Logical Budgeting

After going through the Dave Ramsey course and having my own budget framework for years I’ve come to some solid conclusions about how to budget. Let me say if you haven’t gone through Financial Peace University you should definitely do that before you start making any additional tweaks. Also, finding a local organization that is teaching the course provides some camaraderie as you go through this difficult process. FPU It is a great primer on the changes necessary and the thought process that you have to live in a way different than the ever present marketing machine suggests. I like a lot of what Dave Ramsey has to say and many of his thoughts are what we have built into our budget however there are some difficult pills to swallow that make living in today’s world challenging if you do it completely Dave’s way.

The biggest one of these issues is going cash only. We do use the envelope system and I’m all about not charging anything on to revolving accounts that is going to cost me more than it would to pay cash. But the reality of getting the best deal sometimes requires that you use something other than cash. Debit cards are great but if they were hacked then you’re on the hook for that cash until your bank figures it out. While that may not be a worry to you I know for me losing all of the money out of my main bank account would cause significant problems almost immediately. So here are two easy tweaks that can help with that:

1. Don’t have a debit card on your main checking or savings accounts. Set up a separate account where you’re spending money that you’re going to use on your debit card will go. Thanks to my dad’s military service during the Vietnam conflict we were able to set up with USAA which is a great bank that allows for almost immediate deposit some checks into their accounts. We send money to that account that we plan to spend during the month as well as savings that is for things like Christmas and Birthdays. We have found that setting a budget item for those events helps as we plan through the year. If you know that you have to drive from New Mexico to Missouri and purchase gifts for two families along with food gas and any other activities you can take a projected amount and break it down into monthly saving amount. This is different from your emergency or long-term savings which we leave at our traditional brick and mortar bank. Having this money set-aside into an account that is easily accessible for us from anywhere in the country as USAA waves all ATM fees is important. Additionally it provides another layer of security as there are no debit cards on our primary checking or savings accounts. American Express offers a similar banking set up for those that are not from a military family.

2. Use Charge Cards. In reality you have to use a credit card or charge card in today’s society. Maybe will argue against me and that’s fine but the reality is that it will cost you more with some of the issues that are related to debit cards and other steps if you don’t have something you can use. Now our credit cards are only in payback mode there are no new charges going on those and the debt snowball is working against those balances. But one of the interesting new changes in the way credit scores or calculated is the charge cards like American Express are not counted against your credit score. So having a charge card provides two positive things. First year of the protection of using a credit card, with travel benefits, points and things of that nature. But most importantly with the charge card, you must pay off the balance in the next 30 days from the closing of the statement. The benefit to this mindset is that you’re constantly looking at the balance thinking about how you’re going to pay it. There is not a thought about paying it over time. Now they’ve come up with options to pay charge card balances over time so like everything else this requires self-control. But in reality an American Express charge card has benefited our budgeting and financial processes.

One final thought there are charges for charge cards and less you get the basic American Express card. Something to fight against is the urge to have a credit card somehow serve as a status symbol. You might think I’m crazy but American Express has several levels and most of them above the Gold Preferred Rewards don’t make sense. The Platinum card could be useful if you travel in charge travel on that card, But for most of us the $550 annual fee is ridiculous. And if you want to talk about completely ridiculous how about the Centurion Black Card that comes with the first year cost of $10,000 and an ongoing cost of $2500 per year with no sign-up bonus and fewer bonus points than gold or platinum. Clearly someone brilliant of American Express said hey what if we do this… and sure enough someone bit. It’s the air of exclusivity the thought of being special when in reality it’s just money and learning how to manage it is very important or it will manage you.

Be you. Take care of the pennies and let the dollars take care of themselves.

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What we leave behind.

I am often reminded of the wake of our lives and how our actions impact others. I have this bad habit of replaying whole conversations, or sometimes days in my head after the fact to think about how that conversation sounds from a third person’s viewpoint. I replay it in my head as I sit in judgment on all that has been said by others and myself, work through what was going on and the undercurrents I might have missed. This allows me to consider others and make corrections for my sometimes caustic behavior. Often my family is the topic of this replay as I am always more concerned about what I say and do with them. How are my actions today impacting my kids? It’s very hard to see the long-term, but most certainly my actions do impact them.

I am reminded of a poem that I once heard my grandma recite to my father. It addresses sons, but in my mind it applies just as much to my daughter…a-little-fellow-follows-me-wooden

The other side of the world I now see as my father slips from the best years of life into twilight. As he gets closer to the end of his time on earth I see his actions in my own more and more. He isn’t perfect, but neither am I. That is the realization that is too long in coming, but may be part of middle age. We become like our fathers, but I continue to work to keep the good and overcome my irritation and frustration with that little chap and my little princess and focus on the good. We still discipline the same, but they are kids…and they are watching and learning how to be adults by my actions everyday. My actions will not only make him the young man he will be, but may lead him one day to realize that I’m not perfect, but neither is he…maybe its those imperfections that make us family. Loving each other unconditionally through the good, the bad and the ugly.

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Time flies when you focus on all the wrong things.

Sometimes it’s easier to see the negative than the positive. Exhaustion ensues when you bite off more than you can chew. The other option is not being as busy, but likely taking it just as hard as if you were truly underwater. 

Sometimes I think God forgets his promise to never give us more than we can handle. As I write this I notice I haven’t posted in 218 days, I have being away from family in my mind, a paper to proof on my lap and about 75 statistics problems to finish in my bag. This is coupled with a tough job that has beaten many folks in my shoes, bad news on the front page and my wife being just as swamped. I seem to focus on these things. I want a weekend at home without work. But this is a non-stop cycle. You work all year to get the class in August and full on travel starts in September. There is no rest. I focus on these things.

What I sometimes fail to focus on are the lessons that this job teaches. I work really hard to leave work at work now. I’m always thinking, but after working. Non-stop for the day, weekends and nights there has to be some relief. I try to focus totally on my family in the evening. I don’t want to travel so I work hard to be out and back as quickly as possible. Even now I’m drifting off as I write.

Family has to come first. If a job requires more than you can give, give your best, but remember that you are the only parent to your kids. You are the only partner for your spouse. You are the only son or daughter to your parents. 

I welcomed some students to campus yesterday and I talked to them about the three pillars. Duty, Honor and Achievement. What strikes me today is that we strive to do the best we can for our jobs, our organizations, others…but we can often lose sight of the forest for the trees. Our first duty is to God, but family is second to no one else. It’s our duty to be a good parent, good son or daughter and overall a good person. We have to focus on honor, doing everything the right way and not being too proud to say ‘I’m sorry’. You see we can’t achieve long term success without our family being taken care of. Constant work causes constant worry and beats down each of us.

I don’t know the answer, but if you’re in a position that doesn’t mesh with your life, make a change. Don’t repeat the same shortcomings over and over. Focus on what IS TRULY important and let the little stuff take care of itself!

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Camo Kitty

I pulled out of the drive in a rush to get somewhere. Who knows where…I am a father of two with a new job completing a Doctoral program…we’re always doing something. Wake up, school bus, work, home, swim team or scouts. Constant motion until the kids go to bed and my wife and I try to stay awake for class work or grading. Monday through Friday, then whatever the weekend holds. I rarely stop to smell the roses, but others are watching…

I sometimes wonder who sees our zaniness as we come in long enough to change and grab a bite then we’re gone again. When we do have a weekend at home and we spend time outside…we’re not quiet people.

A few weeks ago I pulled out of the drive and something wasn’t right. There were eyes in the mailbox! At first I knew that Big Brother had finally caught up with me! Then on closer inspection I saw Sadie, our black cat peering back at me. Her calm demeanor punctuated by her ability to blend in flawlessly with a mailbox was impressive. Her mom sat patiently under the mailbox with similar poise. The calm reminded me that sometimes we must slow down and watch the show. When we’re in the heat of battle, we rarely take a moment to laugh at our kids and ourselves. Sadie saw the whole picture…and all I could hear was Crosby Sills and Nash singing:

Our house is a very, very fine house

With two cats in the yard

Life used to be so hard

Now everything is easy

‘Cause of you 


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While You Were Sleeping

The branches of the crab apple tree away gently in the breeze as I sit with my sleeping grandmother. She rests silently and I think back to my children and the peace after the storm of sitting with them while they sleep. All the battles, joys and disappointments left behind in a moment of peaceful slumber. 

Life is too hectic, too busy and the opportunities to sit and listen to the sounds of nature come less and less. But in a day away from the routine I think back to all the days my grandmother held me in silence while I slept. Saw the smiles or grimaces of passing dreams and was there with me in that moment. The time melting away as wax down a candle. 

Did she hold me a little longer because in her dreams she saw what life could have been for her son Roddy? Did she retreat to her memories after her mother passed when she was 7. When she lost a son and her husband to cancer, did she find comfort in her dreams? Life’s trials are almost over and she rests quietly I the chair beside me.

These days are drawing to a close, the flame from her candle flickers as the wick is running short. Soon she will move to the land eternal. 

In this moment I see the beauty in old age and take a time to pay a long forgotten debt.

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The State of our Union.

Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.

Abraham Lincoln

Our nation struggles to find itself from time to time. During the 1800s we decided that we would no longer legitimize holding others in bondage. In the 1900s we decided that women and people of all races should have the same rights as men. In this generation, we are deciding that the state has no right to know the inner workings of your bedroom.

The real issue through all of these freedoms has been a strong economy to drive the changes forward and provide a strong foundation to build upon. Today, the fundamentals of our economy are no longer sound. We spend more than we bring in and as anyone with basic budgeting skills can tell you that can’t last forever. In 2009,for the first time in American history, more than half of American households paid zero income tax. While the reasons are debatable, that 51% of American households paid no income tax in 2009 is a fact (Marr & Che-Ching, 2012). The question becomes are we all willing to give up services or pay more taxes to make the budget balance. This includes those who paid no taxes and those who received an earned income credit even though they paid no taxes as well as those multi-billionaires who pay some of the lowest overall rates. One more thing, there are 235 companies that use overseas tax havens to avoid paying their share of doing  business in the US. According to the Huffington Post, “…there are 235 other companies that told the SEC that they’re holding profits overseas but didn’t disclose their hypothetical U.S. tax rate, according to the CTJ report. In total, these non-disclosing companies hold almost $1.3 trillion in non-repatriated profits abroad, CTJ found. Are we willing to stop buying these products?

Additionally, we must make drastic spending cuts in all areas of government. No ones pet projects aside, we must cut ALL AREAS OF GOVERNMENT.

In the end, I feel like Lincoln’s quote is completely accurate, but it must be coupled with a quote from Lewis Mumford:

The liberal’s lack of a sense of history carries a special disability: it makes him identify all his values with the present. Should the present be a shabby one, he quickly comes to the conclusion that the country which exhibits the practical vices and mischiefs he deplores is unworthy of his allegiance.  But a country is more than the people and institutions tht exist in a single generation. The America we must save today, for example, is not just the America of shifty politicians and go-getting advertisers and slimy industrialists who would like to “make a deal” with  the fascists. nor is it the America of Hearst, Ford and Father Coughlin. No self-respecting person would lift a finger to save that.

But our America is the America of Adams and Jefferson, the America of Joseph Henry and Audubon and William James, the America of Whitman and Melville and Olmsted and Richardson, the America that may therefore still be realized in time to come by reason of all the ideas and forces and impulses that have come down to us from the past and are pushing into the future. Our country cannot be identified with “capitalism,” because many of the most precious parts of our heritage long antedated capitalism and will long survive it.

Lewis Mumford, 1940

America is worth saving. Are we all willing to do what it takes to make America work again?

Berman, J. (n.d.). 18 Of America’s Biggest Companies Using Tax Havens To Skirt $92 Billion In U.S. Taxes: CTJ. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/03/apple-tax-havens_n_3378935.html

Marr, C., & Chye-Ching, H. (2012, September 17). Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=3505

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Learning the Chicken Dance at 88.

I remember learning the chicken dance as an adult at the first German wedding I attended. As I thought, “How ridiculous!, You want me to do WHAT!?!” Then you begin the dance with the hand beaks comes a smirk, the chicken wings bring on a smile and by the time you are shaking your bottom, you are beginning a laugh. By the third rendition, it is raucous frivolity. EVERYONE has fun…even if you don’t want to.

My grandmother is on her way to 90 years old and when you get a call that ‘the Sarge’ has slept until 2:00 PM, you pay attention. This is the Baptist Sunday School teacher who doesn’t dance, drink, curse or any of the other vices. In the strange way the Universe delivers what you need when you need it. We went to visit and my son had a ipod touch. He happened upon a copy of the Chicken Dance song and I taught my four year old son and my 88 year old grandmother the chicken dance on the same day. To be fair, my son has the body of a four year old, but sometimes struggles with what moves comes next and Grandmother could get the moves if only she could stand without her walker.

What started out as a trip to see my Grandmother and make sure my mom was okay, didn’t end as I expected. It ended with the Chicken Dance and laughter all around. RIDICULOUS! Some things cross ages and races and points to the ridiculousness of taking life too seriously.

I’m glad I lived in the Midwest and attended some great weddings with chicken dancing extraordinaires. But the greatest gift I could give to an old lady on a beautiful Sunday afternoon was a couple of nuts doing the chicken dance. It makes me remember Whitman’s words on  life, that each of us should heed while we can.

By Walt Whitman 1819–1892

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Source: Leaves of Grass (1892)
Today, my verse was the Chicken Dance in all its glory…
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