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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Empty the Trash

Every trash can in this house is assigned to a child to empty as necessary. This is a part of their daily responsibilities that, in an ideal world, I'd use as part of a wider chore and allowance system, but as it is, it's just a thing they have to do, along with tending the cat, every day.

The requirement is that the assigned trash cans must be looked at every day, and if the trash is more than half full, it must be emptied. If the trash is less than half full, it can wait until tomorrow. There are two trash cans that are exceptions to the half-full rule. The diapers and the kitchen scrap trash can must be emptied daily no matter what.

I realize this "half-full" description involves a bit of discretion of the part of the child. I also realize this discretion is going to lean towards the "it can wait until tomorrow" end of the spectrum. I am okay with this. I'm not a trash Nazi.

But can someone explain to me why all the discretionary trash cans in my house are full to overflowing? There is not a trash can that is ever emptied without me first saying, "Your trash can is full and needs to be emptied. TONIGHT."

Every night I ask if the trash has been attended. Every night they all say yes. Every couple of days, I find some trash can far beyond full. As in trash sitting in the floor, full. I reiterate the half-full requirement and make them empty it that night. And then we do it all again a few days later.

This, friends, has been going on for years. Is it really so difficult for a child to see that the trash is so far gone that really and truly and surely, this is more than half-full and needs to be emptied? It must be. My standards must be awry. I guess? This is such a pain in my butt to keep up with, I'm better off doing it all myself, except for the habit of virtue I am imbuing in my children. Right? Right?

I suppose I could have them empty the trashcans every day, no matter what, but in reality, it would mean a bunch of empty bags going into the dumpster every night. I don't like that idea either. How about they just empty the trash when necessary?

Who takes care of the trash at your house? Do your children have trouble recognizing a full trash can, even as they look at it and are asked about it daily?

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Taxes, Before and After

Another year's taxes are in the books so I thought I'd wheel back around to one of my old favorite conversation topics that nobody likes: money. (Reread that post. I'll wait.) It's been awhile since I broached the topic. Why so quiet?

Well. Let me give you the short story.

A few months after I quit work and we weren't really sure what our long term income was going to look like, Dave was offered the opportunity to work at a high end subdivision representing builders in new construction. Even though it meant working 13 out of 14 days a week, he accepted because he knew it would give us financial security for several years.

In 2016, we passed the 'money conversation' line for the first time ever in our lives. All of a sudden, talking about money felt constrained. Since this topic, the gaping silence, was already on my radar, I examined my sudden reticence. Why didn't I want to talk about money anymore?

For me, it came down to three reasons.

First, money just didn't occupy the same space in my brain. The most notable way this was true is that I stopped watching the price of gas. I don't mean I didn't know how much I paid for a tank of gas. I mean that I previously noted the price of gas at just about every gas station I passed, silently collecting data points about where I should fill up the tank. This habit of obsessive price watching was born in the gas spike ten years ago, when we came dangerously close to my not being able to afford to drive to work and also not being able to afford to not drive to work. The thought that I would just stop paying attention to gas prices was amazing. And yet it happened.

Second, I suddenly felt sheepish. I, too, didn't know what to say when someone would lament some expense when I knew I could write a similar check for myself in that situation without blinking. I, who have complained about getting a "mmm-hmm" for my troubles, could think of nothing except "mmm-hmm." What do you say without sounding hollow? I still don't know.

Third, it wasn't my money. It *is* my money and I know it, but it feels different to talk about income when your name isn't on the check. It's one thing to talk about money earned at your own job; it's different to talk about money earned by someone else at their job, even if you are married to that person.

That's what happened and I didn't talk about it.

So there we were, living the high life of filling up our gas tanks with reckless abandon whenever the need arose. We fully funded a generous emergency fund, which is vital when your income is as volatile as real estate. We put a nice down payment on a good piece of land close by. We decided to have a baby and paid for her pregnancy and birth. Thanks to our primo Obamacare insurance, that was only $9000 out of pocket. (I think Grace's birth cost us $500 back in the halcyon days of 2005). We started to save money to be able to build a house on the new property that would actually accommodate our family, instead of making do in our current, glorious, hallway house.

Then, in my ninth month of pregnancy with Ella, Dave's team leader had a falling out with the owner of the subdivision, and within a week, the team was summarily dismissed from the subdivision. Thus ended our foray in the land of comfortable budgeting. They were allowed to work all the houses that were under active buyer's contracts, which took most of the rest of 2017, but then we started 2018 essentially on our own. It was like starting all over again. We had no lead pipeline. We got paid once in the first five months of the year. We ate our house fund.

I'm not going to lie, 2018 was rough, but we eventually found our equilibrium and got to know our old friend, median income, once again. We have hopes of maybe breaking the conversation line again in the future and being able to save up for a new house. One day, right?

But I titled this post taxes, and I haven't mentioned them yet. Back in the years of my employment, I always felt vaguely guilty about our yearly tax refund because our federal withholding rate was usually $0. I am here to announce I don't feel guilty no more! As soon as the opportunity presented itself, our benefactor, Uncle Sam, took his full share and more. Packed down and flowing over, so to speak. The unearned crumbs I had agonized over have been paid back with interest.

The two years we made big money, we paid an eye-popping amount in taxes. Now, I don't have a philosophical problem with paying taxes--I think everyone should have some skin in the game--and I understand that the tax rates are set without regard to what you made the previous year or what you might make in a subsequent year, but it's hard not to feel like they took a punishing amount of money that we really could make use of in these latter days.

Wouldn't it be nice if your taxes took into account how likely it is that you will see this income amount again soon? Like a rolling weighted average or something. I am just spitballing ideas. I know tax tweaks get unwieldy fast. 

So how much did we pay in taxes? It's a little hard to compare a 1099 worker to a W2 employee because the calculations are done so differently from the perspective of the individual. (From the global perspective, it's not so different.) Probably the straightest comparison is the tax rate after subtracting the self employment taxes. It's a far cry from the 2% of old.

2016 AGI after self employment taxes: 16.1%
2017 AGI after self employment taxes: 14.5%

The problem, such as it is, with living in a low property tax state that has no income tax, in an inexpensive house mortgaged at a low interest rate is we almost never accumulate enough allowable expenses to itemize our taxes, even at the old $12,000 amount. In my adult life, I have only itemized one year. That year, we bought two cars, a refrigerator, and a hot water heater, in addition to our normal deductible expenses. Now that the deductible has doubled, I honestly don't ever see us ever itemizing again. The tax rate reflects our income after the standard deduction because there is not much else we can do to lower it. The rate from the top line, including all income and all taxes, were remarkably stable year over year:

2016 Top Line: 20.5%
2017 Top Line: 20.5%

The old top line was around 9%.

If we made approximately the same year in and year out, I don't think the tax rate would necessarily be all that out of line, but we don't. It was only two years. I see the money paid in taxes and think about the new (to us) van we need, and the down payment we need to fund a construction loan, and, and, and. It wasn't a lifestyle for us. It was a quick punch of money that left almost as quickly as it came.

I don't want it to seem like I am complaining. Well, I am not complaining too much. We are definitely better off for having two years of fine living. We did have the money to carry on as normal during the five month dry spell, and we saved enough that we could weather another dry spell if necessary. We were enabled to buy a good piece of land before the price of raw land skyrocketed up some more. I suppose I should be pleased we were able to repay our societal debt. I am grateful we were given such a solid platform to start sole proprietor life and that Dave had such a nice cushion while he thoroughly learned the business. We are in much better shape financially than we were before, but in our day to day expenses, we are back to treading water. Baby steps and patience.

So what does the new tax regime look like down here back around the median with five dependents?

2018 AGI after self employment taxes: 0%
2018 Top Line: 1.5%

Looks like we got a tax cut after all. 





Saturday, March 30, 2019

Spring Break

Spring Break is where dreams go to die in the light of cold, hard reality.

I decided this past week we would take Spring Break, even though the floor crisis ate the time I set aside for taking a school break. If Grace kept up a little bit with her math, no great harm would come from taking some time off.

What I intended to do over Spring Break:

Catch up on laundry
Write a blog post about the homeschooling conference I attended last weekend
Review the schoolwork completed in my absence
Clean out Sam and Marian's drawers and leave appropriate seasonal clothing
Give a couple of math lessons
Take Grace to band
Go to weekly tutorial
Go grocery shopping
Write the next post in my compelling kitchen floor series
Reorganize the pantry after the floor debacle
Pick up the downstairs
Take Ella to her doctor's appt
Clean out the fridge
Clean out and inventory the freezers
Pay the bills
Start the taxes

I realize some of this was pie in the sky, but you have to have a list, right?

What I actually did:

Laundry
Review previous schoolwork
Go over math
More laundry
Go over math
Take Grace to band
Wash the dishes once! (Hey, I didn't plan on this!)
Go over math
Go to weekly tutorial
Laundry again
Go grocery shopping
Go over math
Spend half a day on the phone arranging Grace's surprise math practice test
More laundry
Math here too
Spend half a day at the middle school while Grace took her surprise math practice test
Take Ella to her doctor's appt
Laundry

I am supposed to be paying bills at the moment. I guess I'll get to it.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Kitchen and Sundry, Part 5

In early January, the insurance agent was called and consulted about whether the kitchen was claimworthy. She assured us it was definitely worth our time and effort to make a claim. She said our policy did cover water events such as these and that we should file the claim. I was pleasantly surprised. I really thought it would not be covered, but if the agent gives you the green light, you believe her, right? Ha!

We were now on the insurance company's timeline, but I was not too concerned. A professional could pull up and reinstall a kitchen floor in a day. It wouldn't be the week-long or more timeline of DYI so we didn't need move out for a week. Those two perfectly scheduled weeks in January came and went in the midst of all follows. 

The insurance adjuster arrived. We showed him the extent of the damage on the kitchen floor, behind the fridge, and under the house. After he left, Dave immediately said that he had a bad feeling. The adjuster said the rotted boards under the fridge indicated the problem had been going on awhile. He, the insurance adjustor, didn't think the policy would cover either rot or a problem that had been allowed to fester like this. 

We were dumbfounded. There was a pinhole leak behind the fridge that never pooled any water. How were we to know the flooring was slowly rotting under the fridge? ** We were just supposed to know. Because. 

Sure enough, the letter came telling us the insurance did not, in fact, cover the damage. In the denial letter was a copy of the exact verbiage in the policy that excluded any water damage from seepage or appliances. It was exactly what I thought I remembered reading. I was angry that our insurance agent was too incompetent to advise us properly, and we wasted several weeks and lost our preferred schedule. Beyond that, I didn't worry too much about it. I was cranky and decided we needed to change insurance companies, but there was no great hurry. We still had to replace the floor. I had expected to have to pay for it all in the first place. It was only the timing that was off now. We would have to figure out when we could work the floor replacement into our schedule.

Then the other shoe dropped. 


**Another friendly reminder to pull your fridge out to check for leaks. Do it. Really.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Blockheads

Next year after four years of homeschooling, Grace will be returning to public school for high school. There are various reasons for this decision.

Primarily she is going because she wants to go. She has never fully adjusted to being homeschooled. The less structured nature of homeschooling has bothered her from the beginning, and she struggles with it. I have not been able to provide the scaffolding she needs to progress in the way that she is capable. I have too many other responsibilities and students. I probably bit off more than I could chew. I needed her to be immediately independent in ways that, if she had always been homeschooled, would have occurred naturally over time, but they did not come naturally after spending five years in a school classroom. I was too overwhelmed to adequately foster it in her after we already needed it.

Even if homeschooling had gone well with her, I don't feel ready to facilitate high school. While middle school can be bungled with no great lasting harm, high school counts. I have three other students, a toddler, and a house still reeling from the chaos of the decade of my working career. The house, even after five toddlers, still is not toddler-proof, mostly because it cannot be toddler-proofed. There are too many open areas that cannot be blocked. There are too many people living in this space with too much stuff that cannot be properly put away. The house is a cornucopia of toddler mischief. 

Even so, this particular iteration of toddler is extremely clingy. I feel like I spend more time wrangling her during lessons than I do paying attention to the lesson I am giving. It is constant interruption. I have no one to hand her to or anywhere to send her. She climbs on me, throws books out of my lap and into the floor, and demands to be held or nursed all day long. Or she is emptying the bookcases. Or climbing up the kitchen table. There is no good place for her to be. It has ever been such in this house, but having students trying to complete work magnifies this reality.

I don't have the margin to properly plan and implement high school right now. I don't have the margin to properly plan the 90 minutes of music classes I teach twice a month, which is a recurring source of stress for me as I pull lessons out of the air on the fly class after class. I do not want Grace to suffer academically by my misguided attempts to do what I cannot do right now. I have read too many horror show threads about 20 year old homeschooled high school sophomores who have thrown in the towel and are now trying to pass the GED.

Grace will be going to our zoned public high school. I have misgivings. It is a mediocre high school in a mediocre school system. The lunch room isn't big enough to accommodate the students so they spill out into the hallways. They only offer French or Spanish in foreign languages. I have heard other rumors of mismanagement and misplaced priorities. There are worse things, I suppose. We cannot afford a private school or a Catholic school and cannot afford to move into a "good" school zone. It is what it is. This is our only option for high school if I cannot teach it myself. 

My own high school experience was one of extremes. The school itself had both a terrible and an excellent reputation, and both were deserved. You could have a rigorous and demanding academic high school curriculum. You could also slack your way through nothingburger classes and get passing grades for breathing. It really depended on the student and his goals. The way my high school was arranged gave the student more control over his fate than any I have ever seen in a high school since, for good or for ill. If you didn't want to learn, nobody made you and nobody cared. If you wanted to learn, you could and get a fine education. I have a small hope Grace can scrape such an educational opportunity out of the mediocre reputation her high school carries.

However I learned this week the high school will be moving to block scheduling next year. I cannot adequately express my disappointment. I loathe block scheduling. If you are unfamiliar with the term, block scheduling as will be implemented here means that the school day is divided into four classes instead of the traditional six, and the year long credit classes are condensed into a single semester.

Thus you could take Freshman English in the fall for a full credit, not take English in the spring, not take English in the fall, and take Sophomore English the spring after for another full credit. The loss of continuity in the core classes is devastating to the overall education conferred over the entirety of a high school career.  It also handicaps music and art programs because the student cannot afford to spend 25% of his class time in band. There are too many requirements for the other three class slots every semester. I have also heard rumors certain math classes will remain full year classes. I do not know how they handle the old semester long classes I used to take. Surely they don't cram them into nine weeks, but maybe they do? The distortions introduced into what should be a well-rounded education are many.

They claim the same amount of material is covered due to the intensive hours spent during the single semester. I do not believe this for one moment. Dave has taught in block-scheduled high schools. What actually happens is the attention span of the students is spent in the normal amount of time and the rest of the class period is study hall. The amount of material covered for the full credit is significantly less. The real "benefit" of block scheduling is never having homework. Now I hate homework with the best of them, but I realize this is the trade-off.

It feels helpless to send a child into an educational morass that you know will not provide what you hoped you could give, but we will have to make the best of it.

As it happens, I am hosting the bookclub this month for the upper elementary set. The book we are reading this month is _From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler_ by E.L. Konigsburg. Towards the end of the book, I discovered a paragraph that exactly expresses why I find block scheduling and the compression of classes so objectionable:

     Claudia said, "But, Mrs. Frankweiler, you should want to learn one new thing every day. We did even at the museum."
     "No," I answered, "I don't agree with that. I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It's hollow."

I believe in the slow, bite-sized integration of knowledge over time. It is how I arrange my homschool. Block scheduling feels hollow to me. It is the opposite of knowledge integration. It seems designed to cram information for the end of term test with no real concern about retention or long term knowledge. The long and steady laying of a foundation to enable life-long learning is tossed in favor of the box-checking rat race. The slow soak is out of style.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Kitchen and Sundry, Part 4

Water, water everywhere. We discovered as we pulled out the refrigerator that some of the boards invisible under the fridge were in various states of rot. Our initial response was panic. I would have to take all the kids and go to my parents and somehow fit it Christmas shopping and all the activities of December and rip out all the floors and install new ones. And who knew how bad the rot went. Was it rotting out our floor joists? Just how bad is this? Panic.

The next day--the next few days?--we reassessed the state of things. We had immediately turn off the water to the fridge so the problem was not getting any worse. A quick inspection under the house revealed a good bit of wet wood and, um, we shall it fungal growth, but no signs of rot anywhere. The problem looked fairly contained. The water had obviously been leaking a good while so waiting a few weeks to get through Christmas wasn't going to hurt anything.

I looked at my calendar and found two weeks at the end of January where we only had one outside school commitment for the entire week. It would be easy enough to temporarily move to my parents' house an hour away, continue with schooling there, and only have to venture long distance over the road for preexisting commitments once a week. We settled on that timeframe to pull up the floors and fix the kitchen.

Of course the reason we decided to wait six weeks to address the problem is because Christmas was staring us in the face. Over Christmas, just about every person we told about our predicament said the same thing: You need to submit this to your homeowner's insurance. Frankly, it had never occurred to me to make a claim. I had the vague idea such calamities were not covered, but didn't have a copy of the policy to check. (Have I mentioned our paper problem?) But person after person, all who have owned property for far longer than I have, recommended making a homeowner's claim.

Dave, who saw an opportunity to maybe having someone else do all the work since we couldn't really afford to pay for installation unless the insurance was buying, decided that inquiring into the insurance was a good idea. I agreed since ripping out and installing floors in the main living area is a ton of work.  I was still dubious the insurance would actually cover it, but decided it was definitely worth the phone call just in case I was wrong. If the insurance agent agreed our policy covered this type of event, we would file a claim.


Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Church Budget

Once again, I will gingerly touch a third rail in Catholic life: money and the Church.

My 15 minute timer is running so I can't promise complete coherence, just a few things on my mind surrounding church budgets, what is prioritized, and what is not.

Back in the fall, I had a rumbling of a complaint, but never quite put it to words. The parish had just finished its annual Sunday School registrations--yall, I'm in the South and I'm gonna call it Sunday School. The fee associated with registration was $30 a child. I understand this is rather cheap as far as Catholic CCD classes go. With four kids eligible, our total was $120, which frankly I did not have on hand in August so I registered my children and sent them to class and paid my fee later in the fall when the checking account looked happier. And to be certain, no one gave me any guff about it. Nobody once asked why I hadn't paid any money yet and the kids' registration was not contingent on paying the money.

As I said, registration had just finished, and at about the same time, the Men's Club of the parish started a fundraiser. It was a reverse raffle. For $50 a ticket, you had the opportunity to win up to $3000? $5000?--I can't quite remember now. a chunk of money--and every fourth ticket won something. Prizes ranged from $10 on up.

We had to decide whether to buy a raffle ticket. Well, no. We still had $120 outstanding in Sunday School Fees. Something clicked, and rankled, in my mind. Parents are given the opportunity to give more money to the church and in return get to send their kids to class, which is somewhat required. Non-parents are given the opportunity to give more money to the church and in return get a chance to win a pile of cash. The discrepancy was glaring once I saw it. I am not saying the money for classes isn't worth it or that I resent paying for my kids to go to Sunday School or that they should fundraise anything like that. I am only noticing the difference in monetary expectations.

I live in a majority Protestant area. By majority Protestant, I mean the number of Catholics in this area has probably doubled in the last ten years and we now make up nearly 4% of the population. 4%!! Man, you run into Catholics everywhere now. Given this density, you get a pretty good idea how differently church budgets are treated in Catholic and Protestant churches.

So in most Protestant churches around here, Sunday School is free. It's just part of the church budget. Vacation Bible School is free. Retreats are free. The expenses are carried by the entire church instead of cordoned off to be borne by parents.

What brought this back to the forefront of the mind now is that Grace went on a large diocesan retreat this past weekend. While registering her for it, I discovered the diocese charges $60 a kid for this retreat. $60?! Really? And that didn't include an extra $15 for the retreat T-shirt. Our parish picked up half the cost so this retreat cost me $30 out of pocket, not including the T-shirt.** They did provide three fast-foody kind of meals, so $15 in food, $45 for retreat, maybe?

And again, I'm not really complaining about paying for Grace's retreat, but I do notice what (and who) gets charged. Why does the diocese think it's okay to charge $60 a head for a retreat aimed at teenagers? It feels incongruent that a pro-life/pro-family religion sticks it to parents financially. I know that you can ask and get charitable waivers, but friends, it gets old continually having to tell people you don't have the money. Why isn't the expectation that you give what you can to the church and the church covers the expense for all the kids, whether the child's family is rich or poor. No awkward, 'hey, I'm actually poor' conversation required. I don't really understand why it's unreasonable to expect a diocese to look after its own people instead forever nickel and diming parents, who are expected to give charitably and then pay fees on top of that, without a whiff of a raffle drawing in return.


** When I registered Grace, I asked if she wanted a T-shirt. She said no. I breathed a sigh of relief because this has been a stupid expensive run of weeks and keeping an extra $15 in my pocket would not hurt my feelings at all. After the first night, she said everyone had T-shirts. I internally sighed and gamely asked if she wanted a T-shirt now that she saw everyone else had T-shirts. She said no, because $15 is too much money to spend on a shirt she knows she will only wear over this one weekend. Right? Yay! But it also grates the conversation even had to be had.

***

I totally blew through my 15 minutes, but I have a sleeping baby on my lap so I couldn't go anywhere anyway. This is more like 45 minutes. Eek.