Monday, June 27, 2016

The Best (Financial) Book You've Never Read

Do you have a budget? Almost anyone who gives financial advice (which is almost everyone) touts the benefit of having a budget.

Over the years, I've tried several money tracking programs but have never been able to stick with one. I have a general idea of where my money goes monthly but couldn't tell you down to the last penny or even many dollars. It's one of those things that I've always felt kind of guilty about. I've always believed that financially responsible people budget their money. It's one those things that you "should" do, like praying or reading your Bible daily (also not axiomatic mandates by the way). 

Then the skies parted. 

I recently started reading Personal Finances for Dummies, after seeing a recommendation of it in another book. 

It's one of the best books I've ever read, on any topic. Seriously. 

In the book, the author talks about analyzing your spending. He says mentions that it's beneficial to analyze your spending in 3 circumstances; 
  • If you aren't saving enough to meet your financial goals. 
  • If you think your spending is out of control or you don't really know where your money goes. 
  • You're anticipating a significant life change (like a marriage, becoming self employed, having kids, retiring, etc...)
But he points out, if you're already a saver, then there's really no need to anally track every dollar. If you already have good savings habits, then there's no real value in tracking your spending. The good habit is saving, not tracking the money. He points out that for some people, tracking where their money is going is a kind of compulsion. 

This was such a liberating idea for me and runs counter to literally everything I've ever heard about personal finances. 

The book strongly advocates understanding your relationship with money and living within your means as well as being satisfied with what you have, not what you want. 

If you want to know more about investing or money management then this is the book for you, irrespective of age or income. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Money Doesn't Matter As Much As You Think It Does But Your Beliefs About Scarcity and Abundance Do

Money, we are told constantly, can't buy happiness. What we aren't told is that money - while it can't guarantee these things - can often buy security, peace of mind, convenience and fun. 

Or at least the right amount of money can. Money, like most things in life, has a sweet spot. Too much and it can become a mill stone, too little and it can be a significant impediment. 

How much is enough?
This article about four men and their four different incomes and life styles was all the buzz for some time. People reached different conclusions about what it meant, or should mean. Given that the piece is anecdotal not empirical, I don't think that the article necessarily offers take-aways of any magnitude. This is, after all, a look at four different personalities, four different temperaments and four different financial upbringings, all of which tend to factor into our views about money. (While it still would be anecdotal, I wish someone would do a piece on women in these income brackets.)

Fighting for precious little
This piece about refugees living in Jordan and Iraq is both interesting and enlightening. The article is a compilation of many women, not just one particular woman's story and I think the mash-up, while more dramatic, does a disservice to these women's stories. Nonetheless, it does provide insight into the daily lives of refugees and those living with the barest of necessities. You have to wonder what they would have said if asked whether or not money (and how much) could improve their situations. 

Money's Sweet Spot
Money's sweet spot has little to do with dollars and cents. It has more to do with our beliefs about scarcity and abundance. 

Recently I made a few purchases in the $100 range. Each of these (a few items to refresh a bedroom and a cleaning for my camera) brought me satisfaction, so much so that I was asking myself why I hadn't done it before. 

It would be easy to reach the conclusion that, therefore, in each of these circumstances, $100 was my sweet spot. But that would be inaccurate. While $100 in each instance was the total amount spent, the real value was that these things contributed to my overall feeling of abundance, enhancing what was already existing. 

If, for example, I had spent my last $100 on these items, I doubt they would have brought me even the most fleeting of satisfaction given that they aren't needed for survival. 

The real question isn't how much money can we spend, or accumulate for that matter, the question is what can we do to contribute to our feelings of abundance or alleviate our beliefs about scarcity, both true beliefs and faulty ones. 

Photo: When you look at the picture above, do you see scarcity or abundance?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Parenting Wisdom of Marilla Cuthbert

I haven't been doing much in the way of writing, but I have been doing a considerable amount of reading lately. In particular, I've rekindled my love of Anne of Green Gables. 

It's been many years since I read the books, and I had either forgotten or hadn't realized that as timeless as the Anne-girl is that the time period the books are set in is dated. The callous manner in which orphans were once treated and discussed is shocking. Legalities aside, the fact that people used to once "take in" children to serve as farmhands or household help certainly makes you cringe. Then there's the book's open mistrust of "outsiders," with the characters going so far as to spell out which ethnic groups one should be suspicious of. The books are obviously fiction but they are nonetheless a reflection of the social consciousness of the time.

Today, it is common to hear people mourn the depths to which modern society has fallen. What people seem to forget is that we didn't have far to fall from! These are just two examples of how the world has changed, for the better. (And our world really is in so many ways a better place.)

But all of that was a tangent. One of the real joys for me in re-reading the books is Marilla Cuthbert. Matthew may have been one of Anne's kindred spirits, but Marilla takes the cake. She may have been a sarcastically-inclined "spinster" (thank goodness we no longer say that either) who believed that overt displays of affection would spoil a person, but, man, is Marilla wonderful. 

Here are just a few choice Marilla bits: 

After Anne's outburst to Rachel Lynne, Marilla tells Anne she must apologize. Anne retorts that she'd rather be locked in a dark, damp dungeon: "We're not in the habit of shutting people up in dark, damp dungeons," said Marilla dryly, "especially as they're rather scare in Avonlea."

Anne goes to church alone and when asked about the minister's sermon reports that it was "awfully long" and "without imagination": Marilla felt helplessly that all this should be sternly reproved, but she was hampered by the undeniable fact that some of the things Anne had said, especially about the minister's sermons and Mr. Bell's prayers were what she herself had really thought deep down in her heart for years but had never given expression to. It almost seemed to her that those secret, unuttered, critical thoughts had suddenly taken visible and accusing shape and form in the person of this outspoken morsel of neglected humanity. 
Gilbert Blythe calls Anne "Carrots" at school and she breaks her slate over his head in response. Anne goes home and tells Marilla that she's not going back to school given that magnitude of the insult. 

"Insulted fiddlesticks! You'll go to school tomorrow as usual." 

(Anne responds that she will not.)

Marilla saw something remarkably like unyielding stubbornness looking out of Anne's small face. She understood that she would have trouble in overcoming it; but she resolved wisely to say nothing more just then.

Anne tells Marilla that " I do not believe that God Himself can do very much with such an obstinate person as Mrs. Barry.": "Anne, you shouldn't say such things" rebuked Marilla, striving to overcome that unholy tendency to laughter which she was dismayed to find growing upon her.

Anne worries that she'll fail as the school teacher in Avonlea: "You'll hardly fail completely in one day and there's plenty more days coming," said Marilla. 


Anne tells about the trouble she's had at school with student Anthony Pye: When the tale was ended [Marilla] said, briskly, "Well never mind. This day's done and there's a new one coming tomorrow, with no mistakes in it yet, as you yourself used to say. Just come downstairs and have your supper. You'll see if a good cup of tea and those plum puffs I made today don't hearten you up."

(Finally and perhaps best of all) "Anneyou do beat all!"

Monday, June 6, 2016

House of Hope: Caring for China's Critically-Ill Children

There are people who see acts of service as a kind of project, the sort of thing you do on occasional weekends and then there are the people whose acts of service are simply a way of life. 

Dr. Joyce and Robin Hill embody people who live out acts of service. They are the founders of New Hope Foundation, a facility in Beijing, China for sick babies and babies who need intensive surgical care. They describe their work as providing palliative care and medical treatment for orphaned children in China. New Hope Foundation seeks: "To comfort always, to relieve often and to save sometimes."

The work they do is very, very hard. They see children in all forms of distress and need. The Hills started New Hope Foundation in 2000. They had been in China for several years doing private work in their respective fields and at the end of their tenure there, instead of returning to Australia, they were prompted to start a foster home. 

The work the Hills and New Hope Foundation do is very personal for me. My youngest son lived there. It is because of the work on New Hope and a partner organization, Love Without Boundaries, that he is alive and well. 

I was not able to visit House of Hope due to procedural rules at the time of my son's adoption, but I have "met" online and in real life several of the people who volunteer there. There are lovely, lovely people. Because of the work they do, it's easy for people to see them as "special," and these are indeed skilled, qualified and hard-working individuals. But their primary qualification is that were willing. 

They were willing to say "yes" to something audacious, scary and unknown. Many of the people who volunteer at New Hope are college students, some have never been out of the country. Most are not experienced in caring for children, certainly not critically ill children. These are simply people with willing hearts and ready hands. 

New Hope sends out a monthly newsletter and I received mine this weekend. In that newsletter, they give updates about the children in care at House of Hope, and their linked care facilities in other cities. This month's update informed that they had: 2 admissions, 11 hospitalizations and surgeries, and 8 adoptions. It went on to say that, "For the first time in our memory, we have had a month where no babies in our care have passed away. We are very grateful."

These people have been running a foster home for 16 years. It's the first month they can remember with no deaths. That means that there were 191 other months where a child in their care passed away. 

Can you imagine? Because I can't. 

191 other months where they lost a child. 

That's years of discouragement, defeat, doubt, and literally, death. 

And yet. 

And yet, they keep on. Because they keep on, other children live and thrive and go on to grow up and become sisters and brothers and sons and daughters. They go on to have families and become families. 

Can you imagine? Because I can't. 

Whatever seemingly thankless task you're doing today, whatever downtrodden-ness you face, whatever belly of the beast you might be in - don't stop, don't quit, don't wave that white flag. 

You stand up and you fight. The work that you are doing matters. It is of consequence and significance. It has lasting value, even if you can't see the fruit it will bear now. 

Thank you Dr. Joyce and Robin. Thank you staff and volunteers of New Hope. Thank you for  your sacrifice and steadfastness. Thank you for never giving up the fight. 

Interested in finding out more about New Hope Foundation? This video explains why they have a $4mil operating budget for their 5 care facilities and special care units. 

This video explains what prospective nurses coming to work at New Hope or other facilities might expect day-to-day. 

Friday, June 3, 2016

Summer Survival: Audio Books

summer survival
The number of school days has dwindled into the single digits. I know this because my 7-year-old's teacher keeps count in class and this exciting bit of information gets passed on to me daily.

Last summer was our summer of the chapter book. The kids and I read: The Trumpet of the Swan, Owls in the Family and 8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = Chaos. I really loved our read-aloud time and can't wait to do it again this year.

This year in addition to our read-alouds I'm also going to be relying on audio books a good bit, especially while I try to work. The only real parental involvement needed for audio books is the downloading (We use the library's free Overdrive App but you can just as easily use Audible) and being called in to mediate disputes about certain people talking when others want to listen.

Even though school isn't quite out, we've already gotten a head start on our summer reading thanks to a little me and them road trip. Over the long weekend, we listened to Mr. Poppers Penguins and The Box Car Children.

While I enjoyed the audio version of Mr. Popper's Penguins, I don't think I'll bother with the movie.  I had read The Box Car Children as a child and had very fond memories of the books and was looking forward to listening to them but have to say they were much better the first time around. Listening to Jesse trill, "It's so good to eat with spoons" is, well, annoying as all get-out but the book was well-received by both the 6 and 7 year old. (The 4 year old gets bored with anything of long length.) I also had Frindle cued up and ready to go, but we haven't listened to that one yet.

The other benefit of audio books is that they're hands-free. I can listen to audio books while I drive, cook and fold laundry. The kids can listen to them while they color, play Legos or line up dominoes. They listened to Because of Winn Dixie earlier in the month and I really enjoyed the bits I heard. And Sparkle Stories are always a favorite at our house.

Still not convinced that audio books are the way to go for kids? Check out this article on 8 reasons audio books are great for kids. Also, here is a list of 40 great audio books for kids.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A Beginner's Guide to Meditation

I was reading a book (yes, I start a lot of posts like that) on meditation in Buddhist monasteries. The nun in the book was describing how everything seems harmonious and how many people are inspired by the outward appearance of peacefulness and simplicity of monastic living. But, she went on to describe, how living in a monastery can be a lot like living in a pressure cooker. She talked about how it's very common that once fellow nuns get into the routine of daily living that the come to her and confess that something as simple as seeing how another nun put a lid on a pot makes them angry to the point they want to get violent. It struck me as both funny and reassuring. After all, the nuns had this violent a reaction after meditating for hours. The mind, no matter how hard we try, does not want to be controlled!

As master mediators explain, it's not about suppressing thoughts but surpassing them. I'm not controlling my mind  - I'm training it.

When I started meditating, I began by using the Headspace App. It's a guided app and the narrator is a former monk, which I think explains why his tone is so soothing. With the app, you can choose how long you meditate, the shortest duration being 10 minutes.

At first, that was the longest 10 minutes of my life. I'd wander and wander and wander around in the fields of my mind plucking flowers, making grocery lists, thinking of inconsequential things and things I needed to do and listening to the sounds of the garbage truck. It was painful and seemed pointless.

But, over time, I've come to find that the 10 minutes goes very quickly. My mind still wanders massively, but I can now recognize it when that happens and am able to focus on my breath. In particular, it is helpful for me to focus on the source of the breath (determining whether I am breathing more deeply from my mouth or nose).

Some people describe having these amazing flashes of focus or clarity while meditating. That's never happened to me. I've never meditated and then felt "enlightened." In fact, sometimes when I meditate, I wonder what kind of a buffoon can't focus on her breath for 10 minutes without thinking how hard the ground is or how much her foot itches.

But then there are those random times after that fact when I'll be sideswiped by some focused idea or grand thought that seems to come from no where. Of course, I get smug and congratulate myself on being so wonderfully brilliant and insightful, basically undoing much of what meditation was meant to do.

If you're looking to quiet your mind for any reason, then meditation is a wonderful place to start. It's a very forgiving practice because you can't do it "wrong." You can only learn to do it better.

So how exactly are we supposed to surpass our thoughts, especially when one thought leads to another? For me, the idea of "catch and release" from 8 Minute Meditation is particularly helpful. This is the idea that when meditating when you have a thought, instead of being "hooked" by it, you just let to go by. You tell yourself "That is a thought" or "This is a thought" and then you focus again on the breath.

Try it today. Even if it seems hooky or aimless. You'll be surprised by how often your minds travel either to the past or to the potential future instead of staying in the present. Give yourself the gift of having your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Want your head in the clouds but your feet on the ground?

Are you a striver or a dreamer? Put another way, do you consider your head more often in the clouds or your feet more firmly on the ground?

Dreamers are often thought of as ethereal-types while strivers are considered doers, the world's worker bees.  But this portrayal is often inaccurate.

How would you classify Walt Disney? Steve Jobs? Edison?  Einstein? Lincoln? The people we say had "vision" were dreamers AND strivers. While we tend to be more naturally inclined one way, we need to be people who have their feet on the ground and our heads in the clouds. So how do we achieve that?

One word: mediation.

Before I lose you to something you think is faddish/granola-ish/mumbo jumbo, allow me to point you to all of the positive science behind meditation. While everyone and their grandmother is jumping on the meditation (or "mindfulness practice") bandwagon these days, it's actually a practice that dates back more than 3000 years. Finally, while meditation is often considered a Buddhist or Eastern spiritual practice, mediation is just thinking, which last time I checked, is pretty non-denominational.

Contrary to popular belief, meditation isn't about stopping your thoughts. The goal isn't to cease thinking. Our minds work on dual planes constantly, it's literally how we can walk and chew gum at the same time. That ability is, to quote Martha, a "good thing." (Don't make me explain which Martha, it is implied.)

The problem is that when we try to quiet our mind, it keeps going like a run-away train. That high-speed, rail-jumping train is often referred to as the "monkey mind" or "roving mind." Want to see your monkey mind in action? Just for a minute, close your eyes and concentrate on breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. How many times did you get distracted? How many times did you think: This is pointless or impractical? That's your roving mind. (Coincidentally, I have the same problem when I pray. I've heard pastors say that it was the devil distracting us. They were right, if by devil they meant ourselves!)

Unless we train our minds, we can't help to still them, which means we can't achieve greater focus or peace. So how do we train the mind?

I've found two tools that have helped me. I'll discuss them in more detail in my next post but for today, here they are:

Are you going to try it?