Monthly Archives: March 2010

New era for family finances

Call me a green socialist (or a tax and spend liberal like my Hubby likes to tease), but I couldn’t be more thrilled by the signing of the health care bill. I’m still in disbelief about how contentious its been…doesn’t everyone get sick, Democrats and Republicans alike?! Perhaps its because I lived in Denmark, but universal health care seems like a simple solution, especially when it could cost less for everyone and provide a societal safety net thats hard to put a price tag on.  I consider my family to be very lucky to have employer covered health insurance. Even though I know that we work hard to earn it, I believe that health care should be a human right, not an employer based privilege. Stories about families struggling due to health care costs are heart breaking, and I am hopeful that the new health care bill will improve the lives of many families.

The passage of the new student loan program is exciting too, both for myself and our kids. I was among the first in my family to graduate from college and while emotionally supportive, my parents couldn’t financially put my Sis and I through school. Between college and grad school I took out significant student loans, $66k total for six years of schooling, while working part-time throughout.
I been making payments for ten years now, and it really feels like I’m trapped in a sanctioned bank racket.  My loan has a 3.25% fixed interest, and last year I paid $3,456, but $3,051.74 was paid in interest, so only $404.26 was paid on my principle. Yet, even after a decade of consistent $288 monthly auto-payments, my loan still amounts to $46k. In all honesty, I was expecting that I may still be paying off my student loans when my children start college. This has been a challenge, because I want to start saving for college, but need to pay off my own debt first.

Thankfully student loan forgiveness is now available to hard working college grads. Moreover, families won’t have to incur the same level of debt to begin with larger tax credits and more Pell grants.  I am so thrilled that the next generation will not face the same insurmountable student debt. Thanks to my fellow “green socialists” who voted, spoke up and worked to make these significant policies possible.

Will your family benefit from the health care bill?
Are you saddled with student loans?

Sustainable Family Finances
The story of a family creating an abundant and sustainable life.

Middle Class – what’s that really?

I was intrigued to come across two references about the definition and creation of a so-called middle class.  What does being “middle class” really mean?

According to U.S. Todaythe income range is actually quite wide, from $51k – $123k annually. The size of average middle class homes has risen 40% in the past thirty years, but that’s likely to change again in the decade to come. They also assume that all middle class have two cars, not “just” one. Interestingly, the article mentioned a Pew poll among the middle class where 68% said that free time was their top priority, 12% said that being wealthy was the top priority. I’m all for abundance, but with young children family time reigns high. 

I n my own blog bio I describe our family as “middle class,” but they doesn’t really give the full story. I grew up in rural southern Oregon during the 80’s spotted-owl recession, and I always thought of my family as working class. Comparing myself with friends I always felt fortunate though and never thought of myself as “poor.” It was first when I applied for students loans that I realized my family was actually on the lower tier of the class strata. 

Next I met Hubby, actually my last year of college while he was in grad school. While so-called middle class, his family really hovers toward to top end of this vague social bracket. Thankfully, class level doesn’t determine your soul mate and life partner. While we occasionally have lively discussions about our different life perspectives, for the most part its not something that influences our relationship on a daily basis. I can only hope that as we raise our kids, we’ll teach them the value of doing what you love, giving back to society and sharing the abundance.

Yet, I’m not naive to think that class doesn’t play an intrinsic role in American society. Paul Krugman shares a history lesson about how the middle class society evolved rather quickly due to government policies, and how they have continued to change through political control of the classes. Check out his video:

New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman,  talks about Income Inequality and the Middle Class:

How does class play out in your family?
Do consider yourself to be middle class?

Sustainable Family Finances 
The story of a family creating an abundant and sustainable life.

Cost of Costco

If you had asked me prior to kids whether I would ever shop at Costco, I would have scoffed. In college I even wrote a paper reflecting on my thoughts of disbelief at the scale of consumption Costco enables and perpetuates. I couldn’t fathom that people would actually pay money to be a member of such a “sales” club. Who really needs a gallon of olive oil?!

I grew warmer to idea when I read an article about how they treat their workers, and how they are a liberal NW business. Yet, it was actually the diapers that sold us our membership. After getting a case of disposables as a gift, we were intrigued by the concept of being able to purchase staples every few months and then get our local organics delivered weekly. Very appealing indeed to a family who really rather do other things with our spare time than go shopping. Now that we use cloth, the diapers are no longer a draw and I’m thankful not to have to spend extra $40 every visit, but the case of baby wipes is still a must.

After three years as members, I’m beginning to question the true convenience and savings of Costco. 

  1. Because we try to go infrequently we end up blowing our monthly budget every time, although it does equal out over time as we don’t have to purchase items. Items average $10, so they add up very quickly!
  2. The nearest Costco is 22 miles round trip, although I do try to chain trips together.
  3. There are always temptations to buy more than your shopping list. My last splurges were new kiddie jammies and Easter dress, a case of wheat ale and organic Oregon wine, and some perennials. Extra price: $145.

Yep, I’ll admit it, neither very finaance nor eco-friendly. Are you a Costco member? 
Do you feel like your family really saves?

Sustainable Family Finances 
The story of a family creating an abundant and sustainable life.

Official Gift Policy

I’ve got a touchy subject that I’ve been struggling with for a while now: How do you tell generous family members that enough stuff is enough?

In our house, my Mother is the gift fairy. Virtually every time she visits she comes bearing assorted gifts. They usually aren’t extravagant, and typically are things she thinks we “need.” My Mother has only the best of intentions, and is always very thoughtful in her gift giving. That’s the reason why it’s so difficult to put my foot down. I’ve tried again and again to set limits and we’ve made some progress, but there always seems to be some extra gift. 

Now to my Mother’s defense, she  understands our green values, and I give her all the credit in the world for teaching me these values. She actually lived off the grid for over a decade, and is currently leading a green school transformation. She doesn’t bring cheap plastic trinkets, and has never given something that was inappropriate or toxic. She knows our BigGuy is a bookworm and brings books on a regular basis, which he loves!  I’ve had discussion with Mama friends, and always try to justify it by knowing that there are plenty of Grandparents who are more egregious consumers and truly “spoil.”  Yet, we don’t want our kids to feel entitled to her gifts.

On a financial level, I feel guilty about her spendy money on us and would rather she save her money to retire earlier and spend more time with the kids! I also don’t have a clear picture of her retirement situation, and want to make sure that she is taking care of herself first. There’s also the larger issue is that it feels like she puts a lot of time, money, and emotional energy into her gift giving that could be better shared with our family in other ways. She is a wizard at sewing and crafts, and I would much rather she spend her extra energy on crafty expressions than shopping. And again to her defense, part of the reason this dynamic has presented itself is because she knows how infrequently I shop for things beyond groceries, and that I would truly rather spend my time in other ways.

So, even with attempts to set limits, we hit another wall after the holiday and birthday season. I’m sure you can picture the preschool meltdown surrounding a coveted book/CD set… Enough was enough, and Hubby promptly drafted our new family policy around gifts.

Official Gift Policy

  • We do not want our children to associate materials things with their loved ones.
  • We value quality time with loved ones over material goods.
  • Gifts do not equal love or can replace quality time and relationships.
  • Material goods create tension over time and resources, creates competition for attention, and exacerbates a culture of consumption.


1. Our family will not accept any more material gifts.
2. The only exception is one gift for Christmas.  

3. A family outing or experience-based gift would be welcomed for Birthdays.
4. Hand sewn gifts, used clothing and used books or supplies for craft projects are still welcomed, but need to based on a larger reward system for good deeds.
5. Any special circumstances must be discussed in advance of purchasing – big or small.

On a recent visit, I discussed our need for a moratorium on stuff in our household with my Mother. The discussion wasn’t easy, as I can feel the emotional energy she pours into each purchase. Once she buys things for us, it’s no longer mere stuff, but special gifts with meaning. I understand that they are a symbol of her love and affection and a way to connect between visits, but I have to listen to my gut. I know that we can create experiences and memories together that surpass the pleasures of stuff. It’s our only viable option for living in true sustainable abundance.

Are we being too strict?
What’s your family story with gifts?
Do you set limits? How?

Sustainable Family Finances 
The story of a family creating an abundant and sustainable life.

Our Personal Story of Stuff

Aside from how beautiful Oregon is, the most common remark I’ve gotten from my Danish family and friends who have visited is that our home feels and looks more European than most American homes. I’m sure this is partly because I lived in Denmark, and I appreciate the aesthetic of simple nature-inspired design. While not spartan, our home is noticeably uncluttered. 

It’s also because even before kids, Hubby and I were a bit of stuff misers. We don’t want to be burdened by clutter and waste and we have a pretty low threshold for unnecessary things in our life. We make our choices about what material items we purchase very consciously and deliberately. We lived with an empty living room for almost three months just because I wasn’t willing to buy just anything. And although I love my furniture, I do regret that I was unable to purchase it without flame retardants…but that’s another story.

Here are some of the things we think about:

  • We evaluate carefully whether we really “need” something – We try not to buy something just because it’s a good deal. Not that we balk at sales, we just don’t want them to control our spending and consumption habits. 
  • We avoid impulse purchases at all costs, and usually agree upon the “need” for a purchase at least a month or two before we actually buy it. This helps our budget and ensures that we really want/need it.
  • We buy quality over quantity, like with our new vacuum. 
  • We try to buy used. some times this doesn’t work due to our quality criteria, but I bought Hubby a sweet Weber barbecue from Craigslist last Father’s Day.
  • We think about the life-cycle of the item once we’ve purchased it and ask these simple questions: 
    • How long do we expect it to last? 
    • Will it be reusable? Or recyclable?
    • How quickly will it end up in  our garbage can to head to the landfill?
There are obviously other factors that go into our decision making for some things, but you can get the picture. Asking these questions, thinking about them and talking with each other has helped us limit our spending, our clutter and our impact on the Earth. 

Now limiting stuff isn’t as easy with kids, but I’ve save that topic for another day. 

How do you decide what your family needs?

Sustainable Family Finances 
The story of a family creating an abundant and sustainable life.