January 23, 2015

The Science of Budgeting

I've finally gotten our family's budgeting system down to a science. I've used a zero-balanced budget since graduate school and have tried multiple different ways of working it. The biggest roadblock I found was expenses that were not regular- that came up twice a year, or every three months, or here and there. Things you knew you needed money for but didn't know exactly when or how much. It was stressful to have an expense come up that you suddenly had to scramble and find money for. I used to try to save money for different varying expenses but it was always hard to keep track of how much I saved and for what without my eyes crossing.

I didn't want to do a new, or updated, budget every month. I wanted one budget that we could use all the time, and only needed to update if something major changed. The question was how to make a catch-all monthly budget with expenses that weren't monthly expenses (say, a quarterly utility bill, or Christmas).

About 6 years ago, we took out 8 separate savings account- our 'sinking funds', from a primarily online, high interest-earning (for a savings account, that is) bank. Back then it was called ING Direct; since then it was bought out and renamed to Capital One Direct. Anyway, these were no-hassle savings account that you can transfer money to and from your regular checking account online (ours is Bank of America), there aren't monthly fees or rules, and you can set up automatic transfers. We designated each savings account and named it for a different purpose (e.g., travel, gifts, insurance).  I estimate how much we spend on each category per year, and divide it by 12. Each month, that amount is transferred to its savings account. Whenever the expense comes up (say, a car tag fee), then I transfer the money from its saving account to my checking account. It is a great way to keep track of how much money you have for what areas, to save up for something down the road, and to keep your budget from running you over.

For things like travel, car maintenance, gifts, etc. we have to guess how much we think we will need each year. Just because we have a fund for it doesn't mean we always have what we do need. For example, our medical fund never has what it needs because it's always being depleted. And Ben still drives his 96 Oldsmobile because we can't replace it (and he likes having a ghetto-rigged bumper, let's be honest), BUT it helps us keep things sorted out and gives us goals. So, for example, we try to spend no more than $300 at Christmas. That includes family, friends, kids, gift exchanges, teachers' gifts, etc. So divided by 12, that's $25 a month. Then I figure we have approximately two baby showers/birthday parties/weddings each month (lots of baby showers among our group), so that would be another $40-50 or so. Soooooo each month we transfer $75 into our 'gift' fund. Does it mean we always have money for what we want? No. But it does help us balance things out a little bit better, particularly around the holidays.

These are our sinking funds. Remember, regular monthly expenses can be figured into your monthly budget without these. Our regular monthly expenses include our mortgage, gas, groceries, personal items, children (diapers, clothes, etc.), power/internet/gas bills, life insurance, and money that we gift to missionaries/ministries/churches. The sinking funds are specifically for expenses that vary or that we don't use each month:

1. Travel (family visits, vacations, etc.)
2. Car (oil changes, repairs, replacement, etc.)
3. Insurance (car insurance, property insurance, tag and registration fees)
4. Gifts (weddings, showers, birthdays, Christmas)
5. Home Maintenance (calling the plumber, furniture, etc.)
6. Emergency Fund- Dave Ramsey-style.
7. Medical Expenses- medication, doctors' visits, ridiculously high family deductibles that you have to meet every year (*cough).
8. Miscellaneous expenses: this includes as many extra expenses that we anticipate will come up each year- things like school supplies, our quarterly garbage bill, Homeowners Association dues, our computer backup program, haircuts, school registration fees, Continuing Education for my license, etc. Everything I can think of- even if they are not big expenses. Anything that might stretch the budget a little bit. We add up the total predicted cost for the year (for all expenses) and divide by 12. Then each month that amount is transferred into the "Miscellaneous" account. So when I need a haircut, I already have that amount set aside and I don't have to figure out where to take that money from. I have labeled on my spreadsheet what 'Miscellaneous' includes, so I don't forget what we actually budgeted for and what we didn't. We have something like 10 different miscellaneous expenses included, and it's easy to forget how much you saved and for what.

Like I said before, our budget is monthly. In graduate school I used to get paid monthly, so it worked out perfectly. But most people get paid bi-weekly, and at first that REALLY messed me up. So I found a system where each month's paychecks are deposited into our savings account, and then at the end of the month, that total amount is transferred to our checking account to be used for the next month's expenses. So on February 1st, I transfer all of our paychecks from January to our checking account, and we use this money for the month of February. This has been the most effective budgeting method for us. Mentally, I feel more comfortable using last month's paychecks for this month's expenses.

Daily Inspiration

First, some inspiration close to my heart:

Next, have you seen the new Toyota Superbowl commercial?

I love this girl. Here are some of my favorite of her performances on Dancing with the Stars:

January 16, 2015

Fibular Hemimelia Q&A

I thought I would share some responses to the most commonly asked questions I get via email, from parents who are pregnant or have a newborn child with Fibular Hemimelia. I hope this will be helpful for others. I am always available to answer additional questions via my email, as well.

1. How does your child swim? Does she wear a special prosthesis?

For us, it depends. We let her decide whether or not to wear her prosthesis in the water. Most often she chooses to play without it, and she doesn't wear it for her swimming lessons because it's easier for her to learn without it. Once she learns to swim, I will also have her practice with it on, just to make sure she could handle survival swimming if she were to ever fall into deep water (because if she ever was in danger, she may very well have her prosthesis on). If she wants to do a lot of walking or moving (especially at the beach), sometimes she chooses to wear her leg. We are okay with it getting wet, since she outgrows them fairly quickly at this age and we don't have to worry about it degrading over time. We  make sure to dry it thoroughly so it doesn't rust. Right now, we actually have two legs so we an alternate if one is wet. Sometimes we use an old leg in the ocean if we have one handy. It won't fit perfectly, but it will usually work well enough. Another thing: the prosthetic tends to fill up with water and get heavy.

2. How does/will she take a shower? Go to the bathroom at night?

Obviously, we are not into showers yet. But I think Anna will have no problem. Her residual limb is long enough to where she can bend down on it and balance. We might end up putting a handle on the shower for balance, or a chair that she can sit in if she needs one to shampoo her hair. I personally think a chair would make more sense. I'm pretty sure she will find a way to manage- she has with everything else. These kids are amazing!  As for the bathroom, Anna is potty trained and has no trouble getting out of bed, going to the bathroom, and using a normal sized toilet by herself (and she only weighs 26 pounds). Remember that they will learn to be mobile easier than you think.

3. What are the financial implications for the future?

I won't sugar coat it. Prosthetics are expensive. The early, most simple ones start at around 5K and they get more pricey as they get older, anywhere from 15K to 100K. It's definitely a financial commitment, and that's hard, especially if you have a high deductible as we do. We are in an ongoing conversation with our prosthetic clinic. Shriners Hospitals used to cover care at no charge, but that has recently changed. Just prepare to spend a lot of money on medical expenses. Maybe it means you have to cut back your lifestyle, but I can't think of a better reason to do so.

4. Were you worried when you had a second child that there would be something wrong with him or her?

I was not worried about having a second child with a birth defect. FH has not been shown to be genetic, and I trusted in the science that came to that conclusion. That said, I was very careful to avoid medication, contracting illnesses, or exposure to teratrogenic chemicals during the first trimester (as most anxious mothers do :)

5. How did you know what treatment decision to make? Can you give me any advice on navigating the options?

I would highly recommend getting at least 2-3 opinions. Most people head to their nearest children's hospital, which is fine (that's what we did). Problem is, most surgeons only see a few cases like this a year, if any, which means they have much less experience with outcomes. Places like Shriners Hospitals for Children specialize in orthopedics. Their surgeons see patients with FH daily, whereas surgeons in other hospitals might only treat one or two per year. That said, each surgeon is obviously different. I think it's definitely worth checking multiple places. Make a list of questions and see how knowledgeable the surgeon is. Ask what your child's projected leg length discrepancy would be. Ask how many amputation/osteotomies they do each year for children with a missing fibula. Ask what kind of amputation they prefer (Boyd, Symes) and why. Ask what their proposed timeline for treatment would be.   We were only comfortable doing the surgery around age 11 months, which is when Shriners' surgeons choose to do it.

6. Will I always feel this sad and anxious? I am so afraid of what this means for my baby.

No, you will not always feel this sad. If you've ever felt like this or like this, it may be hard to believe. The first two years are  hard- really hard. But all that sadness, grief, and anxiety really, truly goes away once you see your child thriving. I honestly have trouble remembering how upsetting it was three years ago, because things are so different now. There are lots of challenges and my heart still aches on some days (though honestly, much more regarding her food allergies and asthma than her prosthesis). Certain situations can be hard. The first time Anna tried to walk in plastic princess high heels like her friends, when she discovers a limitation, when she meets someone new and gets asked lots of questions. But they learn to handle it, and so do you.

7. What can I do as a parent to help my child develop a healthy view of himself/herself before they start facing some of the obvious challenges of having a disability?

As a parent (and a therapist), I believe it's important to be open with children. Talk to them about it. Don't pretend like they aren't different; they are. And they will come to realize it. But help them see that it doesn't have to be a bad thing. Help them build their identity by introducing them to books, toys, media, stories, and people with amputations (here is my list of resources). Model for them ways to respond when people ask questions (stay positive). Teach them that people will be curious about things they don't know and that they can expect questions and looks. At the same time, it's okay to educate them. I was always advised not to set limitations on my child and that was the best advice I've received, because there were times I've been tempted to tell Anna she 'can't' or 'shouldn't' do something (like walking around in those heels!), and she figured out her own way. I let her fall down, I risked that she might get hurt. I held my tongue. And she surprised me. She didn't know any different. Educate her teachers on some of these things. Here  is a link to the lesson I did for Anna's preschool class.

8. Any practical tips for prosthetic wearing? How do you handle any issues that arise? I feel clueless as to how to make sure my child is getting the best appliance with the best fit. How do I recognize if there is a problem?

I cannot express enough the importance of finding a clinician who is skilled working with children and whom you feel comfortable with. Fit is the most important thing and it's hard to get just right as they grow. Anytime you notice that your child is walking even a little bit differently, take them in to their prosthetist to have them evaluated. Kids can develop poor habits quickly, and they are the experts at telling when an adjustment is necessary. I would also recommend going in every 3-4 months at least if you don't notice any changes, just to be sure. Kids grow super fast. If your child's skin starts to get irritated, STOP wearing the prosthesis as much as possible. It will only get worse, and if it goes too far (like developing a blister), you may have to be off the leg for a couple of weeks, which is clearly a complicated thing. Any abnormalities on the skin usually need to be addressed right away.

9. Any tips for dealing with questions/stares/comments and potential hurtful things down the road?

I'm not an expert at this, and I'm still learning. But staying positive seems to really help. Assume the best about people's intentions. Looking is inevitable and human nature. Helping the kiddos be comfortable with it is easier than trying to get people to not stare or hoping your child won't notice.

I tell Anna that any teasing or unkind words says more about the other person than it does about her: some people are mean because they are hurting inside. Some are mean because someone is mean to them, too. Some people are just curious because they have never seen something like that before. Some people are mean because they don't know any better. But whatever the reason, it doesn't say anything about YOU. I try to teach her that every kid struggles or is different in some way, sometimes it's just more obvious than others.

Once I heard Anna tell another little girl that when she got older she was going to have two real legs. It broke my heart. As kids get older, they will go through their own process of realizing what's different about them and how to incorporate that into their identity It's important to be there for them, acknowledge their feelings, and not try to make it all better or give cliche, pat responses. Just be there and show your support and love, and that you believe in them. That's all I know to do.

Oh, and remember that kids pick up on and recall what you say about them to other adults. So watch your words, even when you think they aren't paying attention. Don't talk about them as if they weren't there, and respect them the way you would another adult. Remember that you are shaping their view of themselves by your words- not just to them, but to others, as well. I'm always messing up on that one.

I hope that was helpful!

January 14, 2015


I've been really bad about posting lately, so I'm going to do a Currently post just to get something up here! But I've received some awesome emails from new parents with kids with FH, and I'm so honored to be able to connect with you. Please don't give up on me. I'll post some more coming soon :)

Feeding: Have I ever mentioned that I hate cooking? Let's not talk about this right now. Do you ever feel like you are hugely failing at feeding your children healthy meals? Yeah, me too. Vegan cream cheese is our new find. Both girls will (and can) eat, and its first ingredient is coconut oil. That's healthy, right?

Reading: Okay, so the next book in the Red Rising trilogy came out in January. At the time, I didn't realize it was a new series and that I would have to wait years to read the final installment (my patience isn't that great). So here I am, one of those crazed fans reading the book right when it comes out. I loved Red Rising. Golden Son (second book) is so far really good. The language is a bit too much for me, and it definitely seems to worsen in this book, but the plot twists and dialogue is so so good. I heard the end is the biggest cliffhanger ever, so of course I'm not looking forward to that and having to wait another YEAR or something crazy to read the last book.

Needing: Nice weather. Getting out of the house. I can't believe I was raised in New York. I cannot stand the cold for one minute. Being inside all cozy is great, but the kids get stir crazy, you know, after three months of it.

Conceding: That there are a few areas that I need to work more on in my personal life / relationships. I've had some good conversations lately and pinpointed a few areas that I can intentionally try to work on.

Gearing up for: Our annual (okay, second, but hopefully an annual) trip to Charleston for the Cooper River Bridge Run. No, I am not a runner. No, I do not enjoy it. But spending a weekend with two of our favorite couples sans kids? I will run for that. The 'training' part is more of a joke, really. But I'll give it some semblance of effort. If only it were a 5K.

Procrastinating: Same old thing. Cleaning.

Thankful for: Lots of things. Good friends. A great church. A loyal, supportive husband. An amazing school for the girls. A job where I'm thriving. A mother who is still surviving cancer (and taking us to a Disney resort in March! It's supposed to be amazing for kids with allergies. I can't wait!) Finally getting the girls to co-sleep, getting rid of that crib, and re-doing the girls room! Pictures to come soon!