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Archive for April, 2007

Losing sleep over the budget

April 26th, 2007 at 11:55 pm

We've had a number of pet and medical emergencies in March and April that have depleted our smaller reserve funds (medical, dental, home repair, car repair, basic savings), as well as our clothing and free $$ catagories (which we normally let accrue from month to month), and may yet touch our emergency fund (see previous post).

We also spent about $200 more than our discretionary budget so far in April -- half on clothes and half on "Misc" -- could be as much as $250 if we're not careful the next few days. Normally it wouldn't be too big a deal but in light of all the other spending it's not good.

So our reserves are down quite a bit and will need to be built back up. DH's mother is coming from overseas for a 3 week visit around Memorial Day -- usually that entails a lot of eating out, shopping, and presents. It will be hard to stay on track.

I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn't get back to sleep due to thinking about all the red numbers in YNAB. For some reason the $200 discretionary overage bothers me a lot more than all the others. I can only imagine what people in serious debt must go through all the time.

And I'm not happy that there are a lot more big wants such as vacations this summer that we don't have money set aside for yet. We've done a poor job controlling the little wants each month so that we can afford more of the big wants. I was happy that we were able to purchase a laptop and an anniversary trip with money we set aside this year, but in hindsight wish we had budgeted for two more trips that we want to take this summer -- one to fly out to see the great-grandparents and the other an unspecified road trip. Then there are other big purchases such as updating the wills and our next big trip to visit DH's parents overseas that we need to be saving for. And the landscaping just isn't going to happen until we have two incomes again.

On the positive side, DH is starting a new job in two weeks. His commute drops from 25 minutes to 5, so fuel costs will be way down. Medical insurance costs drop from $200/mo to $0, and he gets 401k matching and a much better selection of funds.

Ideally, I'd like to be working 10-15 hours a week from home in my field (during naptime), to keep my skills sharp and resume up to date. The extra money would be a nice bonus but not the primary motivation. I'm planning on talking to someone I know that started his own consulting company whether this is really feasible -- I suspect it's more reasonable to think I would need to work 20-30 hours per week just to get jobs. That would require some sort of daycare or nanny-share, which I'm not sure I want to do quite yet (DS is 18 months). But we also want to have a 2nd child soon so this is kind of my window of opportunity to do something before I take time off again.

In a few years I would like to be working half-days while both kids are in pre-school, then 30-ish hours a week so that I can be home when they get home from elementary school. It would be really cool if I were my own boss, consulting for companies rather than being an employee. Not sure how to get from here to there, though...

Expensive couple of months

April 26th, 2007 at 11:30 pm

March and April have been unusually expensive.

First, we were within $200 of the laptop saving goal, so when DH mentioned he really wanted to go ahead and get it, I said ok -- figuring we'd just take the extra $200 out of our "free" allowances ($100 each). So we ordered it and I was very happy that we'd made a savings goal and reached it.

Then one of my cats was run over -- he had a habit of walking just in front of the tire as I was slowly pulling into the garage. Neither DH nor I saw him. Since it was a Sunday, our regular vet was closed and we had to take him to an emergency animal hospital. They required a $500 pre-authorization just to attempt to stabilize him and take x-rays. It turned out his injuries were too severe and we had to put him to sleep. (Although they did give us the option of several days and thousands of dollars of ICU for "a chance" at recovery.) Total bill: $667. I really believe our regular vet would've reached the same conclusion for much less. I asked what were the low-cost options for taking care of his body, and was told that the cheapest was $85 (and that county wouldn't be any cheaper.) I grew suspicious when I read the details and discovered that this included scattering his ashes at sea! At this point I was considering burying him in the back yard, though I'm not sure it's legal. They said they would keep him for a few days at no charge until we were ready to make arrangements. I called my vet and found out they charged $37, then called the county and found out it was only $10! What a way to make money out of grieving pet owners! I was able to pull money out of our "basic savings", "clothing", and "free $$" catagories to cover it and so did not have to touch any of our reserve or emergency funds.

Then in early April I had to visit the ER to rule out appendicitis -- still no bill yet so I don't know how much my copay will be. I think it's either 10% or 20% for the visit and the procedures, up to a max of $2,000. There's $250 in the "medical" catagory, another $250 in "dental", and of course the emergency fund if the bill is really big.

The next day I realized my other cat had stopped eating. I took him to our vet, who wanted about $500 to do x-ray, blood work, urine test, and give fluids and appetite stimulants. Knowing that we weren't going to pay for any extreme measures such as chemotherapy, I really pressed the vet to ask how likely it was that the tests would reveal a treatable condition, as opposed to just going straight to pallative care. The vet hemmed and hawed, and finally said the minimum we should do was give fluids and take an x-ray for $270, then decide whether to do more tests. The x-ray revealed a massive abdominal tumor, so we went straight to pallative care (fluids and special food). The cat didn't seem to be in any pain, I think he enjoyed a few extra days sitting in the sun, so I'm glad we didn't put him to sleep immediately. About 5 days later he seemed to be distressed, so I was going to take him in to be put to sleep, but he died just before the vet opened. I tapped the "repair home" catagory (where we keep $500) for this, and will build it back up over the next couple of months.

Then we purchased airline tickets and reserved a room at a B&B -- a trip to celebrate our anniversary. My mother is keeping DS, so it will be our first big weekend alone in along time. Luckily we had budgeted and saved for this trip and so are still able go go. We don't have as much as I'd like in the catagory to cover dining out and other purchase while we're there, so we'll need to watch our other discretionary spending in May to stay on track.

Earlier this week DS stumbled and got a cut above his eye that required 3 stitches. Our pediatrician sent us to the Children's Hospital ER (she doesn't do stitches on the face in the office), so that will be another largish medical co-pay.

All in all a very expensive couple of months. We will have to work hard at building our reserves back up.

Veggie Side-Dishes

April 22nd, 2007 at 09:56 pm

I've been wanting to make a list of vegetables and quick side-dishes featuring each that my husband will eat. With luck, 18-month old DS will eventually learn to eat most of them as well. It's not exactly financial, but why not keep it in my blog? This is definitely a work-in-progress, and I hope to come back and update it whenever I a new dish is a hit. I started with a list of vegetables from Wikipedia, and shortened it somewhat by deleting ones I didn't think I'd find in the local and ethnic grocery stores.

Western cabbage family
Broccoli -- steamed, add Lee Kum Kee stir fry sauce
Brussels sprout
Cabbage -- TBD, looking for a healthy cole slaw recipe
Cauliflower -- TBD, need something cheesy
Kale
Rapini (Broccoli Rabe) -- TBD, maybe wilted with oyster sauce
Red cabbage

Asian cabbage family
Kai-lan
Bok choy
Komatsuna
Mizuna greens
Oriental mustard

Leafy and salad vegetables
Arugula
Cress
Endive
Epazote
Iceplant -- It's all over the place as a groundcover in southern CA. I had no idea the fruits are edible!
Lettuce -- salad with balsalmic dressing
New Zealand Spinach
Orache (French Spinach)
Radicchio
Spinach
Swiss chard
Watercress
Water spinach


Fruiting and flowering vegetables
Armenian cucumber (Snake cucumber)
Eggplant
Avocado -- homemade guacomole
Bitter melon
Chayote (Choko)
Chile pepper
Cucumber
Globe Artichoke
Luffa (Chinese Okra)
Sweetcorn -- boiled corn-on-the-cob style
Sweet pepper (Bell pepper)
Summer squash -- see list below
Tomato -- bruschetta, homemade pasta sauce
Tomatillo
Winter melon (Fuzzy melon)
Winter squash -- see list below

Summer squashes
Button squash
Yellow crookneck squash
Zucchini -- Sesame Parmesean Zucchini (see recipe: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Sesame-Parmesan-Zucchini/Detail...

Winter squashes
Acorn
Butternut -- soup
Delicata -- soup
Hubbard
Kobacha
Spaghetti squash -- microwave and serve with marinara sauce from TJ's
Pumpkin

Podded vegetables
Black-eyed pea
Black lentil (Urad bean)
Chickpea -- store-bought hummus
Fava bean
Green bean -- steamed in microwave and tossed with balsalmic vinegarette
Guar
Lentil
Lima bean
Moth bean
Mung dal
Navy bean
Okra
Pea
Peanut
Runner bean
Soybean
Yardlong bean (snake bean)

Bulb and stem vegetables
Asparagus -- steamed in microwave and tossed with balsalmic vinegarette
Celeriac
Celery
Florence fennel
Garlic
Leek -- soup
Onion
Rhubarb
Shallot
Wild leek

Root and tuberous vegetables
Bamboo shoot
Beetroot
Carrot
Cassava
Chinese artichoke
Daikon radish
Ginger
Jerusalem artichoke
Jícama
Parsnip
Radish
Rutabaga
Taro
Turnip
Water chestnut
Yacón
Yam (sweet potato) -- buy sliced "fries", bake, season with BBQ or cajun spice


My healthy eating plan

April 22nd, 2007 at 12:25 am

I've been reading up on nutrition lately, and am working on improving my family's eating habits. This post is my attempt to get a plan down in writing.

Here are a couple of the books I've read and would recommend: What to Eat (excellent book by a nutritionist but LONG!), The Healtiest Kid in the Neighborhood (good info although a little preachy), and YOU: On a Diet (good background on how the body works, the actual chapter on the healthy diet is good for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, but flimsy on dinner).

I'd say our diet is currently better than average, but there's definitely room for improvement in regards to eating more fruits and vegetables. I eat a high-fiber, high-protein ceral with berries and fat free milk for breakfast. We make dinner at home most nights, usually using a lean meat (turkey, chicken, or pork), and cook with olive oil. We cut out most bread, pasta, rice, and chips during a stint on South Beach, although we still eat tortillas quite a bit. DH does eat lunch at a restaurant most days, while I do once or twice a week and have leftovers on other days.

Here are the areas I'm going to concentrate on:

1. Eating mostly from the "perimeter" of the grocery store -- fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy -- and minimizing packaged foods such as crackers and chips.
2. Read labels on all pre-packaged food. Avoid foods with "enriched flour", "high fructose corn syrup", "sugar" (and its synonyms), or "hydrogenated oil" in the first 5 ingredents. Avoid foods high in saturated fat or with any trans fat.
3. Eating more whole grains. When we do buy breads, cereals, etc., choose ones with "whole wheat" or "whole grain" as the first ingredient.
4. Concentrate on getting 5 servings a day of fruits and vegetables.
5. Eat fish at least once a week.
6. Eat more nuts, beans, and lentils.
7. Cut down on artificial sweeteners.
8. Enjoy a glass of red wine a few nights a week.

So far, the reading labels part is going pretty well. I wanted some bread to make toast for my toddler, and I was really disappointed to find that my favorite whole wheat bread contains high fructose corn syrup. It seems like it's in EVERYTHING! I finally found a loaf made by Miltons that I like ok. I'm not sure whether to make an exception for the BBQ and Asian sauces my husband likes to cook with -- they all seem to have corn syrup and sugar in them.

Eating more fruit, veggies, and beans/lentils seems to be the toughest change to make. My husband is actively resisting the veggie campaign, so I'm trying to come up with a list of sauces, etc., to make them more appealing.

For drinks, I'm planning to switch to homemade lemonade and sun tea. (Currently we drink a lot of diet soda.)

Here's my plan to eat 5 a day:
1. Banana or berries on my cereal.
2. Apple, pear, orange, or plum, etc with lunch.
3. Crunchy vegetable (carrot, bell pepper, or sugar snap peas) with dip (hummus or homemade guacomole) and a handful of nuts for my afternoon snack.
4. Salad with dinner.
5. Side vegetable with dinner.

I'd love to hear your suggestions on how to make specific vegetables taste good even to a veggie hater!

Pleasant tax-time surprise

April 21st, 2007 at 03:45 pm

The good news was that my husband made an extra $15k in recruiting bonuses this year (it's quite common in our industry for the company to pay you a bonus if you convince your friends to take a job that open.) The bad news was that this extra income plus our stock profits and dividends pushed our income into the range where you can't contribute the full $4k to a ROTH. The good news is that we decided to put $2200 each into our ROTHs and the remaining $1800 each into our traditional IRAs. What I hadn't realized was that a spousal IRA is deductible -- the contribution lowered our tax bill from $2200 to $1600! Perhaps I should've put the full $4k into the traditional IRA to really reduce the bill, but on the other hand I want to contribute as much to the ROTH as possible now because we won't be eligible when I start working again in a couple of years.

Health care musings on a trip to the ER

April 12th, 2007 at 04:44 pm

After finishing a long walk pushing the jogging stroller a week ago Monday I had sudden sharp pain on the right side of my abdomen. My first thought was ectopic pregnancy, my second was ovarian cyst, and my third was appendicitis. Then I thought, no, it's probably just cramps because I was on my period, so I decided to wait and see instead of going to the doctor. The pain was fairly intense, about a 5 or 6 on this scale: http://shsskip.swan.ac.uk/Information/Mankoski%20Pain%20Scal..., and made me want to double over when I walked across the room. I don't usually get cramps so I called my mom to ask how bad they should be.

On Tuesday the pain was less, maybe a 4, but radiating across my abdomen. Still no other symptoms, so I decided it was probably constipation. My mother saw me double over when I got up from a chair and gently suggested maybe I really should go see a doctor. Tuesday night I noticed that if I pushed on just the right spot, there was a tender spot about the size of my fingertip that was the focus of the pain. I decided I would get it looked at on Wednesday.

So then the internal debate was whether to go see my OB/GYN since my gut feeling told me it was in that area, my primary care doctor because he's a generalist, or urgent care because it could be appendicitis. (An internet search revealed that 50% of the time there are no other symptoms than abdominal pain.) My insurance is PPO and the copay is the same for all three. I finally settled on the primary care doctor.

Wednesday morning I called my primary care, but he was completely booked until late Thursday afternoon. The nurse on the phone was too rushed to give me any advice on whether to wait or not. The pain was down to about a 2, so I was hesitant to go to urgent care. But this was the 3rd day and I'd ruled out the simple explanations. At this point my husband and mother were both urging me to go get this checked out ASAP. My mother said, "you have good insurance that covers this, so just go."

I pulled up my insurance website, and the most convenient urgent care in their network was located at a nearby hospital. When I got there, it turned out that the urgent care and ER were basically the same department -- I wouldn't have gone there if I'd known it was an ER, because I don't want to be one of those people who clog up the ER unnecessarily. There was only one other person in the waiting area, though, so I decided to stay. I only waited about 15 minutes to see the triage nurse, and maybe another 15 to see a doctor. I told him I felt a little silly being there given the level of pain, and that I'd come because I couldn't get into the primary care doc that day. The doctor said the primary care doc would've sent me to urgent care anyway to check for appendicitis, so I had done the right thing.

It turns out that the current standard of care for even a possibility of appendicitis is an abdominal cat scan, so that was the next order of business. Appearantly due to the cat scans they are now catching it so early that the surgeons have a hard time deciding whether or not to operate, or to give antibiotics a try. The cat scan would also check for ovarian cysts and kidney stones -- 3 diagnosis for the price of one, so to speak. The doctor also performed a pelvic exam, and I had a pregnancy test just to triple confirm I wasn't pregnant before the cat scan.

The cat scan ruled out appendicitis, but showed an ovarian cyst, so I was then sent for an ultrasound. The final diagnosis was a hemorragic (ie bleeding) ovarian cyst. It appeared to be in the process of healing itself, so I was told to go for a followup with my OB/GYN in two weeks.

I received excellent care throughout, but am curious to find out what the final bill will be, both what is billed to the insurance and what will be my out-of-pocket. We pay $200/month for insurance through my husband's employer. I think it is an 80/20 plan, with maximum out of pocket either $3,000 or $5,000. It's a lot of money but our emergency fund will cover it with no problem.

As a health care consumer, it really shows some of the difficulties with how to contain health care spending costs. I'm an educated person who enjoys reading about medical stuff, but couldn't easily determine whether I should be going to urgent care or not. Once there, I have to rely on the doctor to tell me whether I really need a cat scan, or an ultrasound, or whether just a physical examination will do. The doctor and hospital have to worry about malpractice, and so will tend to do more tests rather than less. There's no way to shop around and compare the quality and cost of different doctors, urgent care centers, or cat scan facilities. Because insurance is obtained through an employer who offers limited options, the insurance company won't lose me as a customer if I'm not happy with their handling of my claims. If I were in a HSA plan, who's to say I wouldn't drain it with this visit and then get in a car accident before I'd had time to build the savings back up?

Import problems solved

April 3rd, 2007 at 03:56 pm

Anyone who has been following my posts about envelope budget software knows that I've had issues with my Bank of America credit card.

I'm happy to report that there is a tool out there that solves my problem -- MT2OFX. It's available here:

http://www.xs4all.nl/~csmale/mt2ofx/en/

This tool will convert between many formats, but my primary use is to take in a csv (comma separated value) file and convert it to OFX, which is what YNAB takes. It comes with scripts for a number of (mostly European) banks, unfortunately none of them worked out of the box for my csv. It took me about 3-4 hours of playing with the script, but in the end I was able to create a script that does the conversion that I need. I'd be happy to share my script and some pointers with anyone who wants it -- just PM me.

The good news is that this frees me up to use any software that takes QIF or OFX imports.

I did my end-of-month wrapup with YNAB last night. I still find the idea of changing my budget to match my actuals at the end of the month (in order to move money from underspent catagories to overspent catagories so that the month is in the black overall) to be counter-intuitive.