Not with a bang*

WELP. As of today the Tucker household is completely debt-free! Strangely, it feels a bit anti-climactic and I joked on FB that I should celebrate by tossing something on the credit card – for old times sake.

If I am to be completely honest, we had a super spendy year. This was all because of the following: some leftover debt from our month spent in Puerto Rico, a Disney trip (my mother offered to pay half so I took the girls and Mr. Tucker stayed home), we took up skiing (and Mr. Tucker and I bought skis), and more activities for the girls this year (Sparks, harp lessons). However, I did manage to get a well-paying job and so even with those over-the-top expenses (and paying for parking at work) we still managed to get our $17000 total debt down to zero in less than 8 months. No small feat, that.

I have always been pretty frugal so this year was a bit of anomaly. Having experienced it, I am not tempted to run up the debt again! Still, we did keep up with savings while we were paying stuff off so it wasn’t too much of a loss but still TSK TSK TSK in my general direction. I have learned my lesson and have no plans to go there again.

I was kind of hoping for great fanfare – or at least a parade – but the debt has gone out with a whimper. On that back of that, Mr. Tucker and I have a fairly comprehensive budget we have put together that sees us planning for almost everything – including emergencies and the next month-long sabbatical – so it’s nice to be able to start all that with a clean slate & THAT feels really good.

* with apologies to T.S Eliot

I’ve been lazy but I have been given a reprise!

So 2-for-20 officially started June 1st because I miscalculated the end of the school year.

For some strange reason I thought that the school year ended three days earlier than it does. As it turns out, I had the secondary school calendar pinned to the cabinet, not the elementary. It kind of begs the question as to how I am only figuring it out now, though.

Still, even though I haven’t accomplished tons (I have yet to see the inside of the gym, oops!) I have still ahead by one day, which is good considering there are two PD days coming up & I will have to double-down. I was hoping to be ahead by now but what can you do.

1. Budgety: Mr. Tucker and I sat down and figured out a new budget to carry us through until the end of the year and beyond. We’ve plotted an incredibly optimistic budget based on a high savings rate and have decided to scale our discretionary spending WAY down based on just the one salary. Hopefully I will head back to work in the fall and then we can just add that salary to the pile.

2. Volunteer: Since I am often working for most of the school year I don’t get the chance to head into the kids’ school and help out. They ask us a lot and Mr. Tucker will often take a day off and go but I don’t want to lose the money. Luckily, most of my contracts end in May so I have now been able to volunteer twice at school.

3. Blog: The old blog style was driving me nuts and I wanted something more intuitive so I spent the morning doing that. It’s looking much better and is so much easier to navigate.

4. & 5.Hooky days: One of my goals for when I was off work was to allow each of the children to have one day alone with me doing whatever they wanted to do. They both chose lunch at Ikea and an afternoon at a kid’s entertainment centre. I managed to come out relatively unscathed financially and we got to bond, so I am glad we did this.

On the list for the rest of the week:

Cleaning out the winter gear
Bringing out the summer stuff
Cleaning the front porch
Making BBQ sauce for the year
Clean the fireplace
Wash & air dry the duvets
The unending piles of laundry I thought were done

Etc.

So right now I have accomplished 6/40 things I plan to do. Not bad! I am about to bike over to the library to pick up some holds and then I am right back to it (I am looking at you, laundry).

2-for-20

One of the things I found overwhelming was just how much had to be done around the house after the winter. With two full-time jobs, two kids and a plethora of extra-curriculars for all of us, so many organizational tasks just got away from us. Since I am home for the next 20 (now 19 days!) without the kids, I wanted to make sure I tackled as much on the list as possible without feeling overwhelmed and throwing in the towel. Enter 2-for-20.

I decided that I could easily manage two things a day for that twenty day period, if I paired difficult tasks with easier tasks. That way I would have a task that I could finish quickly and feel good about before tackling the larger, more daunting task. Some of the ones I chose were super easy – such as finally folding and putting away three weeks of laundry – but some were more difficult, such as cleaning the front yard.

The idea behind forcing myself onto this is schedule is to break down the daunting list of all that needs to be done around the house into easier to manage pieces. When the kids are out of school I won’t be able to spend as much time on the backlog so managing now will ensure we can have a relaxed, fun summer. I won’t have to worry about all that needs to get done which is wasteful mental energy.

Here is what I have done this week:

May 25: kickstart blog posting & fold/put away 3 weeks of laundry
May 26: volunteer at the school & do summer/fall budget
May 27: wash all linens and hang on the line & clean out medicine cabinet

Not bad so far, here are some other things I need to do:

Clean the buffet
Clean out my closet, donate clothes
Clean out the kid’s closets, donate clothes
Put away winter gear
Organize front cupboard

I will have a full calendar done on Friday but until then, I will chip away at the things I can over the next couple of days.

Switching gears & housekeeping

Last week, my contract for 2014-2015 came to an end, and while I am looking forward to some time off and spending summer with the kids, I always find the transitions difficult. This year is much better than previous years, however. With two kids in full day school I now find myself with almost a month of kid-free time between the hours of 8:15 and 3:30. Amazing! Needless to say, I took a few down days last week where I caught up on reading and relaxed.

With a fresh new week on my hands, I realized that I have an opportunity to get a plethora of stuff done. I am sure most people know that there is always something that needs to be cleaned, organized, fixed or purged around the house. My goal is to try and get as many of those things done in the 20 weekdays I have between now and the end of the school year. I also have some personal goals I may throw in there – making it a list of anything I couldn’t accomplish when I was working. Look for more on that this week.

***

With the summer here and a little more time on my hands (I hope!) it’s my goal to post three times a week to this blog. I feel like this summer is going to be a good time to set goals in general, whether it be health (biking not driving), food (less eating out than we did over the winter) or personal (practice harp more often). Mr. Tucker and I have made some personal changes recently and I hope this snowballs into a more relaxed – yet accomplished – summer.

Are you using all the entitlements and deals available to you?

Many people are deep into tax season right now so they are itemizing and calculating their amounts. As for myself, my taxes were done in March (yes, I am a nerd) but I have thinking about other ways we can reduce our expenses lately, namely the hidden things. One thing about having a husband who works from home is that he often has benefits he never uses. Since his company’s office often does events such as happy hours he also gets a certain amount of money set aside that he can use for these things as well. Of course, he never uses them because he works from home and often forgets. Here is a sampling of things he has available to him:

Gym $40 a month
$20 every 2 weeks for lunch
$50 month happy hour

That is over $100 a month in non-taxable benefits that he forgets to use. The worst part is that our family YMCA membership is $130 a month. We technically could be saving $40 on that alone if he just did the paperwork. The problem is that doing the paperwork is often a hassle. For the longest time he had a corporate credit card and didn’t have to file receipts, so the incentive to bill for these things just wasn’t there. His company just redid their corporate card policy and now he has to submit receipts for his expenses again, which means it’s no more of a hassle to submit an extra one.

So basically, for 20 minutes of paperwork we would be getting more than $100 worth of benefits. Since the YMCA membership includes all the kids sports activities (for which we also get a tax credit) and gets us deals on summer camps and birthday parties, we are coming out even more ahead. I mean sure, Mr. Tucker and I go to the gym to work out and to take classes as well but the real benefit is the kids’ activities.

$50 is also a decent night out for us, so we are foolish for not taking advantage of this considering it’s like his company is paying us to have a date night!

$20 buys more than enough pizza for a family of four!

While the point of this story is to review the things we often forget about, everyone has something in their lives they could be taking advantage of, but don’t. Some employers offer reduced public transit passes, gym memberships or other benefits that employees don’t often investigate. Your membership in a professional or an alumni association can get you lower rates on insurance, car rentals and hotels all you have to do is look into it. We currently pay 50% less on term insurance because we get it through my alumni association.

So check to see if you qualify for extra benefits and deals based on your job, school or professional associations. You may be surprised.

Two organizational tasks that keep me sane

Life is a constant attempt at staying organized but it’s even more important when the two adults in our household are working. Life is completely chaotic all the time and it always feels like you are running to catch up. Recently though, I realized that there were two important things that needed to get done in order to control the chaos in our lives. I know homework can be found, toys can be put away quickly and lunch containers usually make a reappearance somewhere down the line so those things don’t consume a lot of my mental energy or time. So I don’t worry about that stuff. What I do worry about:

Meals: I usually spend 10 minutes on Sunday figuring out what we have in our fridge and freezer and then write down on our kitchen calendar what we should eat over the next week. A quick peek into the crisper can also give me an idea of what will last and what needs to be eaten ASAP. This exercise allows me to plan five days of dinners based upon the things we have going on that night. If there is an activity, or if I have a class and only Mr. Tucker is parenting, one of our stockpiled meals made on the weekend is in order or maybe it’s a good night for pasta.

Bu having it written down Mr. Tucker and I avoid the 2pm email conversation that goes something like this,

“What do you want to do for dinner tonight?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s just get take-out.”
“Ok.”

It also allows us to plan ahead if we know that something has to be defrosted. One of us can just take a quick look at the calendar in the morning and figure out what needs to be pulled out of the freezer, what needs to be prepped, and how long the actual dish will take to cook. That allows us to think about what needs to be done and plan our day accordingly.

Knowing that something is planned out makes it less likely that you will end up eating out. It also helps us reduce the amount of fruits and vegetables we waste over the course of a week.

Laundry: anyone who knows me knows that laundry is my biggest Achilles heel. Unfortunately, I also married someone for whom laundry is a challenge. More often than I like to admit, we spend our mornings combing through piles of clothes looking for stuff for the kids & I (luckily, Mr. Tucker works from home and can be less picky!). I know intellectually if I just spend the hour and put it all away our lives will be so much more organized but yet Mr. Tucker and I often avoid it because it’s our least favourite chore.

We both know how much better our lives are when we keep on top of the laundry so we’ve been forcing ourselves to work on it. The worst part is that since Mr. Tucker is home during the day he will often toss in some laundry because it’s a hands-off thing he can do with only about 20 minutes of actual hands-on time. So I have no real excuse not to take the time to fold it and put it away. Also, the amount of time it takes to search through piles of laundry for little socks for the kids is way more annoying to do every morning than it would be to just do it once and have them all done for the week. My clothing choices are much simpler – dresses, mostly – but the kids need an array of things depending on the day of the week. Two days a week are outside gym days and dressing for the weather is super important in a northern clime.

It honestly takes about one hour to fold and put away and another 15 minutes to plan out the outfits in order to save 15 minutes every morning. Completely worth it!

Not everything goes smoothly when four people are rushing in the morning and three of them have to be places at a certain time but with a little forethought things can go mostly better. Not having to worry about what everyone is eating and wearing takes a huge stress off and saves us both time and money.

Is enough ever enough? (Part II)

How fine are you?

Every year near the end of my contracts, I panic. I go through this dramatic internal phase where I believe that no one will hire me again, I’ve just had good luck and that I’ll end up not working for so long that no one will hire me. The reality is that I have been hired 4 years in a row doing increasingly more and more interesting work for better and better pay AND I have been able to take the summers off with my kids. Chances are my current contract will not be my last one. I will not starve; there will be more work and I just need to learn to relax. But we are the products of our history and we tend to think of the worst case scenario so my brain automatically goes to all the times things were NOT ok as opposed to the fact that through some good decision making and savings, we will definitely be ok.

A little panic is good, it spurs us to find better work, to save more than spend and essentially helps with good decision-making. But it can also prevent you from living your life. My dad has more than enough money to do the things he wants to do in retirement but I worry that fear may prevent him from fully enjoying these things. What is the point of working hard all your life to spend the last years needlessly worrying about money?

Make a decision, give yourself permission

I decided that in order to not worry all summer I would put together a plan where as long as I hit some networking and job application milestones I would allow myself to just relax. Similarly, my father could agree to spend only X amount on travel on hobbies and then not worry about it. It requires a shift in mentality to strike a balance but if you know where you stand and have a plan, you worry less. You have to decide for yourself what is enough, change your mentality and give yourself permission to enjoy things.

When my father’s work situation changed, he needed to really sit down and change his mentality along with it. I have seen some finance gurus suggest to people undergoing life changes (retirement, living off one salary, parental leave) to try to living off that same amount for the 6 months before you actually have to and save the difference. That way you know what is feasible AND you have 6 months of banked savings to rely on. My dad spent the years leading up to his retirement doing all the major renovations to his house such as new insulation and a new roof. That way, he shouldn’t have to worry about any major work on his home for the rest of his life. Smart!

Our plan was to always live off about half of what we make and save the rest for goals and travel. We also contribute to various savings accounts (retirement, vehicles, etc.). We build in our hedge by knowing exactly what the bare minimum we need to survive is and aim to save that much in an account in case of a major job loss. It is that way I give myself permission to let go. It also helps that we can batten down the hatches and live off very little money if we need to. Having a bread and water mentality can help when the going gets rough.

Reset and rethink

In order to change your default mentality – sometimes after years of the same reinforcement – you have to consciously rethink the way you view things. Here are some thoughts:

If you are young, start now: it will be harder to change the longer you have done it. If you want to see the world from a different angle then you have to start as soon as you can. That way you will have years of experience off the beaten path and will know instinctively that the most popular way of doing things is not the only way. Besides, it’s easier to buck the status quo when you are younger.

Have a positive outlook: Often people will say “I wish I could do that,” or, “that may be fine for you but it would never work in my situation.” Don’t be that person. That kind of negative thinking is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think of all the ways you COULD do something instead of listing the ways you can’t.

Stop listening to other chicken littles: We do get value when comparing ourselves to others in the same situation as us. It’s nice to feel like we are similar to others but humans are also prone to exaggeration. Someone who is claiming how tight things are may not be telling the whole truth or may have completely different challenges even though things look the same on the surface. You should be mining your own situation and comparing it to actual things in your own life, not the lives of others.

Determine you own minimum comfort level: do you need to have x amount of dollars in the bank to feel safe? Figure out what would allow you to let go and then once you reach that level, give yourself permission to relax.

Doomsday planning: if everything went wrong tomorrow how much would it cost to get back on track? Are you properly insured and do you have a plan for emergencies and people you can rely on?

Count on your tribe: who can you rely on either emotionally or physically when the going gets tough? Do you have friends with special skills or in a position where they could help you out? I often have friends who could help me find work if I needed it and I tend to keep them in mind when I feel like I will never work again. My father could also rely on us if he, say, ever got sick and needed help.

Fake it til you make it: even after all your planning you may still have some nagging in the back of your head. The best way to get into the habit of not panicking is to roll with it and pretend it’s all going to be fine. Chances are you will discover that things are fine. Heck, if you are the kind of person to meditate it’s a good opportunity to start a new mantra to train yourself to live in the moment.

Overall, focus on all the ways things have gone right instead of the ways things have gone wrong. The point of all this toil is to enjoy it and if you aren’t enjoying the good parts of life you are letting work and money control you. If that is happening you have to ask yourself why you worked so hard in the first place if you can’t even relax.

Is enough ever enough? (part I)

My father is retiring this month. Instead of looking forward to the time off after working so hard his whole life, he is panicking. He is panicking because despite a) having his house paid off, b) having low-cost hobbies, and c) a large pension with cost-of-living increases he is scared he won’t be able to live. He recants tales of other retired colleagues not being able to afford to do anything and is convinced he is going to live hand-to-mouth in a couple of years. The worst part? His pension will be a third higher than the average Canadian salary. So essentially, there are entire families with mortgages and cars and children to support who make less than he does.

He’s not alone

We have had a rough week here in Casa del Bungalowville. The gastro typhoon has hit everyone in my household and I am the last person standing. Today I was called from work in the morning to pick up the eldest at school after she succumbed. So that’s how I found myself at 3:30pm waiting for the youngest to get off the school bus. It’s also how I ended up having a conversation with a neighbour about our parents retiring.

Like my father, her parents also live in our neighborhood. Also like my father, they both have good pensions and savings but worry about money constantly. Of course, my neighbor and I are of a generation where pensions have been essentially eliminated from the majority of jobs and replaced with retirement contribution matching (if you are lucky). The idea of a pension with a cost-of-living increase every year seems like winning the lottery to us – especially since our personal salaries aren’t even close to that amount!

Perception vs. reality.

I wonder though if maybe our parents just haven’t escaped that “making do” mentality. Spending years and years raising kids and allocating money carefully to make sure all the bills were paid was an almost 30-year habit. So even though those worries are gone, the habit remains. The reality is that they will be fine, the perception is that it could all fall apart at any moment.

We are all chained to our perceptions. We are all the chicken little’s of our own lives and of our own design. Whether it be money or health or interpersonal relationships we can often be a product of our habits and previous experiences. More than this though, we are also the product of our own grit and our own ability to persevere. Think of all the times you only had $10 to your name and you go through it. The times where you felt the entire world were crashing down on you and you go through it unscathed.

But yet, we only remember the hard times and not how we got through them with a combination of good habits and talent. My father is used to having a large paycheck – true – but all he needed to do was pretend not to have that paycheck for the past couple of months to know that if he had to be at his most frugal, he could still surpass more than a 50% savings rate if he really hunkered down. Considering how much he saves now, it should not be a problem. Heck, he could spend every cent, every month and still be fine. What he just needs to do is change his mentality about how he sorts his money. He is going to be fine, he just needs to give himself the experience of being fine.

Stay tuned for more this week…

Quick meal prep (that isn’t once-a-month-cooking)

I know a lot of frugality and homemaking blogs get a lot of mileage out of the once-a-month cooking (OAMC) trend. In case you haven’t heard of this, it’s where you spend one full day making every meal for an entire month. It’s a laudable goal but one I haven’t had much of a desire to achieve. Aside from the fact that I don’t have enough freezer space to store completed meals, I also like to use up anything that is going back in my fridge, so OAMC would be problematic for me. Besides, most of the websites and books on OAMC highlight recipes that don’t really appeal to me.

Still, I do like to save time, energy and money so instead of OAMC there are two things I aim for to make life easier.

The Soup Factory:

If there is one thing that the entire family enjoys, it’s soup. We eat it for lunch & dinner (and I have been known to eat leftover Pho for breaktfast). Although we do use commercial soups in a pinch, the salt content alone is pretty scary & they can be rather blah. I try and fancy them up and add, say, basil and jarred roasted red peppers to a plain tomato soup. All you need then is a whirr with the immersion blender and you have a fairly decadent lunch. Still, a fancy canned soup is no replacement for a homemade version and since soup can be made fairly easily and inexpensively with the help of pre-made broth, I consider it a worthwhile adventure.

As I mentioned before, I don’t have a lot of freezer space. We still have the original kitchen in our post-war bungalow and it fits exactly one size of fridge: 15 cubic feet (no word of a lie). That means I have to be creative with our shopping and storing of food. So in the case of the soup factory, I let the soup cool, I fill a medium freezer bag and then I stack them. I rarely have a problem with the bags leaking and a medium sized freezer bag holds two servings of soup. I can pull out a bag the night before if I need to warm it up for the kids Thermoses in the morning or if it is for me I just toss one of the frozen bricks into my backpack. I reheat half of the soup in the microwave at work and store the rest for the next day.

We all have our favourite soup ideas s but here are a few of mine:
– Spicy tomato kale and white bean
– Black bean
– Minestrone
– Chicken noodle
– Italian wedding
– Pea soup (you know where that Easter ham bone is going!)
– Curry lentil
– Butternut squash and ginger
– Vegetarian cream soups (ie: without cream): broccoli, cauliflower
– Potato-leek

If we are home I will pair soup up with a gooey grilled cheese sandwich, crudités or even just a loaf of Mr. Tucker’s delicious Ciabatta. If I am taking it to work, I may just toss in a salad or cheese and a few crackers.

Double-up dinner:

Another reason I am not necessarily a fan of OAMC is that I like to eat things that don’t necessarily translate well to freezer storage. We aren’t really casserole people (but I have been known to stuff a shepherd’s pie or lasagne into the freezer) and most OAMC dishes are heavily casserole-based. There are still quite a few excellent meals that lend themselves to freezing but instead of cooking them once a month, I just double the recipe and make two to three meals out of one dinner preparation. It doesn’t take more than a few extra seconds to prepare the second dish and you only have to clean up once. Although I don’t always hit the mark, I try to have enough for a meal and for lunches the next day for the kids and I (when I am working outside the house.

Some dishes that end up working quite well to the doubling treatment are things such as:

– Ratatouille (my daughter’s favourite and heavy on the chopping!)
– Beef stew
– Shepherd’s pie
– Chicken pot pie
– Chilli
– Pulled pork
– Lasagne
– Curries
– Burritos
– Stir fries

ratatouille
Two Ratatouilles and a soup on the stove

You could probably add a million and one dishes to this list but those are the most popular dishes that we end up freezing. That way on evenings when we have no time or have to rush out we can just pull something out of the freezer in the morning and warm it up for dinner. Add bread, some frozen veggies, rice or a small salad and dinner is on the table in no time.

Baking your way to quick lunch snacks

I am not a baker by any stretch of the imagination. I like cooking but because I don’t have a sweet tooth, I rarely consider whipping up some cinnamon buns or scones unless I have a coffee or tea date planned with friends. Still, with the competition of school lunches being extremely appealing, I do try and keep our homemade lunches interesting. Part of that process is creating interesting things to put in the kid’s lunches, which means I have had to up my baking game. While I will never surpass the greatness of some of the bento box blogs out there, I do make sure to switch things up so they don’t get bored.

Luckily for me, the kids love to help out in the kitchen. I know it makes baking things three times as long when you add children to the mix but they do love to help and it is nice to spend time productively with them. Kids also enjoy eating things they had a hand in making so by working together you can also ensure they will eat the finished product. Also, since everything is a balance of time vs. money when both parents are working, this is a great way to save money, time and get in some family time as well.

So on a lazy weekend day once or twice a month I will prepare all the ingredients for a batch of cookies or a batch of muffins. After they cool, I then freeze them in giant freezer bags so in the morning while I am groggily making lunches, it’s easy to just toss them into a container & go.

Tips:

Use what you have: Batches of muffins usually coincide with the amount of bananas that have gone past their prime or the amount of carrots we have on hand. We always keep pantry staples around (flour, baking powder, oatmeal, raisins, spices) so look through your fridge for ways to use up what may go bad.

Always prep first: If you are doing this with children make sure that you have pre-measured the ingredients so that they just have to pick up the container and add it to the bowl. This may cause a few extra bowls to rinse but will save you the headache of trying to juggle and measure a cup of sugar while the kids get up to shenanigans.

Find a basic recipe and stick with it: older cookbooks such as Betty Crocker will have a generic muffin recipe or a cookie recipe that is easily adapted. All that changes is the spicing and the fruit combo. Once you know the recipe & the steps off by heart it will become second-nature.

Make fun, kid-sized stuff: I always make my cookies about 1-1.5-inches in diameter. Three of those cookies fit nicely in one small salad dressing container. Small muffins in fun muffin cups up the “WOW” factor for lunches. It takes a bit longer but it is worth it.

Alternate & double up: one weekend I may make cookies and then the next weekend I may make muffins. That way I always have a mix of the two to alternate between for lunches. I also always make sure to double the recipe so that they last.

muffins

I plan to try the kids on a traditional French Yogurt cake soon as well. This is the first cake French children learn to make and it’s measured with the yogurt container to make it an easy recipe for kids to follow. I love the idea and plan to give that a whirl soon. If they each make a cake recipe, I’ll probably be able to make a month’s worth of muffins!

A week of food posts: pre-planning meals

Yesterday I signed a new letter of offer for my current position. They are extending me for another month so my last day here will be June 13th. Incidentally, it’s also the last day I have daycare for my youngest, so it works out perfectly.

This week may be food week! I have a few things I wanted to post regarding getting organized food-wise between work-kids-activities-obligations. It seems to be the place I can make the most difference in our time considering how long it takes to buy food, prep food and cook food. With three people taking lunches to school or work every day, it can be a huge time suck so I am always looking for creative ways to reduce the time it takes to deal with food – especially on weekdays.

I do a major grocery run twice a month for the majority of our edibles. In between I may take a trip to a close produce store or to the drug store but almost all our shopping in those twice-a-month trips. Because of this, I tend to organize our weekly meal plan from what we have in the fridge. I try and gauge what is going bad and what could last a bit longer. Sunday night I get out my pad of paper and a pen and then figure out a meal plan based on what needs to be eaten earlier in the week and what can be left to the end of the week. The overall goal is to reduce waste while still providing interesting, healthy meals for the family.

On nights where I know it will be busy, I plan something simple such as a quick pasta dish or something I just need to defrost, such as pre-made stews, soups or chilli. On the nights I know we have more time, I work on something more elaborate or fun, like bbq or fondue. If the weather has been cold and rainy I am more likely to make a stew or serve a soup on the days where it is warm we focus more on salads and lighter fare. Like most people, it has become almost automatic for me to take all these variables into consideration for dinner.

On Sunday afternoon I take stock of the fridge and then look at our freezer inventory and then decide what we will eat for lunches and dinner. Then I will write down what I think will work given what activities we have that night, what the weather is like or what we haven’t had in awhile.

The result is a list I post next to our calendar. The list isn’t written in stone but it’s handy because it allows me to know that I packed soup and a sandwich in the kid’s lunch on Monday so Tuesday I may want to switch it up and do veggie sticks and chicken nuggets. It gives us the ability to use up what we have but wisely so we don’t have, say, beef three days in a row.

luncdin1

The great thing about the list is that I can take a quick glance the night before and pre-pack a lot of the things for the kid’s lunches (I generally get leftovers). While Mr. Tucker does dishes, I can assemble as much of their lunches as possible and take out anything that needs to defrost for the next day. That way when I get up the next morning (groggy, sans-coffee) I can just glance at the list, add whatever needs to be prepped that morning and then put it in their backpacks. It’s automatic and I don’t have to think about it. It definitely beats my old method of getting up in a haze at 5:45am and then trying to figure out what to do for lunches!

When I am working, this method works like a charm. It minimizes the amount we eat out because I‘ve noticed that we ate out more when we couldn’t really think of what to do for dinner. Organizing our meals based around what we already have has minimized waste, saved money and made our lives a lot easier.

Brainstorming: nosce te ipsum

Why do you want to work part-time? Is it so you will have more time for friends and family? More time for a creative pursuit? Do you need time to explore volunteer options for a career change? Do you want to go back to school? Maybe you were downsized and had no choice or an illness is keeping you from full-time work? The list of reasons why people want to – or have to – work part-time are probably as long as there are people! Still, you should do some prep work before jumping into the fray and the first step of this preparation should be a brainstorming exercise. You should sit down and think – and I really mean THINK – about how part-time work will affect your life both positively and negatively. To get you started, here are some questions and considerations you will need to explore as honestly as possible:

1 – Why part-time? State the obvious here whether or not it is a selfish reason or an altruistic one. Be realistic about your goals or your limitations. The answer to this question will direct the answers to other questions.

2 – What are your strengths and weaknesses? If you can’t lift a heavy box, you will need to avoid applying for any jobs with that requirement. If you aren’t a morning person, chances are a 5am paper route won’t be for you. If you can’t stand unpredictability, going the temp route may be too draining for you.

3 – Skills. Given your education and background, what types of jobs can you reasonably expect to get? My career has been mostly in communications and administration but I have a degree in psychology and am extremely technically proficient. So given that background I have been able to work my resume in way that opens up the doors to decent-paying contracts in the public sector.

4 – What are your limitations? If you have childcare demands or medical issues you will have to take these into consideration when looking for positions. I have been lucky enough to have excellent and decently-priced childcare available in my neighbourhood. Someone who doesn’t have those options may have to limit the work they can apply for.

5 – Type. What kind of part-time do you think you would enjoy? A permanent part-time job is a bit of the unicorn of the working world but is still a laudable goal. I like the full-time contract for a set period of time which allows me the opportunity to take entire swaths of time off and to also plan for child care.

6 – Finances. What salary expectations do you have and what do you need? You should give yourself a low number and a high number and aim to compare the salary up against other benefits of taking a job such as location and hours. You should also have a budget in place to project what you reasonably need to live.

7 – Location. how far will you go? Everyone has their limits such as how far they are willing to commute, whether or not you own a car etc. If you are relying on public transportation the areas that aren’t serviced by the bus system may be too challenging.

8 – Grooming expectations. if you work in a customer-facing environment you may need to wear make-up or own a selection of business suits. If you work in an IT environment, the expected dress code will be a lot more low-key. You will need to consider the extra time and money.

9 – Benefits. If you do not have benefits already or have to work full time in your current position to receive benefits, that could potentially be the biggest limitation.

10 – Dreams. How do you see yourself in the future? Is part-time work a stepping stone to something bigger in your life? Where do you see yourself in one year, three years and five years?

These teaser questions are a good basis for you to start your own brainstorming session. As the ancient Greeks would say, nosce te ipsum – know thyself. You may go through this exercise and determine that part-time work is just not viable for you at this point in time. That’s ok, too! You may be financially behind at this period in your life and have too many expenses. You may also discover that you are very much tied to your identify as a full-time employee and aren’t quite ready to make the leap. The purpose of this exploration is to put together a concrete document to use as a mirror so you can see the reality of your situation. It’s not about judgment or beating yourself up but instead it’s about creating a starting point from where all other decisions will stem. I recommend you take some time to work through these questions and also to think about other questions that may be relevant. Who knows what you could possibly discover or where it will lead you?

Faux Pho

I had the misfortune of being super sick two days before the Easter long weekend (I get Friday and Monday off for Easter at my current job). So while it looked like a 6-day weekend, I really spent most of it in bed, feverish. My poor husband had to pick up the slack and manage work and all the household stuff by himself.

Friday nights in our house are what I call Faux Pho* and a movie night. After a long, hectic week of us all rushing around to our various destinations: school, work, daycare, aftercare, we all need a night to just relax and hang out. Friday has become the default night and so Mr. Tucker will whip up a pot of broth while I am at work and when I get home I will lay out all the ingredients in little bowls on the dining room table so each person can personalize their bowl. The kids really enjoy it because they get to build their own soup before we ladle some hot broth on from the stove. It’s a fresh, nourishing way to start the weekend.

In all honesty, I use the cheaters method of making Pho because I don’t have time to make a true soup. I use the Vietnamese soup in a teapot recipe from Laurie David’s Family Dinner book. The only thing we really change about the recipe is that instead of cooking the chicken in the soup, I bake it in the oven and slice it thinly. Beef also works well, and making a vegetarian version I feel would also be just as delicious with a few tweaks.

After dinner the kids have a warm bath, settle into their jammies and then help me pop popcorn in our 80s air popper. With our individual bowls of popcorn (we get seasoning from the bulk store & everyone enjoys a different flavour) we settle onto the couch for movie. It is the one night we earmark for family hangouts where the kids get the thrill of staying up late. It’s truly a nice, relaxing way to start off the weekend, especially since weekends can sometimes be equally as busy as weekdays.

pho

After being sick for two days straight, a hot bowl of spicy and tangy soup was exactly what the doctor ordered.  It was an especially welcome dinner on Friday night.

*It’s actually pronounced like “fa” or “feu,” as it stems from the French pot-au-feu.

So you want to go part-time: exploring the options

My own personal journey has been one of full-time contracts for a portion of the year.  Since the work I take is almost always government contracts, I can work 90 days per calendar year, per department.  Sometimes that means doing eight-ish months across two calendar years, but it can also mean switching up departments, as I did this year.   So far I have managed to take the summer off four years running to spend it with my kids.  I call this the contract method of working, where there is a definitive timeline of a full-time work followed by a period of leisure time.

My way may not be the way you would chose, nor would it be the way your neighbour chooses: part time work looks different to different people and there is no right or wrong way.  Let’s explore a few of the options.

Part-time, permanent: I know a couple of people who have managed to finagle their full-time jobs into part-time jobs, especially after they have had kids.  This works well because if an employer knows you and knows you are a good worker, chances are they will want to keep you.

Method:  full time job already that turns into a temp job or get hired in that magical unicorn position that is a part-time job.

Pros: benefits, regular hours, being able to plan better financially, not having to find work frequently.

Cons: usually can’t take huge chunks of time off, harder to find childcare, lowest on the list for vacation time.

Part-time, seasonal (mostly retail and tourist season): Summers and the winter holiday seasons are a great time to try and pick up some hours if you don’t mind lower-paying work.  It’s also a great way to start building a resume up after an absence.

Method: scour the local job sites for keywords such as temporary, seasonal.  Research various seasonal industries in your area or close by.

Pros:  easiest way to get work if you have had long stretches of unemployment, can earn money quickly for a short period of time. Can arrange to work evenings and weekends so if you have kids, you can manage without childcare.

Cons:  usually terrible hours over the holiday/summer season, lower-paying, short duration of work.

I have a friend who has made a career out of seasonal work.  He has been tree planting since he was a teenager and has worked his way up to management.  Every summer he leads a team and since there is nowhere to really spend money, he saves it and lives off his accumulated savings in the winter.  He even uses his money to travel around Asia and South America during those cold dark days.  It helps that he lives in a city with low rents but a city that is interesting enough that he can sublet over the summer months.  It also helps that he lives frugally and has no dependents.

Temp work: For those of you who have huge emergency funds, low living expenses or who just like to live on the edge, temp work can be a great way to pick up work when you want it, and ignore it when you don’t.  Temp work is especially handy if you are in the position to travel the country.  It’s easier to roll into town, take a short-term contract and explore your new surroundings in your time off.

Method: contact temp agencies.  Most agencies are national in scope with a local office so keep a running list of agencies and contact them frequently.

Tip – temp work is one of those situations where the squeaky wheel gets the grease:  you have to stay on top of temp agencies to keep yourself on their radar.  Make sure you stay in contact frequently to remind them you are still available for work.

Pros: can make money quickly,  establishing a good relationship with an agency can get you better contracts, can specify long or short term, some permanent possibilities.

Cons:  can be cut short with little notice, depending on the area you live in, competition can be fierce,  a large time investment to make it work well, you may have to take contracts you don’t want or be removed from the call list (especially before you have built a relationship).  It can be difficult to manage if you have children.

Occasional:  Occasional work comes in many forms.  You could be a part-time babysitter for a friend in the neighbourhood, a pet /house sitter for when people go on vacation.  You could even rent a room out in your house on Air BnB.  Personally, I have been a babysitter at a religious institution during holiday ceremonies, and worked as poll clerk during elections.  This is a great way to wet your feet if you are thinking of jumping back into the workforce after an absence or are gearing down for retirement and are looking to find the odd income stream.

I have a friend who lives in a small town close to the city.  She attends a lot of local auctions and thrift stores and gleans it for things of value.  She then re-sells it on local buy/sell websites or through her online store.

Pros:  occasional income if you are afloat financially can be a hobby you make a career, a great way to learn something new.

Cons: unreliable stream of income, can be a lot of work, it can be stressful to have guests in your home.

Last but not least,

Start your own business: you may not think so, but this can be a dangerous one.  I ran my own business for 5 years before deciding to stay home with my kids and that is because a small business can get away from you.  You may think of keeping it to part-time but if you are like me and work hard and have great word-of-mouth you will find more clients coming in and it’s extremely difficult to say no to more hours.  As most small business owners will tell you as well, you put in a lot more hours than you think you will.  I owned a small cleaning company so it just wasn’t the cleaning that was difficult, it was the marketing, finances, customer service, inventory and all the other things that take up your time.  So unless you are extremely diligent in the kind of business you run to make sure it start part time, chances are you will creep up to over full-time hours if you aren’t paying attention.

So, these are just a few examples and I am sure you can think of a million and one different pros and cons that apply to your area of the world and that is relevant to your life.   The above is in no way an exhaustive list but instead examples of how you can head towards a part-time lifestyle.  We’ll address each option as the months go on, but for now this is just to give you an idea of the options.

In a future post I will explore the brainstorming exercise every person should do to start them off on the right path.

The permanent work pack (PWP)

The nature of my work is that I am on the move a lot and that all my contracts are in a standard office environment. Last year alone I worked at three different places so I was never around long enough to fully pack a cubicle with knick-knacks. That doesn’t mean I don’t personalize my spaces, it just means I have to remember that my time at any place is temporary and what I carry in, I have to carry out. That being said, there are a few accessories that are required for work so I keep what I call a Permanent Work Pack (PWP) in storage to take with me from contract to contract.

What is in the PWP? The PWP contains the basic of things you would need to get through a typical 8-hour day at work. It has to be packed well enough to be ONE bag that you could carry in and carry out on any day. My guess is that the majority of things in my PWP are things people across the board would bring with them to work, such as cutlery. Other things would be more person-dependant, such as a coffee maker. If you don’t drink coffee, or if your office already has a coffeemaker, you would definitely not bring one with you. It’s been my experience that every office environment has different amenities so you would have to assess the first day or two before removing or adding stuff to your PWP.

For example, in one of my previous jobs there was no coffeemaker on-site, so I made sure to bring my wee one-cup coffeemaker. In my current position there are coffeemakers everywhere! There is a Keurig, a 12-cup coffeemaker, and an individual Keurig. So there is obviously no need to bring my one-cup coffeemaker with me to work. I took it out of my PWP and left it in storage. When I finish this contract I will pop it back in, but for now it can just stay at home.

My PWP is actually a backpack that my husband got at a conference but any large-ish backpack will do. I tend to carry quite a few things in my PWP but if you are more of a minimalist, you may find yourself carrying less. The key though is to have one bag whose sole purpose is to store and transport your work stuff. As to what to keep in it, here is a snapshot of the things I have in my PWP:

Food

– A selection of tea
– An emergency lunch of a can of soup & pack of crackers
– An emergency breakfast of oatmeal with fruit & nuts
– Condiments (packs of soy sauce, salt & pepper, mustard and ketchup)

Utensils and tools

– A tea ball
– Cutlery: knife/fork/teaspoon/soup spoon/chop sticks
– Small plate
– Soup bowl
– Mug
– Water bottle
– Small one-cup coffeemaker
– Cloth napkin (I take this home and replace it when it’s dirty)
– Wet wipes to clean my desk

Medicine & wellness

– Multivitamins
– Allergy medication
– Painkillers
– Cold & flu medication
– Antacids

Personal care

– Box of tissue
– Chewing gum
– Hand cream
– Hand sanitizer
– Lip balm
– Hair ties/clips

Clothing

– One pair of black shoes
– One pair of brown shoes
– Sweater
– Extra socks

I also have a few pictures of family & drawings my kids did tucked in there as well.

It seems like a lot but most of the stuff is small and packs pretty tightly. When I run out, I just make a note to bring some more stuff from home or add it to a shopping list. If I keep on top of replenishing it and making sure it’s all together when I store it, the next time I take it out for work, it is good to go. Of course, everyone’s PWP will be different and contain different things. Mine is suitable for office work where you have your own office space. If you work in a different environment you would have a completely different PWP. I’d love to hear some new ideas or additions!

Early retirement calculator

I came across this Early Retirement Calculator this morning.  It`s a fun tool to play with to see if you could manage to quit working full time sooner rather than later.  While I am a fan of dropping down to part-time work as soon as you can, this is a great exercise for people who would rather work full time and retire earlier.

The rise of invisible work

Atlantic Monthly explores the  rise of invisible work.

So you want to go back to work…

There are a myriad of ways to want to re-enter the workforce: maybe you are worried about living off one salary in the middle of an economic crisis; maybe you just wanted to go back to work, or gain new skills, or just enter a new chapter in your life. At this point, you are in the process of figuring out how to re-enter the workforce.

My own personal decision to go back to work was because I wanted to pay off a bit of debt and to pad my resume with recent work experience. Should anything happen to my husband’s job I would at least have a better chance at finding work if I kept my resume current.

I knew right away that with my kids so young and my resume so outdated that my best bet would be to try and find some temporary contracts. So I sat down and brainstormed how I was going to break back into the workforce. If anything, this will be your biggest step, so brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm!

1. What kind of work?

Some of you may already have training in a field you enjoy and that often has openings. A career in healthcare is a good example, there always seems to be a requirement for nurses. For the rest of us, there may be a lot more soul searching. Although I have a degree in the social sciences, I knew that my target would be government contracts in administration or communications. I have had previous experience in both these fields and I knew that I would be able to network those types of contracts.

Still, you may not want to go back to your previous work or it may be in a field where short contracts or part-time work is unavailable. Some people also may choose to work in retail or customer service because it gets them out of the house, not because they need the money. Whatever your own personal story is, you need to narrow down a range of employment targets.

2. Childcare

This is probably the second-biggest question families will have to consider when a parent returns to work. Childcare will be much easier for you if you can work opposite shifts than your spouse. Unfortunately, the trade-off is losing quality time with your spouse and any extracurricular activities you had planned in those hours. Along the same vein, if you can arrange work schedules to save on childcare, that will help you financially.

The other option is family or friends. Trading with another family who requires childcare at a different time could work out for flexible families. If you have a family member who is willing to help with childcare, that is also an option. These informal arrangements can be very convenient for all parties but they can also be very messy if both sides aren’t clear on the expectations.

Our choice has been home daycares within walking distance from our house, nursery schools and a local after-school program run by the YMCA in our area. We considered the trade-off financially and ruled out larger daycare centres: the cost combined with the added commute for pick-up/drop-off would have been too much of a hassle.

3. Re-entry costs

Is your professional wardrobe too old or will you be aiming for a job with a casual atmosphere? Maybe your body composition has changed since you left the workforce and you will need a few key pieces to get started. From new shoes to makeup, going back to work may have some associated costs you haven’t considered yet. It may be best for you to look into what amount you may have to spend to get back to work.

4. The financial cost of working

Aside from start-up working costs, you should also analyze how much it would cost you to take a job. In my case, the majority of work I find is downtown which is easily accessible by bus. If you have to commute by car you will need to calculate how much gas and wear and tear there will be (check the rate that the government calculates mileage for taxes and use that to estimate). Everyone should factor in their commute time when figuring out their hourly wage to make sure they are coming ahead. Sometimes a job may look good but when you factor in the time and money it would cost to work that job, it stops being so lucrative. What about the extra costs of maybe eating out more often or hiring people to do the work the stay-at-home-parent may have once taken care of?

5. The emotional costs of working

Don’t underestimate the emotional toll when a parent returns to work. Everything from explaining to your children what is going on to carving out personal time with your partner and friends can be a steep learning curve as you adjust to a new schedule.

You may also have some of your own demons to contend with. Questions such as “Am I capable,” or criticisms such as “I am not going to be good at this, I’ve been out of the workforce too long, ” may pop up. Any kind of life change requires a bit of mental work.

It may also be a challenge to get everything done now that you have employment out of the house. Some chores and other events may not get accomplished – or accomplished as well – now that you spend time working outside the home. Adjusting your perception of yourself as someone who stays home vs. someone who works outside the home may be one of the largest hurdles to get over.

The more time you spend brainstorming what kind of work you want and how life will change when you go back to work, the more realistic your situation will be when you do start working. Planning and thinking through some of the ways you will meet those challenges will reduce the stress that will come when things don’t go as planned.

We’ll get down to the nitty gritty of the what, where, who when and why in future posts but if you are someone considering returning to work in any capacity, these questions should help you start the process of brainstorming.

Is part-time better for everyone?

Is part time better for everyone?

Seems there is a push lately for more people to work less and have more time.  Personally, I am all for it.  I think if a couple each worked part-time they would have  a lot happier lives.  Just think of using that time to take care of our communities, play with our children or learn something new?