Sunday, July 31, 2016

Likes and Dislikes About

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.