It’s been a little more than three months since Funny about Money came into being. During that time, several changes for the better have happened in my life, some of them having to do with the very issues of stress and finance that the blog was built to address.
I’d like to look back over the past few months to see how some of the things I’ve been blogging about have changed. While much has improved, it’s not all beer and skittles: some positive changes have involved trade-offs, and some new developments are not pure golden sunlight.
The Poison Poppy of Stress, as you may recall, sprouted five petals:
- 1. Money
- 2. Vandalism of my house and ensuing harassment campaign
- 3. Dogs
- 4. Workplace stress
- 5. Financing and renovating the Investment House
- 6. My own house and its questionable neighborhood
Let’s look at how each of these has evolved.
The immediate cause of the stress attack that landed me in the hospital was the Great Desert University’s switch from bimonthly to biweekly pay. The smaller biweekly checks were projected to result in a net bimonthly pay cut of $220 for me. At the same time, the administration announced it was jacking up the cost of parking exponentially: disabled parking would go from $440 to $770 and then to $880. Just a few months earlier, the state legislature had voted in a 6.1% pay increase for state workers. These two changes would reduce my net income to less than I earned before the pay increase, which was arranged because legislators recognized that we are among the country’s worst-paid state workers.
To compensate, I increased my federal exemptions from zero to four, eliminated the extra $50 federal tax withholding, and canceled my parking pass. The city where GDU resides, as it develops, allows drivers with disabled placards to park in any metered parking for free. It meant a walk of four blocks instead of one and a half, but most of the time that’s tolerable. A lot more tolerable than having eight or nine hundred dollars ripped out of my paycheck!
A month or two before the biweekly announcement came down, the PPO plan I’d subscribed to decided to quit covering the Mayo Clinic, where my doctor practices. In response, the state held a mini-open enrollment, allowing employees to switch plans. I changed to the only other plan that would cover my doctor, an EPO. The result was a cut in monthly premiums from $240 to $23, an enormous and much-needed saving.
Meanwhile, at the same time the university made the change to biweekly pay, our admired administrators decided to change the payroll system to PeopleSoft, with no testing or any kind of intelligent planning. The result was a horrific fiasco. Many people didn’t get paid at all; others were double-paid. During five nightmarish months, no two of my paychecks were the same and, as far as I could tell, not one was correct. PeopleSoft quit crediting my vacation time and tried to argue that I was not entitled to vacations. It failed to make my 403c contributions or failed to make the university’s matching contributions. It screwed up payment of my long-term care premiums so badly I had to cancel the payroll deduction for those payments and arrange to pay the insuror out of my checking account. The mess never seemed to end, and as you can imagine, that didn’t help the stress levels.
After half a year, the situation finally settled down. Once I knew how much my paycheck was supposed to be (apparently), I changed my exemptions again, from four to two, and reinstated the extra federal tax withholding, which was there to cover freelance income so I didn’t have to do quarterlies on top of my salary withholding.
Though my net income has now returned to about what it was before the payroll change, the timing of paychecks no longer can be relied upon to cover my bills. The second paycheck of the month sometimes comes in after all my monthly utility, insurance, and yard maintenance bills are due.
I’ve dealt with this by designing a weekly budget. Budgeting by the week gives me a lot more control over how much is in my checking account at any given time. Also, realizing the university might not pay my salary on time or to get it correct, I went to the credit union and arranged overdraft protection in the amount of one month’s pay.
These two strategies have effectively relieved the worry about whether I can pay my bills without bouncing automatic funds transfers.
The computerized surveillance camera system that M’hijito installed demonstrated that, contrary to three pool repairmen’s insistence that the pump pot lid could not work itself loose, the thing indeed was doing exactly that. The discovery that no bogeyman was hopping the fence into the backyard was a vast relief.
Since then, the disturbed Son-in-Law has disappeared from the scene. It’s been months since I’ve seen the guy around. In his absence, that situation has dwindled to nothing and is no longer a problem. Other members of the clan are rarely seen, and I’m even thinking of removing some of the thick shrubbery the landscaper planted to screen the view between my front yard and Other Daughter’s house.
Walt the Greyhound is still missed, and his demise was a sad thing. But the truth is, one dog makes for a lot less care and expense than two.
After I explained to the vet that I cannot get Anna the Superannuated German Shepherd into the car by myself and that the only person who can help me lives 20 miles away, he agreed to prescribe her thyroid and eye medications without the twice-yearly exams. This saves me $800 a year plus a great deal of hassle.
While Anna’s health and frailty (and amazing stink) are still worrisome, half as much clean-up and feeding plus the savings in medication and food have really cut the stress level in the pet department.
I reneged on my resolution to cease keeping the office log demanded by our HR representative. Instead, I finally did what she and my boss advised: rode herd on my personnel problem until the woman finally resigned, effective February 15.
This has changed the landscape at our office and in my life. Apparently My Bartleby was the most serious source of jaw-clenching stress for me.
The entire atmosphere in our office has changed. Staff members, who had taken to arranging their arrival times to avoid this woman’s presence, now show up during the morning. They actually engage in conversations. We no longer have to arrange staff meetings at restaurants so as to deal privately with problems created by Bartleby. I no longer have to waste hours keeping track of her antics, putting out fires she starts, or redoing her work. And I come and go at will, with no further worries about what she might say to my boss about my presence or absence.
Her line was replaced by a fourth editorial assistant, and so we will be able to grow our empire. I expect we will take on another two client journals over the next few months. Our office will look more indispensable, and this will enhance my shot at staying put until I reach full retirement age.
And in my personal life, the day Bartleby exited I felt like a hundred-pound weight lifted from my shoulders. I still feel that way.
The Investment House
M’hijito and I are now in the process of refinancing, a strategy that will combine our two mortgages into one. The 5.3% interest represents a savings of around $200 a month.
The appraiser estimated the house’s worth at $270,000, twenty thou more than it was allegedly worth 18 months ago and $35,000 more than we paid for it. This eliminated the worry we both felt that our investment might be dropping in value.
The Workman Waltz is over. Most of the renovations are done, except for the landscaping. With the interior livable, we can work on the outside a little at a time.
M’hijito got a raise and a nice bonus, allowing him to pay off the last of his debts (!). He is putting money aside to replace the air conditioner, relieving me of having to figure out how to pay for that.
I have snowflaked the $25,000 Renovation Loan down to about $23,000 and meanwhile, by dint of ambitious savings and taking on a couple of overenrolled classes this semester (and so getting paid to teach four instead of two sections), I’ve managed to set aside $13,000 in the money market as a fund to pay off the loan. I expect that fund to cover the balance on the loan by the end of next year, at which time I will decide whether to pay off the loan or to put the money into mutual funds with higher risk but a better return.
So, although a mortgage payment is always a nagging worry and you never know what will break next, the most immediate sources of stress associated with the Investment House are either resolved or well on the way to it.
My House and the Neighborhood
This is the only Poppy Petal that remains a problem.
The B*** tribe has settled down, Carlos the Knife has quit chasing his wife over to my front door, and Biker Boob seems to have lost the chopper or at least to have given up letting it idle in the driveway for 15 to 30 minutes at a time. However, Dave’s Used Car Lot, Marina, and Weed Arboretum is again hip-high in dandelions and milkweed. The other day the sheriff came by to serve poor Dave with papers, and so I imagine he’s still quarreling with his ex-wife.
The city slum abatement office got after Dave about the Weed Arboretum and made him park some of his rolling stock elsewhere than in the front yard. Also, one of the wacko neighbors has been issuing death threats against Dave over the mess in front. So, Dave has at least been trying to clean up the premises.
The results are mixed.
Meanwhile, and far more dangerously, the City is about to trash our neighborhood.
The City’s absurd light-rail train will go right up the middle of the main drag to the west of our tract. This road, a conduit of blight, serves as a permeable barrier between the middle-class housing on our side and the tenements and gang-infested slum directly west of us.
Tenements, bear in mind, are businesses. The City of Phoenix historically has favored businesses over residents-in the past our City Parents have changed the routes of freeways to avoid demolishing businesses but thought nothing of ripping out homes by the square mile and trashing the neighborhoods flanking the freeways.
Light rail is no exception: the City plans to tear out the access road that gave the houses along the main drag some nominal distance from the traffic and the bus riders. Not only that, but unknown to most residents, the City’s right of way goes about three or four feet inside every property along that access road. Walls, trees, and landscaping will be ripped out and replaced with asphalt to accommodate an alignment that spares businesses and apartment houses on the west side of the road. Several houses will be torn down and replaced with noisy equipment. And a three-story parking garage will be built on the corner where a train station replaces a tacky strip mall, further enhancing our view to the west.
One of the neighborhood grocery stores has already closed; the other has announced it will close before light rail construction begins. This leaves us with no neighborhood grocery shopping except for a small Sprouts, which doesn’t carry anything like all the goods one needs to run a kitchen and a home. The three doomed houses are locked behind hideous storm fences, and the City is allowing the weeds to rival those in Dave’s Weed Arboretum.
These developments will not help our property values. Construction is expected to take as much as four years, during which trucks and diverted traffic will roar across our neighborhood streets. The result will be a trolley that plods through town at an average speed of 15 miles per hour, hardly a crowd-pleaser for busy commuters.
My property value has already dropped $75,000 off its Bubble high of $375,000. At $300,000, it is about where it should be if no bubble had ever happened. If prices in the neighborhood continue to drop, I will lose money on my house.
And drop they will. Faced with a full understanding of what this project means to the area, homeowners have flocked to real estate agents. Houses are on the market at figures well below $300,000. And four houses that I know of are in foreclosure.
How dire is this?
Well, I think it’s fairly dire. Yes. Pretty dire.
But there’s nothing I can do about it. So, I guess the best course is to resign myself to the fact that you can’t fight City Hall, get used to loud noise and construction dirt and hellish traffic, and hope the long-term increase in the Investment House’s value offsets the loss on my home.
Five out of six of the stress sources (three of which are associated with personal finance) have improved since I started Funny about Money. How did I manage to get the best of so many of my stressors?
Number one: Write down everything that bothers you. This was the key to success overall. Brainstorm all the issues that might remotely be called stressors. For each, write down:
- 1. Why is it bothersome?
- 2. Is it really significant, or am I blowing this one out of proportion?
- 3. What can be done about it?
Next: List the significant issues in order of importance, from most to least urgent.
Then: Work on each issue a little at a time. Some issues will have to be tabled while you deal with matters that seem more crucial.
- 1. Don’t expect your problems to go away instantly. Realize that something that’s been making you nuts for a while will take a similar while to figure out and solve.
- 2. Work at identifying your part in the stressfulness of each issue, rather than blaming someone or something else. After all, you’re the person who is in the best position to resolve most of your issues.
- 3. But don’t blame yourself for situations or conditions you can’t help or you didn’t bring on yourself.
Listen to what people who are in a position to speak intelligently are trying to tell you (but ignore those who talk for the sake of hearing themselves talk). For example, it took me a long time to register what my boss and my HR representative were urging me to do about my personnel problem. If I’d paid attention sooner, I wouldn’t have had to suffer a major stressor as long as I did.
Take positive action to resolve each issue. Identify strategies that may help to relieve stress or eliminate situations that cause stress, and follow through on them.
If an issue has no solution, try either to move away from it or to accommodate it psychologically by resigning yourself to it. Exception: Do not, under any circumstance, remain in an abusive relationship!
Declutter. This is a positive action in its own right. Simplify your daily life, get rid of unnecessary paperwork, and throw out or give away junk you’re not using. It’s amazing how much better this will make you feel.
Turn off the ambient noise. Shut off the television. Turn off the cell phone. Do not listen to local news broadcasts that dwell almost exclusively on stories of the bizarre and the terrifying. Never listen to talk shows while driving. Make your external life quieter and your internal life will quiet down.
Be patient. Don’t feel you have to solve all your problems at once. There’s a limit to how much you can deal with.
- Identify the issues that feel most important and work on those first.
Engage in an activity that relaxes you and takes you away from your cares. This is huge.
- One of my friends paints to distract herself from the stresses of her job and her life. I have found that blogging relaxes me and keeps me entertained for hours. Find something you like to do and do it.
The Incredible Lightness of Stress-free Being
The quality of my life has changed over the past few months to an extent that I would call almost weird. Things that used to set me off — aggressive drivers, endless traffic signals, ninnies in the grocery store line who feel compelled to argue with the cashier over every penny — no longer seem to matter much. Time itself seems to have slowed down. Where before my days never seemed to have enough hours to accommodate all the things that needed to be done, now I get things finished and have time to sit down and read a book, go for a bike ride, or just sit and enjoy a lovely afternoon.
I’ve stopped drinking, which a) saves a chunk of dough and b) has caused me to lose six pounds over the past month or so. My blood pressure has dropped into the amazingly healthy range and my blood sugar is down to normal.
And thanks to the biweekly budget and the improved equanimity, I no longer worry whether I can make ends meet from month to month or from year to year.
This is not to say I have achieved the calm of a Buddhist monk. The sound of George W. Bush’s voice still causes me to fly into a rage. A mistake in Quicken can drive me to tear my hair. I’m not at all happy about what the lightrail promises to do to my neighborhood. And the prospect of putting the dog to sleep worries me a lot.
But it’s better. Much better.