Attitude of Gratitude: Voting!

I voted today.  I love voting!

I consider it my patriotic duty to be as informed as I can about political issues and vote in each and every election.

I have done so at every opportunity–even primaries, even when living in Korea–since I was 18 years old.

Several of our state and local contests this year have outcomes that matter very much to me, my family, and my job (everything from the governor to the Board of Education), but I won’t be talking about any specific politician here, just my love for casting a ballot and appreciation of my small role in our great democracy.  Maryland has lots of early voting opportunities, which is great since I will be out of town on the actual day of elections this year.   I was able to take my lunch hour and wait in line to cast my ballot a full week before the actual election day.  In Maryland, you can even register to vote the same day as early voting!

Where did my love of voting come from?  I grew up in a DC suburb and very much enjoyed studying government in high school.  However, many people I grew up with became quickly disillusioned with how insignificant your vote seems.  Not me!

I remember staying up late with my college roommates for my first election night–waiting for the results to come in–and finally giving up and going to bed.  It was 2000.  It was a good thing I went to bed, since that was the election that took a month and a Supreme Court case to finally decide!  That was quite a wake up call about both the power and the impotence of voting.  Many of my fellow young voters were turned off by that historic election (one of the first where the outcome of the presidential election by electoral college was different than the popular vote), but I found it the experience instilled a kind of reverence for the way that each vote is cast and the role every ballot has in an election.

Sometimes, it is easy to get down about the results of elections if they don’t go your way.  Certainly, I’ve noticed a lot more people in my life talking about politics in the last couple years–for good reasons.  I have some anxieties about how policies regarding immigration will impact Min, who holds a green card.  However, I feel that it is important to keep election anxiety in perspective, even during really dark times.  The great news for U.S. citizens is that there is always another major election in just two years!

I appreciate that I have a voice in the direction of my state, local, and national government.  I am hopeful that this year’s results will favor the ideals and values I support.  I am grateful I can continue to contribute in my small way to the direction of my country.

If you haven’t done so already–VOTE!  It’s powerful and important.

Budget Buster: Vacation Spending

We love family travel experiences, even though they are not the most frugal option for entertainment.  However, when returning from a trip or vacation, there is another challenge to the budget, one that is not always acknowledged or talked about: the vacation spending mindset.

When traveling, out of both necessity and desire to fully embrace the experience of a different environment, I often spend money on things I would not allow myself to in the day to day.  In our recent trip to Korea, we ate out frequently (of course–you have to partake of great food opportunities in foreign countries), bought unnecessary snacks (cheap Korean ice cream at convenience stores are worthy of their own separate discussion), and shopped for presents and goods unavailable (or much more expensive) back in the U.S.  We also paid for luxury transportation (taxis and trains), overnight accommodation, and entrance fees (museums, temples, and one spa resort) so often they became habitual.  All of these are part of great vacation and travel spending, but they can shift your mindset and habits when you return home if you are not careful.

Since our return, it has been quite tempting to go out for drinks with friends (like we did in Korea), take my kids to a venue with entrance fees (instead of the free place across the street), or shop for a few new items of clothing and shoes (to match my new Korean purse).  I must own that I have given into that temptation much more frequently than I should have these last few weeks–to the tune of about $300 in additional spending just because I had become acclimated to the increased spending when I was on vacation.  So, in addition to struggling this month with paying the credit card bill that covered all of our vacation expenses (no international fee), I have created a bigger problem for myself by maintaining that “vacation spending” mindset while I’m no longer traveling.

The reality is that I have no legit reason for spending like I’m still on vacation.  The restaurants I visited are ones I have access to at any time, the friends I’ve seen live within a 15 minute drive of my house, and the clothing and shoes I bought will be conveniently available to purchase once I’ve paid off the debt.  These are not experience purchases, they are raw consumerism.

Furthermore, I have a tendency to give up on healthy goals I’ve set if they seem unattainable because of one bad day, week, or month.  Therefore this vacation spending mindset, coming after the real increased expense of the vacation itself is a potential recipe for disaster.  I have definitely felt that pull of “why bother trying?” as I see the bills adding up and the debt not going down.  I have to remind myself that personal finance success is all about the long term.  I am getting back on track by writing this post; it’s always a work in progress here.

While I wish I had “caught” myself earlier in my self-destruction, I’m grateful that the damage is now limited to this lesson learned.  I am committed to getting out of the burden of this debt as quickly as possible so that I can have more travel and vacation opportunities in the future–this time the money budgeted and saved in advance and so I can spend it guilt-free!  I know that I can make progress on my debt through frugal living and be happy and healthy doing so with my family.

Back to the plan and attack the debt!

Summer time is particularly full of tempting spending “vacation” opportunities.  Do you have a vacation spending mindset that is stopping you from achieving your goals?  How do you get yourself back on track?

Korean Summer 4: Travel with Kids

One of my favorite places to visit in Daegu is the beautiful Palgongsan mountain area and Donghwasa temple (fun fact–where we had a friend take our wedding photos back in 2010).  When I enjoyed temple trips and mountain air pre-motherhood, the enjoyment was aesthetic and contemplative.  I examined the complex artwork and enjoyed the meditative air of a Buddhist temple.  I exerted my body in a demanding hike to savor the breeze of a cool forest respite.  These sites are what helped me fall in love with Korea back in my first year abroad (Min came along a few months later…).  J has visited the temple twice, but it was the first time we took H.  We also rode the cable car up to the mountain top and enjoy lunch at the little restaurant there.

J and H, ignoring the impressive tall Buddha statue in favor of collecting and then dumping water into the fountain.

Travel with kids is quite different.  They are impressed with entirely different things than adults.  For example, they found all the different water fountains to be endlessly fascinating.  Water is cool, sure, but have you (adult person) really, really understood how incredible water from a fountain can be?  No?  At least two solid hours of entertainment.  No lie.

Cable car set up. A bit scary, but incredible views!

You get your workout not from challenging mountain climbs, but from wrangling children away from the many dangers that face them in these unfamiliar areas–moving cars, rocky precipices, table edges.  I also found it personally challenging because I spent three years in Korea learning enough etiquette not to be labeled as the “uncouth foreigner,” but kids (well, my kids) don’t really care that much about following social norms–especially social norms in another country.  My usual embarrassment of my children’s wild behavior was intensified by my own feelings of standing out as a foreigner.  This trip was not the relaxing escape of my youth.

I was not lying about the water. Hours and hours of fun!

Travel with children is much more complicated and expensive than traveling alone or with another adult partner.  Even done frugally by seasoned world explorer-parents with boundless energy, enthusiasm, and patience (not us–but we certainly have witnessed many of those other couples with wonder and awe), it is quite challenging.  For example, we have used taxis and borrowed/rented cars much more frequently on this trip because it was more convenient and almost the same cost as bus/subway fare for all four of us.

One of the major prayer sites at Palgongsan, Wish Rock. J and H model the “heart” pose, ubiquitous in Korea.

Many young families choose to abstain from travel until children are a bit older because it becomes much less difficult logistically when kids can pack their own bags and entertain themselves a bit more independently.  Also, there is questionable return on investment in excursions that require expensive plane tickets, accommodation, car rentals, or “family entertainment” industry purchases that children may not remember or appreciate.  Example:  H’s favorite part of our camping trip to Niagara Falls last summer was riding the “Yogi Bear Bus” from the campsite to the visitor center.

Family selfie in the cable car.

Even with all of these drawbacks, I believe the rewards are much greater and worth the challenge.  This was one of the most fun family days we had in our time here in Korea.  Here are some great reasons travel with kids is totally worth it:

  1. Kids learn a lot from travel.  Just as adults do, kids learn about cultures and independence from visiting new places.  They learn how and why we travel.  They learn patience from waiting in lines, and how to see beauty in different things.
  2. Travel builds family relationships.  On this trip, the kids learned that Min is slightly afraid of heights, so H held his hand on the cable car to comfort him.  J and I had a little walk through some of the outlying buildings with art, lanterns, and wind chimes as we each took pictures and talked about why we took pictures of which things and why.
  3. Kids see that travel is possible, though it requires some planning, effort, and expense.  If we allow our anxieties about the inconvenience of travel with kids to interfere with taking trips, kids come to view travel as inaccessible or excessively challenging.  Although my parents didn’t take us abroad as kids, our camping trips and road trips taught me about packing food for lunch to avoid overpriced food at tourist sites and how to tolerate transit discomfort.  I think it is vital for kids to be exposed to these experiences and am willing to work harder to make it happen!
  4. The family stories are priceless When we talk about the travel we do, we reinforce the memories.  J especially loves to talk about how he was nervous or scared to try something, but overcame his fears and loved his accomplishments.  H likes to tell stories about the funny things that happened or that she saw.
  5. Kids make travel more fun.  The enthusiasm my daughter has for dancing and jumping in public helps me see her as a future performer.  My son loves learning new facts (that he repeats endlessly) and makes plans (“Let’s travel to a new country every year, Mom!”).  Kids ask questions adults don’t think to ask.  You discover the joys of a fountain.  (Or at least you can finally meditate for a few minutes while they distract themselves.)

What do you think?  Is family travel worth the challenges?

Debt Elimination Project–July

What a wonderful month for our family!  Our house has a new roof, and we’re enjoying time in our second home, Korea.  We’ve enjoyed a bit of a break from our laser-focus on debt while we travel.  However, as a result we have not made as much progress as usual in debt reduction.  I’m most proud that while we’ve decimated our emergency fund (will be built up after paying of the Home Improvement Loan that has a deadline of Jan 2019 if we want to avoid the $1000s of dollars in deferred interest payments) and have pretty much only paid minimums on our credit cards with a balance, we are moving forward a little bit at a time.  Constant forward progress allows us to continue our momentum despite a few slowdowns and setbacks.

Progress from July:

  • Mostly frugal travel practice.  We cooked at home for most meals and focused on free/low cost things to do around Korea.  We spent more money than we would in Frederick, but probably not by much.  Probably less than we did on beach/camping trips last year.
  • Raise–yay! I got a small bump in pay (about $150/month).  This should help increase our debt payments and achieve our goals faster.
  • Used my time in Korea to quit Diet Coke.  I will have to post about this on its own, but my relationship with Diet Coke is a detriment to both my health and finances, but not enough for me to kick the addiction by itself.  I quit it for three months last year and it was fantastic! But then, I allowed myself to start back up and was finding quitting again to be quite a challenge.  However, you can’t buy Diet Coke in Korea, so I plan to continue my three week detox into a permanent elimination of this bad habit!
  • Progress on Credit Cards.  Here are the numbers for the end of July:
    • Home Improvement Loan: $2,785.64
    • AmEx: $7,821.46
    • Balance Transfer 1 (0% for 13 more months): $2,978
    • Balance Transfer 2 (0% for 16 more months): $9,380.73
    • TOTAL: $22,965.83
    • Amount paid off this month: $413.23
    • Amount paid off TOTAL: $7,990.17

This is pretty awesome progress for just six months.  I’m recommitted to frugality and ruthless prioritization of my financial goals for my family upon our return to the U.S.  We’ve had a fulfilling summer trip, with lots of great memories.

Goals for August

  1. Enjoy our frugal day in LA (14 hour layover mini trip!).  My guess is we’ll probably spend as much on renting a car and seeing some of the sites around town as we would in the airport entertaining the kids.
  2. Food planning/prep to reduce food waste and grocery costs.  Goal of NO dining out because of lack of preparation or laziness.
  3. Continue Diet Coke ban as I return to the U.S.

Korean Summer 3: Connecting with Relatives

H with Min’s brother (Jakkun Appa) and mother (Halmoni).

We have just one week left before we are on the plane back to the U.S.  I am trying to savor my time with the people here that I love and who love my husband and children.

Visiting Korea is enjoyable and relaxing like a vacation in many ways, but world travel alone is not the reason we come here.  I lived here for three years, so I’ve already seen and done much of what I’d want from a “travel” experience.  Korea is where all of Min’s family still lives.  We have tried to cultivate the relationships between our children and their Korean family as much as possible.  When we are here, the main goal is to connect with family and friends.

Gomo Halmoni playing “airplane” with H.

Including this trip, Min has visited Korea five times since we moved to the U.S. in 2010 (once with J and once alone, so I’ve only come back 3 times).  We also hosted Halmoni and Gomo Halmoni (Min’s aunt, and one of my favorite people in the entire world) for a month in the U.S. when J was an infant.  In fact, the emotional pull of remaining connected with our Korean family through frequent visits has almost certainly contributed to our debt problem, though I don’t regret a single one of those trips.  This trip is bittersweet because we are committed to not incurring debt for anymore travel, including Korea*, so it will probably be at least three years (all consumer debt paid off and adequate savings accumulated) until any of us are able to return.

Something about this trip feels different in other ways, a kind of subtle emotional shift.  The heat has prevented us from enjoying many of the outdoor activities we love to do in Korea (hiking, temple visiting, sightseeing, festival-participating, etc.). More of my friends have moved away from Korea (or even just Daegu) and our old swing dance club is defunct as of June this year; those that are here are in a similar phase of life and busy with the demands of young children and in-laws.  We went downtown, and my favorite restaurants there are gone (replaced by what seem to be great places, but they aren’t “mine”).  While I’m visiting old haunts and enjoying the familiarity of this foreign culture, it doesn’t quite feel as much like a second home for me as it has in the past.

At the same time, Frederick feels more like home than ever after J’s first year of school, and my enjoyment of my new job.  Min even mentioned this feeling, though it is making him feel more anxious than me.  We love our home (new roof and all) and our life there.  We will always miss our friends and family in Korea and other parts of the world, but I feel happy thinking about spending the next 5, 10, or even 20 years in the same place.  I’ve never really felt quite that way before; I used to yearn for the life of the postmodern nomad.

I want to grow plants and keep routines and deepen my friendships and community ties in my chosen hometown.  I want my children to feel grounded in being from Frederick.  I still want to travel more (when out of debt, with my family), but I want to come home when I’m done.

* The declining health of a Korean family member has forced us to discuss possible emergency travel situations for Min alone; we are making plans to increase the emergency fund while paying down consumer debt to accommodate.  However, should the worst happen before we have the full amount, we will do what we can, even if it means a setback to our financial progress.

Korean Summer 2: Sibling Bonds

When I first arrived a week ago, after missing my kids for the three prior weeks, I was struck by how very, very American (in the ‘Muricah kind of way) they seemed in a foreign country.  They were loud and exuberant when other kids were more shy and retiring; they were grumpy about adults correcting their manners and became almost belligerent about properly greeting their halmoni (grandmother); and they required peanut butter sandwiches and hot dogs almost daily.  I was horrified.  I mentioned it to Min, but he just laughed and said that they were just kids.  I relaxed a little and realized he was right.  And, of course, my children are American; why would I expect them to be otherwise?  But their “outsider”-ness has remained something I notice and contemplate on this trip.

Working side by side at an interactive art installation at the gallery opening we attended for a friend.

My children have transformed into really excellent playmates while in Korea.  Today on the playground, they were making up a story about the different colored areas on the pavement (red was lava, blue was water, etc.), running and jumping and swimming around–throwing in sharks and random objects and whatever else, and it struck my heart:

This is the summer I wanted for them.  A summer where they are imaginative and close and take joy in their relationship outside of competing for parental resources.

H doesn’t just follow J around, doing whatever he says, she contributes and objects with shocking independence.  J genuinely values her companionship, not just tolerates it with annoyed beneficence because Mommy said to play nice.  Don’t get me wrong, they still squabble and quickly get under each others’ skin in that way only siblings can, but there is a shift.

They are a team.

Something developmental is happening (I noticed this tendency to play together more for the last six months), but I think the trip has significantly contributed to this pleasant development in the following ways:

  • H was without Mommy for three weeks in a row for the first time ever.  This develops independence and deepens her relationships with the people she is near.
  • Korean kids are still in school, so almost none are around to play with during the weekdays (only babies and toddlers).  They have to play with each other or by themselves.
  • They have fewer toys here than at home, and what toys they have are new and different.  The experiences they have while traveling inspire creativity in them, just as they do in adults.
  • Finally, the way they stand out in Korea makes them more like each other than like the other kids around them.  For example, while they speak Korean, they are more comfortable and deft with English and most Korean kids don’t even try to speak Korean with them.  They are close because they share a powerful cultural connection in a strange situation.

On this last point, it was similar to the instant bonding of the expat community in Korea.  When I lived here (2007-2010), a common discussion among English speaking foreigners living in the country was how rare we were (less than 2% of the population of Korean is ethnically non-Korean), so those of us with white or brown skin were gawked at like celebrities in our neighborhoods.  I mostly found this amusing (like when one shocked middle school boy exited the subway in front of me, pointed, and said “David Beckham!”), but there were times it ranged from embarrassing (I bought my birth control far from my local neighborhood, where literally everyone knew who I was and where I worked and lived) to freaky (being followed for blocks by men who wouldn’t take “no” for a “coffee” invitation, if you catch my drift).  Some expats would be driven mad by the attention to waegukin (foreigners) and retaliate with bitter anger at Korean culture–often while still dating Korean people.  At the time I thought they were overreacting, but now I realize–they probably felt extremely lonely.  Their bonding over their “hatred” of the host culture was probably more desperation and sadness than the small-minded bigotry (as I once saw it).

I think my children are experiencing the above to a smaller degree.  They have family here, so they have greater insider status, but none of that family are young children and no one else treats them like Koreans.  (And being treated like Korean children is sometimes no picnic–J and H have both recoiled at relatives manhandling them to fix something about their appearance or manners without asking permission first.)

I wonder how they will recall this summer in their memories as they get older.  I hope (as a mother hopes) that if they remember nothing else, they’ll remember their friendship.

Korean Summer 1: Asan Trip

Living as an international, bi-cultural family is rich and rewarding.  However, one major challenge is that our family is spread about 7,000 miles apart across two continents and an ocean or so.  Video calling is great, but there is really no substitute for spending time with people you love and building those relationships organically.  Furthermore, J and H are bilingual, but their Korean language exposure is basically limited to their father–who is great at teaching them, but it’s not the same as immersion.  We try to travel to Korea as often as we can for those reasons, but it is quite expensive and time consuming.

This summer, Min took J and H to Korea in late June.  I joined them a few weeks later.  With our commitment to repairing our finances, this will probably be our last trip to Korea for at least a couple years.  While we are focusing on frugal travel practice, we are taking advantage of our time here to bond with friends, explore a different culture, and enjoy different experiences.  I will blog about some of those experiences here.

J and H with their new friends.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we rented a van with another family (Min’s close friend, wife, and two daughters) to travel to Asan, a small coastal city famous for hot springs and for being a place where Admiral Yi Sun-sin lived for a time.

We spent most of the first day at a lovely water park, Paradise Dogo Spa. The kids loved the variety of pools, slides, and activities. Given how crazy hot it has been in Daegu (the city where we are staying), it was very refreshing to spend most of a day swimming.  Going on a random weekday when most Korean students were still in school meant that the park was not crowded.  I learned that J is a crazy daredevil about water slides and wave pools, like the younger daughter of the family we were with.  H passed out on the floor of the bathroom from exhaustion as we were preparing to leave.  It was amazing!

Model of a turtle ship with the dragon head (hiding a fire cannon) in the museum.

The second day, we decided to go to Hyunchungsa, a temple dedicated to Admiral Yi (the picture above is of the old temple).  Admiral Yi is one of the most beloved figures of Korean history.  In the late 1500s, Japan attacked Korea (as it was wont to do periodically), and Admiral Yi gained fame by improving the design of a kind of war ship called a Turtle Ship because it could tuck all the extra bits behind its heavily armored hull and smash other boats like a battering ram while suffering very little damage.

Battle configurations for Yi’s ships.

I knew that part already, but I was very impressed with the other reason for his hero worship status as a military genius–his impressive tactical strategies.  The display included extensive details from his personal diary where he designed formations that lured the enemy into a small area where the Yi’s Turtle Ships could circle around and destroy the enemy force with shocking efficiency.

It was scorching hot, so we only explored a small part of the beautiful temple grounds, but luckily the air-conditioned museum had lots of fascinating pieces from Admiral Yi’s diary and other artifacts.  There was also an animated 4D movie demonstrating how the ships and attack strategies worked in real life battles.  H loved it, declaring “Let’s watch that again!”  J was very impressed with the strategy involved and the engineering of the boats (and, of course, the famous swords).

Along the trip, we also indulged in some of my favorite Korean tasty treats–rest stop fried potatoes, spicy tofu soup (sundubu jjigae), roasted fish (seonsangui), and sushi buffet (chobap)! Yum!

Korean road trips are great fun.  When I lived in Korea (2007-2010), I frequently enjoyed this kind of trip, but with kids you see all of it in a new way.  The enjoyment of this experience is an awesome reminder of why I am so interested in pursuing my financial goals.  Our family is happiest when it engages with this kind of experience–building great friendships, learning about history, enjoying physical activity.  This is worth giving up some less fulfilling spending and getting out of debt.

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