Reading Roundup One

For frugal hobbies, it’s hard to beat reading.  Public libraries enable access to a wide variety of reading material, including audiobooks–all for free!  I love to read so much that I became an English teacher to share the power of reading and writing with the next generation.  Since becoming a mother, helping my children become enthusiastic readers has been an important value.  I read a wide variety of texts, so I thought I’d try to feature a book that I enjoyed recently from each of four major categories: Adult Fiction, Adult Nonfiction, Frugality/Money, and Kid Read Aloud.  I’m planning to make this a regular feature on the blog.  Enjoy!

Adult Fiction: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Gyasi’s debut novel is an epic historical fiction, told in heart-wrenchingly beautiful short stories, that follows the descendants of two sisters born in the African Gold Coast during the time of slavery.  This is the book I would wish for every one of my students. It is incredible in scope and power. Quite heartbreaking and still quite beautiful in the optimism of the ending.

It wasn’t what I expected… it was so much better.

Adult Nonfiction: Bloodsworth by Tim Junkin

This year’s One Maryland, One Book selection was the story of an innocent man, convicted twice through shocking errors in police and judicial procedures, and eventually set free through persistence in the truth combined with scientific innovation.  Although it’s not my usual first choice, I was drawn in by details like jury selection: in Maryland, anyone who is unwilling to apply the death penalty in cases where that is a possibility is automatically excluded.  A whole group of openly identified people with compassion are excluded from participating–that’s hardly a fair representation of the general population!

I had the pleasure of attending the talk Junkin gave in Boonsboro as part of the OMOB programming.  I am impressed by his writing and by the life and anti-death-penalty advocacy of Kirk Bloodsworth since his release.

Frugality/Money: The Financial Diet by Chelsea Fagan and Lauren Ver Hage (design)

I enjoy Fagan and Ver Hage’s website, The Financial Diet, which features mostly female writers focusing on a variety of financial and lifestyle topics.  I have a secret love of the “chick slick” style of writing found in women’s magazines like Elle and Fagan’s work captures that style while offering some solid financial advice for young women. This book won’t change your life with life-altering advice or promise you easy results from simple changes, but instead is about building up confidence in lifestyle choices that are not based in what advertisers and cultural pressures tell you will “fix” you (i.e. conform to a narrow set of acceptable behaviors and appearances for women).  The book is beautifully designed by Ver Hage and full of practical, supportive advice.

Kid Read Aloud: Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty, Illustrated by David Roberts

My children adore this story-in-verse of a gifted young builder whose passion is stifled by a school teacher whose past makes her blind to the joys of architecture.  They have begged for this book just about every night for the last month, and we all have it memorized in parts.

Disclosure:  This post contains affiliate links.  I only recommend services and products that I use.

Attitude of Gratitude: Fall

My favorite season has arrived: Fall!  Or its more stately sounding moniker, Autumn.  No, this isn’t a love letter to all things pumpkin spice (though I do enjoy the flavoring in baked goods and black tea) or boots, scarves, and tights (though I will fully own my love for these easy ways to look put together in a dress).  Those associations with the season are sometimes the trappings of consumerism–it is omnipresent.  Fall has been my favorite season since long before I enjoyed these frequently-memed aspects of this time of year.

Fall is the best season for the weather in Maryland.  The air cools off and becomes less humid (perfect hiking weather).  The plants offer up the last blooms and fruits of the long harvest season (and fall veggies are some of my very favorites–from eggplant to squash to tomatoes).  There are wonderful local festivals that center around apples and pumpkins.  The trees begin to show brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and red before they turn brown and crunchy–a reminder of the impermanence of everything in life.  Fall has wonderful holidays–Halloween and Thanksgiving and Korean Chuseok (reminding us to focus on fun and gratitude–two favorites of mine!).  Since I work in education, I also appreciate this season professionally–school is still new and students are enthusiastic in their studies.

This weekend, although we experienced a very rainy Sunday, I found myself enthused by my first attempt at a butternut squash soup (delicious, despite mistakes), excited to clean up my boots to wear this week, and invigorated by the breeze blowing in our house through the open windows.  In the evening, we participated in the jaesa ritual via Skype with our Korean family.  I felt at peace.

Fall reminds me to conserve my resources, because this bounty will not always last.

I appreciate the sunlight more as it begins to disappear earlier and earlier.  I savor these moments in nature and healthy practices.  I appreciate the comforts of my home and kitchen.  I am grateful to live in a climate that still has a long, beautiful fall.

I hope you are enjoying this change of season as much as we are.

Teaching as a Career: Getting Right with Getting Paid

Time published a feature this week about the state of teacher pay in America.  The story of teachers being underpaid for their level of education (usually master’s degree or equivalent) and hours worked is nothing new.  The story highlights the ambivalence teachers feel about their jobs–the powerful, emotional, almost spiritual call to educate young people and the humiliation of being unable to live as a respectable middle class professional.   The major flaw of our educational system is that it cannot function without the extra contractual contributions of those employed by it.

The system depends on the personal (and financial) sacrifice of teachers.

I am in my 15th year of post-collegiate full time employment; I have spent 13 of those years in a classroom as a teacher (although three of them were in another country).  I absolutely love teaching.  There is no greater feeling in the world than having a front row seat to kids learning and knowing you were a small part of that process.  However, in recent years, I often felt that I had to choose between giving to my students and to my own children.  I don’t think teachers should be in that position; I certainly don’t want my children’s teachers to feel burdened by that choice.

Why teach?

When I was growing up, I believed that making career (or any) decision based on anything as crass as “salary” or “benefits” was inferior to idealistic pursuit of passion, artistic vision, and altruism.  I wanted to make the world a better, more beautiful, more intelligent place.  I thought people who accumulated wealth and pursued high salaries were morally flawed.  I recognize now that this kind of belief is bred from growing up in economic abundance and educational privilege (both of my parents had Ph.D.s), but also my parents fostered a healthy sense of idealism about work.  They volunteered with Peace Corps and worked in careers that served the public good, rather than for commercial gain (though offered lucrative positions to work for tobacco companies or in weapons development).

As my college graduation loomed, I became more practical.  I didn’t want to continue to be economically dependent on my parents, but I had followed my intellectual passions and chosen courses of study that were less financially rewarded than the sciences.  I realized that as much as I would love to be an artist (writer or theater at the time), I couldn’t survive without consistent health benefits and was crap at competitive self-promotion (a component of success in those fields). I was interested in becoming a college professor in the humanities, but the cutthroat nature of graduate school for many years, only to end up not being able to have much control over where you lived or worked (because only three tenure-track positions in your area exist in the country) was unappealing.

There is a cultural pressure on young people to view work and employment as spiritual fulfillment rather than contractual exchange.  It can lead to exploitation.

I spent some time figuring out what I could do that would allow me to work with the passion I valued and still eke out a reasonable lifestyle (I was fine with frugality, but health benefits were a nonnegotiable for me).  I decided I would try public school teaching; if I hated it, I would stop.  I loved it.  However, teaching in America, like the professionals profiled in the article, burned me out (more than once) with its extreme demands and compensation that necessitated second jobs.

Why leave teaching?

I recently accepted a promotion to a leadership position in education, coordinating a large program for my school district.  A major reason I pursued leadership positions outside of the classroom was the need to increase my salary to remain the sole income provider for our family.  (Yes, younger me would have said I was “selling out,” but that’s too simplistic).  While I know I am still contributing to the good of public education–and in some ways I have greater influence, my new position more appropriately compensates the time and expertise I provide, thus taking fewer resources (emotional and financial) from my own family.

Our culture has not yet changed the commonplace expectation of personal sacrifice for the average teacher.  If anything, this expectation is worse than when I started teaching 15 years ago, because now teachers are supposed to be human shields against gun violence in schools while also educating every student to pass demanding tests of skills that build on skills they never mastered in previous grades.  As a teacher, I saw minimal changes in salary or benefits from when I began, despite my increased skills and experience.  While this has been true of other middle class professions during this same time period, few professionals are so demonized for stating this truth out loud.

How do we fix it?

I believe our country could reform the duties and compensation of teachers to enable educators to do their jobs without disadvantaging their own families, thus making it a more attractive profession to talented, ambitious young people from a variety of backgrounds.  It’s simple: increase salaries and planning time; reduce class sizes and testing.  This would require a significant commitment of public funds, which we are unwilling to give.  For now, teaching will only be attractive to people who do not need to care about supporting families (or even themselves unless they are frugal) through their work.  I fully support educators’ efforts to use collective bargaining to obtain appropriate compensation and more reasonable working conditions.  Unfortunately, most of the people in power right now don’t care much about changing the status quo of education.

Students deserve educators who are treated and paid like the highly skilled professionals they are.

Until then, I will continue to balance my idealistic commitment to public education with the very real need to support my own family (and sanity) through work.  However, I no longer judge those who leave the profession to pursue more lucrative careers.  They aren’t less committed to the students they educate, they just can’t sacrifice any more.

Ways We Save Money: Back to School Shopping

J started school on Tuesday (first grade!).  We spent part of August completing the requisite “back to school” tasks: adjusting the summer routine to align with school hours, attending the “open house” meet and greet, following the school’s social media and website for information about new policies and procedures, and, of course, gathering all the supplies needed for embarking on another year of learning.

Back to School shopping is an annual August/September ritual in American suburbs, and one of the many reasons people cite for the high cost of having children.  I know as a young person, I was dragged to the mall and big box stores to gather all new clothing, binders, notebooks, and study materials each year.  While I really hated the mall/clothes part and switched to thrift stores as soon as I was allowed in high school, I always got a thrill at new school supplies (think this clip from Thirty Rock–mildly NSFW).  I love the possibilities of an unused notebook and how organized a brand new binder is.  I carried this love of school stuff into my teaching career–often spending large amounts of money on decorations and organizational supplies for my classrooms and students in my first three years on the job.

Later, I came to see this indulgence for what it was–consumerism.  Another American “holiday” invented (or co-opted) to get people to buy things mindlessly.  There is nothing wrong with getting a good pen or inspiring notebook if you want to do so, but simply to acquire all new supplies (and clothes) at the start of each school year encourages wastefulness and accumulation of clutter.  Eventually, I learned to keep better track of the supplies and materials I had in my classroom, home, and office throughout the year and would just replenish whatever dwindled as it was used.

I found that once I stopped buying aspirational organizers and actually organized my materials well, I had much more than I needed.

Last year, when J began kindergarten at public school, I was mildly shocked to see the length (and specificity) of the classroom supply list.  Also, his school is a uniform school, so all the clothes he had (mostly free hand me downs from kind friends, supplemented by a few secondhand or discounted purchases) were not acceptable for daily wear in school.

It was tempting to simply buy all new supplies and clothes to match the requests, but we found some ways to make the back to school shopping more frugal and mindful.  This school year was even easier, since many of his supplies and clothes from last year were still in good shape.  Here are some ways we saved:

  1. Teach your children what education is all about.  Values first, am I right?  The biggest money saving tip I have for you is to help your scholar know that learning comes first at school.  Help your kid build confidence in her personality and talents and strengths–not her possessions.  Kids think school is about socializing, and socializing in America is influenced by marketing.  Instill solid values in your child regarding your school expectations and money values, and it will be easier to address his questions about why he doesn’t have the lunchbox with his favorite cartoon character on it or cool sneakers like his friend’s.
  2. Shop your own stash first.  You probably don’t need a new backpack or binder every year.  Peruse the art and craft and writing supplies you already have.  I let J choose 24 colors out of our giant crayon bag and put them in a small Ziploc bag to make the 24 pack he would use at his desk in school (the one for common supplies, we bought the requested new, brand specific set).  He sharpened a few pencils from our family pencil jar to put in his pencil case (the same one he used last year).  We pulled a few tissue boxes, Expo markers, and cleaning wipes from our own bulk-purchased supplies.  I offered a few unused notebooks I had bought for my own students and never used because my high school students didn’t like them.  In the end, we had only a few items to buy this year.
  3. Buy in bulk, smartly.  Look at the lists from the school for the next few grade levels and think about younger siblings.  Buying a pack of 12 primary composition notebooks online was only a little more money than buying just the two requested.  The 96 Ticonderoga pencils (8 packs of 12 each) at Costco were well priced and on every list for the next eight years of schooling.  However, take the time to assess your needs.  If your children take care of them, do you really need the 24 pack of safety scissors? Or the 30 pack of glue sticks that half will dry out/expire before they can be used? Or 10 3-subject notebooks in bright, sparkly pink that won’t be her favorite color for grade 6 and her little brother will refuse?  Another option is to hold some reserve for later in the year when a teacher’s classroom supplies are dwindling and you can offer up a few more from your bulk-purchased hoard.
  4. Communicate with other parents.  Most schools have parent groups on Facebook (warning–sometimes these are full of crazy carline rants and drama about rumors) where the summer posts are often about deals on supplies and uniforms.  I saw posts offering up free or very discounted price used items a student no longer needed.  A friend gave me a few pairs of uniform pants her son had beat up too much to resell, but were still usable for art/PE days.  Note for my suggestions about buying in bulk: if you don’t have younger kids or you aren’t sure you’re staying at the same school, check with other school parents to split the costs.  I went in with another two families on the bulk pack of glue sticks.
  5. Look for community giveaways.  Many malls and big box stores will lure parents into their back to school sales by offering up free supplies.  There is often no obligation to buy anything (although if they offer a good deal on a needed item, you can support the business) to receive the free notebook or pack of pens or whatever.  For families in need, there are often nonprofits that host school supply donation centers/events that work like food pantries (also a great place to donate your extra bulk supplies if you bought stuff you found out you didn’t need).
  6. Attend (or start!) uniform/clothing swaps.  For schools with a uniform policy, uniform swaps are the best thing EVER!  Outfitting a student to a uniform school from scratch is pricey if you buy all new with custom embroidery.  Uniform swaps offer families a chance to sell and buy uniform items specific to the school, reducing overall school costs.  Even if your school doesn’t have a uniform, some schools or communities have clothing swaps, which benefits both sellers and buyers alike.  If your school doesn’t have one yet, volunteer to start one.  Note:  I believe school uniforms are a great way for all families to save money and eliminate the commercialism competition of school attire, thus I’m a big supporter of uniform policies (especially ones that are gender equitable and easily shopped in regular stores).  If your school doesn’t have one, consider advocating for it.  There’s often initial resistance in a community (I certainly would have objected as a teenager), but after it’s in place, children, parents, teachers, and administrators reap many benefits of such policies.

I do NOT recommend trying to save money by questioning the supply list.  As a former teacher, I respect the requests of fellow educators.  I know teachers often spend huge amounts of their own money on classroom supplies.  Most teachers don’t ask for stuff they don’t need or students won’t use this year (although I do find it very, very helpful when teachers let us know which items will stay at home for the school year or be for personal vs. communal use, e.g. my son’s bag of used crayons).  Often, teachers even run out of supplies later in the school year!

If you are in a financial position where you cannot obtain all the supplies for your student before the first day, let the school and teacher know that so they can work with you, but don’t just cheap out and refuse to buy supplies because you think it’s unfair to pay for another kid’s hand sanitizer or you are morally opposed to Ziploc baggies.  Trust me, your kid is using more than her “fair” share of some other classroom supply.

Recommendation: If you are tempted to question the teacher’s supply list and are able to do so, I recommend you spend a few hours volunteering in your child’s (or another’s) classroom.  You will learn a lot.

What are some of your best savings tips for back to school shopping?

Family Fun Tip: Attend School Events

I’m an educator by profession and a huge fan of public schools.  What you might not know is that local schools provide hours and hours of low-cost or free events.  This weekend, my family enjoyed two evenings of very low-cost entertainment by checking out our local public schools.

Friday night, my son’s  school (a classical charter K-8) hosted an “Arts Night” where the teachers of specials (Art, Music, PE, Spanish, and Latin) each planned an activity for families.  The PE teacher had a volleyball net and soccer field set up indoors.  The Music teacher had youtube videos streaming of those Xbox-style dance video games while we all danced along (“Footloose” was popular with the parents).  The Art teacher had paint markers and pre-treated rocks for the “Kindness Rocks” movement.  She let students design “classical” rocks (my son painted the Acropolis).  The Latin teacher had students create a coat of arms on a cereal box.  Finally, the Spanish teacher had students make a “god’s eye” traditional Mexican craft with yarn and popsicle sticks.

The whole evening was stress-free, fun for both my son (who saw his friends from school and played with them) and his younger sister (who loves to think of herself as going to school like big brother).  As a parent, I made connections with other parents at the school and got to know his teachers outside of his normal classroom teachers.  There were even door prizes for visiting each activity.  Best of all, my son learned a new favorite craft (guess which one?).

Check out what your child’s school might offer.  Many schools have fairs, talent shows, competitions, etc. with little to no entry fee.

Another great option is to look at the local high school offerings.  Until February when I got a promotion, I was a teacher at our local high school, so I had an “inside scoop,” but these days most high schools publish an e-mail newsletter to inform the public of events. Even though our children are young (6 and 2), many high school events are appropriate for all ages.  We go to sporting events, music nights, science fairs, plays and musicals, and art shows.  Some have small entrance fees (in the $5 range for adults, often children younger than 8 are free or reduced cost), but these fees support the student events and programs you enjoy.  Also, high school students LOVE young kids (often their siblings are older than my kids).

Saturday night we attended a male “beauty pagent” (Mr. OurTown) for the senior class.  It’s sponsored by the National Honor Society and all the proceeds go to charity.  While some of the jokes are aimed at the adolescent male mindset (one boy’s escort was his “girlfriend” that was his best friend’s mom *eye roll*), mostly it was funny and sweet with some neat musical, dance, and performance talents.  The kids loved watching the antics and the excitement of a live performance. Full disclaimer: I was asked to judge this event as a former teacher, so my husband was fully responsible for managing both kids during the show–not recommended!

The crazy thing is that if we’d wanted even more things to do this weekend, the public schools had more offerings than we could have possible enjoyed.  There was a science and social studies fair, many sports games, and a spring musical.  That happens just about every weekend!  Check out your local schools for some great, low-cost family entertainment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...