Tag Archives: lessons learned

An important public service announcement about your tires

When we were in Europe, we left our car parked at my parents’ house for two weeks. My dad was kind enough to get a nick in our windshield fixed for us. When he was driving the car, he noticed that the steering wheel was shaking at 65-70 mph. We’d noticed this, too, but between the hectic move and rushing around before our big trip, we’d put off doing anything about it.

When we came home, my dad warned me that he suspected the front alignment was off. He recommended that we get it checked out. My dad worked as a mechanic for several years when he was younger, so he knows his stuff. I made a mental note to take care of it.

Fast forward four months. It’s been a very busy four months. Between the baby and the move and everything in between, we put off taking the car in.

We’ve also done a lot of driving in the past four months. With the move and visits to family and friends all over the state, we put several thousand miles on the car since May. We’ve had the oil changed since then, but I admit we’ve neglected to check our tires regularly.

This weekend we drove about 3 hours south to visit Tony’s family. On Sunday when we were getting ready to leave, my father-in-law noticed that the front passenger tire looked funny. Upon closer inspection, he realized that it wasn’t just worn: the front tire was pretty much completely bald. (!!) It was purchased at the same time as the front driver’s side tire, which was nowhere near as worn. This confirmed what my dad had told me four months ago: we had a serious alignment problem.

Since it was Sunday evening, we were three hours from home, and Tony needed to be back this morning for work, we didn’t have a lot of options. We have a tiny temporary spare, but it shouldn’t be used for more than 50 miles. We were over 100 miles from home. So Tony and his dad swapped the bald tire with one of the rear tires. Our car is front-wheel-drive, so we figured it was safer to put the bad tire in the back.

We made the trip home very carefully, driving under 55 mph the whole way to avoid blowing the tire. Thankfully, we made it safely.

Today I took the car to the shop. The alignment only cost $40 — less than half the cost of replacing the bald tire, which was $90. It took 15 minutes. I am kicking myself for putting off such a simple thing. If I’d listened to my dad and taken the car in to get the alignment fixed four months ago, we wouldn’t have had to replace that tire so soon, and it would have saved us almost $100. Doh.

We were also very lucky. In the past month, I’ve taken several trips out of town by myself for a friend’s wedding and a funeral just last week. That tire was dangerously close to blowing completely, and if it had happened when I was by myself two hours from home, I have no idea what I would have done.

There are few morals here:

  • Have your alignment checked as part of standard maintenance. We had the oil changed Saturday before we left. Not only did they not notice the bald tire (which honestly surprises me), but they didn’t check the alignment. It’s a simple thing to do every few thousand miles, and it can really help lengthen the life of your tires. But it’s not part of a standard oil change, so you have to ask them to do it.
  • Check your tires frequently! I am embarrassed that we got on the road for a three-hour trip without at least glancing at the condition of our tires. To be fair, we did get the oil changed that day, and we were told the tires were fine. But they only checked the tire pressure, not the tread. Not only should you check the tire pressure and look for standard wear, but also check for leaks, bubbles, nails, and anything else that could compromise the safety of your tires.
  • Listen to your dad. He probably knows what he’s talking about.

Photo by milesgehm

How do you handle unsatisfactory service?

Due to remarkably bad timing, Howie was due for his vaccinations and heartworm test this month, just two weeks after we moved. So we had to start hunting around for a new vet last week. As if we didn’t have enough going on right now.

After reading some online reviews, it didn’t seem that there was a clear leader in service in our new town. Most vets require an exam for a new “patient,” so I started making phone calls to find the vet who offered the best prices. If I wasn’t so pressed for time, I would have made more of an effort to ask pet owners in town who they recommend, but things have just been so crazy. So I made an appointment with the office with the best prices.

It’s not always a good idea to make decisions based solely on price. This is one of those times.

Howie has never shown aggression to anyone. In the three years we’ve had him, we have never had an issue with him at a vet’s office or a groomer. He’s not particularly comfortable with strangers poking around at him in those settings, but he’s never growled or snapped, and the animal technicians who’ve handled him in the past have never had a problem getting him to do what they need him to do. They can distinguish nerves from aggression, and they’ll typically work their magic to get the job done even though he’s skittish.

These people, though? It’s like they’d never handled a nervous dog in their lives. They tittered around the office waving treats at him, and when he wouldn’t sit completely still, they refused to examine him or vaccinate him.

I grew up with dogs. When I was a teenager, I was usually the one who took our family pets to the vet. I have never seen a dog wag his tail while a vet sticks a thermometer up his butt. Most dogs are just nervous during vet visits. But most professional animal technicians know how to handle the situation.

I’ve dealt with a dog who showed vet aggression. When I was a teenager, my family had a Rottweiler/German Shepherd mix. He was a sweet dog, but one summer he became gravely ill. He couldn’t keep food down, he was in a lot of pain, and he lost about a third of his body weight in a few months. There were many tests and vet visits, and he made it clear that he did not want to be handled by strangers by growling and even snapping. I completely understood when they made the decision to muzzle him. I don’t expect the vets or vet technicians to put themselves in harm’s way, and dogs are animals, after all. Animals that can bite.

But seriously. This was not the situation with Howie. He was nervous, but he wasn’t aggressive. I even got down on the floor and held his head with his face thisclose to mine. He wasn’t going to bite or even snap. He was just squirming around. If they had wanted to muzzle him, I would have been fine with it. They didn’t want to do that, though. They just didn’t want to deal with him. I have never seen animal professionals who seemed to have so little experience wrangling nervous animals. Even the groomers at PetsMart will usually just grab Howie, tell him to chill out, and do their jobs.

I held him while a vet tech took his temperature, and that’s about as far as the exam went. The vet came in and took at look at his mouth from about five feet away while I held him, and she said his teeth looked fine. But then she said they wouldn’t be able to vaccinate him or trim his nails because he was just “too nervous.”

He was due for vaccines, though. So what did they do? They packaged them up in a bag and sent them home with us. I mean, what? Is that even legal? They’re nasal vaccines, so it’s not like we have to stick him, but I still have no idea what I’m doing. Because, you know, I’m NOT A VET. So we’ll see how that goes.

We were charged half price for his vaccinations, and I didn’t expect to be billed for an exam since they didn’t really perform one. But of course, when they handed me the bill, there was an exam charge. I argued with them a little, but they basically said it wasn’t their fault that the dog wouldn’t cooperate and I had to pay for their time. What could I do? I paid the bill.

Then the icing on the cake: they refused to give me a prescription for his heartworm prevention medication. We always purchase his medication online, because the prices are so much better than at the vet’s office. They told me they “don’t do business” with online pet drugstores. Um, okay.

So my options were to either pay their higher prices for medication or make Howie an appointment with another vet who would allow us to order his medication online, because I’d need the vet to sign off on it to get the medication. I begrudgingly bought the heartworm medication in the office, but I’ll be ordering his flea prevention online because it doesn’t require a prescription.

Now I ask, what would you do if you were me? The whole experience was terrible. We were charged for an exam they didn’t perform, we have no idea if his vaccines will be administered properly because we don’t know what we’re doing, and we were forced to buy medication from them (I’m not even sure if that’s legal), and I feel like I have no recourse. What would you do?

Lessons learned after 2 weeks overseas

Before I share the fun stuff about our trip, I thought I’d share some of the financial lessons we learned on the trip. We planned ahead, and we did a lot of things right. But we also made some mistakes.

If you have a smartphone, turn off data roaming.

Luckily, I knew about this one before we left. I brought my iPhone with us to Europe, but I left it on airplane mode the entire time we were there. If I had left data roaming on, my phone’s automatic updates would have racked up hundreds of dollars in overseas roaming charges.

Fortunately, I still had access to wi-fi, so I could connect my phone to the hotel wi-fi to connect to the Internet for free. This was a lifesaver when we needed directions or information. We were also able to use the Skype app to make calls home basically for free. This was a huge moneysaver since calling cards are expensive and hotel phone fees are astronomical.

Don’t touch the hotel phone.

I wish I’d read the fine print on the card next to our hotel phone as soon as we got to the room. When we arrived in London, I realized that I’d forgotten to notify my credit card company that we’d be traveling abroad. We planned to use the Capital

One card for most of our purchases over there to avoid overseas transaction fees, so the last thing I wanted was for the card to be shut off for suspicious activity. I used the hotel phone to call Capital One collect. Capital One agreed to accept all long distance charges for the call. The hotel still charged us around 12USD just for using their phone. Ugh.

When I finally looked at the fee card, I saw that the hotel even charges fees for local calls. This was the case in all three of the hotels we stayed in. To be safe, just avoid the hotel phones all together.

Over-overestimate for food costs.

I pride myself on overestimating my budget most of the time. I like to build some cushion into the budget by assuming things will cost more than they do. Usually I’m pleasantly surprised to discover we’ve spent much less than we planned.

When we left for Europe, pretty much everything but food was paid for. I estimated $100 a day for us to eat, a number that I thought was pretty high based on our past experience, even considering the money we’d lose in the conversion. We typically spend very little for food on vacation. In this case, I was wrong, and we ended up going overbudget. It wasn’t by an astronomical amount, and it wasn’t a big deal because we’d built extra into the budget on top of my estimates.

Think hard before buying tourist passes.

A few months ago, I struggled with whether we should purchase London Passes for our trip. The London Pass offers admission to a ton of tourist attractions in London for one flat fee. The cost of the pass is much lower than the combined admission fees of all the attractions, but the catch is that it’s impossible to see everything in just a few days. I added up the cost of all the attractions we thought we’d see and compared it with the cost of the pass. It seemed like it would work out to be a good deal, so I went for it.

What I didn’t plan for was my pregnancy. Because I was tired and a feeling sick some days, we ended up seeing a lot less than we planned. In the end, we lost about 50USD on the passes. Blerg.

On the other hand, we bought Paris museum passes for 32 euros each and ended up getting 75 euros in admission out of each of them. Package deals aren’t always a bad deal, but you really have to do the math.

Despite these few hiccups, we stuck to the budget pretty well, especially considering how much we were able to do and see over there. If you’re planning a trip overseas, I hope you can learn from our mistakes to make your experience even more successful.

Photo by e01

Don’t pay a fortune for moving boxes

Of all the hassles that come with moving — packing, unpacking, loading, unloading, and the chaos in between — one of my least favorite parts is finding boxes. In fact, when we moved here, I so dreaded the search for boxes for our next move that I crammed all of our cardboard boxes into a closet in the guest bedroom where I’ve kept them for three years.

Finding the perfect moving box is an art. It needs to be sturdy, big enough to hold a decent number of items, but not so big that it will be too heavy to carry. Handles on the sides are a plus, and a blank side for labeling helps, too.

If you’re planning a move and you find yourself with no moving boxes, it can be tempting to pay a fortune to a moving company or retail store for an assortment of boxes. Don’t do it! It’s possible to find moving boxes for free, and reusing them is much more environmentally friendly than buying new. Here’s where to start:

Ask friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.

Some work places have a greater volume of boxes than others (I used to work at a publishing company that had a surplus of excellent moving boxes shipped in every week). Even if you don’t work at a retail store or publishing company, send out an email requesting that your co-workers hang on to good moving boxes for you. Also notify friends, family, and neighbors that you’re moving soon. They may have boxes they’re willing to give up or loan to you.

Ask your local recycling center.

Many recycling centers have a special area for cardboard boxes that can be used for moving. Show up early Sunday morning (or first thing Monday if the recycling center is closed on Sundays). If your recycling center has them, they’re likely free to a good home.

Check Craigslist.

It’s become pretty common for people to list stockpiles of moving boxes on Craigslist for free or cheap once they’ve moved in. Just be cautious when completing Craigslist transactions. If you can’t meet in a public place, bring some friends along to help you load the boxes.

Don’t dumpster dive.

Many retail stores and businesses have special cardboard dumpsters for recycling purposes, but digging through dumpsters without permission is actually considered trespassing. Not only can you get hurt, but you can be fined. Instead of jumping into a dumpster, ask businesses if they’re willing to let you take boxes before they end up in the dumpster. You might have to show up on a certain day and time, but many business owners don’t mind giving away used boxes on a first come, first serve basis.

Photo by ahhyeah

What a savings account can buy

When I tell people we’re moving in 6 weeks, it always leads to the same conversation:

“Oh, so you found a job?”

“Nope. Not yet. But I’m looking.”

“So your husband found a job?”

“Not yet.”

That’s when they look at my like I’m nuts.

I don’t blame them. Back when I was living paycheck-to-paycheck, the idea of quitting my job without another one lined up would have seemed pretty nuts to me, too.

It’s not polite to ask specific questions about our financial situation, so most people leave it at that. They sort of raise their eyebrows like we’re nuts and assume we’ll be mooching off our parents for months while we job search. I don’t ever bother to correct them, even though their assumption isn’t really true.

Yes, we’ll be staying with Tony’s family temporarily, and it’s extremely kind of them to give us the chance to get settled in Indiana before we find an apartment. And yes, the absence of a rent payment from our budget for the few months that we stay there will help keep our savings account healthy. We won’t be mooching, though. We’ll be paying all of our own bills, chipping in for groceries, and helping out in any way we can to repay their kindness. But the truth is, we’re staying with them more out of convenience than financial necessity.

My husband is hoping to find a teaching job. Because the availability of teaching jobs depends so much on geography, we don’t want to lock ourselves into a certain area with a lease. We want to be open to move where ever the jobs are. Staying with family while we look makes the most sense.

Financially, though? We’re in a better place than we’ve ever been. Because we’ve been saving for the past three years, we have enough cash savings to carry us through a full year without any income. We won’t be living without income, though. We plan to earn money through part-time jobs or substitute teaching while my husband searches for a full-time teaching job. I also make a little bit of money from freelance writing and advertising on this site. That income will stretch our savings even further.

Obviously, the sooner we start earning income again, the better. I don’t want to completely wipe out our savings accounts while we search for jobs. I’m just not too stressed about the fact that neither of us has anything lined up yet. The sooner we find jobs, the more money we’ll be able to keep in our emergency fund and move to our house fund. For now, though, our savings has bought us peace of mind and the freedom to move closer to family despite the fact that the job market is sluggish, because we’re not dependent on our paychecks every week to live.

I doubt I’ll ever view our savings the same way again. Sometimes when I looked at that balance, I saw all of the things it could buy: a new car, a new computer, a million other things I wanted but didn’t need. It was tempting to spend at least some of it.

Now I see that the best thing a savings account can buy is freedom and peace of mind. We’re free to move closer to our families, free to be a little picky as we job search, and free to enjoy our vacation to Europe right before we settle into our new home. All of that is worth so much more to me than any material thing our savings account could buy.

Photo by alancleaver

Losing the battle, winning the war

I write about this topic a. lot. It’s because after years of working on it, I still spend way too much time beating myself up when I have to let things go.

This week I announced that I’ll be updating this blog a little less frequently for the next few weeks as we head into the final weeks before our move. I put a lot of thought into the decision, and I know it’s the right thing to do if I want to maintain my to-do list and my sanity. But knowing it’s the right decision wasn’t enough to keep me from feeling defeated when Tuesday passed with Monday’s post on the homepage.

I’m running my first 5K this Saturday after months of training. The last week in February, my training was going really well. My times were up, my endurance was strong, and I felt like I would surely be ready by the end of March. Then I came down with a brutal cold in the second week of the month that kept me out of the gym for over a week. The endurance and speed that I worked so hard to build flew right out the window. My lungs are still recovering, and my body is still weak from what was a pretty nasty virus. This week I can barely make it a mile before I have to slow down and walk.

My difficult runs aren’t a product of laziness, and I can’t control it. Still I can’t help but my kick myself as I consider the strong possibility that I won’t reach my goal on Saturday. I may not be able to run all 3 miles without walking, and my time will likely be much slower than I hoped.

I know I’m not alone in this endless struggle to convince myself that obstacles are not necessarily failures. I know that you can lose the battle without losing the war, but I still have trouble getting over even the smallest of defeats.

I think a lot of women (and men for that matter) waste too much energy beating themselves up instead of building themselves up. Unfortunately, I’m proof that recognizing the problem isn’t enough to solve it. I can tell myself over and over that it’s okay to take a step back, the important thing is to keep going. Yet I still end up here — beating myself up for obstacles that I can’t control and feeling defeated prematurely. Of course, that attitude isn’t very motivating, and I end up sabotaging myself with negativity in the end.

It’s a vicious cycle that I hope to someday overcome. In the meantime, I just have to keep reminding myself that each setback makes me stronger, brings me one step closer to my goals, and teaches me a valuable lesson in how not to get there.

Photo by kaneda99

Endlessly waiting

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a pretty serious addiction to countdowns. It’s normal when we’re kids, though, right? We’re always waiting for the next birthday, Christmas, summer vacation. It seems we’re always counting down to something.

It’s just that I never grew out of it.

It’s not that I’m unhappy with the here and now. Sometimes I am. But most of the time, I recognize how good I have it now. I enjoy the present. I do. But I’ve always got one eye on the future, looking ahead to what’s next. It’s in my nature to plan and prepare, and how can I do that without anticipating the next big thing? How can I prepare if I don’t keep my eyes ahead?

The problem is, no matter how hard I try to stay grounded in the present, all of this anticipating inevitably steals some of the joy of now. The more exciting the next step is, the harder it is for me to enjoy what’s now without wishing my days away.

I hope I always have a next step to plan for. I hope there’s always a reason to look ahead with excitement. The day that I wake up and realize there’s nothing exciting in my future would be a sad day, indeed. But I need to work on looking ahead to tomorrow without rushing through today.

I need to teach myself to focus more on the present. Most importantly, I need to learn that while it’s okay to plan and prepare, it’s useless to worry about the future. The universe has a tendency to work itself out for the best. My worrying won’t make a bit of difference in the end. All it does is steal my joy in the present.

Each day I look at the calendar and mentally tally up the days until our trip and the days until the next chapter in our lives begins. Each day it gets a little easier as the wait gets shorter. But every once in a while I need to remind myself to slow down. I need to remind myself that someday I’ll look back on this time in our lives, and I’ll wish I hadn’t counted down so anxiously to its end.

Photo by wdecora

Slow down, you’re moving too fast

Almost two months ago, I started training to run my first 5K. I started out strong and motivated, but instead of getting easier, it’s been getting harder.

For the past few weeks, motivation has been a problem for me. As the runs became longer and more intense, my drive to get myself into the gym every night started waning. I wasn’t progressing in the Couch to 5K program as quickly as I wanted, and I was dreading my workouts instead of looking forward to them.

Last week, I came close to giving up. So I decided I needed a new game plan.

Couch to 5K is based on interval training with a blend of walking and running. It begins with equal intervals of walking and running, but as your training builds, the walking intervals decrease and running times increase. I was doing well in the sprints, but as the running intervals increased, I started to struggle.

This week I wanted to increase my endurance, and so I decreased my speed a little. I’d been setting my running pace at the same miles per hour from the beginning, but I realized that the speed that worked well for shorts sprints during interval training was too fast to sustain on longer jogs.

Sure enough, my endurance was much better at the slower speed. I made it through my first long run without walking on Monday, and last night, I ran a mile straight without walking for the first time. (YES! PROGRESS!)

So I’ve changed my game plan. Couch to 5K was a fantastic training plan for me in the beginning, but it’s not working for me anymore, so I’ve developed my own training plan. I’m focusing on distance and endurance instead of speed.

I have about a month to build from a 1-mile run to 3 miles for my 5K at the end of March. With each workout, I’m going to increase my distance by a quarter mile, but my pace will remain at a relatively steady jog. As the jogs get easier, I’ll gradually increase my pace. My goal is to run the entire 5K in under 40 minutes. That may seem slow to seasoned runners, but it would be a victory for me.

It’s a relief to realize that I’m not failing just because one training plan didn’t work for me. It doesn’t matter how I get there as long as I accomplish my goal.

My problem was that I was trying to do too much too fast. I wanted to see results overnight, and when it didn’t happen as quickly as I wanted, I came close to giving up. But I reminded myself that running is a discipline that takes time and dedication, just like saving money or getting out of debt. It’s about making progress little by little, step by step. It’s important to keep the ultimate goal in mind, but you also have to keep all of those little steps in mind to motivate yourself. You have to celebrate each little step as it brings closer to your goal.

My motivation is renewed, and I’m ready to try a new approach.

Photo by chezdom

5 ways budgeting and weight management are alike

This post was originally published on September 22, 2008.

One of my first posts was about how I lost weight using basic budgeting skills. Now that I’m working to get healthier, I wanted to revisit the topic. Only this time I’m talking about why constant monitoring and reassessment are crucial to staying physically and financially fit.

Here are some tips I’ve found helpful when managing my weight and my budget:

1. Be realistic.

Sometimes it’s necessary to go on a strict budget to pay down massive debt. You may have to cut all discretionary spending for a little while to overcome a major financial hurdle. However, if you try to maintain that level of restriction for too long, it’s harder to stay on track and meet your own high expectations.

Your best bet is to find a comfortable balance between necessary bills, discretionary spending, and saving. Maintaining a reasonable budget requires constant monitoring, but it shouldn’t be incredibly difficult or make you feel deprived.

2. Frequently monitor your progress to catch yourself before you veer too far off track.

Once you find a comfortable budget, it’s crucial that you measure your progress regularly. Without careful planning and monitoring, you could easily throw your entire monthly budget off track with one weekend of bad decisions. Imagine how bad it could get if you just stopped monitoring your spending for months at a time.

Just as you check your budget frequently to make sure you’re not overspending, you must weigh yourself regularly. A slight increase in weight could alert you to a problem in your diet and activity before you veer off track to an unmanageable degree.

3. The longer you avoid the problem, the harder it is to resolve.

It’s much easier to pay off your credit card balance every month than it is to pay down several thousand dollars of debt that’s accrued over months or years. It’s also a lot harder to lose weight when the pounds have packed on over time. Overcoming a 1-pound weight gain usually just involves watching what you eat closely for a few days. It’s a lot harder to get back on track if you wait until you’re 40 pounds overweight.

4. Constantly adjust according to your changing needs.

When it comes to budgeting, everybody knows that you can’t continue spending the same after a major pay cut. When your income decreases, your spending must decrease, too. Likewise, when you welcome a new baby, your discretionary spending is probably going to take a hit to accommodate for diapers and formula.

You must find the same balance between activity and calorie intake for weight management. I first started struggling to maintain my weight after my job changed two years ago. In retail, I was on my feet 8 hours a day running around the store, moving heavy objects, and constantly moving. I didn’t watch my diet as closely as I should have, but the constant activity made it easy to keep extra weight off. Now that I’m sitting at a desk all day instead of moving, I need to seek out more activity outside of my job and become mindful of what I eat to avoid weight gain.

5. Sticking to it and making the right choices are the hardest parts.

Everyone knows that the easiest way to stay ahead of the game financially is to spend less than you make. We also know that the best way to maintain a healthy weight is to burn more calories than you consume. It all sounds so easy when you break it down into those simple equations, doesn’t it? The truth it, it’s not that easy.

The part that’s left out of that equation is the constant struggle every day to make the right choices and stick to your commitment. After all, if it was as easy as it sounds, nobody would struggle with their weight or their finances.

The best thing that weight control and budget management have in common? They’re both totally worth the struggle.

Photo by nataliejohnson