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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Likes and Dislikes About Mint.com

I just started using Mint in May after starting my new job. Since I'm at a small company, I have work expenses that often need to be submitted for reimbursement. This was fine, but I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing anything and that I was carefully keeping track of sneaky little charges like foreign transaction fees. Mint seemed like a great solution to the issue and, although I already had a login set-up, I'd never taken the initiative to actually use it. Mint is a spending tracker, but it's great for budgeting and goal tracking as well.


What I love:

Making budgeting categories is super gratifying:
Once I got a few accounts entered into Mint, it was very gratifying to make categories for my budget. I thought doing a budget would be really helpful because in May I'd gone a bit over-the-top on shopping as I was getting ready to start the new job (and was also just generally buying stuff because I was in a good mood).

It's easy to get started on a budget:
We hadn't operated under a real budget since 2009, so I assumed this was going to be a big headache to get started. The cool thing was that Mint imports your last 3 months of spending activity, so it can help you figure out what you typically spend on different categories. It does auto-categorize, so you have to check things out to make sure it's doing that correctly. I saw this crazy exponential increase in "coffee shops" spending and automatically looked at my husband who was studying for an exam during those months. However, it turned out that MY clothing purchases from "Tea" were getting categorized into coffee shops--I could only blame myself!

Instant updates give you real-time tracking:
We use credit cards for most purchases because I've always said "If I have to spend the money, I'd rather get the points." (Don't worry--we fully pay them.) In Mint, those pending credit card charges are deducted from your budget categories. This is so helpful because you always have a real view of your monthly spending and can start curbing yourself when you get close to hitting your budget. You can also add cash purchases, so you don't operate under that "Once I get cash, it's gone" mentality.

What I dislike about Mint
 
Red, so much red:
Mint tracks your monthly income and monthly expenses, which is awesome. However, if you're like most people who get paid twice a month then you see a lot of red for most of the month. I have large bills for daycare and the mortgage that come out right at the beginning of the month, but my husband and I don't get paid until the 15th and the 30th. This means I have to stare at about two weeks of angry, red deficit until that money comes in. Just when it's back to green, I can enjoy it for only a few days before the mid-month bills. This means I'm in the red for most of the month and start getting neurotic about not spending any money. Since you get an alert anytime you go over budget in one of your categories, it's also tough when you are first figuring out what your budget should look like.

Dealing with being OCD instead of spending money:
Because I spend so much of the month staring at a "deficit" I ended my first two months on Mint with a ton of savings that I could have used on investing, donations, paying down the mortgage, or anything else. By the time I figure out money is left over, it's the end of the month. This will hopefully get better as I continue using the app and our cash flow becomes more predictable. One trick I figured out is that you can change the date on transactions, so you can back-date purchases to adjust for this!

It takes a while to transition to budgeting:
I'm estimating that it will take us about 3 months to fully convert to Mint budgeting and use this in a way that accurately reflects our current spending. One big change was to switch over the credit card being charged for daycare. My husband was paying this on his card. However, since my husband wanted to keep his "secret credit card account" (the card he uses to buy gifts for me--aka his beer-making expenses card), he didn't load this card into Mint. I wanted all daycare expenses on a card we jointly used instead of on his personal credit card. As that transition happened, we had months where Mint double-counted daycare expenses because we were paying for his card while the new charges were real-time tracked on a different card. Confusing? Yes. So until everything sorts itself out, some spending categories are seriously wonky and you can't change the spending amounts in the app or online.
 
So far I'm really happy with Mint and I think the dislikes about it will become less of a headache as spending gets more predictable and we work through the transition phase. I already set-up some really exciting goals (you have to do this online, not on the app) and I'm looking forward to working on those instead of binge-online shopping (my other favorite pastime). How are you keeping track of your budget, or do you even budget?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Being raised by my spirited kids

The past few months have been a challenge in our house--painfully challenging. "A" was turning 6-years-old and "E" had recently turned 3-years-old. Within a matter of weeks it felt like I was living in a war zone--constant fighting, arguing, name calling, and just BAD behavior. I felt like such a failure. I internalized so much guilt from my kids' behavior and the worse it got the more I felt myself shutting down. I would just go lie in bed and stare at the ceiling to blank out my mind and to shake the feeling that my kids had emotionally punched me in the gut. I felt like that bruised apple. I felt like I had PTSD from the tantrums and thanked Mondays for saving me and giving me a chance to escape to work. I talked with my husband and sobbed "No one told me it would be THIS hard." He shook his head and said, "Yeah, who is going to tell you that?" But it's true. Parenting is sooo hard and anyone who says it's a total breeze is lying to you. However, if you'll stick with me, I think you'll see that it's worth it.

I tried so many things to avoid the tantrums and, since I'm a researcher by training, I decided to do a new experiment. One day I picked my daughter up from daycare and instead of asking the classic "How was your day?" question that would potentially derail her into snippy back-talk, I decided I would just keep silent and try not to provoke her. I said hi (did the usual smile and hug), we gathered her backpack, walked to the car, and I just kept quiet. Within 10 seconds of turning out of the parking lot, it started. I continued to keep quiet, calm, and did not respond. She was angry and crying by the time we got home--without a word from me. So this created quite a conundrum because I realized that I had NOTHING to do with her behavior--this was all her doing it to herself. Light bulb moment. For months I'd been feeling like I was the source of all things horrible in our house--that somehow this was all MY fault. Of course, it was hard not to feel like certain things were my fault because it seemed like any little thing could set the kids off and then they would be screaming things like "You made me do this!" or "I hate you!" It was horrible. But this drive home was a turning point when it finally made me pause and go, no, this isn't my fault. I'm doing my job as a parent, and I'm doing OK at it.

I had conversations with both kids about how their behavior was making me feel and why their decisions were THEIR decisions. If they ripped up a picture they drew to spite me, it was only hurting them. It wasn't my fault that they made those decisions--I was no longer going to be their emotional scapegoat. I told them that I make mistakes too--lots of mistakes-- but the best thing you can do is to just apologize and own-up to your mistake, learn from it, and try to not make that mistake again. However, actions do have consequences and even though it's really tough dealing with consequences, they are needed. The last thing I want is for my kids to grow up with parents who think their kids should be excused from consequences--no.

We have been working at it, read as two steps forward and one step back, but we're getting there. I've been working with the kids to identify their emotions--this is something I learned about after reading a book called Emotional Intelligence 2.0. I've found that it's so easy to misinterpret emotions--for example responding with anger when you might actually be afraid. Taking time to talk through emotions and identify the emotion is really helping. For example, my son spilled his Icee at a restaurant today and he started having a tantrum after they brought him another one and began cleaning up the mess--he was actually sad/sorry and was starting to respond with anger/aloofness. He genuinely felt bad that he'd spilled the drink and was punishing himself by putting himself on the floor in the corner or pushing the new drink away.

I also started reading Raising your Spirited Child, something that taught me within the first 10 pages that my kids can be more challenging than other kids, but they can also be really awesome and are growing into pretty decent humans. This past weekend we had a small BBQ at our house and afterwards I told the kids how proud I was of their GOOD behavior at the party! Yay, good behavior!! Even though it has been so challenging at this stage and ages, I know that it's worth it to "just keep swimming" and cherish the good times with my kids. It's already gone by way too fast, but over the past few weeks I'm finally starting to just breathe more and realize that, no, we aren't a perfect family, but we are doing just fine. Kids will be kids and raising them to be decent humans will involve conflict.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Trends in eBooks and being a reviewer

When I first started blogging at Cloth Diaper Guru, I did a number of product reviews. Since moving to my new site, I really haven't had much of any interest in reviewing. There are a few reasons for this, but mainly I decided that reviewing was a lot of work and I valued my time too much to keep up with it. However, I recently decided to offer up my reviewing services on several eBooks. I was contacted by Tomoson and if you've ever worked as a blogger, you'll know actually getting a review with Tomoson is kind of like finding gold at the end of a rainbow. It's a mysterious process and there are a lot of bloggers who are fighting for the chance to try out and share their experiences with a product! It was kind of cool to get a few books to review and generally I've had pretty good experiences with the books I'm asked to review. Reviews I provide are always honest and I'm never obligated to provide a positive review in exchange for a product.

The rise of eBooks is really making ePublishing extremely popular among new and budding authors. Authors who who may never be published in print due to being in a niche genre can easily write, edit, publish, and sell their own eBooks. Although I still prefer to have books in print (so I can share with friends!), I do like to have a few eBooks on my computer to keep me de-stressed while traveling for work. The latest eBook I received free for review is the Subtle Beauty. Honestly, this book was not meant for me (a 30-something mom of two). It would be a great read for a teenage boy, but the characters were just not developed enough to hold my interest. This has definitely been a trend I'm seeing in recent eBook reviews--books directed at teenage boys are becoming more popular and the rest of us might not "get it" or understand why they think the story is amazing. I guess that's OK. From my (distant) memory, not many teenage boys spend a ton of time reading and having options that appeal to them is important! If the books keep the cursing to a tolerable level (which Subtle Beauty did), then that gets a bonus star.

Although the eBooks are never as captivating as the Newbery award books I read to my daughter, I think these books do have a purpose and add value to the literary community. I remember being obsessed with stories as a child--I would come up with stories and replay them over and over again in my mind until I could get a perfect scene and script. Having the option to ePublish is an amazing outlet for young and old authors! The sky is the limit and I hope we can encourage people to keep dreaming up stories that entertain us--even if the stories appeal to a small audience or a specific age group.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Adventures in Homebrewing Beer and the Homemade Kegerator

Over the summer hubs became interested in a new "hobby." If you haven't met my husband, you probably don't know that he's, what I would call, an extreme "hobbyist." I can't really blame him because I'm the exact same way.  I get super interested in something, to the point where I pour my heart and soul into a project or pursuit, and then a few months (or years) later I've totally lost interest in it. So, the recent adventure that the husband is (literally) pouring into is beer making.

When he first told me about this new passion, I thought he'd gone off the deep end.  This was a hobby that my dad's friends were into... they're "old," right?  Then it sunk in, crap, we're getting kinda old too.  This hobby is probably perfect for us.  And so it began. The research, the set-up, the beer making kits. I had no idea that one beer making kit was going to produce around 50 bottles of beer--50 bottles, people!  That's a ton of beer which means we need to have a ton of friends to help drink it and, since I've already stated that we're apparently "old" now, we aren't having any huge parties over here, um, ever.  Once our neighbors found out we were brewing our own beer, they were very excited to help with the process--that is, to bring us empty bottles needing to be filled!  Hey, win win!

Somehow along the way my husband realized bottling takes time... it's a labor of love. Except, he wasn't loving it.  I helped once, but I can barely get the energy to clean the house--so spending 2 hours rinsing and sanitizing beer bottles is pretty low on my priority list. He got this great idea that, hey, skip the bottles--let's go to kegging!!! I heard the word "keg" and I'm going "NO way, dude." But, typical hubs, he had done his research and he was going to try to out-fact me on this one.  So, he got this amazing idea that he was going to construct what is called a kegerator and put it in our basement--basically it's a deep freeze that you convert to a refrigerator and then it's tripped-out with kegs and... wait for it... it's on-tap beer!  OK, so my enthusiasm for this project was about zero because 1) we have kids, and 2) aren't we already weird enough???  I was convinced the kids would have an entire keg dumped all over our basement floor within 5 minutes--handle equals pull, yes? Again, hubs had the solution--locks for the taps.  So, basically I'm outsmarted, or out-researched, again.

But, I still had hope because, in order to make this kegerator, he needed a freezer.  Ha ha--the limiting factor!  I thought he'd all but forgotten about the crazy kegerator project, but then I had a business trip. Fast forward to November and I'm coming home from this trip, open the garage door, and there is a huge freezer in the middle of my parking spot with a giant spray paint stain around it.  OK, so I did not factor in Craig's List and random free freezers. I look at the freezer, look at my husband, and I'm going "????" So needless to say after a great argument conversation, we battled to the death compromised and ended up buying a not scary new freezer for our food and took our older, smaller one for Project Kegerator.  Have I mentioned what an awesome wife I am?

So, Kegerator conversion is in progress now--we have the freezer set-up to cool the beer.  The actual kegs have been purchased and packages are arriving with taps and tubes and all things beer-making.  So, yes I'm starting to get a little curious about this entire thing and the hands-on engineering aspect is very interesting!  In the words of Watney from "The Martian" I'm going to have to science the shit out of this” and that's making me kind of excited. So, there you have it, new adventures are coming.  Our marriage remains strong and steady--typical, he uses logic and research to get his way... exactly like what I would have done, darn. If you have any recommendations for interesting beers to try kegging, let us know!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sleeping in on the weekends--a thing of the past?

Saturdays used to be our lazy mornings--my husband and I would sleep in until 9 am, get up, enjoy breakfast, and just do things on our own schedules.  This was my precious time until my daughter was born and, hello, sleeping in was a total thing of the past!  With our early work schedules, both of my kids are routine-driven.  It doesn't matter if it's a weekend, or a week day, if they've stayed up until 3 hours past their bedtimes, or if we're in a totally different time-zone: they are up at exactly 6:15am CST every. day.  Obviously, my husband and I traded off with getting to sleep in, but many Saturdays we were both equally exhausted and then it was just a contest of "who slept in last weekend" (likely me) and arguing about whose turn it was (I just want all the turns!!). Say goodbye to sleeping in, right?  Well, no.  When my youngest was about 2.5 years old I decided, forget it, I need this time back. 

I missed getting a little extra sleep on the weekends and I was notorious for making really bad bedtime choices on Friday nights--I would stay up until midnight some nights just to get some "me time" on the couch watching a movie or late-night TV. So Saturdays were really painful for me--it was up and right to the coffee maker.  Saturdays were getting to be worse than weekdays because on weekdays I went to work and wasn't forced to be super fun and entertaining for anyone under the age of 6. Kids demand a lot of entertainment now-a-days!  But then, I started really questioning why I needed to be so "fun" at 6:30 in the morning.  

I started realizing that by getting up and doting on the kids an hour before I was ready to see the light of day, I was rewarding them and encouraging them to keep waking up early and having 50 billion "needs." I started changing things bit-by-bit.  I would get up, provide breakfast, go back to bed, and just lay there not quite sleeping, but not quite awake.  Soon, my older daughter realized that she was capable of getting her own cereal and milk and she felt pretty empowered by this discovery.  Once I figured that out, awesome!  I would tell her to get breakfast for the two of them and then I could go back to bed for a while longer until there was some other "emergency" that required attention.  Fast forward to today--kids get up, eat, and play by themselves for about an hour before they wander in and ask us for something.  Hooray!!!  Sleeping in is so awesome!!

Of course, there are consequences of sleeping in.  For example, my children make an epic mess every Saturday when no one is watching them.  Typically the game is to take every toy on the upper level of the house and put it into a gigantic pile that they call "the nest." This is a pain to clean up--the only plus side is that my daughter is pretty helpful when it comes to clean-up time.  Still, we'll probably spend an hour arguing with the younger one about why he has to help.

We aren't the only ones that feel like the clean-up is worth the extra hour of sleep, though. One of my co-workers shared that she uses the exact same strategy.  She did mention an epic fail with fig squeeze pouches that the kids got all over their carpeting, walls, linens, and just everywhere you can imagine-- she said, on the plus side, she was happy to discover it wasn't poop smeared everywhere!  Moral of the story is that sleeping in is possible, it gets easier as your kids get older, and it's OK to challenge kids with some independence.  Just be prepared for some surprises when you get up! And of course, keep your home kid-proof so you can rest easy when you do get that extra hour of sleep.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Tale of Despereaux Review

Several months ago, I started testing out reading longer chapter books to my 5-year-old at bedtime.  She is old enough to listen to the story without having pictures on every page.  This opened an entire door of reading possibilities for us!  Finally, I was looking forward to bedtime so I could see what happened to our favorite characters vs reading the same old picture books.  We got on a Kate DiCamillo kick--reading Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tiger Rising-- and Tale of Despereaux was on my "to read" list.  For some reason I was having an especially difficult time getting a copy of it from the library (this obviously speaks volumes to the popularity of this book), so I finally gave up and ordered a copy of our own. By far, this is my favorite Kate DiCamillo book. 

Tale of Despereaux is just so funny--I felt a bit bad about laughing at some parts of this book, because the subject matter wasn't all just roses and butterflies, but I just couldn't stop myself as I was imagining some of the ridiculous scenes!  For example, the queen that dies from a rat falling into her soup and the scream leading up to said death--perfectly described and we could not stop laughing about it! For some reason Kate has a thing for absent/deceased mothers since this is a theme in the other books we've read. 

Tale of Despereaux also gets the reader involved in the story.  The narrator keeps making side comments to the "reader" about what's going on--even asking us "What do you think?" We are asked to decipher the meaning of tough vocab words like "perfidy" based on context (it means deceitfulness; untrustworthiness).  A chapter or two later she even quizzes the reader to see if we remember what perfidy means!  We forgot, but it was still fun!  Although this sounds really academic and painful, it was done in such a fun and interactive way that kids will be clueless they are learning new things and even the adults will learn something!

On the "scariness" scale, this book was a little more challenging for my 5-year-old because there were several sections where she started freaking out and wondering if Despereaux was going to die. She gets really worried about this stuff, so I'll often have her flip through a book and look at some of the pictures to show her that, yep, the hero is still alive several pages later. We've also been having a lot of conversations about heroes of stories and how they are bound to face difficulties, but rarely die.  Not many people like books or movies where they kill of the hero! 

Anyway, Tale of Despereaux gets two big thumbs up from our family and you should definitely think about introducing this as a before-bed read for your elementary school-aged children!  I also found this great English class website where you can find vocab words and all kinds of goodies for casual discussion with your older child.  I'm sure this is a book we'll be reading over and over again!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Welcome!

Welcome to my new blog!  If you’ve found your way over here from Cloth Diaper Guru or if you’re just visiting—welcome! I’ll have to admit that I’ve been away from consistently blogging for quite some time. Cloth Diaper Guru was an amazing website that was very “how-to” and “Q&A” focused—I almost feel like it was a binder of protocols on how to be successful with starting to use cloth diapers.  As a researcher, I loved writing for Cloth Diaper Guru.  However, obviously I have thoughts and interests beyond just the cloth diapering and parenting space and I didn’t feel like Cloth Diaper Guru was the right venue to explore those various topics.  I was also beginning to lose a bit of my enthusiasm for blogging—I had been consistently blogging for the better part of three years and I honestly needed to take a sabbatical of sorts to focus on my new interests.  These interests included starting a new job at a medical device company, taking over as president of the North Central Chapter of the American Medical Writers Association, and volunteering as a guest editor with the Journal of Experimental Neuroscience.  These opportunities have made an enormous impact on my life and I’ve grown immensely over the course of the past year-and-a-half! With starting this new blog, I have a few goals for myself in order to maximize the experience for me and for any wonderful readers that join me:
  • Publish about two posts a month—at least one post per month (hopefully this will be increased to once a week)
  • Continue to publish technical/how-to content on a variety of subject matter (from parenting to career development)
  • Create a book corner of what I’m reading
  • Continue fundraising for charities—possibly doing a “charity of the month club” where I’ll feature a new charity each month and donate profits from KEEP Collective.
As I get into developing this website, I’m sure there will be some bumps in the road.  I do hope you’ll stick with me as this site flowers into something great—an idea takes time to fully mature!  Thanks for visiting and please leave me a message with any comments or suggestions along the way.