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.

Free Fun Family Feb 17 2019

Welcome to my Free Fun Family weekly Sunday update. 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

I have been trying to keep my focus on the health and joy of cooking at home. I always feel better about myself and my cooking when I remember this joy. This week has been stressful, which has led to temptations to dine out or binge on unhealthy food. I’m being intentional about getting back to the joy. I cooked a use-up-the-veggies frittata that was amazing (see picture below), some good recipes using frozen pumpkin puree, and pinto beans with avocado.

Fun

I signed up for training next weekend to become an instructor for my favorite dance/HIIT/boxing fitness format, BANG. This week, I have to learn one track to teach at the training and familiarize myself with some new choreography. It’s been fun to practice at home. The kids are getting into it with me.

Family

Valentine’s day this week and great weather has led to some enjoyable family times together. I went on a date with Min on Tuesday. Our family walked around downtown on Saturday and tried out a new cake shop.

I’m trying to be more present with each of my family members when they speak to me, even if I’m busy and preoccupied. I do feel like it has led to some better connections to each of them.

Other

We have had a stressful, tiring week. However, we’ve stayed connected and positive overall. I am hopeful that this upcoming week will start to wind down a bit.

Attitude of Gratitude: Daily Journal

For February, I’ve been keeping an almost-daily gratitude journal. I’m trying to keep it simple and straightforward–just three specific things in my life I feel grateful for on that day and why. I can feel the difference in my motivation and patience on days I practice this habit. I thought I’d take a mid-month moment to check what I’ve written in the last few weeks. Some themes are emerging; my family members, job, friends, network/communities in Frederick, and nature all make frequent, consistent appearances.

I am noticing how this document is also starting to serve as a simple log for our family’s daily lives. For example, this morning I wrote: “I am grateful for the inquisitive, loving heart of my daughter. She declared it was Valentine’s day today. When I told her that holiday was over, she asked, ‘Why didn’t we invite all of our friends for a party?'” Her sincerity and sweetness for wanting to mark this holiday in the same way we had at Thanksgiving and Christmas reminded me that celebrations are important for children. I also felt her love for the families and friends in our circle through her plea. It was one of those beautiful, sweet moments that tend to be forgotten over the years.

I’m not judging myself if I am thankful for the same thing more than one day in a row. For example, sometimes I have made myself use one of the list items to notice something I am grateful about an area I’m struggling with in my life. Like last week, I was frustrated with some issues with the team I volunteer to coach for my son’s school. For a few days, I listed specific things about the coaching experience I’m grateful for, and it’s changing my attitude toward the problems I was having.

I am going to try to maintain this habit past this month. I feel that it is well worth the 2-5 minutes it takes to jot down these notes. I hope it will continue to help me feel inspired and grounded at the same time.

How I Stay On Track While Paying Off Debt

The hardest part of our Debt Elimination Project is sustaining focus and motivation throughout the process.  Achieving any long term goal that requires a significant, permanent change in lifestyle is very difficult. Here are a few of the ways I’ve kept going through $12,000+ paid off so far (and plan to keep going for another $23,000–look at that I’m more than 1/3 of the way through!):

  1. Accountability through Blogging: This blog serves as huge motivation for me to stay on track. I’ve made this goal and my progress quite public. Many of my friends and family know it exists, and I’m connecting with more bloggers every day (mostly through Twitter and commenting on their blogs). In many ways, the blog has made failure on this project not an option. The reflective space this blog provides helps me stay focused on turning struggles into lessons, rather than derailment. If you want accountability, but don’t love blogging as much as I do, a friend or partner could serve as an accountability partner, but I do recommend making your goals public.
  2. Personalized Spreadsheets: You have to track your progress, but you have to make it meaningful and inspiring for you. I track on Mint, but I love spreadsheets. I tried a few different visual ways to keep track of the debt, but I’m more driven by numbers than I am by art projects, so the spreadsheet game provided the most motivation. As of right now, I keep two main spreadsheets related to debt payoff and budgeting. One spreadsheet lists all of our debts and the balances at the end of each month. On that sheet, I monitor all kinds of statistics, including: total amount paid off on consumer debt, total paid off on all debt, average amount paid off per month, amount paid off this year, etc. I also can enter my predictions for future months to help plan how much I need to save to pay off the balance transfers on time. I’ve begun to track my savings account balances on this sheet as well. The second spreadsheet I just began this year for budgeting. It has a list of every transaction I make on a daily basis (I do track in Mint, but having to reconcile it on the spreadsheet makes me more mindful of my spending). It also has my spending plan (budget) for the next month, based on income and outflow for this month on the same sheet. I create a new tab for each month. I open these spreadsheets and update them at least 2-3 times per week, which keeps me very connected with my spending and my goal. My inner geek is deeply satisfied by these spreadsheets.
  3. Practicing Gratitude and Mindfulness: One of the most bizarre truths of my journey to weight loss and health was the fact that I never made any real progress until I accepted and loved my body as it was in that exact moment. Self-improvement goals have a way of highlighting the parts of yourself and your life you want to change, but negativity never inspires true, long-term, sustainable change. I cannot succeed in eliminating debt permanently if I treat it as a “crash diet”–working hundreds of hours at side hustles I hate, always trying to make a buck, cheaping out on charitable giving, denying my family and myself any “wants” until we are out of debt, etc. Paying off debt does require sacrifices, but my children will never be three and seven again. They need mom and dad now–happy, healthy, and present, not weird husks of themselves sacrificed to some Debt Repayment (or Financial Independence) deity. However, many times shifting a “want” to a less expensive or free option is easily done. Checking in with your real needs and being grateful for what you have helps with that process a lot.
  4. Inspirational Reading: Reading books, articles, and blogs about frugal living, personal finance, minimalism, and debt repayment gives me great models for inspiration. However, I’ve noticed I have to be careful about what content I consume. Sometimes writers in these areas are too judgmental and narrowly focused on their own personal achievements. Others are so bland they are of no use to anyone, simply regurgitating the thoughts of others without adding any insight. Still others feel a bit too much like they are selling a lifestyle (and not coincidentally, a product) like social media influencers. Overall, reading remains one of the major ways I stay focused and get great ideas for my own life.

I’m never going to be one of those headline-grabbing stories about paying off huge amounts of debt in short amounts of time or becoming financially independent and retiring before my 50s.

However, we are making progress on our debts without having to radically alter our lifestyles.

One parent is still full time with our young kids, we live in a house that is quite comfortable for us, and we enjoyably participate in community and recreation. We will be on track to be out of all consumer and student loan debt before the end of 2020 (barring any major life setback). This is sustainable and inspiring enough for us.

How do you stay motivated to achieve difficult financial goals?

Free Fun Family Feb 10 2019

I woke up like this!

Welcome to my Free Fun Family weekly Sunday update. 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

I got my federal tax refund this week. Wow–both tax refunds came so quickly! I’m hearing from a lot of people that the new tax reform law impacted them negatively. It is hard for me to gauge because I got a raise and promotion, so my federal gross income went up significantly. I paid a lot more in taxes than I did last year, but I was expecting to do so.

J cuts a log that will become (hopefully) a home for shiitake mushrooms.

We are preparing for our biggest season of gardening work ever! Since 2019 will be a year with very little travel and an increased interest in sustainability and food sourcing, we are hoping to use this time to create the vegetable garden we’ve always wanted. While it was a bit painful to hit Lowe’s for the first time in awhile, the preparation for a big family project is exciting.

Fun

Last Sunday, my family went to the local Unitarian Universalist Congregation service for the first time. I’ve been feeling a craving for spiritual development in my life, and I did enjoy the service and community. My children enjoyed their part of it as well. I plan to return in the future. I think I would like to dedicate each Sunday to my spiritual development, whether through this service, through connection with nature, or through volunteer service.

I worked an evening event for my main gig this week that brought me back to the high school where I taught a year ago. I checked in with colleagues and students I hadn’t seen in a bit, so that was lovely. While I love my new job and work colleagues, there is something uniquely special about working in a school, directly with children. Even though I don’t love stressful weeks with lots of evening events, whenever work brings me into direct contact with students and families, I feel more grounded in my mission.

Family

J and H are becoming quite the little team in terms of scheming and plotting–as siblings should be. While there is some competition between them, I am appreciative that most of their play is cooperative and collaborative. Even if some of it is about how best to attack Mommy and Appa.

H continues to develop through her musical theater dance class and library story times. She is becoming quite a “chatterbox” these days. J took his orange belt test in taekwondo (see picture). He passed with high marks! He has really developed in maturity with his study of martial arts. I am so appreciative of the taekwondo studio we found through some friends. If you are local to Frederick, I cannot recommend DreamKicks Taekwondo highly enough–Master Yuno and Ms. Sunny love and support the kids in the studio like they were family.

Other

I did not succeed on my health goals this week at all. I am checking in with myself about that and will make the time for my health this week. I feel better when I prioritize it. I will go back to basics and move intentionally every day for 20 minutes or more, hitting the classes I love most when I can. I will also work on the daily meditation. It helps with the health goals.

Small steps lead to great progress. I will get there…

Reflections on Bi-Cultural Parenting: Seollal Edition

Our family is Korean and American. While neither Min nor I are particularly strong in our family/cultural traditions, we try to integrate major holidays and elements of both cultures into the lives of our children. Since we live in the U.S., Korean holidays tend to be more difficult to observe with regularity.

This week, we celebrated seollal, the Lunar New Year, and welcomed the Year of the Pig. We Skyped with our Korean relatives to wish them happy new year and bowed to the ancestors.

J came home from school with information about the Chinese Zodiac because of the American-dubbed “Chinese New Year”. He was very excited to learn about it in school, though he did ask why it was called “Chinese” when it was the same as the zodiac for Korea’s Lunar calendar. This led to a discussion about how many different cultures have other ways of counting time than the Western calendar.

I’m very grateful Min can talk to our kids about Korea and cultural traditions. I think it would be much harder for me to navigate the cultural identity of our children alone. I often think about how little representation and parenting advice there can be for cross-cultural and cross-racial families. Interestingly, most of what I do know about navigating this aspect of our family life comes from my experiences with adoption.

My sister is black; she was adopted by our white family as a baby. My mom went out of her way to bring books home that featured black writers, African stories (the Anansi stories are the best), and African-American stories and poems. She read these to all of her kids, but I recognize as an adult the powerful ways in which she was trying to provide a cultural identity for my sister, even if it wasn’t the culture she knew. My sister and I often tease my mom for her positive stereotyping of black people because it is consistently ridiculous to our more millenial racial sensibilities (the most jarring example is how she used to admire the black French figure skater Surya Bonaly, but kept calling her the “African-American” figure skater). At the end of the day, though, she was doing the best she could to love the whole of her children.

And a very happy year of the pig to you and yours!

Giving: The Cure for Mindless Spending

“Giving is like a muscle. To be strong, you have to exercise it, and to grow as a person, giving is the exercise. You can’t really enjoy anything without sharing it.”

Zig Ziglar

I’ve always thought of myself as selfless and charitable. I teach, I volunteer, I pitch in to help out in crises, I lean hippy-dippy (in an anti-capitalist sense). However, I was also one of those people who thought of myself as giving money to charities “later.” You know, Later: when I earn more money and have this debt under control. Later: when I’m not living so stretched. Later: when my income increases. Later: when my children are older, and I have fewer expenses. Later: when I am financially independent.

This is not an unusual way of thinking. However, some recent reading and thinking I’ve done has made me question my assumptions that giving is something that should wait until I’m financially together. I’ve even made giving more a specific mini-goal (#2) on my quest to align my spending with my values.

This year, I’ve been opening up my wallet to organizations that do good work in the community. I set up two recurring monthly contributions to local charities, but I’ve also been giving one-time donations to a variety of needs on a weekly basis. Not huge amounts, not even a respectable % of my income, but enough that I’m starting to understand Ziglar’s quote in a personal way. I’ve discovered something magical about giving: the way it changes your relationship with spending in surprising ways.

Real life story: Sunday night, I was working at my second job, not watching the Big Game, and feeling kind of down about not hanging out with my kids and Min. I started craving pizza. Like really, really craving pizza. It would have been very easy to order it (even though I had food with me to eat). Many Americans were ordering pizza on that night. I would have been but a blip in the system. I was tired. I could have justified ordering it in many different ways.

And in the past, I probably would have ordered it.

I didn’t want to spend the money. But even more than that, I didn’t want to spend the money on something commercial and unhealthy. I took that $35 I would have spent on Super Bowl Pizza and sent it to the Polaris Project, an organization that fights human trafficking (donations are being quadrupled through Valentine’s Day).

Then it happened. I got a sign of divine intervention.

Guess what? I immediately stopped craving pizza.

Look, I’m not preaching that you tithe or oblige yourself to give to charity or anything like that. But I do believe that the universe was communicating a very clear message to me that night about spiritual craving being filled through an act of generosity, not through bingeing on greasy (albeit delicious), overpriced junk food.

For me, giving magically stop mindless consumer spending in its tracks.

Nothing about giving away money as a strategy for saving money makes logical sense, but it works better than anything I’ve ever tried before.
Giving to charity is a like having a frugal superpower. Perhaps I’ll try to over-analyze the why of it in a future post (I think it’s somewhere in the space of authenticity and confidence that creates focus), but for now, I’ll just read the signs and see the proof for myself.

And of course, I will keep giving.

Free Fun Family Feb 3 2019

A bit late posting today–but still here for your Sunday review.

Welcome to my Free Fun Family weekly Sunday update. 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

The State of Maryland has already sent my refund–hurray!

I picked up a bag of vegetables through a the new Produce in a SNAP site at the Frederick YMCA Teaching Kitchen. The program is part of Hungry Harvest, a company that rescues imperfect produce (see my beautifully malformed carrots above) and sells it at reduced cost in urban food desert sites. I was very pleased with the quality/cost of the produce and being able to support a community initiative. I will probably shop there again in the future.

Fun

More snow this week made for wintry fun, but also some crazy school schedules. I don’t get time at home on snow days anymore (as an administrator), but I still made some memories on afternoon walks and snowball fights.

I also had a lovely date night with Min at our local swing dance First Saturday downtown. Overall, it’s been a wonderful week.

Family

We began a chores chart with money attached to the different chores.
(See H completing her chore of watering the plants in her unicorn pajamas.) I was inspired after reading Smart Money, Smart Kids, co-written by Dave Ramsey and his daughter, Rachel Cruze. Our kids are digging it so far, and our house is cleaner. I may post more about it if it keeps working out.

Other

I’m trying a workout every day challenge this week. Wish me luck!

Hope you have a great first week of February.

Debt Elimination Update–January

January was a month of financial housekeeping. I reconciled my debt elimination progress goal to include the personal loan from our roof replacement last year. I am transitioning bank accounts, so one of my payroll checks from the end of January was mailed home instead of direct deposited; as of this morning, I have not received the check. We focused on building our banking buffer in our new checking account (when we get the tax refund, we will be able to keep a full month ahead of expenses) and replenishing our depleted emergency fund in another account. 

January was a fantastic month–financially and otherwise–but I did not make much progress on debt.  However, I’ve set us up to be in a much stronger position to torch the debt for the rest of this year!

Progress from January:

  • Low Spending. Thanks in large part to Min becoming more invested in meeting our financial goals and my breaking my last few bad habits, we spent less in January than we had in any single month last year by about $300. I hope to continue this momentum into February as we question the value of every, single purchase we make.
  • Increased Charitable Contributions. In line with my major goal for 2019 to align our spending with our values, I set up recurring monthly contributions to two different local nonprofits (the library and the soup kitchen), sent a bit to two different families suffering (one with a medical emergency, the other with a sudden death), contributed to a literacy nonprofit I researched for a post, and donated jeans and sweatpants to the drive at work for children in poverty. I am fundamentally changing the way I think about money through giving. It has been spiritually healing; I will write more on this in February.
  • Debt Progress: Here are the numbers for the end of January:
    • Balance Transfer 1 (0% through July 2019): $2,800.00
    • Balance Transfer 2 (0% through November 2019): $8,500.00
    • Balance Transfer 3 (0% through April 2020): $7,600.00
    • Roof Loan (SoFi Personal Loan @ 11%): $4,959.38
      TOTAL: $23,859.38
      Amount paid off this month: $224.65
      Amount paid off TOTAL: $12,229.40

Happy one year (12 months!) of debt elimination updates. I started owning my responsibility for paying off debt in February 2018 when I realized that some major windfalls I received that month barely made a dent in the problem. I had a little talk with myself about how I couldn’t keep hiding from consumer debt and promising myself it would be “taken care of” with the next big payoff.

One year later, I have much more than $12,000 less debt. I have hope. I have faith in myself. I have this blog.

Goals for February:

  1. Didn’t quite meet it for January (very close), so again: 0$ on prepared food/drink outside of the home.
  2. Bike at least 100 miles for Rally for the Y.  If you’d like to support me, please consider contributing!
  3. Go outside in nature with the kids at least two times/week (it’s February… don’t judge!)

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