Income stream #2: Teaching online, 4

$1080.18

I’ve been thinking about how often it makes sense to update income stream #2 since I am now making a relatively stable amount of money. I get bimonthly paychecks of the same amount: $360.06 (though for some unknown reason there was a 1-cent difference in September). There is no particular reason that I am updating after three pay periods; it’s just when I found the time this week.

One thing I have learned so far is that with online teaching, there will always be some uncertainty from semester-to-semester. A month or more ago I got an email from the online learning coordinator saying that they were putting me in a hidden section for next semester; my section would only open if two other online sections of my course filled up. At first I was sweating it because it would be a little painful to go back to zero income after a semester of consistent paychecks — not because our budget would change, but because seeing our account balance go up rather than down staves off ulcers and periodic freak-outs. Then two weeks later I got a mass email from the overall head of online learning (I’m sure he has a fancier title than that) explaining that some sudden policy changes at the university were likely to impact student enrollment for the next semester, but they were still evaluating to what extent. The gist of that email to all online instructors was this: sorry, but don’t count on getting work next semester. Although I teach in one of the higher demand departments, I was feeling like I probably would not get a class since I was low on the totem pole and my section was still “hidden.”

On the plus side, I started to think of all the things I could do next semester if I had more free time. Finish two in-process manuscripts stemming from my thesis and submit them for publication. Finish a quilt that has been languishing for years. Continue decluttering and “getting things done.” Oh, all the (unpaid) things I could do!!

Registration finally opened a couple weeks ago and after just a few days, I received my electronic contract. Perhaps this means that I should feel more confident in the future that my course is in high enough demand that I will have some degree of job security, but in speaking with my colleagues, it does seem that each semester there is some period of waiting it out to see what courses will carry and how much work you will get. So for now, I’m going to take it one semester at a time. Still, it’s awfully nice to know the minimum amount we can count on for next semester.

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Budget Item: Miscellaneous

Psych. We don’t have a miscellaneous category in our budget. But we used to.

Back in those heady days when the money was rolling in (read: at least seven or eight hundred a month), I did have a miscellaneous category in the budget. I usually set it at $20/month, maybe $50 when I was carefree and single. The purpose of it is probably self-explanatory: to cover any expenditure that does not fit neatly into my preconceived categories. In practice, though, it just created a little psychological space to not agonize over every purchase.

When I was creating the budget for these lean years, I debated whether to include a miscellaneous category. On the one hand, me agonizing less is a good thing. But on the other hand, the more we can tighten our belts now, the greater freedom we will have in the future. In the end, I omitted that category from the budget both on paper and in practice. What that means is that when I incur a cost that I haven’t planned for, I have to find a way to reduce my usual spending so that I can absorb the extra expense.

September was a good example.  I knew right at the beginning of the month that I had triggered a $35 late fee (35 FREAKING dollars — don’t even get me started!). So I had to economize, which mostly means dining out sparingly. I feared that the month was going to feel devoid of joy and that little adrenaline rush I get from eating good food (which I am largely in capable of making myself — not because of chronic illness, mind you, but rather incompetence and apathy), but actually, it was kind of fun. I was motivated to find other little pleasures, and I savored a $2 treat here and there. And then right at the end of the month, when I thought I just had to eat something delicious to get me through the day with my sassy little toddler, Macaroni Grill threw out a free lunch good for September 28 only. Carmela’s chicken, pasta, and mushrooms, Caprese, and fresh-baked herb bread? For FREE?! Yes, please! I hated paying that $35 late fee, but still I feel quite accomplished for being disciplined enough to carve it out of my regular budget.

Do you have a miscellaneous category? How do you handle unexpected expenses or careless spending mistakes? And perhaps most importantly, am I being too extreme over here? (I always need these checks to keep me from crossing the line into budgeting insanity!)

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Income stream #2: Teaching online, 3

$360.05

Everyone who reads this blog already knows I’m neurotic, right? Let’s just establish that right up front. Seemingly simple things like teaching an online course throw me into a state of angst at least as severe as, say, deciding whether to buy a $2 frozen yogurt when I just had one last week. Does teaching this course align with my core values and what I have previously determined to be my life’s work? Am I just doing this for the money — so that I can buy frozen yogurt twice a month or dress Addison in the latest thrift store fashions (obviously)?

Existential crisis notwithstanding, it was quite a relief to see that second paycheck in our checking account. Our balance is going up not down. UP not DOWN! It’s amazing! Is that a good in itself? It kind of felt like it tonight.

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Income stream #2: Teaching online, 2

$360.06

Phew, another paycheck . . . just in time! Last week I had to scramble to transfer money from one account to another in time to cover some of our bills* (and DRAT, I incurred one late fee, which never happens and just about gave me an ulcer!), so it feels good to have finally arrived at a point where I will get regular paychecks again. The last time I had a regular paycheck was April 2011 — yikes! (And Neal, well, that goes back to probably summer 2005.)

The semester only started on Monday and I am quickly learning that online classes are heavily front-loaded for the instructor. You get lots of student emails trying to figure out how to even get started; you’re trying to help with their technology issues; you’re trying to figure out your technology issues (in fact, during my first synchronous meeting, one of my tech-savvy students was sending me excerpts from a manual to explain how to perform certain actions — ha!); and there’s a surprising number of assignments the first week, probably in large part because that is one of the primary ways to start making connections and getting students engaged. So far, I’ve put in 15 hours of work this week and I haven’t even started grading the papers they submitted! (The university suggests instructors put in 10-12 hours per week, so hopefully this week is an exception.)

Still, I’ve really enjoyed meeting my students. They’re living all over the United States. They’re Germans, Haitians, Bolivians, Sri Lankans, Native Americans, Californians, Washingtonians, Idahoans, Hawaiians, Floridians, and Texans. They’re 18-year-old freshmen and 50-something-year-old moms. And I love the fact that I can hear about all these diverse life experiences right from my own bedroom!

Bring it!

* We keep the bulk of our savings in an intentionally inaccessible online savings account with ING Direct.** This usually works really well to help us keep our spending low because we see only a small checking balance, but every once in a while I lose track of the balance and don’t transfer money in time. And then I punish myself by taking the late fee out of my dining out budget (after begging the company for mercy, of course).

** I’ve been using ING Direct since the early 2000s and have liked them (no, they’re not paying me to say that because it would be pretty dumb to pay people to say things to like 6 readers at a time). All online savings interest rates are in the tank right now, but they still have one of the smoother user interfaces I’ve tried, great customer service, unique account features as well as occasional savings promotions. Let me know if you want a referral to get a $25 bonus for setting up a new online bank account.

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The Why: Money Guilt

I mentioned before that I wanted to write more about “the why” behind our lifestyle choices in response to questions from readers like Alysa and Emily. But every time I sat down (well, laid down really) to do it, I couldn’t decide where to start; there are so many interrelated whys. I thought about starting with chronic illness because that obviously exerts a heavy influence on everything (hence the blog title that Neal still doesn’t get), but it just wasn’t clicking . . .

Until this morning when I read this post from Crystal at Budgeting in the Fun Stuff. As soon as I saw the title in my Google Reader, “I Do Not Feel Money Guilt,” I knew that’s where I had to start because “money guilt” and its effect on me predates even my health problems. Crystal writes:

It makes no sense to have money guilt.  I sympathize with anybody suffering through bad times.  I try to help anybody I can, strangers and friends alike.  I have volunteered with Meals on Wheels and now volunteer weekly for the local hospice.  BUT I will never feel guilty for what I work for, invest, and save.

I’m not going to argue about whether it makes sense to have money guilt (especially at this political moment in time), but what I know is that I have had a healthy dose of money guilt for just about as long as I can remember.

My early days were spent quite poor. We lived in a mobile home community, which I didn’t realize at the time was so loaded with meaning because it was all I knew.

The double-wide

Although my dad had a full-time job at UT Austin, it was not enough to make ends meet with two little kiddos. So every morning at 3:30 or 4:00 am, my parents would truck out of bed to deliver papers. My brother and I spent many happy (sleepy?) hours making rubber band balls while my parents folded papers.  The kids I knew then were all poor; there was no class struggle going on while we clandestinely played down at “the crick.”

This tree saw a lot of action/pinatas!

But somewhere along the line, maybe just when we were moving to California for greener pastures and more money, I realized that my family was different. We were poor at the moment, but between them, my parents already had three majors, two minors, and three college degrees, including a PhD. They were on their way up. We had a stint living with my paternal grandparents, but our next house was no double-wide.

I think it was only when we moved to Orange County (the O.C. as it will probably forever be known now) that it really hit me what the lives of the friends I left behind were in comparison. Many of them were smack dab in the middle of the intergenerational transmission of poverty (even though I didn’t know that term at the time). I saw that their parents were poor and had minimal education and low-wage jobs, and my friends didn’t know any different. I still remember the culture shock of comparing the inside of my new friends’ houses to those of my old friends. Some of them had lived in absolute filth and squalor, only we didn’t really know it. (I should note, for my mom’s sake, that she always kept an impeccably clean house — no small feat when you regularly have possums, raccoons, cockroaches, and scorpions crawling up through your floors during the night). And I felt guilty. I mean like really guilty. How could I embrace this new life, so far away from the hardships that I had barely noticed at the time but that might be a persistent part of the lives of my old friends? It seemed a betrayal to enjoy this new way of living.

And so I think part of me has forever struggled with what it means to be middle class. I could never give up the opportunity for higher education, an option that I’m sure was not available to some of those 8-year-old girlfriends I left behind, because I always knew that college would be my favorite thing (and it was). But I have resisted many of the other trappings of the middle class. In short, there’s a part of me that wants to live a small, cheap life because it feels wrong that I should have a bigger, nicer one than Gina and Rachelle and Maria and Tanya.

What I’ve written here is not prescriptive; I’m not telling you how I think people should think or feel. In fact, I am the first to admit that there is a level of dysfunction to my money guilt. I haven’t called myself pathologically frugal for nothing. (Exhibit A: it is more difficult for me to get massages that are probably medically advisable because they feel so darn luxurious to me.) I’m simply telling you a story — one of the many reasons why this “alternative lifestyle” sometimes feels like the only palatable option to me.

Do you have “money guilt”? Can you trace it back to anything in particular? Do you fight it, ignore it, embrace it?

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Budget Item: Medical, $150/month

If you scrutinized our budget the way I would excitedly scrutinize someone else’s budget, you probably noticed that we have $50 per month, per person set aside for medical expenses (not including health insurance). We are immeasurably blessed to have a very healthy toddler. (Frankly, it shocks me how healthy she is both because I had mysterious ailments starting in infancy — bleeding eye sockets, anyone? — and she didn’t have the easiest route getting here.) In fact, we have only had two occasions to take her to the doctor, aside from wellness checks, in her entire 2.5 years of life, which means we have spent only a tiny fraction of that $50 monthly budget on her health care.

Neal also doesn’t cost much in the medical category. He doesn’t get sick often, but when he does, he goes big. The common cold? Nah. Let’s try blood poisoning or lyme disease instead. Thankfully, early detection has prevented him from having too many serious consequences, though I seem to remember that I had to convince him to see the doctor for the blood poisoning situation — a blue line going from the tip of his finger toward his heart seemed like a bad sign. But even though he’s had some pricey medical adventures in the past, he’s probably cost us no more than $50 a year for the last couple of years.

So our medical budget item turns out to be one of my favorites because (God willing) we will usually bank at least $100 instead of spending it.

Of course, I’m the chronically ill wild card. On the one hand, having chronic illness since childhood, I’ve done my fair share of doctor and specialist visits. If I had to take a wild guess, I would say that my medical expenses (including pricey equipment like a wheelchair and wheelchair lift) over the course of my life have probably been in the $400,000 range. (Hallelujah that I benefited from my parents’ excellent insurance through my early 20s! And had uninsured motorists auto coverage to save me from the accident fall-out!)

On the other hand, I HATE going to the doctor. For me, being chronically ill means that I will do just about anything to avoid going to the doctor because after years of frustration, I assume I will just have to learn to live with the problem anyway. I either have to be in extreme pain or have a crazy amount of blood pouring out of me to be persuaded to see a doctor. (Actually, if I’m being honest, there was one instance in which I was losing a lot of blood and instead of going to the ER as I was instructed to by my on-call doctor, I asked my grandma to just check on me periodically to make sure I didn’t lose consciousness. In hindsight, that was dumb. And I’m about 70% sure I wouldn’t make that choice again.)

Being unwilling to see the doctor also means that I don’t take any maintenance medications anymore (anymore being the key word because part of what turned me off was how many I used to take and how I ended up taking some merely to counteract the side effects of others. Oy.). Aside from periodic over-the-counter drugs, I pretty much avoid meds like the plague. So, all that means that despite my numerous health issues, most months we have also banked my $50 for medical care.

But the reason I bring all this up is that I recently had a new neck issue arise (unrelated to my spinal arthritis as far as I can tell). What started out as a minor tweak rapidly turned into horrible pain and hugely restricted range of motion. In less than a day, I was practically on my knees begging for some medical attention. Two weeks, a few tests, and two deep tissue massages later, my neck is much improved (I can look to the right without crying — huzzah!) If you read my  ridiculously long neck story, you know that x-rays and some more aggressive treatment was also recommended. But after discussing with Neal, mulling over the costs,  consulting Relief at Last, my go-to book for weighing treatment options, and contacting an anesthesiologist friend, I decided to stick with my gentler (read: cheaper) methods for trying to manage the pain (walking, warm showers, ice, TENS unit).

Still, I’m torn about one thing: massages. Oh holy goodness, I LOVE a deep tissue massage! (In fact, I probably shouldn’t admit this but my old Stadium Terrace roommates used to call me a “massage hooch” because I was always trying to get some.) And obviously, I think they are also very good for me since, in this instance, they restored my range of motion almost completely within a week. I am contemplating adding a monthly therapeutic massage into my health maintenance routine, but there goes that $50 surplus from my medical budget item.

I’m having this ongoing argument in my head:

  • That’s WHY we budget so that we spend money on needful things.
  • But $35 (the price for a half-hour therapeutic massage) is a lot of money!
  • But if your neck STOPS WORKING AGAIN, it’s gonna cost a lot more in treatment and lost income and lost opportunity and, um, freaking horrible pain.

My italicized voice makes a very strong point, no? Perhaps it would be easier if I didn’t enjoy the massages so darn much — it makes it feel like a luxury item!

Does anyone else have this problem? Any strategies for psyching yourself up to make these kinds of needful purchases?

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Income stream #1: Tutoring, 2

$180

I bet you thought we were going to make money more than once a month, didn’t you? Yeah, me too. But no matter, we’ve been going on vacation instead.

When our last two family reunions are over in August (has this been the summer o’ reunions for anyone else??), I have high (well, moderate at least) hopes for this blog. First, I’d like to post a little more about income — but that requires income, know what I mean? Second, I want to post more about “the why” of our financial choices and alternative lifestyle since Alysa previously asked in the comments. We’ll see how far I can get in the midst of also starting a “real job” in early September!

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