The Personal Finance of Illness

I caught a cold the first week of March that has been a persistent little bugger. I’ve been low on energy, coughing, and feeling generally “blah” for most of this month while still forcing myself to meet the basic needs of my job(s), kids, and self. Also, as happens with young families, every member of my family has gotten some bit of the Ick during this period, requiring additional support from my already depleted resources. As a direct result of my “survival mode” month, my spending is a bit up from where I’d like it to be. I’ve been more tempted to spend on exotic family vacations we can’t afford with this much debt and fast food/unnecessary shopping and have fewer mental faculties to resist those temptations.

When I’m sick, I don’t have as much energy to dedicate to cooking, cleaning, exercising, and blogging–all of which are strategies that have directly helped me save money.

Finally emerging from the worst fog of this round of colds and early seasonal allergies and coughing has got me thinking about how physical health and mental health relate to financial health in direct and complicated ways. I began to take control of my finances at the height of my good health in the last ten years–that is not coincidental.

In the personal finance blogging world, we offer advice to remain healthy because it increases your wealth and saves you money. This is true (and I agree with everything in those articles–I’ve lived them). But the dark side of this kind of advice is a tendency to blame health problems (and the related financial problems) on the individual’s lack of fortitude and virtue. This is problematic. (And probably related to the reason the U.S. still cannot see health care as a basic human need rather than a fiscal commodity or consumer good).

I’ve mentioned before that I have two chronic illnesses–ulcerative colitis (currently in remission, thanks to several very expensive maintenance medications) and type II diabetes (controlled entirely by lifestyle at this time, but will likely require medication as I age). When these diseases flare, I am drained of the mental and physical resources to care for my financial health. I can see the spikes in my debt from when my illnesses were least under control (and the one caused by grief after the death of my father).

Uncertainty over my future health is the major limiting factor to our ability to achieve early retirement.

However, to many, this will sound like an “excuse.” It isn’t. It’s a fact.

I may not have had a major medical debt technically, but the choices in my life that contributed to the worst of our consumer debt were often dictated by periods of poor physical and mental health. As the sole income earner, I’ve felt a lot of anxiety around my health because our family’s financial well being is so dictated by my ability to provide. I have a strange relationship with this where I feel shame about it, but also I think it’s stupid to feel shame around being unable to care for myself well.

Health and wealth are correlated, but the extent to which we can influence either is quite a bit less than we believe it to be. I work hard to maintain my health, but sometimes I have very limited control over what my body does. I try to be a good manager of my financial resources, but sometimes my roof leaks.

I’m going to work more on acceptance of myself and honoring my own effort rather than beating myself up over things outside my control.

Free Fun Family Mar 17 2019

Welcome to the Sunday update! (You can read how my Sunday updates work in the first one).  We had great weather in Maryland this week, so we are moving ahead with our gardening project. Min turned 45 on Saturday (he’ll be 8 years older than me for a week–woohoo!), and J’s Destination Imagination team won third place in the regional competition, meaning he will be advancing to states. All of this is exciting, but a bit overwhelming. In honor of the crazy that is my life presently, I took a week off from blogging. However, I’ll share our week’s highlights with you now.

Free

A huge part of our gardening project this year is experimenting with growing vegetables from table scraps and seeds from food. We are also making raised beds with cement blocks (not free, but quite cheap). The seeds and scraps we’ve planted in the last few weeks are starting to sprout. In a few weeks when they are bigger and the last frost is done, we’ll transplant them to the ground and pots outdoors. We may not get much food this year, but we are learning a lot while keeping the costs fairly minimal. Between the garden and the CSA, we are hoping to reduce our summer food costs while increasing the quality of our diets.

Fun

J and teammates launch their rocket on the catapult they built for their challenge solution

We spent all day as a family at the regional competition for J’s Destination Imagination teams. There were lots of things set up for kids to do that were fun and educational (plus of course seeing performances that were full of creativity and STEAM-y goodness). H had a wonderful time watching the shows and creating her own art.

After the competition, we went to H-mart for Korean food and birthday cake for Min. We sang and had a great family celebration!

Family

Health is the most important foundation of happiness. We’ve been passing the colds around in our household. At any given moment, at least two of us are dripping or hacking up a lung or have a headache. It’s made tempers flare and lowered our ability to keep up with our usual household routines. This week, I’m trying to focus on my health and wellbeing. Good food, good rest, good activity, and good sleep. These things usually help us all feel better.

Free Fun Family Mar 10 2019

Welcome to the Sunday update! (You can read how my Sunday updates work in the first one).  My busy few weeks caught up with my body this week, and I caught a nasty cold that I am just now recovering from–oh no! However, life always moves forward and some cool stuff happened this week, so I will share that with you.

Free

Preparing containers for gardening.

I feel like I am just bleeding money this month! We paid for a one week summer camp (programming and robotics) for J, gardening supplies, a car registration, our CSA balance, and a replacement for my five year old smartphone. All of these are things we need to do, but after a high spending month last month, it feels like a struggle.

However, I have a lot more perspective about the long term than I did at this time last year when spending rounds made me feel hopeless. One win: for the phone, I took advantage of several discounts to get the model I wanted at about 30% off plus some cash back, so that was a win. It feels luxurious to have a phone that doesn’t die when I get a text message… or try to take a picture… or the battery hits 90% or …

Fun

Well… we had a blast at the dentist. I’ll just leave you with this special picture:

Family

H is struggling with growing up right now. She is less than two months from turning four and clinging desperately to her baby days. She regularly pretends to be a baby and laments clothing she’s grown out of. She is fiercely independent and full of verve, but also a major cuddle-bug and charmer. She would spend hours watching videos of herself as a baby if she could. Yet, this week, she asked when she could have a baby sister to teach like J teaches her. What a kid!

Other

The regional competition for Destination Imagination is this week. (I’m exhausted). Say a small hurrah for the teams I am working with (J’s team and the middle school team from his school I’m coaching). We need all the spirit and love we can get!

Hanging Out with Principal FI!

One of my favorite new personal finance bloggers is the fabulous Principal FI. He has created a wonderful platform to promote and encourage financial success for educators. The blog is turning into a comprehensive resource for all things personal finance in the educator world. And the way he writes about the head and the heart of education and educational leadership is quite inspiring.

Today, he let me hang out with him as an interviewee for his Educators on FI/RE series. It was enjoyable and fun. Hop on over and give it a read if you want to know more of my thoughts about finances, education, and achieving goals. Stay for more of his posts.

The Search for Meaning

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Victor Frankl

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Victor Frankl’s classic text Man’s Search for Meaning for the first time. It was not exactly what I was expecting (I was expecting a moving memoir from a Holocaust survivor–and it certainly was that), but it’s made me think quite deeply about the search for meaning in my own life.

Frankl’s treatise identifies three primary ways people construct meaning in their lives:

  1. Accomplishment: creating some contribution to art or science or other field (work),
  2. Experience of relationships: here he focuses on love–by this he means love in the most general way that could include romantic, parental, or fraternal, but I could see this category apply to the experience of nature, spirituality, religion, or service to others, and/or
  3. Suffering with dignity: here he is careful to state that unnecessary suffering is masochism, not meaningful existence

Much of his text is devoted to exploring his third point, probably because he saw firsthand how those in the concentration camps were able to construct meaning from their terrible suffering survived more.

Dr. Frankl’s identification of the desperate need for meaning creating a lot of angst and mental suffering for the individual is powerful. Certainly, we can hope that we would meet suffering in our own lives with the dignity he describes in his text, and forgiveness in our hearts for those that cannot.

Frankl’s work has given rise to my own contemplation about the ways I see people trying to make meaning in their lives. My generation was mostly brought up to expect to make meaning out of accomplishment only–to find whole satisfaction and meaning in work. However, most jobs fall short of of Frankl’s requirement that the accomplishment be a contribution, so many people raised with the American “work hard” ethos are now finding they are unfulfilled just by work.

Blogs about work-life balance, minimalism, FI/RE, and side hustles as a means of salvation from the meaningless cycle of work and consumption attest to the failure of meaning through external accomplishment alone. However, sometimes the extreme versions of these “alternatives” suffer from the same shortcomings as vessels for our creation of meaning and people begin to compete with each other for achievement within anti-achievement narratives.

I was raised to devalue the pursuit of the second way of making meaning: experience of relationships. I think this has been an undervalued way of creating meaning in America because it is not connected with our driving capitalist economy and cannot be expressed through the accumulation of things. It is necessarily judged by the individual’s quality of the experience. Certainly, there are still people who pervert their self worth through the pursuit of marriage and children or number of friends and followers at any cost, but my experience shows me that people who have prioritized love are not the ones desperate for meaning in a frivolous world.

And if suffering is how you make meaning, what happens when you are no longer suffering?

I have aimed at meaning poorly for most of my life in seeking meaning through achievement or suffering with dignity. I move into the second half of my life more focused on Frankl’s second way.

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”.” 

Victor Frankl

Free Fun Family Mar 3 2019

Welcome to the Sunday update! (You can read how my Sunday updates work in the first one).  This week has been all about playing catch up–everything from work to home chores to finances has felt a step behind. I am grateful to have a weekend mostly full of reviving, soul-filling activities.

Free

We have started some seeds for our garden (see the kitchen scrap tomato experiment of Min’s above!). This cost money, but will hopefully produce some garden bounty later in the year.

While I didn’t really have money “wins” this week, I did finish paying my mother back a bit of money I owed her (not counted in our consumer debt payoff). We felt a weight lifting from another small debt gone. Ever since her scare with social security, she’s been worried about having enough money to support her lifestyle. We decided to kick up our repayment to her so that we were not contributing further to her anxiety. I hope she can enjoy herself a little more with one less money worry on her mind.

Fun

Saturday was our monthly swing dance in Frederick. Since I spent last weekend in a training, Min and I decided to forgo the babysitting and bring our kids along for the dance. It had been about half a year since we last brought them, and they were much more mature this time around. Both Min and I actually got to dance a few times (instead of them clinging to the parents). I think their favorite part was helping me volunteer to take tickets at the door.

Family

This week, J and H have started to team up to build forts and paper airplanes, turn car tracks into pretend swords, and read with each other. Watching and encouraging their friendship is a great joy in my life. They even danced together at the swing dance many times. It is lovely to see them grow.

Other

I have officially joined the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick. I began attending about a month ago as part of my search in 2019 for living more fully aligned with my values. I have discovered in that time that it is a good fit with my family and is helping keep my spiritual journey on track. While full membership may be a ways off, we have met with Rev. Carl and signed up for official nametags and the youth choir for J.

Having never participated in an organized religion before, I’m still learning a lot of the nuances of belonging to a faith group, but I feel happy, welcomed, and supported. Like so many other aspects of my life, if you had told me I would do this 5, 10, or 15 years ago, I would not have believed you. Change is possible. Even for those of us closer (by a lot) to 40 than to 20.

Debt Elimination Update–February 2019

February did not go as planned, but that’s ok. I had the opportunity to take (and pass!) the first round of training to be a fitness instructor, I joined a congregation, and donated more money than planned. Focusing on some of my other priorities this month led to being a bit less intentional with my money. I will take the opportunity in March to continue with my spiritual and physical health while maintaining my financial plan.

We were still able to make a lot of progress towards debt elimination this month. Tax refunds were good to us in February. However, to sustain momentum, we will really have to check our spending that got a little crazy this month.

Progress from February:

  • Healthy Change in Perspective. This month I began to recognize the notion that my financial plan is a long-term shift in our values alignment. The debt will go away because we have changed how we live. How long that takes (30 months vs. 39 months) really doesn’t matter that much. What matters is living in alignment with our core family values and creating the life we love now.
  • Continued to Increase Charitable Contributions. I think I went a little overboard this month because I managed to give away in a single month over half of what did for the entire year of 2018. While giving is important, even while in debt, I do need to remember that being on more solid footing for my finances is important. I can increase giving at a more sustainable pace.
  • Debt Progress: Here are the numbers for the end of January:
    • Balance Transfer 1 (0% through July 2019): $1,800.00
    • Balance Transfer 2 (0% through November 2019): $8,100.00
    • Balance Transfer 3 (0% through April 2020): $7,450.35
    • Roof Loan (SoFi Personal Loan @ 11%): $4,733.54
      TOTAL: $22,083.89
      Amount paid off this month: $1,775.49
      Amount paid off TOTAL: $14,004.89

Impressive payoff amount for a single month! Next month is Min’s and my birthdays, so we will probably celebrate in some fashion. However, we will focus on some ways to do so frugally!

Goals for March:

  1. Return to frugality with our spending.
  2. Maintain sanity through meditation during the competition month for J’s Destination Imagination.
  3. Memorize my choreography for part two of my BANG training and improve my fitness level through training regularly.

Free Fun Family Feb 25 2019

Welcome to my Free Fun Family weekly Sunday update (although a day late, and a dollar short–haha). You can read the first update, where I explain this series in more detail, here. Each week, I’ll recap some general goings on in our world and focus specifically on the topics I love to blog about the most. The “free” will review a money/frugality win, “fun” will review something enjoyable I did/accomplished, and “family” will report on family doings.

Free

Rather than many specific “wins” related to money this week, I felt a shift in my attitude about money that seems important: I realized that I will achieve my financial goals over time. I had been stressing so much about our debt and how much progress I was or was not making on it, but this week I let go a bit and realized that our income continues to increase and our debt goes down. For so much of this journey, I’ve wanted to just get it over with as quickly as possible. I am learning that there is enjoyment in the journey, too.

For an actual money win, I picked up a few extra shifts at the hotline, so my next paycheck will be larger than usual. Hoorah!

Fun

Why did I write a Sunday update on a Monday??? Well, I’ll tell you: I spent the entire weekend participating in a fitness instructor training workshop. I cannot believe how incredible it felt. The founder of Freedom Group Exercise (and Frederick, MD native), Amanda Strand, led the training. She was so inspiring and empowering that my exhausted self ended training a teary, emotional mess. I was unable to fully impart the gratitude and spirit to her I felt in becoming part of the family of BANG. I have a long, complicated history with my health, but I have never felt more accepting of my body in a positive, powerful way than I have this weekend.

Right after the open “Master Class” on Sunday where the 15 of us who were trainees assisted leading some of the songs. Great turnout by current instructors and members to support our work. Can you find me?

I know it sounds hokey–I don’t care. I’m not trying to sell you anything. I just want you to understand that this weekend helped me believe again in the goodness of people and how we can connect as human beings. I still have a long way to go to become an instructor (licensing, video taping evaluation, CPR training, etc.), but I am sure that I will work to follow through on this, even if I never teach a class for pay.

Family

Crazy Maryland weather–snow in the background of a beautiful day!

As you might have inferred, between the extra hours at hotline and the instructor training, I’ve been very busy this week, so I have had to be intentional about connecting with my children as much as possible in brief moments. We focused on maintaining our reading ritual and talking. Mother Nature handed us a gift on Wednesday of a day off other obligations through a snow storm that shut everything down. We enjoyed our time together.

J has been stepping into more of a leadership role in some of his activities lately. He’s been intentionally trying to help others enjoy their time more in activities he does, like taekwondo and Destination Imagination. I enjoy watching him work to develop these skills. He always has an interesting perspective and thoughtful plan. I am curious to see what will happen as he grows these skills.

Other

Note: being really sore and tired is a bit like being sick in terms of willpower. I have definitely struggles this week with my finances. I’m coming back to the positive habits I’ve developed with only a little damage. I appreciate that straying off my plan is only minor at this point in my journey.

Commandment #2: Choose Love

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. Always.” 


The Dalai Lama

Last summer, I developed my personal “commandments,” as part of an exercise in exploring my own values and guiding principles in life. I set an intention for 2019 to be a year of aligning my spending with my values, so I think it is past time for a deeper exploration of each commandment and how it plays out in my life. Today, I’ll explore what I mean by “Choose Love.”

Of all my commandments, this is my most cliché , which makes it very difficult to write about in a meaningful way. Love is the most amazing, reverent, spiritual power in the universe, but it is also the basest of animal instinct and biological urges. The word is fraught with levels of meaning that often contradict each other.

The same word somehow conveys what a mother experiences as she smells her newborn’s head that is suckling milk from her own body, the idolatry of being a “fan” of something, the concept of forgiveness and kindness from a divine presence in a variety of religious traditions, and the sexual, adolescent urges leading to a spiritually pure transcendence of Shakespeare’s Juliet. That one idea serves for all these human experiences seems wrong. Yet, somehow, “love” remains the exactly correct word for all of these emotions and revelations.

For the first half of my life, I thought of love as a response to situations. This is not because I was particularly selfish and unloving–it is because I was a child. A child, while naturally loving, is best suited to receive love–from parents, teachers, and friends. In fact, if a child does not experience love, it might suffer for much longer than childhood. Love is a need for children. Thus, in my early, attention-seeking, need-driven years, I experienced great pain at the loss of love. I viewed it as something others must bestow upon me if I was worthy; that I felt unloved implied that I was unworthy.

And many adults view love in this same way, although perhaps more positively. How many people believe that love is something that happens to them? That it is simply a natural feeling, so there is no need to tend or care for it–simply to give it and to receive it. The problem is, especially for children who grew up feeling deprived of this need, is that it is not always so simple to give love or to receive it. That feeling of “unworthiness” persists in me, making it difficult to believe the loving gestures and comments given to me. Furthermore, there is a paradox where the more you give love away, the more you get in return; however, often the people who are most desperate for and needing of love cannot give it first.

As I became an adult, I began to view love more responsibly and more complexly. My students in my first year of teaching, who I loved deeply and who changed my life, told me that they thought I hated them. That was the first time I recognized that the impulse and feelings of love are not automatically sent to the recipient–that expression of love by the person who loved mattered just as much as feeling. I couldn’t just feel love for the people in my life–I had to show them I loved them through my words and actions.

I also began to understand how your mind can influence your feelings. I experienced severe depression from early high school through a few years after college, but one of the most effective treatments I found for myself was that acting as if I felt a particular way caused me to feel that way. For example, if I got a party invitation and told myself I didn’t want to go because I was too tired and anxious, I became tired and anxious so that even if I went to the party, I hated the experience. If I caught myself before I went down that path and told myself I enjoy parties and like to dance and my friends would be there, I went and had a great time. (I am by no means discounting therapy and medication as treatment for depression–both of which I have used multiple times in my treatment of my mental health.) I began to see through my romantic relationships that it wasn’t as simple as “falling” into and out of love–that love over time required a bit of mental olympics to convince yourself you still loved your partner on days you felt unloving. I think that’s what people mean when they talk about “work” in a marriage.

There is immense power in viewing love as something that is a decision to be made every day.

Choosing love matters the most in my most personal relationships–as a mother, wife, daughter, and sister. Because of my WASP-y upbringing, it is easiest to take the deepest love for granted and behave in unloving ways towards the people I love the most (criticizing them, ignoring them, disrespecting them). I work on this because it is cultural and not universal. Plenty of cultures find it easy to freely express affection and love for the people closest to them and to maintain thoughtful, loving attention with the people you feel safe around. I remind myself of this as often as I can and try to see the holiness in expressing love, giving love, and choosing loving feelings.

However, I also try to choose love in my life. I try to assume if someone treats me poorly that there is a reason for it I cannot understand, not just that the person is a “jerk.” If someone has a different opinion than I do, I try not to just assume they are “wrong,” but that they have come to that decision through their own experiences and understanding of the world. I try to learn from them, not just expose them to what experience/reading I think they “lack” to make the “right” decision. This is not easy. It is not easy for me to respond with love to men who equate (or even elevate) their fear of being accused falsely of sexual misconduct with the fear women experience of sexual assault. My experience as a woman and 25+ years of reading and research into this area tells me what is true, so the recent armchair politics on Facebook and Twitter to the contrary smart. Responding with love is a distinct choice, but it is vulnerable in precisely an area that makes me feel uncomfortable with vulnerability and exposed every day. I don’t judge people when they lash out under similar circumstances, but I try not to do so. That’s why love is not always a simple choice.

Love is also not simply letting other people do or say whatever they want. It’s not loving to be a doormat. Love is compassionate concern for another person. Elie Wiesel wrote that the opposite of love isn’t hate–it is indifference. That stuck with me.

One of the most difficult practices for me is to choose love for myself. Don’t get me wrong–I am often selfish and egocentric, as are all humans–but prioritizing yourself is not the same as loving yourself. Self-respect is not the same as self-esteem. I work on this every day.

Do you believe in choosing love? How do you practice love or lovingkindness? Do you think love is worthy and important? Start a discussion in the comments. Or just send love along to someone who needs to know you care.

Everything is More Complicated than It Seems

I had a wonderful opportunity this week (through my job–have I mentioned how much I love my job???) to attend a lecture given by educational researcher (and blogger) Pedro de Bruyckere about the science of teaching and learning.  His lecture was themed mostly about educators can use research to inform best classroom practices and help teachers and schools create environments where more students learn effectively.  What I loved the most about his talk was his consistent theme (based on his meta-analysis of educational research): there are no simple “best” solutions because everything about learning is more complicated than it seems.

I have tried for years as an educator to explain (poorly) what Dr. de Bruyckere has spent a career researching. If you are a teacher (or work directly with teachers), I recommend his book, The Ingredients for Great Teaching. (And if you are outside of K-12, but interested in education as a parent, citizen, policy maker, or university person, I recommend Urban Myths About Learning and Education). It was so exciting (and quite overwhelming) to see my beliefs about educational practice confirmed by research. And he made me realize why one or two strategies I used regularly as a classroom teacher did NOT work well and how to fix them (wow–positive bias confirmation and critical self-reflection in one lecture–that’s rockstar level teaching right there!).

Warning: I’m stepping on a soap box here!

One of the most difficult aspects of being a public educator is this: The lack of respect for or understanding of education as a uniquely skilled profession.  People keep looking for simple solutions to complex human problems; educators (and learners) often know how to solve some of these problems, but no one ever asks our opinions–they just hand down mandates to “fix” us.  Sometimes it’s from the business world, sometimes from psychology, lately from neuroscience research.

All of these areas can inform educational practice, but the analogies are limited in their effectiveness. Applied too rigidly, these have caused some of the worst trends in public education (too much standardized testing, too little emphasis on content of value, too much lecturing traumatized kids to develop some ‘grit’, etc.)

Ultimately, education is what happens inside an individual person in the context of a community of learners (usually, a school, with educators).  

Thus, education is fundamentally different from fields that study individual processes or systems without looking at the interactions between the two. Complexity doesn’t make the field of education research “soft” or invalid–it makes the field INTERESTING and CHALLENGING.

Furthermore, failure is NOT an option in education. Working with kids is so very, very important.  The need is so very, very great. There are not enough resources in schools (in communities, in homes) to fill the needs of our children.  There should be. There could be.  But there are not.  It’s not just money, it’s allocation of resources.  I see those charts about the amount of money (increased) compared to test scores (decreased) over the last 20 years that imply that more money doesn’t educate students any better, but money could pay for lower class sizes, for more support personnel, better technology, more social services for kids and families, more books, better facilities, more meaningful professional development for educators, more arts and music in schools, more individualized educational pathways.

Instead, a lot of the money is going to paying for more testing resources and remediation for those tests or other accountability and legal measures. This ends up shorting kids on services that might actually fill some of their needs and allow them to learn more of what is tested. It’s a sad loop.

Ok, I’ll step off that soapbox now.

How does this all relate to personal finance? I see similarities because personal finance is so very personal. I love reading PF blogs because they offer a variety of perspectives on seemingly simple concepts that are fraught with complex interactions. And it’s important to remember that if someone tells you it’s “simple” and “easy” in a complicated system, they’re probably trying to sell you something. However, many of the core principles and “classic” advice does work, just not always in the same way it did in the past.

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