Category Archives: Finances

The Boy Babysitter

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Last night, we were puke-free. It’s been so long since we were puke-free that I did a happy dance. It’s been even longer–remember those snow days and holidays–since I’ve had a child-free block of time. But today I was desperate to get some work done (the semester is starting all too soon!), so I did the best thing ever: I got a babysitter.

And, to my kids’ delight, he was a boy babysitter.

The minute he arrived, it was as though a playdate were starting. There was no talk, as there usually is when a babysitter arrives, of rules and regulations of the house. They handed him a wii-mote and gave him instructions (they’ve never taught me how to play Rayman Jungle Run, FYI), urging him to join them on the couch. Before I was even out the door, the boys–my own as well as the young, tattooed, pierced babysitter that was, without a doubt, the brightest spot in my kids’ week–were completely immersed in the game. Later, I’m told, Boy Babysitter made popcorn (it was his first time seeing an air popper! but he was a smartie and figured it out) and put on The Croods (which we don’t own — Boy Babysitter brought DVDs with him!). And after the movie, they ate lunch, which Boy Babysitter prepared for them. And then they played cards.

The kids declared Boy Babysitter the best babysitter ever.

And I had to agree, because thrilling and feeding my kids to pieces wasn’t all Boy Babysitter did. As I walked up to the house on my return, I knew he was a winner before I even got to the door. Why? Because Boy Babysitter had shovelled my porch and my front stairs. And salted them.

And more: not only did he clear and wash the lunch dishes, he also washed the dishes and muffin pan that had been lying in my sink for . . . some time. And wiped down the countertops. And table.

Really, I have to get out of the mindset that it has to be all me all the time just because The Scientist has moved to another planet continent. Having a babysitter gives me a break from the kids and the kids a break from me. And seriously: we all needed that break. And it’s not as though babysitting will clean out my pocketbook . . . One of the best parts of getting Boy Babysitter — and any other babysitter — is that my work pays for it.

Big Mama schlepping the burden alone

Big Mama schlepping the burden alone

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D Day

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So, remember that decision we were supposed to make months ago about moving to the UK? Right. We’re still in the process of making it.

And in doing so, we are constantly weighing pros and cons. The biggest pro is that it is a professional step up for The Scientist. And there are other pros, of course, like new cultural experiences and European travel. On the other hand, I worry about not having a job there–about not ever getting a job there. Nevermind the longer term career issues for me, how can we possibly afford to live off of one academic salary? Also, I am also loathe to leave a place where I am quite content. But on the other hand (like Tevye, we seem to have many hands to play the other)–The Scientist has turned down tenure-track jobs before, and this is a really good one. How do we decide? Will a message just appear from the heavens?

It happens there are messages, like Chinese fortunes, but unwrapped and there for all to see, not up in the sky, but below, on the paving stones dotting my college campus. Throughout the semester–and our decision-making process–I trod on two on the path between my office and my classroom. One says “Yes!” (apparently the whole of the letter of acceptance a former dean used to send out). Another says, “Be happy. Never be content.”

It’s hard to ignore the signs.

BUT, there are other signs. Like grapes.

The other day, I’m chatting with my mom on the phone as I’m unpacking my groceries. Crunch, crunch, crunch in her ear. “Mom,” I gush, “I am eating the best grapes in the world. Do you know what I mean when I say the best grapes?”

“I know good grapes.”

“No, but I mean the best grapes. You know–like crispy.”

“I know crispy grapes.”

“But not just crispy. Crispy and –” chomp chomp –“juicy.”

“Yes, honey, I got it. I know crispy and juicy grapes.”

“You know what it is, mom?” I ask.

“What?” asks my mother, whose patience for me is astounding.

“It’s that Whole Foods charges, like, double the price for everything. This bag of grapes cost me $10, but here’s the amazing thing. It’s still a good deal.” I continue to unload my brightly colored organic produce, carefully packaged containers of cheese, and freshly ground peanut butter. “The thing is,” I say, “Their stuff is actually five times better than normal supermarket stuff.”

My mother sighs.

“Oh, princess,” she says, “You are not good at being poor.”

Alas, D Day approaches. In the next couple of days, we need to give the UK university an answer. What will it be? Will we stay on in this princely town . . . or will we go back to our (non-organic) salad days in a new land?

baby in a bathtub

Our former salad days: When Cool J came along, we didn’t have money for a place with a bedroom for him . . . but he survived!

Bri’ishisms and the Housing Market

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One pro that people keep touting in terms of our potentially moving to the UK is that people speak English, so we wouldn’t have to learn a new language. But this is problematic on two counts:

union-jack

1. I don’t see not learning a new language as a pro at all, but a flat-out con. Oh, to speak fluent Español, Français! Italiano! I would love for us all to learn to roll our tongues just so or watch a Fellini film sans subtitles.

2. I don’t understand the English of the English. I’m not just talking about the accents in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. I’m talking vocab. I’ve got boot, lift, and shag down. The rest is a mystery.

To wit, here is a typical property description of a house for sale on a British real estate website:

800px-Buckingham_Palace,_London_-_April_2009

No upward chain! No upward chain!

The details:

Five Bedroom Detached Family Home
Chain Free
Three Receptions
Off Road Parking
Rear Garden

What the heck is an upward chain, why should I be excited not to have one–or any “chains” at all? And why are they going to give me three receptions when I buy their house? My wedding reception was enough reception for a lifetime!

Also, I am so glad this house has a “fridgefreezer,” but why does it not–as none of them seem to–have a dryer? How does one dry one’s clothes in England, when no one owns a dryer, and it rains every day?

In any case, the houses cost too much for us. I’m also skeptical that they’ll give us a mortgage with no UK credit rating. If one needs a “letter of introduction” to open a bank account there, what will they require for a mortgage?? The prices for rentals look, at first glance, quite reasonable. Only £615 for a cute little bungalow? Why, that’s not bad at all–that’s about $930. Even if it’s out in the burbs, and the house is not new or beautiful, still, it has 4 bedrooms and its own personal garage (sheer luxury for us–we have never ever had our own garage). But wait–what is this “pw”? Pretty well £615? Posh washrooms included? Alas, British rentals are listed per week. £615 = closer to $4000/month for a piece of crap. Which is better than any of the listings with prices “pppw.” Don’t you know it–per person per week. At 5 of us x whatever the price is = too much money.

Oh, boy. Housing is going to be fun. I think we’re going to need a translator. IF we go, that is . . .

QEII

This Vagabond Life–Forever???

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All three kids have now lived a good part of their lives in the US, a good part in Canada. Is it time to move on? Are we destined to be vagabonds forever, moving from one country to the next, never settling, never buying that aluminum-siding, characterless McMansion, never investing in any long-term commitments (like phone contracts), never, as they said back in the 20th century, “putting down roots”? Is that, perhaps, not such a bad thing?

Alright, readers, here’s the thing: We have a chance to move to the UK.

S0–should we stay or should we go?

Option A

Option A

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Option B

Put another way:

Option A

Option A

Option B

Option B

Well, this could go on. I will give you the pros and cons for our family, and you will tell me what to do with my life.

Here we go–

The Pros:

* Jewish day schools are state-funded in the UK. That means FREE! (you can give a *voluntary* donation, which is bubkas compared to what we pay on this side of the Atlantic). Not only are they FREE, but they are also multicultural (since they can’t discriminate on the basis of religion for a state-funded school). 

*We would live in Europe! Granted, it’s not the continent, but the continent is a hop, skip, and a cheap Ryanair flight away. Hello, weekend in Barcelona, ski trip in Slovenia, a little shopping in Milan.

*The Scientist would be in a “real” job–an actual faculty member in a strong department with good research. As he moves from mid- to late-thirties, the time might be nigh to play big boy!

*We can vote. Apparently our Commonwealth status is worth something somewhere beyond Canadian borders. Of course, I know nothing about British politics, but it might be nice to get to have a say about the place I’m living in. Can I vote, by the way, for Canada not to be a part of the Commonwealth anymore (I’m really big on that whole republic thing, and do not appreciate being a monarchy with a foreign head of state), or would that be kind of self-defeating? (Would I be voting down my right vote?)

*We love welfare states! That’s so left-wing pinko commie academic of us, too, and sooo Canadian, too. But universal healthcare, you are a beautiful thing. It means the end of the very American kind of mail that arrives at our house and startles the crap out of us: “This is not a bill. Emergency room visit: $1480. Your insurance paid: $260. You owe: $0.” Huh?

The Cons:

*I LOVE SUNSHINE. The Scientist is of the opinion that weather “doesn’t matter,” but I DISAGREE! I might DIE in the grey, dreary, and drippy short dark days of the UK. And does it ever end? Rainy winters lead into rainy springs lead into rainy summers . . . Well, you get the picture.

*I would be jobless, friendless, and colleagueless. English departments at UK unis seem utterly devoid of American literature. I suspect the attitude is something along the lines of, “So, have they produced anything over in those colonies yet? Nah . . .”

*Babi and Zaidy and Gramma and Saba and aunties and uncles and all the cousins will be oh so far away. And phone/Skype conversations might become a challenge once our accents have morphed and we can no longer understand our family or them us.

*At heart, there is something deeply American (aka materialistic) about us. We go on about getting rid of clutter, going all minimalist, etc etc, but the truth is this: we love stuff. When I asked an American in the UK recently what it was that he missed most about the US, this is what he said: STUFF! (I panicked. What? No stuff? No stuff? What will I do without stuff?) He then he went on to point out that in the local Sainsbury’s or Tesco, at best you could find 30 or 40 kinds of cereal. Only 30 or 40! I mean, we’re not going to starve, but–?! (Ugh, if I were a better person, this would go in the pro list. So maybe the more appropriate con is that I have to realize what a bad, materialistic person I am.)

*We will be even poorer than we are now–in a not so cheap part of the world (some would say obscenely expensive, even). I know I’m all, yeah, whatev, I’m used to being a  באָרוועסר פּראָפעסאָר

. . . but can I handle being any poorer?

So–what should we do?

A High-Class Problem?

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People generally refer to “nanny problems” as “high class problems,” as though clearly only the rich can afford to have nannies and therefore nanny problems.

In my native Canadia, amongst my friends, nannies are very common. There is live-in caregiver program in Canada, which allows caregivers to come to Canada and establish permanent residency. According to the Canadian government HR website, “Live-in caregivers working in Canada under the Live-in Caregiver Program may choose between two options for calculating their employment requirement for permanent residence:

  • 24 months of authorized full-time employment, or
  • 3,900 hours (within a minimum of 22 months which may include a maximum of 390 hours of overtime) of authorized full-time employment.”

Most of these nannies come from the Philippines, and many have wonderful, long-term relationships with the families they come to live with and work for. Furthermore, the financial benefits run both ways: the nannies make substantially more in Canada than they would in, say, Hong Kong (generally with far better living conditions), and for the Canadian family, the cost of a nanny is about equal to the cost of one child in daycare (so if you have more than one child and you need to decide between a nanny and daycare, in terms of cost alone, the choice is obvious).

All this is to say, I wish someone would watch my kids, cook my meals, and do my laundry. There, I said it.

Nanny-employers got a bad rap in this book/film . . .

When I moved to this side of the border, I first looked for someone to watch my kids. Which I could find, I discovered, for about $15/hour.

I also looked for someone to clean the house. No problem, as long as I’m willing to shell out $25/hour–and then come home and clean the toilet and the kitchen, since apparently they’d been missed.

Yet still, I was convinced that somewhere out here, in bounteous America, there had to be someone who wanted to work for me for, say, $14/hour, and do some laundry, be a wonderful playmate for my children, and scrub my toilet.

And I found her!

We spoke on the phone:

Me: “Hi, Would you like to come to my house to meet us and talk about employment?”

Nan: “You me need?”

Me: “YES! Can I give you my address? Can you come by on Sunday? 1pm?”

Nan: “Meet at library?”

Me: “OK, library.”

Nan: “OK, bye.”

Me: “Wait–how will I know it’s you??”

Nan: “Sunday no good?”

Me: “No, I mean, like, will you wear red?”

Lady in red?

Nan: “Better at 2?”

Me: “No, but how will I find you?”

Nan: “Saturday?”

Me: “No, no!”

This conversation, dear reader, should have rung some bells. How can you employ someone with whom you have no means of communication? Maybe what should have also rung some bells was that she was so readily available, or that she was willing to do for $14/hour what she should have been charging at least double, and maybe triple for.

But I determined to learn some Spanish, determined it would be wonderful to have my children exposed to a new language and a new culture, and yes, I determined to have my neverending piles of laundry diminished, and my peed on and peed around and peed near toilet and floor scrubbed, and my children entertained by Spanish tales more authentic than Diego provided. All would be perfect!

It didn’t work out that way.

We hired Nan.

At first, things went well. I came home and the baby was sleeping soundly, the beds were made, and, without my asking, the fridge had been meticulously wiped down. Nan continued to come, and I continued to be sure that the money was well spent. I pulled Baby MoFo, who was going to daycare 4 days a week, out of yet another day of daycare, dropping him down to 3. Admittedly, from the first days, Nan often came late–somewhere between 10 minutes and 20, but I didn’t worry too much.

Then she came an hour late. Then 2.

Then I started looking for clothes I had put in the washing machine when she came, asking her to throw them in the dryer, fold them, and put them away. I discovered them stuffed in a bag (each piece crumpled into a little ball), hidden in Baby MoFo’s room. Despite my repeated requests that she fold the clothes rather them hide them, this trend continued.

Then I started noticing that although the floor had that clean vinegary smell, it was covered in granules of rice and other debris. It turned out than while she was washing the floor, she wasn’t first sweeping or vacuuming it first.

Evidence of Nan's cleaning: our bookcase tiers are "decorated" with cleaning utensils, a kippah, my cosmetics case, garbage, and clean laundry (that *I* folded).

Whereas friends in Canada swear their nannies save them $100s with their economical ways–they hang clothes to dry! they wash and reuse baggies! they carefully pack up and save all leftover meals in tupperware neatly stacked in the fridge!–mine ran the dishwasher with one glass and two plates in it. And since she never rinsed said glass and two plates first, they often had to be washed again.

One day I came in while she was feeding Baby MoFo his lunch. It was a bowl of the chili I had made–full of beans and veggies and other good stuff–she had warmed it up and then mixed in potato chips and chocolate chips cookies.

The toilet never got scrubbed.

One day when I was leaving the house at 9am, I saw her giving Baby MoFo another wonderful meal: a Lifesaver. Apart from the fact that Baby MoFo was 18 months old!, could have choked and died, and never needed to be eating candies, it was 9am! Was this breakfast?? Luckily, I caught her. She looked at me: “No good?”

I breathed deeply. “No good.”

It was around then that I decided to admit the truth: things were not going well. It was time to let her go.

But how? How? How?

I couldn’t do it. All I could think of doing was pretending I went to Florida and never came back.

Dear Nan, Here's Baby MoFo in Florida. We're having so much fun, we may never come back. All the best, PP

And then, miracle of miracles: she quit.

I hugged her, wished here well, and was thrilled.

Two days later, she called and asked for her job back. I hedged. I said we were going to Florida and I didn’t know when we would be back.

Shortly thereafter, in my absence, she left at the house boxes and boxes of Christmas presents–for me, for the house, for the kids. Talk about guilt.

I waited a long, long time before I called her. But how could I not say thank you?

Nan: “You me need?”

Ass that I am, I said: “Yes.”

But reader, this story ends on a happy note.

No, I didn’t suddenly grow some cojones.

Yesterday, a blustery January day, Nan came over. She fed the kids garbage, she threw out that one piece of Lego that makes the whole 875-piece spaceship stay together, she hid our clean laundry, and she made the bed using our waterproof mattress cover as a sheet, BUT–here’s what else happened:

I decided to go get some work done at Starbucks. I went into the shed to get my bike. Suddenly, a gust of wind whipped the door of the shed closed. The pin fell into the hole of the lock, and hearing the little “click,” I immediately realized: I was trapped!

I tried not to panic (I was panicking). Suddenly I remembered that, miracle of miracles, I had my lousy, rarely-charged, pay-as-you-go cell phone with me. I kissed said phone. I called Nan.

“Nan!! Help!!! I am locked in the shed!! Get me out!!!!”

(In my state, I forgot that classic Diego line: “Ayudame! Ayudame!”)

Ayudame! Ayudame!

Nan: “Baby OK?”

Me: “I hope so. You have him. It’s me! I’m in the shed!”

Nan: “Wash sheets?”

Me: “YES, wash sheets! But that’s not what I need right now! Come to the backyard!!”

I finally did make myself understood.

And so, signs from the universe tell me that perhaps I should keep this nanny . . . although signs of my peed-on, unwashed bathroom floor tell me otherwise . . . What to do . . . what to do . . .

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Double Income Royalty

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For those of you who have followed my exploits, my header, until recently, read:

“WHAT?” asked my friend who has 7 or so 50″ flat screen TVs including one over the tub. “He’s only going to earn FIFTY?? Are you going to earn THREE HUNDRED?” We both laughed. A little. I would not. So here’s how it goes: How a spoiled family of 5 attempts to survive on 50 grand in a princely town near NYC.

Things have changed, and so has my byline, because here’s the new truth: we are now making a bit more. I’m rich!! Woohoo! Time to dump the pay-as-you-go brick from the last century that does nothing but send and receive calls and buy an iPhone 4S!! And, dare I truly dream, a subscription to the New Yorker!! Maybe even a pair of Hunter boots for these endlessly rainy days! (in hunter green, please. I so covet the hunter green ones).

(You might note my dreams are small. They are not filled with a house with 2 bathrooms or a future that includes sleepover camp for all 3 kids while I romp around Europe or South America).

(OK, 2 bathrooms would be dreamy, but so dreamy that such a dream is beyond my dreams. But oh–ah–a day of not slipping on one of the boys’ pee . . .)

(I’ll survive. Thank you, Chlorox wipes.)

(We won’t even talk about the romping phantasy so phantastic it requires a psychological spelling to give it full poignancy.  . . oh . . .  sob. . . .).

(I digress. Back to this new double income buying power that makes could eliminate the name “Poor Princess” forever).

But NO, we’re still poor. Oddly, poorer. I don’t know if it’s because that Your Money or Your Life book was actually right (I confess I disagreed quite vehemently!); what I do know is that somehow we are worse off, financially, than we were just 3 months ago. By the 14th of every month–the day both credit card payments come off our bank account–we are down to anywhere from $2 to $296 (this is a verifiable fact, not a made-for-blog fiction!). Problematically, there are still several things that must be paid: the water/sewage, the gas/electric, and LL’s school tuition. And then there are the random outstanding checks: a football draft, a school fundraiser, an oil change, my art class. And cash needed: we have a nanny who watches Baby MoFo once to twice a week (and does laundry and cleans), the eyebrow threader doesn’t take credit cards, and sometimes we can’t get through a day without a cup of caffeine (or maybe we could survive, but it’s that the folks at Starbucks or Panera or that cute little café on campus won’t appreciate us hunkered down at one of their best tables with our laptops working for 5-6 hours without ordering anything). Even if we eliminate the truly superfluous (which of these is “truly” superfluous is up for debate! I am a princess after all!), $2 can’t cover us for 16-17 days of the month. Period.

Last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education posted this shocker: Bootstrapping My Way into the Ivory Tower. In the article, Rachel Wagner begins with what seemed to me a suspect motive: that everyone thinks professors are “living it up,” but that she will prove to them otherwise (as a teacher of writing, I both encourage students to think about standard beliefs and then how to overturn them, and am suspicious of anything called standard beliefs, because they’re often not–“Most people believe that Hamlet is a love story. I will argue, however, that it is not.” Straw motive, anyone?). Wagner’s story of food stamps, shut-off notices, and months of eating peanut butter, however, is quite moving (and makes me feel a little spoiled) while not being unrealistic. It is hard to live off a professor’s salary.

But maybe people don’t realize that. Maybe Wagner’s motive is not suspect. Maybe my grandmother, who called me her באָרוועסר פּראָפעסאָר, had an Old-World insight that the New World lacks. Indeed, it would seem that people so believe that professors are living it up that moves are being made to cut them down. In the state of New Jersey, here are some of the moves:

And maybe these people, who think it important to reduce what little faculty now get, have met my colleague, Southern Man, who has a big apartment on the Upper East Side and owns a beautiful house in East Hampton; or maybe they’ve met π-Carat-Sized Diamond Ring Girl from my graduate school cohort, who used to show up to class in the Valentino gown she had found lying on her floor from the previous evening’s opera, paired with a ripped jean jacket and unwashed hair (que bobo!); or maybe they have been fooled by your average faculty member who never, as Wagner points out in her article, mentions her poverty, a most taboo of subjects in this profession. And maybe they don’t realize that Southern Man’s boyfriend is in the pharmaceutical industry (lucky bastard), or that π was Rockefeller’s granddaughter, or that the average faculty member just smiles and hands over her debit or credit card and hopes it will not be rejected (like so many of her manuscripts??).

The poor pay and the poorer forecast for faculty don’t seem to be going away. This is very distressing, especially to those of us who believed, foolishly, that one day, one possibly far-off but surely real day, we would make enough money to not panic on the 15th of the month, the day we’ve come to dread more desperately.

On the upside, Lucky Magazine’s recent issue listed the best Christmas presents of ’11–and what do you know? Turns out, in our poverty, we are hipsters of the 1st degree. The phone to buy he-who-has-it-all? The “world’s most simple phone”: the one that does nothing but send and receive calls.

It’s Not Starbucks

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AFter all that blah blah blah complaining about unemployment, I do it. I get a summer job. It’s not my dream job, but, you might say, it’s not Starbucks. I don’t have to wear a uniform (I don’t really do hats) or pretend I don’t understand when people say “medium” (“I’m sorry. We don’t carry that size. Perhaps you mean a grande??”). At the hourly rate local crossing guards make, it also pays a bit more per hour than Starbucks–although, as I’m soon to discover, there are many hours (“Be here an hour early to test the incoming students, but DON’T PUT THAT HOUR ON YOUR TIMESHEET WHATEVER YOU DO!!” “Oh, did we mention there’s a faculty development meeting today? Bring a lunch, and expect to stay and extra hour and a half or so. Oh, and DON’T PUT IT ON YOUR TIMESHEET!”) that are simply unpaid. So perhaps not.

When I read the job description, it sounded glamorous and exciting. I wonder if I misread it. I don’t have the ad, so I’ll try to reconstruct it from memory. It went something like this:

Italian students will be coming to America to discover, imbibe, inhale, and digest American culture. Some other Europeans are coming, too. For the small sum of 6000 € (plus airfare), they will: Shop! Go bowling! Visit the White House! See a Broadway play! Hit the mean streets of Philly! Eat hamburgers and fries! Stroll along the Baltimore Inner Harbor! Cry at Ground Zero! Spend lots of money! Tell their friends and brothers and sisters about their experience so that they, in turn, can  add many more euros to our coffers!

Teacher of English: You can be a part of this experience. You can impart to these FOBs what it is to love the land God blessed. You can teach them what it is to speak the language of our beloved country. You can fill their mouths with clichés and their heads with stereotypes. You can’t join them for that Broadway play (though feel free to play youtube videos from the production in your classroom), or live out your little Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr or Fay Wray/colossal gorilla romantic fantasies at the top of the Empire State Building (ditto the youtubes) with this job, but you can do something far more important. You can lock yourself in a classroom with them for 3 hours/morning–don’t come late! don’t leave early!–don’t take more than 10 minutes for a break!–and do something or other with them (we don’t really care what, but their parents aren’t going to pay for them to just go sightseeing. We are calling this edutainment, people!!)(ps: We recommend youtube videos).

Will you be paid for this job? Oh yes! Of course you are! Don’t you worry! Well, OK, we’re only going to pay you a pittance (hey–that 6000 € is ours), but just think about it: This is the opportunity of a lifetime.

YOU can give your students:

THE AMERICAN DREAM.

And so I did.

How to fill 3 hours of class time for a class with no objectives, no curriculum, and no rules (apart from those pertaining to the number of hours to be in class)? There are youtube videos . . . and then there are cupcakes. I filled my students up on Americana both ways. Also, I attempted to improve their English. Which is, I think, what they were there for.

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