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Upcycled Presents – DIY Present Idea

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I mentioned a week or so ago that I had completed my Christmas shopping for my immediate family in Texas. Everything I bought is handmade and mostly upcycled out of recycled materials. I am thrilled with my finds. I just picked up the items for my brothers today and wanted to share this really neat idea with you.

These Tiki Torch/Bug Repellant bottles were made for me by Susanne at Upcycled Inspirations. She lives on the lake and they fill these with Citronella to keeps the bugs away when they are out on their dock or deck by the water.

The Perfect Gift

While my brothers don’t live on the water, they LOVE the Cowboys football team and are definitely outdoorsy kind of dudes. I thought this would be perfect AND they are made from upcycled liquor bottles that Susanne collects from neighbors, restaurants and wherever else she can find them (can you say dumpster diving – my words, not hers.) How cool is this idea? And how affordable since probably most of know someone that could provide some bottles.

I love DIY presents, and this would be a great one to do for those outdoor living people in your life. And if you are like me and don’t have the time or desire to gather the supplies and put them together…well, you can hit up Susanne and she will take care of you.  She loaded some images of the other cool stuff she does on her Facebook page.

I do not know Susanne personally, I just met her at a craft fair downtown in our tiny town a couple of weeks ago. I am not receiving any kick back for this post (although I wouldn’t turn it down.) I just wanted to let you know about this cool DIY present and give credit where credit was due.


On the Job Hunt Again

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I am on the job hunt again. I hate it. (It was just two years ago, that this same thing happened, just in time for the holidays.) And I hate writing this post. I am not going to mince words. During my job interview with my W2 job last February, I was very clear with them. In fact, after I started we were so clear, that the two owners (a married couple) and my boss and I signed a statement saying I would be in the office from 7am until 2:30pm every day. At no time during the interview process was it discussed that my job would require me to work almost every weekend, the first of every month beginning at 12am PT and many nights. Never discussed.

The Reality of My Working Hours

Since I started in March, I have worked all but 6ish weekends, and at least 3-4 nights a week I must do something either overnight or after I leave the office. I’ve actually been okay with that. Just did it. I’m used to crazy hours as an entrepreneur and I just did it.

In August, I worked 6 days straight with minimum sleep as a HUGE project was dumped in my lap just two weeks before the due date. A project that I had been told up until it was assigned to me that someone else would be handling it (a 3rd party vendor.)

Not one time have I been offered comp time for these extra hours, no flex options and typically no thank you. I have been truly fine with it.

We Don’t Like This

A couple of months ago, they started making noises about not liking that I left at 2:30pm every day. No complaints about my work, no missed deadlines, not a word about issues with my work. It boiled down to they don’t like where I sit when I do the work. Literally. If I am not at the desk in their office…absolutely crazy.

They then pointed out that if I wasn’t in the office I need to take PTO. I said, that’s fine. I will do that. But I don’t want to hear complaints or get emails all day saying “do this now.” (I took PTO last Friday for Gymnast meet and received no less than 12 “it’s on fire, fix it now” emails.) I am the only person who can do what I do, there is no redundancy or anyone with my skill set. That gave them pause, but not enough to say what they said next.

We are Letting You Go if…

If you don’t work 8am-5pm, we need to let you go and replace you. BUT only after you do all the work through the end of the year and take care of our big seasonal web flip in February. Seriously, we are firing you after you do everything we want you to do.

This is a snippet of the email they sent after the meeting (I added the notes in italics for clarification:)

  • Early January – we will determine if we will continue with this schedule or be able to adapt to another one at that time based on scheduling shifts that may be happening for Hope. (I have never wavered that I must leave at 2:30pm, Gymnast must be in training by 4pm, leaving at 2:30pm gives me just enough time to get him and get to gym. Then I sit down and work for another 4 hours on what ever I need to work on.)
    • If we do not see a schedule change in the future then we will all work towards a February 16, 2018 final day of employment.

If a February 16th final day is where we are heading (we will know for sure in early January 2018) then the following are the commitments from each side:

  • Company Name will not start the search process until after January 1, 2018 and will continue employment for Hope through February 16, 2018.
  • Hope has already started the job search process (I started the job search a month ago when the owner came in and made it clear she didn’t like my work schedule, the writing on the wall was getting clear to me then.), however, she has committed to complete the Spring & Summer 2018 website and iOffice transition (February 2018) without interruption – even if she finds another job that she accepts – she is committing to seeing this project through to completion for the company.

Here I am back on the job hunt. I love what I do. I actually really like most of the people I work with at my W2 job. I do not like being dumped on, taking advantage of and being bullied.

I know it won’t do any good and I’m over trying to fight for this job, but I am now documenting all the “extra” time I put in beginning with today. I received all the graphics, video and text for something that must be put out tomorrow night (Sunday at 12 PT – I must get up at 3am ET) at 4:18pm yesterday. This is very typical. I must now create the format, export contact lists, send the test emails and wait for approval (texting people to review since they aren’t working,) schedule the sends and so on.

I have learned a lot from my foray back into the corporate world after 11 years away. I don’t know if it is the right fit for me, but I am working with several headhunters now, and plan to begin pounding the pavement, literally, to see if I can pull in some new 1099 clients.


Expensive Day!

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Yesterday was an EXPENSIVE day, though not as bad as it could have been.

My car is a 2011 and, all in all, it has been pretty reliable. We’ve had some bad luck in the tire department in the past year, but (knock on wood), we’ve never had any major mechanical issues. All we need to do is regular, routine maintenance and the car has been great for us!

So when the brakes started squeaking a few weeks ago, I knew it would be time to replace them soon.

But life has been busy with work, school, and the holiday season approaching. I’ve kept putting it off, not wanting to spend the money. Then over the weekend, the brakes progressed from what I would describe as a “squeal” to what I would describe as a “grate.” It was truly an awful noise – the kind that hurts your ears, like nails on a chalkboard. I knew it was time to get in STAT!

I called around to a few shops to compare prices and went with a nearby shop that I trust. New brakes, rotors, fluid, and a serpentine belt later, my bill came to $643.28. Ouch! 

But never forget to Google for coupons! I’d taken my laptop and was working in the waiting room while my car was being serviced. As a last-minute thing, I decided to google coupons for the services I was receiving. And I stumbled across a 15% off coupon, good for all parts and service at the shop I was using!

When I went to pay, they scanned the coupon from my phone and my bill dropped to $549.11. BAM!

But it gets better still! The brakes I got came with a $50 online rebate. I had to wait 24-hours to enter my information, but I did so today and will be receiving a $50 rebate check in the mail in the next couple weeks.

That officially brings my total down to $499.11!

Still an expensive day, to be sure, but not nearly as bad as it could have been! And all because I was willing to do a little Google search to find applicable coupons while I waited.

No one wants to drop $500 on car repairs, especially around the holidays and at a time when we’re really not doing well financially. But to put things in perspective, $500 amounts to less than 2 months of the old car payment (I paid off the car in January 2016). Since we’ve owned the car an entire 2 years since then free-and-clear, a $500 investment here and there to keep the car in good running order is not too bad. I’m very grateful we no longer have that monthly payment in our list of bills!

 

Have you had any major car repairs lately? 


Open Enrollment Completed

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Thank you so much for all the tips and comments on my Open Enrollment post! I really found the comments to be insightful and incredibly helpful as I decided on my plans.

In the end, I opted to keep my current insurance (a PPO) and a flex spending account for both health and dependent care purchases. I may still switch to an HSA in the future, but didn’t feel comfortable doing so without any EF whatsoever right now. So it will be a consideration in future years, but not at this time.

I increased the amount of deductions for my health HSA but reduced the deductions for my dependent care HSA. And the cost of my medical insurance went up a little as well.

In the end, here are the benefits-related deductions I’ll see per paycheck:

In my open enrollment post, I’d posted all of my paycheck deductions (including required investment, taxes, parking permit, etc.) But to do an apples-to-apples comparison of just the benefits-related deductions (including health insurance, dental insurance, and the two FSA contributions), here’s how things stack up:

2016 per paycheck deduction = $382.90

2017 per paycheck deduction = $340.33

So I’ll be saving a little bit per check, but its really a pretty negligible amount. I also hope to reduce the amount of taxes taken out (pending the CPA’s review), so I may be able to “add back” a little bit more money to my take-home pay after our 2016 taxes have been finalized.

All in all, it’s still a pretty large deduction per paycheck, but I have excellent insurance and am happy with our coverage thus far. I pay for my dad’s health insurance (albeit out of his own funds, but I am the money-manager), and he pays $1,000/month for private insurance for a single individual with crappy coverage! Ugh! So I know I am really very lucky to have such good coverage at such a great rate! And as an aside, my Dad’s birthday is in March and at that time he’ll be eligible for Medicare. So hopefully that means a big reduction in his  health insurance costs.

I just wanted to follow-up to let everyone know what we’d decided regarding open enrollment. Thanks, again, for all your helpful suggestions!

~Ashley

 


Tuition Waivers for Graduate Students

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Has anyone heard about the newly proposed tax plan regarding graduate student tuition waivers? If not, take a sec and read this piece Forbes published, linked here.

In a nutshell, under the new plan, any graduate student who receives a tuition waiver will be taxed on the amount of tuition that was waived. This can amount anywhere from $25-$60k+/year of what would be considered “taxable income” under the new plan. People I know still in graduate school are freaking out, calling friends and family to reach out to legislators, and trying to figure out what this might mean for the future of their educational journey.

I have super mixed feelings on the whole thing.

If you remember my debt journey (if not, read some background here), you know that my own graduate school story was a bit of a mixed bag. The university in southern Florida where I went for my Master’s Degree did NOT offer guaranteed tuition waivers. I ended up paying nearly $50,000 for two years of school tuition, accumulating nearly $70,000 in total debt when including total living expenses.

I had the option to stay for my Ph.D., but opted to move to another university because, in short, we were BROKE! We could not afford to continue living in the super $$$ area of the country paying $$$ for my education.

So we moved to a different university, which did offer tuition waivers in addition to offering paid RA and TA positions (research assistant/teaching assistant). The salary was next-to-nothing, approximately $300/week for the 9-month academic year, but it was WORTH IT because I got to go to school for FREE! I still took out loans to help cover some of my living expenses, but at a much smaller rate compared to my previous 2 years of education.

The problem with the newly proposed tax plan is the mathematics involved. You can’t pay taxes on $25-$60k/year worth of forgiven tuition if you’re only earning $15,000/year. Where would the money come from??? Oh yeah…more loans.

The reason I’m torn is because, fundamentally, I believe in paying for the things we have. For example, my plan is to pay off my student loans ASAP rather than enter into one of the plans that would allow the debt to be forgiven in 10-15 years. First, I don’t want to wait that long to have it gone. Second, I distrust hand-out programs like this (will the forgiveness program still be there in a decade? Will the loans even be forgiven? I’ve read horror stories of it NOT working out for many who were mistakenly entered into the wrong type of loan repayment program. This is a whole other blog post in its own right. Take a second to read this heartbreaking piece on the topic). Third, it was my debt obligation, I promised to repay it, and I want to take care of it.

But I also see student loans as the next big “housing bubble.” I’m not the only one, right? Student loan debt is ballooning at an alarming rate. What is going to happen when all these students default on their loans and are unable to repay them (and/or the debt is forgiven)??? I fear it could lead to another economic crisis. So anything to minimize student loans is a GOOD thing in my eyes. From that perspective, it’s not a good idea to tax the forgiven tuition because it could end up just being more money (paid for on a student loan) that is never repaid in the end.

I’m very glad to now be in the workforce, fully finished with all of my educational pursuits. But I worry not only about my friends who are still graduate students, but about the country in general (for the reason outlined above). This is scary stuff!

What are your thoughts? Should graduate students pay taxes on the amount of graduate tuition that is waived? Or should things remain as they are currently – where universities “forgive” the tuition internally and it is not counted as taxable income? What are other potential implications of the proposed tax plan?


Competition Season is Upon Us

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All the months of training, all the months of driving hours back and forth to practice, all the blog debate on the cost of my kids’ activities (that is supposed to make you smile,) today is the day we have been preparing for! The competition season is upon us! Gymnast and I drove about 3 1/2 hours last night to be ready for his first gymnastics meet of the season today.  Woot, woot. I cannot wait to watch him fly!

Pictures of Gymnast competing a couple of years ago.

Now before you jump on me for the cost of this endeavor, it is built into my budget, Gymnast’s training cost $240 per month during the season (less in the summer when he comes less often.) I have $350 per month in the budget to cover the costs of attending meets and meet fees.  Financially, I have planned for this.

With that being said, and with my goal of getting rid of some debts before the end of the calendar year, I am doing my best to squeeze every single cent out of my budget. I thought I would share some of my tips and tricks I have learned over the last 7 years of having a child in a competitive sport (and now two children in competitive sports.)

Tips for Managing and Controlling the Expense of Competitive Sports

  1. Barter – you know this is my go to trick. I bartered for 4 years of Tae Kwon Do training, culminating with Princess getting a internationally recognized Black Belt. I also bartered for 4 years of gymnastics training. (And I am working on bartering for volleyball right now.) I have provided tech support, website design and general admin work in return for the monthly cost of training.
  2. Used Equipment – all the teams we have participated in have at least yearly “used equipment/uniform sales.” Taking advantage of these can literally save you hundreds of dollars a year. This year Gymnast uniform package cost me $200 dollars! I would have happily bought used if he weren’t the biggest boy on the team, alas, all new for him this year.  But you get my point, right?
  3. Car Pool – when we first started gymnastics, another little boy on our street did as well. We traded off driving every week, it was fantastic! It gave me some of my time back AND saved me some gas money. That is not an option where we are now, but if it were, I would jump at it!  I’m just grateful that now both kids will be in sports within a couple of miles of each other rather than states and counties away.  That will save me some time and money compared to the spring.
  4. Travel – If your sport requires travel with overnights, those hotels can quickly add up, especially with one or more competitions per month during the season. If at all possible, we have driven up and back on the same day, but sometimes, you just can’t do that (especially when there is only one driver who needs to sleep sometimes.) I have found three tricks for saving on hotels outside of the typical bargain hunting as far in advance as you can.
    1. Share a room with another teammate and their family. This is pretty uncomfortable to me, being a single mom, so not one we really do. But I know others who do this regularly.
    2. Use credit card points for hotel stays. Now this one I do ALL the time, and was probably the reason I was no opposed to giving up my credit card use. I have one card I use, that I use like a rolling line of credit, use it and pay it. The points add up quickly that way. That is how I paid for Gymnast and my room last night.
    3. Join hotel points programs, and save them up. I am a member of two Hotel programs, both free to join. Any time we travel, I look for those hotels first. Every dollar spent, we get points. Every night spent, we get points. You get the picture. (Most of them also have credit cards that allow you to earn more points. As tempted as I am at times, I know that is not a wise choice for me.) Those points add up. And we use them for stays.
  5. Food – Nuts, granola bars, jerky. I keep some of each in my car, all the time. It helps quench the “I’m dying of hunger” needs without stopping at the most convenient drive thru or convenient store. This is especially key after practice when we are still an hour away from home.In addition, all our hotel choices when we travel, offer FREE breakfast and most of the time have a free fruit snack for kids i.e. apples. When we travel, we pack the meal for the ride there. Typically sandwiches and chips. This typically leaves us with 1 maybe 2 meals that I must pay for. In all cases, we drink water, depending on how many of us go, this can save me up to $15.

These are just a few of the tips I have learned over the years. There are as natural as breathing to me. My kids are also well versed in our frugal-ness when traveling.

One thing we like to do when we are in a new place, as we will be a lot this year, is try things unique to those places (within reason.) Typically, one child gets on Yelp to find the restaurant.  We LOVE Yelp in that we can find things based on food type, cost and location. If they choose something that is a bit more pricey, not all the way pricey, they know as soon as we sit down and I eyeball the menu, they will get a budget for their meal. It’s fun to watch them barter and share things to try more, get more.


Open Enrollment

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First, thanks so much for the many thoughtful (and kind!) comments on my budget post. When I saw the comment count shoot up it made me nervous to read through them, but almost everyone was really very kind and forgiving (and generous in offering support, tips, advice, etc.) THANK YOU!

Speaking to one of the common comment themes I saw – many people asked about my take-home pay. For a $95k salary, my take-home ($2440/biweekly) is pretty low. The reason for this is that I have a LOT of things withheld and/or paid from my check pre-tax. This list includes the following (all numbers from my most recent paycheck):

  • Medical insurance ($125.50/check)
  • Dental insurance ($52.28/check)
  • FSA – Health ($68.37/check)
  • FSA – Dependent Care ($136.75/check)
  • Retirement account (required and already investing at the lowest amount so no chance to reduce – $256.91/check)
  • Parking permit ($38.45/check)

Plus, of course, all my taxes as well ($552.13 from my last check).

If I added this all up correctly, that comes to a whopping $1230.39 taken from my check before it hits my direct deposit! WHOA! That’s a third of my check!

So the question came up – can I change some of these things so I can get back more money per paycheck. And the answer is – YES! Right now is my open enrollment period and I’d LOVE to have some help with figuring things out! Let me address things one at a time.

Taxes

I can likely lower my tax withholdings per check, but have opted not to make any changes right now. Taxes are not part of my open enrollment, so I can change those at any time. Based on what feels best to me (and many comments/advice I’ve received), I’m going to do our 2017 taxes ASAP once the new year hits. That will give us a better feel for how much we really owe and we can make adjustments accordingly. Given our huge tax debt (that we’ll be paying on for what feels like a lifetime), we’ve opted NOT to reduce our withholdings for the time being. We’re likely over-paying a little this year, but we feel okay with that – any extra money can go to help reduce the tax bill and we can re-adjust after the CPA has gone over everything.

Retirement, Dental, Parking

These are all pretty well “set” and cannot be changed. We have limited options for dental – I can decline the insurance, but we use it and need it. So it stays. In terms of parking, I live too far to walk/bike and don’t have anyone living nearby to ride-share with. So unless I switch up my Mom car for a motorcycle (never happening), this bill is pretty much “set” too. Retirement is required by my employer. I used to invest a full 10%, but have reduced down to the minimum (7%) already. No way to make this any lower.

Medical 

So here is where I could REALLY use some advice. Currently, we have a PPO plan and this entire year I’ve been thinking that, come open enrollment, we’d switch to a HSA. But when I started really doing some research to compare the two options, I think we’d end up spending MORE with the HSA. Yes, we’d save on monthly premiums, but the out-of-pocket costs and deductibles are much higher.  Here are some side-by-side comparisons I put together. What do you think?

Health Savings Account PPO 
Per-paycheck Premium $61 $150 (note: this is more than listed above because premiums are going up)
Overall Deductible In-network:

$1300/employee; $2600/family

In-network:

$500/employee; $1,000/family

Other Deductibles Non-preventive prescription coverage:

$1300/employee; $2600/family

None
Out-of-pocket limit In-network:

$2,000/employee; $4,000/family

In-network:

$1,000/employee; $2,000/family

Not included in out-of-pocket limit Premiums and health care not covered by the plan Premiums, drug co-pays, and health care not covered by the plan
Annual limit on what the plan pays None None
Costs for common services with in-network providers.

Primary care to treat illness or injury

Specialist visit

Other practitioner office visit

Preventive care /screening

Diagnostic (x-ray, blood work)

Imaging (CT/PET/MRI)

Mental health

Generic drugs

 

 

10% co-insurance

10% co-insurance

10% co-insurance

No charge

10% co-insurance

10% co-insurance

10% co-insurance

non-preventive: 100% until deductible is met. Preventive: $10 copay

 

 

$15 copay

$30 copay

$10 copay for OB/GYN

$15 copay primary care; $10 OB/GYN

No charge

No charge

$15 copay

$10 copay

 

I receive biweekly pay (26 checks/year). So the HSA annual premium is $1586. The PPO annual premium is $3900 (a difference of $2314). But if we’re having to pay $2600 for our family health deductible + $2600 for the prescription deductible (compared to a $1,000 deductible for the PPO plan), I think it’s just too much money out-of-pocket! (though, caveat, I’m no expert with healthcare – does the out-of-pocket max only apply to healthcare, or would that also include prescription coverage??)

My thought is that we’d be better to stay in the PPO. It also scares me to think of paying 10% of any imaging, diagnostic, etc. We’ve been lucky thus far (knock on wood), but we have young kids – broken bones are a given at some point, right?

Those more experienced than I am – thoughts?

Flex Spending Accounts

The dependent care account contributions will decrease in 2018 and even moreso in 2019. Right now, we still have hefty monthly bills. Our girls are in kindergarten and, though half-day kinder is state-subsidized, the state does not cover the costs of full-day kinder. We pay that. The total was actually right about $1,000/month, but we paid out of our FSA a huge chunk for one of our kids’ entire semester of tuition (for which we received a discount). We’ve been paying the remaining costs out-of-pocket (the dependent care FSA was depleted months ago).  For next year, we’ll only have one semester worth of full-day kinder costs (the second half of the year they’ll advance to first grade – totally free!), plus the costs of care for summer and after-care, as needed. (Note: several people have suggested that hubs take over childcare so I just wanted to address that here:  hubs does handle the bulk of childcare. Where we live, half-day kinder is 8:30-11:30am. Hubs is in classes full-time that extends well beyond that timeframe. The full day kinder program is 8:30-3:00pm. Currently, hubs gets the girls at 3:00pm every day except Wednesday – his long day – so we pay very little in “after care” at the present time. Just one day per week. This arrangement is unlikely to change for the rest of the academic year).

Bottom line, we should be able to lower the amount of FSA money withheld for dependent care for next year, thus increasing the size of my take-home pay.

The health care FSA is entirely dependent upon whichever medical plan we choose. If we get the HSA, we’ll use the health savings account. If we keep the PPO, we’ll keep a flex spending account for medical expenses. This year, we put $1750 in our health FSA and it was not nearly enough. If we keep the PPO, we’ll increase our health FSA contributions probably to about $2250-ish (though I’d need to crunch numbers first).

So the big question is…..HSA or PPO (with a FSA)? Pros and cons? What are your thoughts and why?


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