A Merry Little Christmas

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is one of my favorite holiday traditions. I can be a little bit grinchy at times, especially this time of year. Christmas isn’t really my thing. I don’t hate it, but I don’t mind ignoring it either. In fact, having the whole day to myself last year and not doing anything Christmas-y at all was probably one of the best Christmases since become an adult (whenever that happened).

And the consumerism around Christmas drives me crazy. Last year, I was really into “What Would Jesus Buy?” a documentary that follows the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on their road trip to Disneyland to protest holiday commercialism. I don’t like the insidious admonishment to show love by buying. And that’s a lot of what Christmas appears to be. But I keep going back to that line from the Grinch, “maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

And it is that little bit more that I want to focus on this Christmas. The gifts are already bought, and are relatively meaningful, but where is that little bit more?

To segue to another childhood Christmas classic, yesterday when I was sick in bed I watched “A Muppet Christmas Carol” which produced the family chestnut “hoity toity, Mr. Dickens” (said whenever anyone was particularly smart-alecky).  In it, the ghost of Christmas present sings that Christmas “is the season of the heart, a special time for caring, the ways of love made clear.” And, trite as this line may be, I’d much prefer to think of Christmas as the way of love made clear than as another opportunity for overconsumption.

The Grinch and the Muppets inspire me to think about what I love about this holiday, and what I can cut out. For instance–I apparently like Christmas movies like The Grinch (live action and cartoon), the Muppets (as mentioned), Rent… I can probably even stomach one viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” On the other hand, I am not a fan of Christmas music with very few exceptions (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is one of them–it’s so sad when Judy sings it!). So I don’t listen to it. I wasn’t listening to it before, but now it feels intentional. I like pfeffernusse cookies, but none of the others, so guess what? I’m not eating them. I prefer homemade gifts and experiences, so that’s what I’m trying to mostly give.

And I’m trying to remember that it is “a special time for caring” and not get too self-righteous and judgmental about those who prefer to celebrate Christmas with a little more tinsel than I do.

I’ve been particularly appreciative of the Center for a New American Dream’s “Simplify the Holidays” calendar this year–hope they do it again and I recommend checking it out.

HK Update

My father always said “cats are cheap” but HK wasn’t born yet, so it wasn’t his fault he was wrong.

HK went to the vet again today. She’s got a little spot on one of her back paws that won’t heal up, so she’s been on antibiotics, but they’re not helping so it was back to the vet. Now she has to wear a cone-of-shame and topical ointment twice a day. And she had her temperature taken anally. And she still has to take her pills. She’s had a rough day.

I have a confession: she’s not wearing the cone-of-shame. I can’t make her. She’s too miserable. She hates it. She hides in the corner. She walks backward when she’s not hiding in the corner. So as long as she’s hanging out with me (and at the moment I can’t see the words I’m typing because she’s decided hanging out in between my arms is the best), she doesn’t have to wear the cone. I’m not sure how sleeping is going to go, or how she’ll deal with it when I’m at work tomorrow, but at least for now, no cone-of-shame.

Having a cat with a chronic condition (and being a natural neurotic who takes her cat to the vet more often than she’s a doctor herself) has made me realize that HK is always going to be a serious line-item in the budget, in a way I foolishly didn’t plan for when I picked her up at the shelter back in May. I knew pets were a commitment, but I didn’t realize how different it would be to have my own cat. I thought I’d already had cats because I grew up with them. I didn’t have cats. My parents had cats. I don’t think I understood what responsibility really feels like until I was physically, emotionally, and financially responsible for another life–her life. It’s sweeter and deeper and costlier than I anticipated, but mostly the first two.

And like my mechanic, I am grateful that I have a vet I trust, who is going to take care of HK even if it means prescribing a gold plated cone-of-shame.

In human news, I switched my health insurance (last day to do it if you’re on Covered California! Sorry if you’re too late!) so that maybe I can find a doctor as good as my vet and my mechanic. Otherwise, I’ll probably just start going to them for medical advice.

More about presents

Frequently, I wonder if my “daily present” is really a present, or if it is just something I would have done anyway and I’m only appreciating it more. I actually think it is probably the latter. In most cases, it just seems like I have a little more gratitude for the regular nice things in my life–reading in bed with a cup of cocoa or looking at the Christmas lights or getting to watch an episode of Gilmore Girls–more than that I am adding other nice things into my life like a yoga class or an extra trip to Starbucks.

And that’s okay with me. I actually think the gratitude for the nice things in my life is the real present, not the nice things themselves. It’s being able to notice the moments I take for myself and appreciate them, instead of diminishing or feeling guilty for them. Watching one of my favorite shows is not just a way to pass the time on an evening when there’s nothing else going on–its a nice way to treat myself. It gives the act more meaning and makes me more connected to my actions and the present (see what I did there?). A daily present gives me a little permission to enjoy something, even if normally I would think “don’t eat that” or “shouldn’t you be doing something else with your time” and it is small enough–just one each day–that I don’t go overboard with eating or spending or relaxing.

Tl/dr: daily presents are great! Everyone should do it!

33 Thoughts (not mine) on Reading

It’s a good manifesto. I don’t follow all the rules, personally.  But they’re not my rules so that works out okay. What do you think?

Resolutions Update:
No restaurants: 9 out of 12 days
Kiss in the morning, Kiss at night: 10 out of 11 days (today isn’t over)
1 Daily Present: 10 out of 11 days
Blog: 8 out of 12 days

I failed to bike this week. My coworker was in town the first part of the week, so I was driving with her then, and on Wednesday night I stayed up late so Thursday morning was out, and this morning I could have used an ark. So it didn’t happen. Just another example of the universal rule: If you want something to get done, do it first.

The second universal truth is that you are definitely procrastinating when cleaning the bathroom on a Friday night sounds like a good plan.

Back on the horse

I am only posting today because it has been three days since I last posted. I’d give you an update on my habits and money, but that’s boring (and also I realize the topic of my blog?). Here’s what I have to confess instead:

I am bad at budgets.

There, I said it. I am bad at budgets. I said it again. I am terrible at making a prediction (a budget) and making it stick. I can’t predict what my car repair will cost or when I will feel the siren call of Plumeria (the answer is always). But this is not the real reason that I am bad at budgets.

The real reason I am bad at budgets is because I am bad at margins of error (or Marge Enoverra as Click and Clack the Tapit Brothers would say). I have no built in margin of error. I have no margin of car-catastrophe or restaurant-eating-when-I-said-wouldn’t. Basically, I have no margin of humanness in my planning, which means that everything must be 100% success immediately or it is a 100% failure. I am a binary code.

Even in habit formation, I have no margin of error. I set a goal to post a blog or social media thingy (like the cool kids) everyday for a month. Not 5 days a week. Not once a week. Every day. There’s no room there for getting home late or feeling a little cruddy so going to bed instead.

This is coming off as a pretty complain-y post and that’s not how I feel. I’m having more of an “oh huh, time to reset my expectations for myself” moment than anything else, like I’m remembering that I’m not the robot I thought I was and that means that I probably need to start taking the occasional spontaneous restaurant meal (or missed post or skipped workout or or or or) into account instead of treating it like a crime punishable by firing squad.

Kiss in the morning, kiss at night: 8 of 8
One Daily Present 8 of 8
Daily Blog or SM post: 5 of 8

What I’m Reading:
For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage by Tara Parker-Pope

Rainy Days and Rookie (budgeting) Mistakes

Your Money or Your Life states very explicitly that it is not a budget; in fact, it is anti-budget, so for the past two years, I have been operating without a budget, just tracking the money in and money out of my life. (sometimes diligently, sometimes sloppily). I can’t say that it was wrong not to have a budget–I paid $14,000 in student loans in around a year and a half without a budget and I’ve survived on income that’s wildly fluctuated from penny-pinching camp summers to lush law offices and my current situation. And for the most part, I’ve always made it. I’ve always paid my bills even if it meant that my net worth decreased.

But YMOYL hasn’t been cutting it for me lately–I haven’t been as attuned to my spending (see last month) and I haven’t been good about regular tracking. And when I was tracking, it wasn’t affecting my spending; I still felt fine about my grocery bill, my restaurants, and I thought i was saving more than I actually was. I looked at my lush savings account and thought, this has to be more than enough money for my taxes, a swell vacation with my grandmother, a fully-filled Roth IRA (still to be set up), and any other expenses that might come up.

Enter You Need A Budget (YNAB). Actually splitting up that savings account into separate categories: taxes, vacation, retirement, emergency fund showed me in no uncertain terms that I don’t actually have as much as I thought I did. Sure, I have enough to pay my taxes and enough to take a nice trip with my 87 year old grandmother this spring, but retirement? An emergency fund? Those categories were fighting each other for scraps.

The act of budgeting even money I already had made me feel broker than I have in months. It felt good, like diving into a frozen lake–terrifying and invigorating. It felt like I was really looking at my money again, in a way I haven’t for some time, really seeing the tradeoffs I was making. Money matters more again and I am glad for it.

It came up in a big way today, my tradeoffs. I took my car in to the shop because it has been making a funny noise and with my family coming to visit, I didn’t want to drive them around in an unsafe vehicle (real reason: I didn’t want my mother to nag me about the sound, so I did what she would have wanted without the nagging). In the first of three phone calls from my mechanic, he told me that my clutch was worn out and would need to be replaced at $1100. Having recently created a budget, I can tell you that, I had nothing in my “auto repairs” category of rainy day expenses. I didn’t even have anything in my “emergency fund” because I was still deciding if it was more important to fund emergencies or retirement, so all the money was in the “retirement” category today (it takes just a click of a button to adjust my budget based on my circumstances, but this just proves that I wasn’t ready). The thought of paying $1100 for my car ruined most of my day. I couldn’t even bear the thought of driving it any more–too expensive. Biking now and forever, I swore.

The second call from my mechanic lifted these glum thoughts. It was a hose, not the clutch, and $350 instead of $1,000. I’m never happier to pay a bill than when it is significantly less than what was expected. Sure, I still didn’t have a rainy day plan, but at least I wasn’t blowing everything. Call #3 was to let me know my car was done early.

And here’s where I have to jump slightly off topic to say that my mechanics are really great guys and I trust them completely. I suspect I am paying more than I would if I went somewhere else, but Robert’s Auto takes complete care of me and knowing that my silly little car that I probably can’t really afford but still need is in good hands is worth what they charge. I know I’m not being ripped off, I never feel like I’m paying an ignorant-woman’s-tax bringing my car there, and they pick me up and drop me off.

When I got home, Hillary Kitten had a vet appointment. Also not in the budget, but she has a little sore on the back of one of her paws that isn’t healing up, so she had to go. And again, like with my mechanic, I am so grateful to have a vet that I like and trust. She’s on antibiotics for the next two weeks, and the appointment and medication was $100 and change. Not in my “budget” yet, but I can make that happen.

So now I’m home, and I’ve written my blog post. I’ve kissed 3/4 times and we ate dinner together. My present to myself is a donut from across the street and a cup of hot cocoa and an episode of Gilmore Girls. The donut wasn’t in the budget either (who can afford $0.85 of sugar when you have no retirement was my “logic”) but I raided the change jar and made it happen. And honestly, an $0.85 present is heaven.

On goals

Sometimes I think I might set too many goals and resolutions.* Right now I’ve got four official goals: three new ones for December and family dinners carried over from November, but technically I also have a few extras. Since I overspent in November, I’m avoiding restaurants in December as much as possible (day 1 was a success). I’ve also set a vague goal of biking to work one day a week in December and I’m already thinking ahead to January and February (two days a week and three days a week respectively). And of course I have my ongoing financial goals. Right now, I dream of saving $700 a month each month for taxes (I’m pretty good at this one), saving $500 a month toward retirement (I’m terrible at this one), and paying off my car in 2015 (this is also going to be a toughy especially with the above two).

I’ve often heard advice against setting more than one goal at a time (it’s too hard, it’s unfocused, you’re more likely to fail both, etc) but that’s just not me. One goal seems to lead to another, until I’m literally buried in them (I’ve listed seven active goals in the first paragraph alone, plus two that I’m not really working on… yet). I love setting goals. I love imagining myself achieving them.

I’m currently subscribing to a “You Need a Budget” (YNAB) article series on budgeting (if that wasn’t obvious from the title). In the first article, the writer ended with a challenge–write down your long term and short term financial goals. Easy-peasy, but it made me realize that I don’t have to start every goal the minute I think of it. Good ideas will keep. So some goals, like “buy a house” can wait until a goal like “pay off my car” or a resolution like “save for retirement” are established. Not that I am trying to save for a house right now, but the idea has crossed my mind. First things first. Second things second.

And if you’re interested, here is my list of long term and short term financial goals (not that I am working on all of them)

Long Term
Retire early
Buy a house
Pay off my car (in 2015)
Fully fund a retirement account
Short Term
Get a retirement account
Afford the fancy clothes I’ve been ogling

*The difference between a goal and a resolution: a goal is a defined marker to reach (ex: saving $8,000 for my emergency fund) whereas a resolution is an on-going effort at betterment (ex: to exercise ten minutes a day). I set a lot of both.