December 31, 2010

Sacrifices or How I Learned to Stop Sneering and Love the Coupon

Order Miche Bag Online!

It's been about three weeks since I discovered the word coupon can now be used as a verb. A woman in my mommy group suggested that we have a get-together to discuss tactics for "couponing." Puzzled, I went ahead and scheduled it. Then I started hearing about couponing all over the place.

Remember that scene in Jurassic Park where the lawyer suggests they have a "coupon day"? Let me refresh your memory:

Did you hear the contempt in his voice when he said the word "coupon"? That's how it has always sounded in my head. Coupons, to me, were a waste of time and used only by little old ladies to save $5.38 on their grocery bill. Probably the same people who keep their thermostat set to 65 in the winter. I just couldn't see how it was possibly worth the effort.


I guess I was wrong about that.

My family has been hit hard by the economy. Even with all the fat trimmed from our bills we are barely getting by each month. As the person who stays home (and the person who worked in finance for 11 years) the whole money thing falls on my shoulders. The one budget item we can actually do anything about is groceries. We pretty much buy everything generic but our grocery bill still averages around $600 / month.

A friend of mine told me about a television program she watched that showed people saving hundreds of dollars with coupons. I was skeptical but intrigued. I've done a lot of reading about it this week and I'm starting to understand how it works.

Step one: Acquire multiple copies of the Sunday paper each week. Record which coupons are included in each insert (there are websites that do this for you) and then file the inserts by date.

Step two: Wait for sales. When Colgate is on sale at Albertsons for $1.18 go dig out that Colgate coupon from three weeks ago and buy several tubes for the sale price minus the coupon value.

There's way more to it than that, but I'm getting the gist of how it is possible to save a LOT of money over time. Many people also take advantage of online sales with free shipping. I haven't started exploring that angle yet. I'm not sure how I feel about it. Truth be told I'm not proud of most of the things I've done to save money. Could there be a more evil corporation than WalMart? I can't even begin to categorize the many ways they are destroying society and the planet. But I've got to feed my family and I'm just not willing to pay the higher prices anywhere else.

Online shopping is terrifically convenient, but how much more oil is being used to mail the item directly to me rather than shipping it in bulk to a store? How many additional pollutants are released into the air? That's the crux of the entire global warming problem, isn't it? Convenience. There's a limit to how much we are willing to give up in order to preserve the planet for our grandchildren.

Sorry. I know that was a tangent, but I'll leave it in. It's something I think many of us are battling right now: cost & convenience vs. global responsibility. It's forgivable for one man to steal bread (destroy the planet) to feed his starving family, but what happens when every family is starving? If we're all stealing bread the whole system collapses.

I'll still be the first in line to order when has a big sale. Especially if I have a coupon.

 >>NEXT Check Out: Competent Dads and Other Mythical Creatures

December 23, 2010

The Elusive Christmas Magic


I haven't liked Christmas in a long, long time. I want to like it. I like Christmas carols, Christmas movies, Christmas cookies, and presents (both giving and receiving). I like spending time with my family. Eggnog is pretty good.

So what's my problem? I'm told that I haven't liked Christmas since I was around 10. The last time I remember being truly excited was when I got a Cabbage Patch Preemie doll after my parents had told me all the stores were sold out. All the holidays between that one and today sort of blur together. My daughter has been alive for two Christmases and I'm horrified to say that these haven't been any more exciting for me.

I worked retail between the ages of 18-23. Each holiday season started out so exciting. We had a tradition in our store of doing inventory while watching The Muppet Christmas Carol every year (still one of my favorites). We'd wear festive earrings, decorate our name tags and plaster on a great big smile right after Thanksgiving.

Then the customers would arrive. They were frantic. They were tired. Their feet hurt. And they didn't recognize retail workers as fellow human beings. The holiday month was war. We worked double the staff so that we could watch for shoplifters. We handled with grace the customers who were looking for a gift for a "six-year-old boy" but didn't have any idea what the child's interests were and didn't like anything we suggested. We tried not to have hurt feelings when we were snapped at and jostled. We ignored the people who actually cursed at us when we closed our doors a few hours early on Christmas Eve (along with the rest of the mall).

In my experience the holiday season brings out the absolute worst in people. My theory is that we all feel like we're doing it wrong. At Christmas time the house must be perfectly decorated (including smelling right with potpourri or candles), gifts must be found for every distant relative and co-worker, Christmas Eve must be cozy and a delicious meal must be on the table for Christmas dinner.

My problem didn't start with the retail years. When I wake up on Christmas morning nothing ever feels right. The house isn't clean enough or there are no muffins to eat or somebody around me isn't following the script (it's always a family member's fault). This year my attitude problem even spilled over to Thanksgiving when my two-year-old daughter wasn't interested in the parade. I had a little hissy fit and finally pulled myself together.

Every year I weep and gnash my teeth and declare that Next Year Will Be Perfect. Next Year I Will Not Be Such a Bitch. But a funny thing has happened this year: my daughter gets it. She sat on Santa's lap. She helped us decorate the tree (the first tree I've bothered with since my husband and I have been together). She walks around the house singing Jingle Bells and every time it snows her eyes light up and she says "It's Christmas Eve mommy!" We've decorated sugar cookies and watched the Grinch and made a snowman.

I think this year actually is different. And I think I know why: there can be no Christmas magic without a child. Maybe that should have been obvious, but I've spent 25 years wanting this feeling to come back. It hasn't felt "right" to me since I was a child myself, and it's now feeling exactly right because I get to see it through the eyes of my incredible daughter.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and I can't wait!

NEXT Check Out: The Nativity of Saint Nicholas

December 20, 2010

College On My Mind

How important a factor should academics be in a child or young adult's life? The answer seems to be universally that grades and college should be top priority. I'm not convinced.

How many of us actually become rocket scientists, attorneys or veterinarians? Not many. Most of us live our lives in the middle class spectrum. We go to the office from 9-5 and do the best we can to pay the bills, save money, enjoy our lives and raise our children. With this lifestyle the most important factors become - am I happy? Do I feel fulfilled? Is my life making a difference to anyone else?

Our society focuses so much on earning more money that we overlook living a meaningful life with what we do have. The current state of the economy has taught me this lesson, and I only hope others are learning it as well. My family has had to whittle away luxuries until we are left with basic cable being the only real indulgence we have (and that only because we're locked into a contract).

But we laugh all the time. We work hard at the jobs we are fortunate enough to have. We donate to charity. We hug and we go for walks and we spend as much time together as we possibly can. The most valuable treasure I could ever hope to have is the love of my husband and my daughter.

What saddens me, and frightens me, is that there are so many families who don't have that. People who were, perhaps, raised to believe that happiness is contingent on how much you can earn. People who feel like failures because their house was foreclosed on, or they had to declare bankruptcy, or they can't afford to buy their sixth grader an iPhone.

Materialism is learned. We raise our children with the absolute best of intentions: I want my kids to have it better than I had. We push them into taking Advanced Calculus, we pay them for good grades, we scrimp and save so that they can attend college and then we are devastated when they choose not to go. Or drop out. Or get pregnant at 19.

Why is college so important? Because, to many people, it represents financial stability which translates to a happy life. Why, then, don't we just teach our kids how to live a happy life? Instead of Advanced Calculus why aren't we pushing them to volunteer at the homeless shelter? Instead of paying them for good grades why aren't we encouraging them to get an after school job so that they can begin learning a good work ethic?

As a bank officer I had many opportunities to participate in mock interviews at the local high school. They brought in managers from several fields twice per year to conduct interviews with the sophomores and give written feedback.

I would estimate that 85% of these kids, while they may have been intelligent and sweet, did not have the slightest idea what it takes to live in the real world. They'd show up dressed for prom (or, worse, dressed casually) because nobody had told them what constitutes appropriate interview attire. They mostly had vague ideas about what they wanted to do with their lives, and if there was a plan it was huge: "I want to get a medical degree from Johns Hopkins." When I'd ask what steps they planned to take to achieve that goal they stared at me blankly.

Most of the answers were along the lines of "I'd like to go to such-and-such university." When asked what they might like to major in, or (again) what their plans were to get into that school they had no idea.

We're teaching our kids that college is the magic pill that will lead to a happy life. How many people with college degrees are out of work right now? Many. My experience in the workplace is that work ethic and ambition get you ahead no matter what your academic background may be.

Please do not misunderstand me. I love college. I've taken countless hours of courses because it is wonderful to learn! I respect and admire someone who has the discipline to obtain a degree. I recognize that a person with a college degree statistically has a much higher earning potential. 

I would love to see my daughter devote her life to becoming an oncologist or a computer programmer. We've had a 529 college fund set up for her since she was born. If she gets less than a B average in high school she is going to hear about it.

But that is not even close to my top priority in raising her. If I can teach her to be happy, whole, caring and ethical I will consider my job well done.

-Kim     >>NEXT Check Out: Homeschooling?! Wait. What?