Oct 31, 2009

They Think We're Stupid

Do the math, friends. How big a savings is this, really?

Oct 30, 2009

Them Dry Bones

Today I subbed in a 5th grade music class. Being this near to Halloween, which most people (not I) celebrate, the song we sang from the music book was "Them Dry Bones." This is a lovely Negro Spiritual, even though they now call it an African American Spiritual. I learned it when I was in grade school. I was glad to see that it had some residual use in a music curriculum, even if the teacher who wrote the lesson plan had to tie it to Halloween to do so.

The slaves, picking cotton, were in a bad situation. The cotton, in its pod, hurts your fingers to pick. Their fingers, when they were done, were surely cut, bleeding, and in pain. The slaves had, as do we all, every day, 3 choices:

1. Change the situation.
2. Get away from the situation.
3. Change the way you feel about the situation.

They could not escape lest they be killed. They could not change it, as they could not change the heart of the slave driver with the whip. All they could do was change the way they feel, so they held strongly to their faith.

They were probably not given off Sunday mornings to go to church, so they brought their "church" or their spirituality with them out in the cotton fields. "Them Dry Bones" is a song about the prophet Ezekiel, who was calling those things that be not as though they were. He commanded the dry bones to get up and walk, and muscle and sinew came upon them and they walked.

He didn't look at the bones or think a thought. Ezekiel SAID to the bones, "get up and walk." Words have power. The power of life and death is in the tongue.

What positive power will your words bring forth today?

Oct 27, 2009

The Tenth Leper

The book of Luke, chapter 17, tells the story of how Jesus cured ten lepers. They all went off happy. Only one returned to thank Jesus.

This story is interesting because society does not encourage the kind of thoughtfulness displayed by the tenth leper. We in America have so much that we are "used to it" "expect it" and "demand" service from any and all.

Think about the people who make your life good: the cafeteria ladies at your children's school, the bank teller, your church secretary, the custodial staff where you work, the city maintenance worker watering flowers to make your town look nice. Sure they get paid to do their jobs, but how much better do you think they'd work if every once in a while someone said to them, "Thanks for all you do. I really appreciate you."

Even better, write a letter to their boss to go in their personnel file. They'll never forget your kindness.

Try this for one day. Plant random seeds of kindness wherever you go. Practice being grateful. Watch how great you feel at the end of the day. You'll get hooked and want to do it again, I bet. Better yet, you'll make many people happy, set a good example for others (your children?), and make the world a better place, just because you were here, purposely acting grateful.

I wonder what ever happened to the other 9? Did they adopt an attitude of entitlement? Did they demand cures for every other disease they contracted? Gotta wonder. When my children thank me for something, it makes me want to give them more. That's not such a stretch.

Gratitude is endearing. Entitlement is not.

Whom will you, the tenth leper, appreciate today?

Oct 26, 2009

First, Pick the Right Parents

The popular myth is that any kid can grow up to be President. Sadly, this is not the case.

At the time I became politically aware of issues, legislation and candidates, I prayed that my children would *not* want to be President. There were so many compromises made just to get to the House, the Senate, or the Governor's Mansion, that it occurred to me "any kid" cannot afford just to waltz in there. Even when we elected "someone good" to the House, they always ended up voting for stupid bills and I found myself wanting to get rid of them once more! They have to make alliances with PACs and special interest groups to get the funding to advertise & run an effective campaign.

But even being rich on your own doesn't do it. Ross Perot is proof of that.

This morning, I read that Barack Obama is related to every President except Martin Van Buren. Why does this not surprise me? How does a foreign-born "outsider" waltz into the White House? It wasn't just the political compromises and financial alliances. Like royalty, he was born into it, groomed since birth.

KSBW.com says this:

BridgeAnne d'Avignon, who attends Monte Vista Christian School in Watsonville, traced that Obama, and all other U.S. presidents except Martin Van Buren, are related to John "Lackland" Plantagenet, a king of England and signer of the Magna Carta.

The student and her grandfather, who is a genealogist, spent this past summer designing the first known family tree chart in history that shows the presidents' direct relationship. BridgeAnne's grandfather has researched president genealogy for 60 years.
So there you have it. If you want to be President, it's very simple.

Pick the right parents.

Oct 23, 2009

Jesus is Not at Target

For several years now I've needed to replace the rope-light nativity set that has graced my yard each Christmas season, from the day after Thanksgiving, until Epiphany (the 12th day of Christmas.) I did not realize how hard it would be to replace a seasonal decoration. The Christmas stuff starts filling the store shelves before Halloween, after all.

However, not only can I not find a rope-light nativity, but I cannot even find the nativity, period. There are snowmen and angels and Santa and gifts and candy canes, and every other secular decoration you can imagine. Where is Jesus?

I shop every store in my area, with limited success. I say limited, because Hobby Lobby did have a nativity set for sale last year that was several thousand dollars over my meager budget.

What bothers me is the vast array of Christmas decorations that includes things heretofore un-Christmaslike. Some years ago, Christmas penguins showed up on the store shelves. Penguins? They live at the South Pole; Santa's at the North. What's up with that? Then there were some Christmas flamingos. They're a tropical bird, but ok, people around the Equator probably celebrate Christmas, too.

But Christmas PIGS?

Yes, this year, at Target, we are treated to the additional option of a 30-inch glitter wired Christmas Pig. Since they're made in China, I have to wonder if they're 2007 leftovers from the Chinese Year of the Pig. Target is smart enough to snap them up at clearance prices, and sell them to Americans who, by all accounts, have forgotten whose birthday Christmas celebrates.

I thought this was bizarre and unique until I discovered there is a whole industry of Christmas-Pig themed merchandise: ornaments, scarves, books, and of course LOTS of tchotchkes.

Whatever you put in your yard is ok, ok? Me, I'll keep looking, and I'll let you know if I ever find Jesus. Watch this space.

What (or whom) are you seeking today?

Oct 20, 2009

It's In the (Shopping) Bag

Reusable shopping bags have become all the fashion. Stores want you to buy their reusable bag (with their logo on it, of course) & bring it back to reuse, presumably to save the environment. Yes, all know how environmentally responsible big corporations are. Well, it saves them from having to buy bags, increasing profits. It gives you one more thing to buy, increasing profits. And I suppose their logo on the bag encourages you not to take it to a competitor's store, increasing profits.

The sales clerks hate them because they slows down the line, but CEO's rarely ask the opinion of those in the trenches.

Target and CVS have started paying shoppers to bring their own bags. Not much, but it's nice to pass some of the savings along. Aldi's has always charged for bags. I used to shop there quite often. I liked their paper bags. They hold canned goods and boxes of cereal very nicely. (Have you ever had the corner of a box of macaroni rip your flimsy plastic bag? Sure you have.) If I forgot my bags, I'd use a cardboard carton from the store, or buy a five-cent bag from them. Sam's Club doesn't have "free" bags, just the reusable ones, at 2/$2.74. (Have you noticed how it's hard to buy just one of anything at Sam's?)

Some of us shop on a whim. I might be picking up kids from school and remember that I need cheese for the dinner I'm making that night. I stop at a store on the way home to buy cheese, maybe an extra loaf of bread and some jelly while I'm there... and I did not happen to bring my bags because this was not a planned trip. My choices:

1. Pay more to shop in stores that offer "free" bags.
2. Carry bread, jelly, and cheese out of the store without a bag. Um, too much to carry. Not likely.
3. Shop where they leave cartons lying around for my use - assuming I have cash, since these store don't often take checks or credit cards. Um, not likely.

Remember when I said that being disorganized costs you money? Yeah. Even if it's just the cost of a bag.

H'mmm. I think I'll just wallow in my guilt of ruining the environment and paying extra for the free bags. The stores can feel smug in their environmental do-gooderness. Maybe the tide will turn and ten years from now all those recyclable bags will be at the Goodwill, and people will go back to paper bags.

At that time, I'll try not to be smug and consider myself ahead of the pack.

How are you going to balance care for the environment vs care for your family today?

Oct 19, 2009

How I Beat Addiction

Every time I see the price of cigarettes going up and wonder, "Who can afford to smoke?" I remember how I was when I smoked. Almost no one quits smoking because the price goes up. Addicts will go without food. They arrange their budgets and their lives around their addiction.

The title of this post is not "How TO Beat Addiction." It's "How I..." because this is what worked for me.

I had several addictions, but let's talk about smoking. I smoked for about 17 years. This is something you usually don't just wake up one day and say, "Well, I guess I won't do that any more." Much more to it than that. I had decided that I wanted to be done with the slavery, the smell, the expense.

The first step in quitting is wanting to quit. When you want to quit more than you want to smoke, you will quit. So I prayed for the desire to quit. That's right - I asked God to help me want to, because I knew if I wanted something badly enough, I would make it happen.

Then I asked for the means, or ability. He gave me that as well. He directed me to knowledge about the process and an online support community. My nonsmoking family members could not support me. Only an addict in withdrawal knows what it's like to be an addict in withdrawal.

Smoking is really two things: a nicotine addiction and a smoking habit. By using "divide and conquer" I was able to compartmentalize the factors and work on one at a time. I used the nicotine patch to fight the addiction part while I worked on the habit in my head. I ate Chex Mix and Cheezits to crunch out my frustration (I'd deal with the weight later - I was busy saving my life at that time...) My doctor gave me something for anxiety - "Don't kill anyone," she said with a laugh. She was at one time a smoker. She knew. With the support of my "Quit buddies" I laughed, I cried, I encouraged others, and in so doing I encouraged myself. I pretty much brainwashed myself by using positive affirmations all day, every day. I love being smoke-free. I enjoy having clean-smelling hair. I am proud to be smober!

Change is sustained by accountability.

More than anything, I did not want to have to go back to my friends and admit failure. They were cheering every milestone: one day, one week, one month... How could I let them down?

We shared and compared, much the same way mothers compare their babies. By talking to those who were a week ahead of me, I knew what to expect next week. By talking to those who were a month ahead, I knew what to expect next month. By talking to those who just finished their first year, I just kept thinking, man, I want to be mellow like them!

It's been a dozen years. I am free from the slavery of addiction. I do not have to plan my outings around smoking. I do not have to get nervous if I'm in a meeting or seminar all day in a nonsmoking facility. I don't have to worry about offending people with my breath. I don't have to give up food to pay for my addiction. Best of all, I'm mellow. Haha, as mellow as someone with a high-strung personality can be, anyway.

You can't make anyone quit. And you can't quit for anyone else. It's personal. Intensely personal. When you want to quit more than you want to smoke, it will happen. I promise. Find some (cyber or F2F) friends to share your journey. We're better together.

What good decisions will you make today?

Oct 14, 2009

Who Wants My Stuff?

One man's trash is another one's treasure, as the saying goes. Why send stuff to the landfill when there might be someone nearby who wants what you have? Consider the following:

Threadbare sheets, towels, and blankets. The Humane Society where I used to live collected these to use on animals as they came out of spay/neuter surgery. Puppies don't care if they're not 400 thread count.

Ink cartridges. Every school I know collects these for recycling. It's a money-maker for the schools. Office supply stores such as Staples & Office Depot accept them also.

Old cell phones. Cell Phones for Soldiers provides one hour of talk time for soldiers stationed abroad for every old cell phone donated.

Furniture. There exist, in almost every town, thrift stores such as Goodwill, Salvation Army, or Vietnam Vets, that sell used household items. If you have a couch that is in decent shape, donate it. Most times, the store will pick it up for you. If they tell you they would love it but cannot pick it up, then ask your tax adviser if you can hire two men and truck to take it there, and deduct that cost, as well as the value of the couch, as a charitable donation on your taxes.

Household items like dishes, pots, pans, silverware, lamps, and decent bedding. When two adults combine households, you really need to assess how many toasters any one family needs. Catholic Social Services (call your local Catholic parish to get the number) has a refugee resettlement program in many cities whereby families are arriving here from war-torn countries with nothing but the shirts on their backs. They are setting up households with nothing and would welcome a fork, spoon, or coffee cup.

Eyeglasses. The Lion's Club wants them.

Clothing. When our family was struggling financially, people would give me bags of clothes, saying that they didn't want to donate them to Goodwill "because they just sell them." The giver wanted to give the items to the person who would actually use them. I received the items gratefully but gently informed the giver that when you donate to Goodwill, "you bless people like me." I was able to buy a winter coat at a bargain price that I never could have afforded at a store. Every time I wear that coat, I bless the person who generously donated it to the thrift store.

I take a tax deduction of 14 cents/mile to deliver my bag of clothes to the charity drop off point.

Books and magazines. Libraries usually have a book sale, either annually or ongoing, to raise funds. Donations are most welcome.

Office supplies. If you have obsolete stationery (letterhead or envelopes) donate them to a preschool or elementary school. The lower grades send letters to Santa, and the envelopes can also be used to send notes home. Pencils are welcome at every school and almost every grade (I say almost because there are classrooms where they use the "fat" pencils instead.) In fact, you might check out the teacher's lounge and see if it is in need of a pencil holder, pencils, stapler, tape dispenser, and sticky notes.

Shoes. Believe it or not, there are charities that specialize in accepting & distributing donations of used shoes. Soles4Souls is one, Shoe Bank is another.

There may be many other willing recipients of stuff you no longer want. Call your church secretary (or the secretary of the largest church in your town) because she is often a link in the chain of those who need, and those who donate. She might have just the person who needs what you have.

You can't take it with you. Be a channel, not a reservoir.

Whom are you going to bless with your stuff today?

Oct 7, 2009

The Debt You Deserve

A hammer is a tool. It can hang a picture. It can also knock a hole in your wall. Credit is a tool. Used wisely, it’s very useful. If my refrigerator goes out, I will be out the door to Lowe’s to get another, Mastercard in hand. Before the bill comes, I will move money from my savings account to my checking account so that I can pay the bill in full when it arrives.

Credit used foolishly, is slavery.

Next time you see a TV commercial where the guy, usually selling big-ticket items like furniture or cars, says, “We’ll give you the credit you deserve!” I want you to substitute the word “debt” for “credit.” Now give a listen: “We’ll give you the DEBT you deserve!” Doesn’t sound so appealing now, does it? That’s what they’re counting on.

Those "easy payments" become uneasy real fast when you've lost your job. The credit you deserve is nothing but debt. You're spending tomorrow's prosperity today, without knowing what tomorrow may bring.

A wiser alternative: learn to say “no” to yourself, save the money, and pay cash for what you want. For a car? Are you kidding me? No, I’m not. It’s doable. Maybe you can’t afford a brand new Mercedes, but can you pass by the Coke machine, bank the $2 every day, and a couple of years from now have enough saved for a Plymouth? Just for giving up soda? If you lose the “Yeah but I gotta look cool” mentality, you’ll find that being free from slavery is more refreshing than “cool” ever was.

Fast food and convenience food are terribly expensive. How to cut back:

Pack a sandwich for lunch and skip the fast food. No time in the morning? Make time on the weekend. Buy several pounds of deli lunch meat, several loaves of bread, and set up an assembly line of sandwiches. They go into the freezer so that all you have to do is grab one to go in the morning, and it’s thawed by lunch time.

Make a big pot of spaghetti, chili, or soup on the weekend, and save portions in freezer bags. Quick suppers will be waiting in your freezer. Cook a casserole and double the recipe. Freeze half. Two weeks from now you won’t think of it as leftovers; it will just be dinner.

A stay-at-home mom with 5 kids was able to save up to remodel her kitchen and pay cash. Yes, cash. How? By not being caught up in the need to impress. The Oldsmobile was good enough. She bought meat that was marked down for quick sale (and cooked it that night for supper). Cheaper cuts of meat tenderize just fine in a crock pot. She fed her family nutritiously but economically for years.

Now that the economy has turned, she has money in the bank, investments that are solid, 50% equity in her home, and many of her friends are mighty impressed. This mom who wasn’t trying to impress anyone, is in an enviable position. This could be you.

How much will you save by saying "NO" to yourself today?

Oct 6, 2009

Credit Card or Debit Card - What's the Diff?

A credit card (normally Mastercard or Visa) is issued by a bank who has decided that you are loan-worthy. You get to use the card for purchases now, and they send you a bill. You pay the bill a few weeks after the purchase. What this does is buy you time to get your money together for something you need now. It also offers you the convenience of not being interrogated by TSA agents at the airport, because anyone who pays cash for an airplane ticket *must* be a terrorist, right? Uh, ok, moving along...

A debit card (which may carry the MC or V logo) is an electronic form of payment whereby Walmart (let's say) sucks the money out of your checking account immediately instead of billing Mastercard who, in turn, bills you. The money had better be in your checking account when you make the purchase, because if you overdraw, your bank will be happy to charge you a $29 overdraft fee while you sip your $3 latte.

The ugly truth is that banks make more profit in overdraft fees than anything else. They're not about to give up that cash cow.

What can you do? How about doing the math? Learn to keep track of the amount of money in your account. Each time you buy something and swipe your debit card, subtract that amount from your running balance. Simple arithmetic. If you know, to the penny, how much money is in your account, you *can't* accidentally overdraw the account.

It's not hard. It takes discipline. The upside is, you learn discipline, and save a fortune on overdraft fees. The downside, well, the 10 seconds it took you to write down the amount in your register is not worth complaining about.

Use credit as a tool. Would you take out a bank loan to buy a latte? Then why use a credit card? If my refrigerator goes out tomorrow, watch how fast I whip out my credit card at Lowe's and buy a new one. The weeks between purchase and payment will allow me to move money around in my accounts, have a garage sale, whatever it takes so as to pay the entire balance off at once.

Never let the balance ride. The banks love when you do this, so why pad their pockets? If you only charge what you can pay each month, you never have to worry about the APR on the card, because it will not apply to you.

More on credit as a tool in our next blog entry.

What new financial literacy items will you plan to learn next?

Oct 2, 2009

Get Your Free Smiles Here!

Every day, I go to public places such as stores, the post office, schools, where I might pass by hundreds of people. My eyes are always looking around. I am aware of not only what is around me, but whom. I try to make eye contact with as many people as I can. I smile at hundreds of people every day. Some of them smile back. Some of them walk past me as if they did not see me, even though they might have passed within inches.

What's their deal?

I have to wonder what makes someone so inwardly-focused that they fail to connect with other humans. In our frenzied pace we might not have an opportunity to engage in a lengthy conversation or discourse on local politics. That's ok. I was just looking for eye contact, a silent connection that communicated, "hey, I'm here too." Is it just their personality, or do they really have too many friends and no need of further human contact? Have they been hurt so many times that they just don't take chances any more? And is hurting me going to relieve their hurt?

I'm giving away smiles and getting relief from my loneliness in return. You can, too. It costs nothing. In today's economy, it's a bargain. Try it.

To whom are you going to give away smiles today?