekend become necessary rewards in the daily stress of working to live.

I know these times call for serious penny-pinching, and some people would consider me lucky to have food to eat and a roof over my head, so I hope I don’t sound too ungrateful. I’m just having a problem with budget burnout. If you are constantly depriving yourself of anything fun, how long until you go on a spree? I read an interesting article today comparing budgeting to dieting. The premise was with budgeting as with diets, you can’t go crazy for long-term results. Sure, restricting your calories or purchases to extremes will yield impressive results right away, but rarely is it sustainable over the long run.

How have you found a sustainable way to budget while not feeling deprived?  Are there little treats that help you get through your day while staying on budget? Sometimes the only thing that keeps me trudging through 8 more hours of work is the reward of a latte break, but is that going to be the death of my bank account?

The Last Luxury

Today, my co-worker and I were jokingly telling our boss that we were going to file a religious discrimination complaint against our company because they provide coffee, but refuse to purchase us a water cooler. My co-worker is mormon and doesn’t drink caffeine. My boss says “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you guys, they’re getting rid of coffee too. The company is no longer paying for it. You’ll have to buy it yourselves.”

Wow. So I knew last week’s all company conference call with the CEO was serious when he told us we were $10 mil in the red, but cutting out coffee? Really? Listen, I’m all for tightening our belts. I do think it’s time we all started being more responsible with our money.  BUT, there is a point at which it’s taken too far. If you look at some of the most successful companies, companies who have been able to hold on and maybe even prosper even in the worst of times, you usually find that they also have happy employees. I think the CEO of my company has failed to take into account the tremendous benefit to a company of taking care of its employees.  The most obvious, of course, is low turnover.  But there are other benefits as well. Studies show happy employees take fewer sick days, are higher performers, and speak highly of their companies outside of the workplace.

A more grateful person would probably be happy with my job.  I have a 401k and health insurance. I am eligible for a small raise once a year. I get two weeks of paid vacation and 6 days of sick leave. I make twice the minimum wage and have a nice boss. I am incredibly lucky right now just to have a job, I know that. I was unemployed for almost two years, and I know how much it sucks. Unfortunately for me, just collecting a paycheck isn’t going to sustain me for very long.

Greg Smith, president of Chart Your Course International, researches employee satisfaction and helps business leaders create better workplaces. In his research, he has found that there are 5 keys to increasing job satisfaction and retention among employees:

  • Provide a positive working environment
  • Reward and recognition
  • Involve and increase employee engagement
  • Develop the skills and potential of your workforce
  • Evaluate and measure job satisfaction

I would add one more to this list, at least for women and mothers: 

  • work/life balance or job flexibility

 My company does not get a passing grade in any of these categories.

Provide a positive working environment – No drinking water, no break room, no radio, no coffee. No perks. On my first day, my manager said my job is to be in the office every second of the workday because there’s a one in a million chance we could get randomly audited. When I asked about the lunch hour, he kind of hemmed and hawed and basically told me (disdainfully) that the law requires employees get a lunch break, but it’s important for someone to be here all the time. I said “well, what do my counterparts in other offices do for their lunch hour?” He said “they mostly just eat at their desks.”

Reward and recognition – Well, last month we did get an email from our managers saying we did a great job exceeding our numbers, immediately followed by 3 paragraphs of what we are doing wrong. 

Involve and increase employee engagement – If this means keeping employees in the dark on everything going on with the company until we hear it from the mouths of our customers, then we get an A+!  I’ve never met anyone else in a company of 3,000 except my direct manager and the three guys I work with, and no one has ever asked my opinion about anything.

Develop the skills and potential of your workforce – See above re: employee engagement. We seem to operate on a “not your job description, none of your business” mentality. Weird. Most companies love their employees to be interested in other aspects of the company beyond their job description. Not this one.

Evaluate and measure job satisfaction – This one is so desperately needed and could probably solve some of the other problems above. Once a year we are required to fill out a 2-page evaluation with each answer limited to space for 3 or 4 sentences. The questions are all geared toward how we are contributing to the company. There is no opportunity to write open comments, suggestions or opinions, and I’m pretty sure human resources doesn’t even play a part in this process.

Now granted, I don’t even drink the office coffee unless I am super desperate (we don’t have a dishwasher to wash the coffeepot which I find utterly disgusting). However, it’s the principle. That can of coffee represented the one tiny luxury this company afforded its employees. I suppose I should just be grateful that I am in a comfortable, climate controlled office and that I get paid reliably every two weeks. Well, it’s semi-climate controlled. The air conditioner doesn’t work when the temps get above 90 degrees.

But my feeling is that I am sitting in this office for 8 or more hours a day 5 days a week – I need a little incentive to dedicate 3/4 of my precious few hours of the day to lining someone else’s pockets (cuz let’s face it folks, I ain’t gettin’ rich on a 25 cent yearly raise). Job happiness is about so much more than pay. I wish my company’s decision makers realized that. Instead, they choose the reactive route so many other companies ascribe to as well: Provide employees with the absolute minimum to do their jobs. And what do you think employees give back? The absolute minimum to keep their jobs.

If I had any other options, I would leave in a heartbeat and never look back. I would much rather be at home watching my son grow up than spending most of my week at a company that doesn’t even know I exist.

I’m curious about other people’s opinions on this topic. Do you think work is just work and it is wrong to expect anything more than a paycheck? Do you think an employer’s only responsibility to its employees is to pay them for the work done,  or do you think employers should provide more “human” benefits? What makes or would make you happy at a job?

ugh

I am too tired and way too grumpy to post about anything. Acupuncture…not…WORKING!

Natural Healing Day 1

(Written on Friday, May27th) – Yesterday I went to see an acupuncturist/Chinese herbalist. We sat down and she asked me an hour’s worth of questions about my medical history, bothersome symptoms, reasons for seeking acupuncture. She pretty much validated everything I’ve been feeling and trying to tell doctors over the years. That is, my hormones have to be out of whack, because it is NOT NORMAL for a healthy 32 year old to have some of the problems I do. Mainly, lack of energy, fatigue and night sweats. She also was not happy about the fact that I am taking Zoloft for anxiety…she said Zoloft doesn’t even treat anxiety effectively.

She asked me to get a new blood panel with hormone levels, like TSH, and asked for a copy to read, so I’ve made an appointment with a new doctor for next Monday.

The needle part was pretty anti-climactic. We went into a room and I laid on a massage table. She put needles in my hands, my ears, my arms, my legs, feet and my face. I didn’t even know most of them were there until I looked down at my body at one point. I didn’t know there was one in my forehead until she took it out. I laid there for about 25 minutes with the needles in, then she tok them out. I didn’t feel good or bad, just indifferent. She then gave me two different combinations of Chinese Herbs, one formulation for anxiety and one for PMS/hormone problems. I am to take 6 pills of each, twice a day.

The Beauty of Birthdays

My co-worker had his 33rd birthday today, which means he is just 6 months older than me. We often talk about how getting old is the pits. We commiserate about being tired all the time, getting fat and other age-related discomforts. I admit, I love to bitch and moan with people who share my woes. It comforts me to know that I’m not alone, and strange as it sounds, it bonds me with others. And I love bonding with people, even if it is over misery.

As much as we complain about being “old” in our 30s and missing the days of staying out past 8 p.m., I do of course realize I am not really old at all. And although I do like to talk about the good ol’ days of my 20s, I am happy to report that my self awareness is growing with each passing year. There are things I am noticing about my life and myself that I didn’t in my 20s. If I had to sum up this blog entry, I would say that I’ve learned that life is overflowing with beautiful moments, both life-changing and mundane -there is something to love about every day. Fortunately I don’t have to sum it up (haha), so here is my non-abbreviated entry listing 5 things that get better with age:

1. Kids. I was never a fan of kids until one entered my life 20 months ago. Now, I am a convert. Babies and young kids are pure God. They are genuine and true in every sense of the word. Their every intention is pure. Even in their brattiest tantrum-throwing moments, they are not behaving maliciously – just true. They notice and appreciate everything. They are in awe of the most ordinary things. They don’t have any pre-conceived judgments – they are a clean slate. Bonus – they are freakin’ hilarious!

2. Letting go. It seems I’ve been letting go of something different each year. Burdens like superficial anxiety – how much I weigh, how many friends I have, the brand of clothes I have, how much money I make – those worries occupied my energy and brainpower for much of my teens and twenties, but they are mostly in the past now. Most recently, I’ve learned to let go of the need to control everything. With a full time job, a husband, a kid and two dogs, I have had to choose a few things that are most important to me and let the rest go. Side jobs, volunteer activites, organized sports I really never liked, and household chores have all taken a backseat to spending time with my family. The most important part of relinquishing control for me was to also let go of the guilt. Guilt is an incredible weight to carry.

3. Awe. As a self absorbed young person, I wasn’t often sufficiently impressed with anything outside my own little world to experience awe. However, it seems that in the last few years especially, I’ve noticed a very spiritual connection with nature.

I was in Hawaii for the first time last January. We had a beautiful view of the ocean from our balcony. On our first day, as we were enjoying a cocktail, I spotted a humpback whale breaching. He was so close I could make out the shape of his mouth, and after he dove back in the water, his tail came up and splashed the surface of the water, just like you would see in a nature show. I was so excited I jumped up and shouted out. I could not believe my eyes. Then I literally cried because it was so amazing. That feeling I now know was pure awe.

4. Acceptance – of myself and others. Although I am still not as confident in my self and my life choices as I hope to be in 10 years, I am much more so than 10 years ago. At 23, I was very anxious about my career choice, my relationship choices, and my physical self. I was always worried that I needed to change and improve…that whatever I was doing was not good enough. I have accepted and made peace with my looks, my occupation, my lifestyle. I will always try to better myself of course, but I am mostly content with where I am and who I am at this moment.

I have also become more accepting of others. In my 20s, I was so self-absorbed that every weird, rude or annoying thing other people did was disdainful to me, and I was certain people did things just to bug me. I’ve now learned to not be so hasty in my judgements. I’ve been through and been witness to experiences that have helped me understand why people sometimes do the things they do. Because of those experiences, I am better able to empathize, and understanding and compassion become more prevalent than disdain.

5. Good health. Health is so esy to take for granted when you’re young. I realized quickly how lucky I am to be in good health (and for the good health of my loved ones) when people I was close to started getting cancer and dying of heart attacks. I don’t recover from a tough workout as quickly as I did at 22, and I certainly don’t have the metabolism I once did, but my body is still amazing in the way it heals and repairs itself. I am so grateful for that.

We have a birdfeeder outside the front door where I work. Two finches just did something I’ve never seen them do. They took turns hovering in front of my window as if they were trying to get a look at me. They did this about 5 times each, then one of them landed on the door handle and just looked at me for a few seconds thoughtfully before they both flew away. Neither one of them ate any bird seed. It’s as if they were coming just to see me. It’s moments like these I feel connected to God, nature, the world. And it is awesome. I probably wouldn’t have noticed something like that 10 years ago. Yay for birthdays!

Trying Something New

For months and months I’ve been saying I am going to get off the Western Medicine pill roller coaster, and today I FINALLY took a step toward it. I took a half day off from work next week and made an appointment to go see an acupuncturist/Chinese herbalist. I’ve heard wonderful things about these treatments from people you would never envision getting alternatively treated, so naturally I’m very curious.

For a couple of years, I’ve been feeling as though there is something physically “off” with me. I’m in excellent health as far as my doctor is concerned. However, I don’t think constant fatigue, zero energy, debilitating anxiety and irritable moods (among other symptoms too personal to advertise) are characteristics of an excellently healthy 32 year old, so I’m ditching my pill-popping doctor for a while and seeing how the Eastern medicine side lives.

I’ve already been taking some steps toward change. I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for the past few weeks, and my 2-year neck kink is gone, plus I don’t feel the need for a deep tissue slaughter between my shoulder blades every minute of the day anymore. I’ve started taking Omega-3 fish oil. Diet and exercise…well, lifetime habits take time! I’m starting slow, ok?

So we’ll see how it goes. I can hardly wait to post again about this acupuncture herbalist thingy. One week!

Update

I haven’t written here for like 6 months, is that right? Holy cow. As with everything else I try to undertake, blogging left me feeling overwhelmed with an “all or nothing” attitude. I felt like I didn’t have the time to sit down and write earth-shattering posts daily or even weekly, so I just gave up entirely.

Yesterday I started reading a popular blog and was surprised to see that on occassion there were entries that were one short paragraph, a thought blurb that the author probably just wanted to get down on paper (or computer screen, I guess). I thought to myself, if this blogger with all his followers goes sometimes weeks without a post and then randomly types in a one sentence thought, I can stop neglecting my blog. There are no rules to blogging after all.

The blog I am referring to is “penmachine.com.” The author died last week from cancer, and had written a post to be published after his death. Fascinating. The post-mortem entry was interesting, but what I found more interesting were the entries he had written months, weeks and even days prior to his death. When I find out someone has died, I am obsessed with what was going through their mind in the final days. This blogger gave me a glimpse into his mind.

I am now inspired to write whatever I want whenever I want, and not worry about whether people are reading it or not. This is a record of events and thoughts for me…my life.

But I like Christmas gifts!

A few nights ago, my siblings-in-law were over to discuss what method of gift-giving we were going to try this year to minimize expenses. In Christmases past, we tried drawing names, imposing spending restrictions, making a rule that gifts must be homemade, must be consumable, or contributing to charities in lieu of gifts. We couldn’t seem to agree on any of those methods this year. Every method had its problems. Drawing names was dumb because no matter who got who, the guys always ended up buying for the guys and the girls always ended up buying for the girls. Spending restrictions don’t work, because you search and search for something under $50, meanwhile passing up all the “perfect gifts” for that person because they are $51, and you end up getting them cheap crap. And homemade gifts? Yes, my artsy-craftsy very talented sister-in-law makes excellent homemade gifts, but my husband and my attempts at gift-making are always crap, and we end up going out and blowing money on last minute gifts. Donating to charities is wonderful, but my brother-in-law hit the nail on the head when he said “but I like getting Christmas gifts!”

These days, we are almost made to feel guilty for wanting stuff for Christmas. It’s funny, while being constantly bombarded by ads for the latest and greatest electronics, toys that will magically turn your kids into geniuses and a Lexus in your living room on Christmas morning, we are also being told to get rid of stuff in order to be happy, and to stop the consumerism.

But, like my brother in law, I also like getting Christmas gifts. When you get to be my folks’ age, you’ve probably already acquired most of the things you need, and you can go out and buy the things you want anytime – you don’t have to wait for Christmas to see if someone else will buy it for you. Therefore, it’s easy to say “all I want for Christmas is to spend time with you.” When you are my age, struggling to make ends meet, we have a list of needs, in order of priority. And waaaay down on the list are “wants” that we will never buy for ourselves, because there is always something needed more, especially now that we have a kid.

So when my family asks what I want for Christmas, do I feel a little immature and selfish handing over a “list” instead of saying let’s just spend time together? Yeah, I do. But you know what? I love getting lists from others. I love picking and choosing what to buy off that list and shopping for it. I love to get a little something besides what’s on the list, something special just for that person, a little Christmas surprise.

So this year we decided not to make any rules. We will spend what we want, buy what we want and give what we want to who we want. My husband and I may not be able to spend as much as others this year, but it doesn’t matter. They are our family, they love us and we love them. It’s not a competition with us – it’s thoughtful gift-giving.

Getting what I want for Christmas is a wonderful feeling – it allows me to cross a few things off my list, and I like to think giving out a list makes shopping for me a little less stressful for others. And making someone happy once a year by giving them a gift they wanted or that is a pleasant surprise? That’s the best feeling of all. And that’s what Christmas is really all about for me.

Happiness is being where you are – and Zoloft

I am pretty obsessed with self-improvement. I could spend hours poring over magazines, web sites and blogs dedicated to that content. It’s one of my favorite things to read about. In fact, I originally thought the focus of this blog would be my search for happiness.

I’ve been searching for contentment in my life for as long as I can remember. To my self, I’m never enough to be happy – pretty, thin, talented, smart, athletic, rich, etc. I know this isn’t a unique problem. Most people feel inadequate at one time or another in their lives. I think it only becomes a problem if your life becomes consumed with searching for external ways to acquire these things in order to become happy. This inner dialogue probably sounds familiar to you:

“When I graduate from high school/college I’ll be happy…”
“When I get married I will be happy…”
“When I have kids I will be happy…”
“When I get a new job/make more money I will be happy…”
“When I lose 20 pounds I’ll be happy…”
“When I retire I will be happy…”

Of course on your wedding day or the day you get a promotion at work you feel very happy, but that’s always a fleeting feeling, isn’t it? On an ordinary day, are you happy? Do you even know how to define your happiness?

I was hoping that during this period of unemployment I would be enlightened with my true path, and everything else would fall into place, especially money and happiness. That hasn’t even come close to happening, but over the last couple of weeks, I have noticed a subtle transformation in myself. Most of the time I feel good physically. Most days I have motivation to at least make my bed, some days I have more. I am enjoying getting out and seeing friends and family on a regular basis. I am not feeling the urge to drink alcohol every night to unwind or every time I go to a social event. I am exercising moderately and not obsessing over my weight. And I am pretty darn satisfied hanging out with my little guy every day. Dare I say it? Am I…happy? I’m thinking happiness for me is defined by a general feeling of content on most days. Of course some days I still cry when I hear a sad song, or get frustrated with not getting a call back on the zillionth job I’ve applied for, and I still have days where despite having a million things to do, I sit and watch tv and pig out. But overall I feel pretty good right now, which is quite unexpected given my bleak, even somewhat dire financial outlook.

I’m trying to take some advice from some of the blogs and magazines I am reading to be mindful, present, just breathe, etc. It does seem to be working. It is incredibly freeing to learn how to do this – stop the expectations you have of yourself and everyone else, stop worrying over things that can’t be controlled, and focus on and enjoy the here and now.
Right now is good enough. For some reason the universe wants me to be right here right now.

Of course, the party in my prescription drawer might have something to do with this sense of well being too, but that’s a topic for another post.

Nice Advice

They say for every insane amount of wonderful things that can happen to you in a day, you always dwell on and remember the one negative thing. That must be why my memories of grade school are mainly merciless teasing and name-calling from my peers, being ignored by the boys and left out by the girls. It couldn’t have been all that bad, but sadly, that’s what I remember.

I remember laying on my bed crying after one particularly bad day. My mom was sitting next to me trying to make me feel better. She was good at that. She gave me hope by telling me the nerdiest girl in her school grew up to be Miss America. Much later, she admitted making that up, but it kept me going for a few years. Anyway, the moral of her story was be nice to everyone, no matter what, because you never know what is going on in a person’s life or who they will turn out to be. For some reason, this advice resonated with me; probably because I felt guilty. Even though I knew all too well how awful it felt to be made fun of, I gladly went along with it on those rare days when the popular kids laughed at someone else’s expense instead of mine.

This simple advice, be nice to everyone, was burned in my brain as I started a new chapter in my life – junior high. I was so excited to go to a new school, make new friends, go to 7 classes in one day, have a locker! Oh who am I kidding…I was excited for all the new boys. Fortunately for me, I grew about a foot throughout sixth grade and the summer, leaving my baby fat behind while developing ample boobs. I also grew out the modified mullet hairstyles I donned in 3rd through 5th grade, and discovered what a little mascara and lip gloss can do for a girl. Apparently, 13 and 14-year old boys like that sort of stuff, and I was thrilled to finally be noticed.

No longer one of the nerds, I still tried my hardest to follow my mom’s advice and be nice to everyone I met. The kindness from others was returned tenfold, and junior high was easily my best school experience. I met so many cool people that I may have not known had I not followed Mom’s advice.

In grown-up world, there are so many reasons to not be nice to people. People can seem so rude and ignorant. They cut me off in traffic, or take up the whole aisle in a grocery store and then go so slow it hurts, or are just not as friendly to me as I think they should be. Sometimes I just want to tell them off (or flip them off), and sometimes I do just that.

Thankfully, I have an amazing friend who reminded me the other day how important it is to be nice to everyone. She is going through one of the worst experiences anyone can go through – the loss of a child. Through her writing, she describes how hard it’s been to go on with day-to-day life while dealing with her grief. Her world has changed completely without her son, while everyone else’s world goes on as if nothing has happened. I can’t stop thinking about how she describes going out into that world now:

I wished every time I walked out my door that I had a tattoo on my forehead that said, ‘My child died. Please be nice to me.’… No one looking at me knew what had just happened. How could they know? So I went out into the world and came across all the jerks from before. You know who they are…the people who ride your bumper because you’re going the speed limit and they can’t handle it, adding some nice horn blasts that seem to last for 10 minutes then speeding around while glaring at you or giving you the finger. The lady in Target who keeps ramming her cart into yours because apparently the line has moved and you weren’t aware of it, and did I mention she’s making stupid comments?

How many times have you been one of those jerks riding someone’s bumper on the freeway because you were late and they weren’t going fast enough for you? Ever flipped off a complete stranger? Gave a dirty look to someone in a grocery store for not paying attention? I sure as hell have. Many, many times. What if the person I was so awful to was going through the same thing my dear, sweet friend is going through? It’s unbearable to think about.

The sad thing is, they probably were. Everyone is going through something. Maybe not the loss of a child, but maybe a divorce. Illness. Job loss. Loneliness. A fight with their teenager. Maybe their car just broke down, or their dog died. Maybe their boss yelled at them, or their fattest fat pants were too tight that morning, or they just had to put their parents in a nursing home, or the fourth person they know in a year was just diagnosed with cancer. The list is endless, and every person you meet is going through or has gone through or loves someone who is going through something painful. My heart breaks for my friend, and I want to wrap her up in my arms and never let anyone be mean to her again. She is not alone in her grief. Perfect strangers all around me are grieving too – in the grocery store, on the freeway, at the other end of the DirecTV customer service line…

I will try to be more like junior high Mandee, and be much nicer and more understanding. I am so grateful to my mom for giving me the single most important piece of advice I have ever received. I am so grateful to my friend for reminding me that having a bad day or a bad moment is not a good reason to abandon compassion for others.

I don’t give out a lot of advice, but this one is worth passing on: Just be nice. You never know what someone is going through.

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