Ask the grumpies: How to deal with 9 month salaries?

Kaycookie asks:

My husband is new TT science faculty and I am also working part time teaching in a different department. Okay, very part time because we have 3 little kids. Anyways, any suggestions on dealing with a 9 month salary over 12 months, but then also getting summer support (he is guaranteed this for at least 4 years)? We budget just fine during the year, but not much left to save (about $300/month on top of mandatory retirement at about 13% salary with their match). Is it a bad time to just plan on saving mostly in the summer since we get almost half or our income then?

Hm, here’s another one we should have made an effort to answer earlier.

I’m assuming here that you’re saying that you can save $300/month during the school year but are expecting a deficit during the summer, not that you’re saving $300 on top of saving for the summer during your regular 9 months.

I was in a similar situation for two years (I had 9-months only, DH had summer salary for two years).
1. I sat down and figured out our actual expenses (these include the $1K “emergency” or forgotten fixed expense that we seem to get almost every single month) and our required expenses (mortgage, insurance, etc).
2. From that information, I figured out how much we spend each month and multiplied that by 3 to account for the summer months.
3. Then I subtracted DH’s salary for those three months.
4. Then I added a one month buffer for an emergency fund, just in case the university screwed something up with the summer salary or we had an emergency.  (They never screwed up his, but recently they totally screwed up mine two years in a row after they moved from decentralized grant administration to centralized.)
5. You could then divide that number by 9 to see how much you’d need to save each month not to feel a pinch during the summer. I didn’t do that, but instead looked at the whole number and put away the full amount– as soon as I got that amount I stopped putting money towards summer savings.

However, in my case we were making more than we were spending, which gave us an automatic buffer.  My calculations only told me how much money we could put away in extra retirement or (later) towards the mortgage.  You’re already spending almost exactly what you’re earning.  That doesn’t give you much room.  On top of that, it’s going to make cutting expenses in the summer especially difficult.  Instead of making little cuts throughout the school year, you risk being forced to eat rice and beans or carry a credit card balance (wasting money on interest) come August or September.  That’s not going to be pleasant, especially if you have to do any kind of back to school shopping.

So, what can you do?  One thing you can do is see if the university will prorate your salary to 12 months for free.  When they do that, they pay your 9 month salary as if it was a 12 month salary so you get the same amount each month.  That way you know exactly how much money you’re getting and it’s easier to force yourself to make those little cuts (so you don’t have to make big cuts later).  I think most places will do this if you ask.

You can also increase your earnings.  Even a temporary increase in earnings will allow you to put away extra money for summer.  You don’t have to put away the same amount each month so long as you have the full amount in May (or June or April, depending on when the last set of full paychecks comes).  You probably know better than we do how bringing in more income works in your situation.  Work more part-time hours, for example.  Your DH is probably submitting grants.  Perhaps you could babysit.  Etc.

And, of course, you can try cutting expenses.  A good place to start is to call up all your providers (cellphone, insurance, internet, etc.) and ask for discounts.  It’s amazing what just asking can cut off your monthly bills.  After that you may have to think about bigger cuts– where does your money go?  Setting up Mint.com for a few months may help if you don’t know.  For us when we need to cut, it’s eating out that’s the first big variable expense.  For others it may be clothing or wasting food or vacations etc.  You’ll need to look and see what you’re able to cut and what you’re willing to cut.  If you’re still having trouble you may need to think about larger cuts– housing, transportation, etc.

To make sure you aren’t tempted to touch the summer money before summer, you may want to put it in a separate (possibly online) saving account or put it into laddered CDs that mature and deposit in your checking right when you need them.  Back when interest rates were higher, this was a way to make a little extra money, but now it would just be mainly of use as a commitment device.

Longer-term you’ll have better information about raises, your part-time hours, grants, and so on.  It’s difficult to think about what life will be like without the summer money four years from now if there’s a chance for you to replace it.  Still, you really should think about the worst case scenario– what happens if you lose the summer money but don’t make it up another way?  What will you do to increase income, cut expenses, or save now so you can spend down later?  The less you spend now, the smaller the change to your lifestyle will be if that happens.

Sidenote:  Once the kids are older, you’ll want to up that retirement savings.  13% is fine for now, but you probably have some catch-up savings to do from graduate school.  Think about IRAs once your income goes up.

#2 has never gotten summer salary (boo) but I have my university spread the 9 month salary over 12 months.  I figured it out once, and it cost me literally less than $12 in interest that I could theoretically have earned.  I’m willing to pay $12 in order to get the same amount every month.  Maybe one day I’ll hit the big-time on a grant.  No luck yet.

Gumpeteers, have you been in this situation before?  What do you do with 9 month salaries?  What do you do when you’ve gotten used to summer money?

Ask the grumpies: Financial advice starting out?

Norwegian Forest Cat asks:

I’m a late-stage Ph.D. student, and as a result of a lack of funds I haven’t been saving/investing at all beyond a small cushion in a plain old savings account during my early adulthood. I am about to hit the job market though, and I really want to get myself on track financially in the near future so I have my ducks in a row when I need to find health insurance, pay off loans, start investing/saving for retirement, prepare for the eventual death of my car, etc. My SO is a finance nut (as a hobby, not a job), so he has his own suggestions (which are USAA and Vanguard-heavy based on his own experience), but I think a visit to a financial planner would be a really wise one, especially when I have some indication of how said future job will compensate me. But, there are a million certified financial planners out there–how do you get started? And do I need to meet with one in the first place? I’m pretty overwhelmed with options and acronyms but am eager to learn and be involved with it, so just handing over the money to my SO or some bank is not going to cut it. :)

This is a great set of thoughts.  So… like we said in the last Ask the Grumpies, there are a lot of really bad financial planners out there whose incentives are aligned with separating you from  your money, not helping you to make more money.  The buzz words that your SO is throwing out are the right ones (does he also say things like, “low cost index funds” etc.?).  You definitely don’t want to just hand your money over to your SO, but it sounds like ze is making good decisions and would be a handy person around to help you take control of your own finances.

For you I’m going to recommend J.D. Roth’s book, Your Money: The Missing Manual.  He does a good job talking about the basics in a way that allows someone intelligent like you to understand what the different options are and what the pros and cons of these options are.   You can start talking about the things you read about with your SO, which will also help lead you to greater intimacy.  It is really good to be on the same page financially if you ever decide you want to combine finances or lives in a more permanent fashion.

I don’t think you need to meet with a financial planner, but if you do think you do, as with the last Ask the Grumpies post, I’m going to recommend Walter Updegrave’s suggestions on how to go about finding a good one.

If you find YMtMM helpful, then you can find some more personal finance book recommendation from this link here.  The post is about debt advice, but most of the books cover other things too.  In addition to the books in that link, you may find the Bogleheads Guide to Investing to be helpful for getting started with your investing.

What recommendations does the Grumpy Nation have for Norwegian Forest Cat?

Ask the grumpies: Next stage financial advice

Good saver asks:

My husband and I have done a recent financial checkup and in the process realized it’s time to do more interesting things with our money than build up savings in a savings account. The question is what.

We are both gainfully employed and spend an obscene amount on childcare for our toddler. We hope there might be a second little one running around wrecking havoc in the next year…. (Well maybe not running yet… but you know…). My husband is in his early 40′s. I’m in my mid 30′s. We both have highly stable jobs.

We own a house in a good neighborhood. The loan was taken out at a good interest rate (4.5%) with a good solid downpayment (25%). It’s a 30 year mortgage and we plan to be here for the next 5-15 years. We have 6 mos emergency fund.  We contribute to our employer’s 403(b) programs and take the match. With this combo we contribute about 15% of our salaries to retirement automatically. We can’t drop below that contribution rate and redistribute the money elsewhere.  This acct currently totals around $160,000. We also have been contributing to my husband’s Roth for the last 4 years at the max allowable contribution.  We’ve been aggressively saving and have had a couple relatives die and now have significant cash sitting around ($120,000).

Now that we’ve met the obvious goals, we’re not sure what to do next — How do we find people to help us think about this in a smart way? Who (broker, financial planner, bank trust dept.?) do we interview? And what are the right questions to be asking at the interviews?Do we pay off the house first and foremost (a friend strongly advocates this)? Others argue that between the mortgage deduction and the low interest rate it’s not the best way to spend our next dollar.  Do we put more into retirement savings specifically for the tax break or do we just invest and not set the money aside so particularly?  Do we try to rebalance the retirement portfolios into different investment devices (and if so, how much into what devices?) Do we seek to do different things with the different pots of money we have? College savings or retirement?

I can’t tell whether or not 160K is enough saved for retirement at your ages.  Play with online retirement calculators to see if you’ve saved “enough” or need to up that savings amount.  15% a year is the recommended amount, but it also assumes that you’ve been saving 15% a year the entire time.  If you did graduate school of any kind, or didn’t max out, or started making much less money than you are now, or had really lousy investment timing, you might be behind.  That would be the first thing to check, because it’s an easy answer.  If you don’t have enough saved for retirement, put more in your tax-advantaged savings vehicles.  You don’t need a financial planner to help you with that, just some internet calculators.  (Though, of course, you shouldn’t just take advice from strangers on the internet– our standard disclaimer applies.)

4.5% isn’t low enough to make it obvious that you shouldn’t pre-pay the mortgage, but it’s not high enough to make it obvious that you should.  So there’s no clear answer there either.  One thing to note is that, unlike most other forms of debt, a dollar spent early in your mortgage is worth more than one later.  You can play around with the GRS mortgage amortization spreadsheet to see how much different principal payments save you– that will put a dollar value on the benefit of mortgage pre-payment.  Remember also that you can unlock some of that prepayment in the case of an emergency by re-amortizing your mortgage and lowering your required monthly payment.  You can do this even in situations in which the stock market has crashed (so selling stocks is a bad idea) or the housing market has crashed (so refinancing or selling the house is out of the question).

We’ve never actually dealt with financial planners.  #2′s significant other recently had a windfall and will be getting a recommendation for a financial planner from a trusted wealthy friend.  Most of us don’t have trusted wealthy friends, however.  I point people to Walter Updgrave’s advice whenever I’m asked this question.   However, I add my own caution.  Many financial planners are terrible people who just want to separate you from your money by recommending high cost mutual funds and other terrible investment vehicles.  DO NOT stop by your local Edward Jones office to get advice.  You really do want a fee-only certified financial planner who does not get any kick-backs from recommending you high-cost funds.  Personally, I’d rather figure things out myself, possibly with the help of the Bogleheads forum (or their book), but I also have a PhD in economics and like dealing with money.

In general, we can’t tell you which saving/investment things to do first or in what order.  That is going to depend a lot on your own goals and your own situation.  How much of your children’s education do you plan on funding?  How much financial aid are you thinking you’re going to get?  How much do you like your jobs?  Do you want to retire earlier or later?  Do you want an upper-middle-class retirement or do you want to live a simpler life?  Will you have a short-term need for funds outside of your emergency fund (ex. IVF, new cars, private school, sabbatical etc.)?  Do you want to leave your own (monetary) legacy?

I can tell you what we’re doing.  We’re prepaying the mortgage, but not just prepaying the mortgage (and we stopped doing this so much when DH was unemployed).  We’re maxing out our tax-advantaged savings (we dropped this down to the required 12% when DH was unemployed), but I’m not sure we’re going to put money in the IRAs this year.  We’re hoping that we’ll be in the income bracket that keeps us paying full-tuition at private colleges or universities for our kids, and we’re planning on covering the entire bill, so we’re putting $500/month away for each kid in their respective 529 plans.  As I’ll talk about next month, we still have trouble figuring out what to do with extra money… it’s a nice problem to have, but not one with an obvious answer.

In terms of where to put your retirement savings– if you have access to Vanguard, then you have one stop shopping with their Target-Date funds.  Pick a date, set, and forget.  If you don’t have access to Vanguard, then the Boglehead forums are a good place to look for asset balance heuristics for your particular situation.  You should be looking for a combination of low fees and the right diversification of risk for your planned retirement date and risk tolerance.

Don’t worry so much about the “best place” for the next dollar.  The best place in hindsight is not going to necessarily be the place you think it is because none of us can predict the future.  The best you can do is to make a lot of good choices.  For us those good choices are never going to be best or worst because we’re doing a number of different things with our money.  That’s the essence of diversification.  We’re not going to win as big on the stock market as we could because we are pre-paying the mortgage.  But we’re also not going to lose as much as we could for precisely the same reason.  Are we getting the percentages “right”?  Well, there’s really no wrong answers.  We have enough places to tap short-term that we’ll be ok in a number of scenarios, but we’re also taking advantage of many of the tax-advantages to saving for retirement.

The bottom line though, is that an extra 120K in cash on top of your 6 month emergency fund is way too much.  Put that somewhere soon!  Each month you delay making a decision, you’re potentially losing more money than you would if you just randomly chose any one of your good suggestions for potential vehicles*.  If it were me, I’d max out the retirement for this year (there’s still time to fund your 2013 Roth!), put some in a 529, maybe put some in taxable (Vanguard Index fund) stocks (because it sounds like you don’t have any, and taxable stocks are a nice secondary emergency fund), then put the remainder into the mortgage. If you don’t need a secondary emergency fund, then skip the taxable stocks in favor of the other options. Remember that the Roth can function as a secondary emergency fund just like taxable stocks can because you can withdraw the principal.  That gives it a slight advantage over just taxable funds.  But anything you choose from that list you gave is going to be better than sitting in savings.

*exception:  120K is probably too much to put into one kid’s 529 plan, depending on where you think they’ll go and if they’ll be eligible for financial aid.

Grumpy Readers, What advice do you have for Good Saver?

Ask the grumpies: Basic mortgage advice

Green hills asks:

I am wondering if you can give your opinion on the best loan types for first time home buyers. Is an adjustable rate better over time than a fixed rate? And what is the difference between the loan interest rate and the APR? We’ve done a bunch of reading and really, have just confused ourselves more.

There are very few instances in which you would want an adjustable rate rather than a fixed rate.  (Leightpf is one of the rare exceptions.)  The very fact you are asking this question means that the best loan for you is a 20% down fixed interest rate, either for 15 years or for 30 years.  Whether you choose 15 vs. 30 will depend on the difference in the interest rates and what you would do if one of you had a job-loss or other emergency.  (30 year loans are safer– you can pre-pay them as if they were 15 year loans and then when an emergency hits, lower your payments, but a 15 year loan can save a lot of money.  You have to look at the numbers to see which is best for your situation.)

In general for loans, the APR includes compounding.  Different loans compound at different times.  APY doesn’t take into account compounding.  For mortgages, APR also includes a bunch of junk that mortgages try to confuse you with like “points” and “rolling fees into the principal” (a quick google search says it doesn’t include the paperwork fees, so you will compare those separately).  The APY is jiggered so that they can make it seem like they’re offering you a low rate but then they hit you with a bunch of upfront fees. You should be comparing APR and ignoring APY when you’re trying to decide between mortgage lenders.  Get the APR in writing.

So:  quick bottom line:  Use APR.  Save at least 20% for a downpayment.  Get a fixed rate mortgage for either 15 or 30 years.  Don’t buy more house than you can afford!

Ok, now for unusual situations that do not apply to you.  If you have a lot of cash and are in no danger of ever defaulting on your mortgage or being unable to make your monthly payments, then you may be interested in an ARM if 1.  The difference in interest rates between the ARM and the fixed rate is high and 2.  There’s no way that you’re going to end up with the rate being reset at the end of the ARM into something that you can’t pay back.  So, if you’re flush enough that you can definitely pay back the mortgage before the rate resets, or the limitations on how high the rate resets that make it so it can’t reset to something you can’t afford, then you may want to consider an ARM.  The argument that people usually make when choosing an ARM is that they’re going to resell the house before the end of the term anyway so it doesn’t matter what the rate resets to– but you have to be sure that you won’t need to short-sell that house or keep it on the market longer than expected (another reason to have cash on  hand to make up the difference if the market drops) and that your plans aren’t going to change.  So be careful.

Ask the grumpies: longest owned item

Debbie M. asks

What one thing have you owned the longest? How have you maintained it?

Hm, I have some of my mom’s books (children’s classics) back from when she was a child.  They maintain pretty well in bookcases or boxed up.  I also have a couple of child-sized wooden rocking chairs.  DH refinished one of them when DC1 accidentally left some water on the seat of one of them.  Embarrassingly I have some white socks from middle school PE.  I know they’re from middle school because they have my name across the toes.  I maintain them by never exercising.

#2 says:

Something I have owned the longest would probably be things I have had since I was a baby, like a blanket and a teddy bear.  These things aren’t “maintained” as such, and they are well-loved.  Somewhere is a picture that my mom’s friend made for me upon the occasion of my birth.  I also have things that belonged to ancestors (such as my great-grandmother’s costume jewelry from 1900s), but I didn’t get these things until I was older.

What about rest of you grumpeteers? 

Ask the grumpies: To move or not to move?

To move or not to move asks:

My husband and I have been talking about moving from the city where I did my PhD to my hometown. This move would result in us going more than halfway across the country.

We have two kids (baby and toddler).

Here are the factors we’re considering:

Jobs

-          My husband has a very well paying, fairly secure job that he enjoys for the most part.

-          I am currently on maternity leave, but the position was a contract position and it ends before my maternity leave ends.  I do not have a job to go back to, and am looking at a career change.  My latest position was not a post-doc, but it was related to my PhD field.  Unfortunately, my PhD field is one in which there are not that many obvious direct paths from academia to industry, but it’s also freeing in that there’s no just one part of the country that has all the jobs related to my PhD.

-          Neither of us has job prospects in hometown at the moment (though we’re always looking).

Social

-          We don’t have family or many close friends in PhD city. In hometown, we’d automatically have family (my parents, brother/his wife, aunt/uncle, cousin, grandmother) and close friends nearby – it would be an instant support system that we don’t have here.

-          Hometown is also closer to husband’s family (next state over instead of across the country) – makes for easier and less expensive visits.

Geography

-          We love our house and neighborhood in PhD city. We don’t love PhD city or the area of the country, but it’s okay. It seems to be a good place to raise a young family.

-          Hometown is an amazing city with lots to do in and nearby.

-          Weather in PhD city is better overall – milder/shorter winters, warmer/long spring/summer/falls (winters in  hometown is what bothers husband the most).

Cost of living

-          So much more reasonable in PhD city. We bought our house in PhD city for $250K, and the equivalent in an equivalent neighborhood in hometown would be about $700K-$1M.

So, my questions are:

-          How in the world do we make this decision?

-          What factors are the most important? Are we missing any?

-          If we do decide to move, what factors needs to be taken care of beforehand?

Wow, that’s a lot of discussion.  It’s hard for us to advise you on this decision because we have always moved for the job.  That’s why we’re both living in red states where we get to choose between the libertarian candidate and the tea-party Republican.  Fun times.  But most people stay close to home and family and support networks, so it’s not like you’re talking crazy talk.

Ultimately this is a very personal decision.  We’d advise you to make a list of pros and cons like you’ve done, but only you can weigh the job uncertainty vs. the desire to move back near family vs. the weather, etc.

Just straight off, it’s hard to see a good reason to move to PhD city without employment in place.  Your DH likes his job and doesn’t have a new one lined up and the new city is really expensive.  Unless you’re independently wealthy, there could be some pretty strong risks to moving without a job.  Even though it’s usually easier to find a new job in a city after you’ve moved there.  But you two should definitely both keep seeking out employment opportunities in Hometown– once there’s an actual job you’ll be able to do actual salary vs. cost of living vs. happiness calculations.  If your DH hated his job, then there would be more reason to jump ship without a backup plan in place, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.  Still, you may weigh other factors (like family) heavier in your decision and be less risk averse than we are.  Also #1 hates winters too.

#2 adds:  If you don’t hate PhDCity and are just homesick, then stay put.  If you hate PhDCity, which it doesn’t sound like you do, it might be worth moving anyway.  Really though the two of you need to do more research about job options before we can give more solid advice– the job is a big missing piece, especially if PhDCity is the cheap place to live.  You would have to get HELLA free childcare and HELLA cheaper travel to family to make up for the COL increase.

Factors:  Get jobs.  Get a decent rental you can stand.  Childcare.  Vaccinations.  Find schools.  Find a new pediatrician.  Consider your cars/pets.  Moving is the very very worst.  You may find cheaper rates in the off-season (not summer).  Moving across the country will make you nuts.

Grumpy Nation, surely you can give a better response here than we did.  Help 2mon2m out!

Ask the grumpies: What to do with signing bonus?

A New Hire asks:

As part of my start-up package, I get a lump sum of ~$60k cash.  The default option is for this to be paid monthly over 5 years, but you can choose other schemes, including all at once.  However, if you leave before 5 years is up, you have to pay it back (I’m assuming pro-rated).  I’m not sure how taxes would be handled.  We assume we’d have to pay back money you already paid taxes on, but maybe it could be written off as a loss.

Considerations:

  • Our (combined income) – (tax sheltered retirement contributions) will be $186 – $228k the first year (bonus is a large component of my spouse’s compensation package).  The expected value (with an “average” bonus) is $206k
  • We only will move away if there are extenuating circumstances
  • We hope to buy a house in approximately 2 years, maybe slightly sooner.  We can probably accomplish this without the lump sum help, but obviously we’d borrow more
  • We expect the home to cost in the neighborhood of $700k, perhaps more
  • If taken as a lump sum, we’ll likely put into a CD until we use it for a home downpayment.
  • We have access to a special loan program requiring 10% down with no PMI, and no real considerations of “jumbo” vs regular mortgage.  The drawback is that while rates are quite attractive (3% today with no points), it is variable and pegged to short term investment returns with a floor at 3%

What is the most optimal way for us to take this money?

I’m advocating for lump sum ASAP or splitting between two years.  I think the 2 years split would be optimal.  Spouse is not sure what to do, but thinks the 5 year monthly trickle makes sense.  I assume that if we choose a 2 year period, it may have to be monthly – but I can check if we can get 2 lump sum payments if determined that is most optimal.
(A separate analysis would ask if the mortgage program is a good deal, given that we could lock in low rates in the private market.  But we aren’t ready to buy yet, so we can’t compare that yet.)

1.  Find out how taxes are going to be handled!  If there’s any chance that you can get that 60K to count for taxes on a lower income year (moving from piddly grad student salary to full year salary) and pay lower marginal tax rates on the full amount, that would be ideal.  Similarly, if you’re moving from a low tax state to a high tax state, it would be nice to have half the year count for the low tax state.

Similarly, if you think your raises or bonuses will be going up over time or that tax rates will be going up over the next 5 years, that argues for front-loading.  If you think Obama is going to be replaced with a tea party member and tea party houses… then you probably make enough money as a family that they’d want to lower your tax rates and you might want to put that off.

The tax bracket you’re estimating is:

28% on taxable income over $148,850 to $226,850, plus… so you’d be paying 33% on anything you earn over 226,850.  So ~2000*.05 = $100 extra for the amount that gets into the 33% bracket instead the 28% bracket, if I did my math correctly.  I would probably not do anything fancy to save ~$100 at that income.

2.  Does your department have a history of kicking people out at the 3rd year review or only at tenure?  How likely are you to stick out a bad situation if there are “extenuating circumstances” (does the spouse’s job keep you in this area?  would you be willing to move to say, Kansas, if this job doesn’t work out?).  More importantly, if “extenuating circumstances” happen, are you easily going to be able to pay back the money from your spouse’s salary or from savings?  Does the university really make people pay it back in practice?  Does the university allow payment plans to be set up if they do?  Of course, if you keep it in a CD you should be able to pay it back with only minimal penalty if you have to break the CD.

3.  Is it really 50K all at once vs. 1/5 of that a year for 5 years?  Even with small inflationary expectations, there’s no good reason except for #1 and #2 that I can think of to let them earn interest on the money rather than you.  Even at a piddly 1% interest rate.

So I guess in general my recommendation is to take the lump sum and keep it somewhere safe.  Unless you feel more confident about #2 or are planning on doing a lot of additional saving so you can easily pay back 20 or 30K at the drop of a hat.  (Something you may want to be able to do before you buy a house, just in case!)

Re: the mortgage issue, ask us again when you’re closer to that decision and know what the rates are!  It does sound a bit sketchy and there may be additional strings depending on the school you’re at.  (The UCs, for example, use their mortgage program as a way to lock professors in, I have heard.)

Standard disclaimer:  we are not professional financial planners or accountants.  Always talk with a real professional before making these kinds of important decisions.

What have we missed, Grumpy Nation?

Ask the grumpies: Pumping and a job talk

R asks:

My situation is that I was just shortlisted for a TT position before Christmas and now the interview is coming up January 30. I am working on my slides and have read all of the “do’s and don’ts” available online, but none address my situation.

Like one of you I have two offspring and the younger is 14 months and still takes in 90% of his calories from breastmilk. Combine this with my oversupply issues and this means I have to pump every 4 hours for comfort. The last thing I want is to leak while meeting with someone or presenting.  I’ve asked and they’ve said the day will go from 8:30am until dinner starting at 6. This means potentially 3 pumping breaks I need to fit in (the interview is local and I am not staying at a hotel, but it is quite far from my home).

The secretary offered an office space but informed me that there are large windows so there will be no privacy, or told me the other option was the “large restroom” (after I specifically said no restrooms!). I wrote back and politely said that I am fine with a non-private space, my as long as others will not be uncomfortable or disturbed by the noise of the pump.

My other issue is that the schedule as they have structured it only has 30 minute breaks for me, and I need at least that to pump. I’ve asked for more time, but I don’t want to seem too demanding. Yes, I can multitask, but it is not very relaxing to be doing prep. while pumping (at least not for me), and sometimes I need to focus on one thing at a time.

Advice on how to handle this gracefully? Also, am I to avoid all mention of the offspring and details of family life during the day? Merci!

Congratulations!

First off, the short advice.  Bring anti-histimines.  They’ll dry you up temporarily (not all the way, but they take the edge off and help prevent leaking).  Since you have an over-supply you won’t need to worry about making up for lost milk.

I’ve actually pumped all sorts of places… airport restrooms, my car, the worst recently was a restroom in a fancy new building at the Stanford business school where they ridiculously didn’t have electricity sockets near the sink so I had to do it on the floor next to the door.  (That was ridiculous, but I only needed to pump a little bit so I didn’t bother asking the organizers for an extra space– had I known the only outlet was on the floor I might have!)  If you’re worried about cleanliness, you can always pump and dump.  Yes, it would be nice if there were dedicated pumping rooms everywhere, but one has to be pragmatic.  I think the key is whether it is a one-time situation or a long term expectation of bathroom pumping.  Generally when I’m invited to give a talk some place while still needing to pump, a faculty member offers his (male-dominated field) office and I use that.  That may still happen, though it is odd that the secretary wasn’t able to arrange that for you in advance.  (Possibly a red flag, possibly not.)

What kind of prep do you think you’ll need to do during your interview?  What can you do to minimize the need to do any prep during the day?  Usually on job interviews I just needed a break so I didn’t have to talk to anybody or think about anything.  Pumping suits that pretty nicely.  Even without pumping, I’d warn against trying to fit anything in during breaks because talking to that many people and being “on” can be pretty exhausting.  So make sure your talk is prepared and practiced in advance.  And remember that you don’t need to know everything about everyone before talking with them– it is fine to ask people the same question, and it is fine to ask everybody what they like about working where they’re working and if it’s a research place, about their research.

As for  how to deal with scheduling questions gracefully, be super polite to that secretary when you get there.  Thank her graciously for setting everything up etc.  A little appreciation can go a long way when you’re asking for something a bit out of the ordinary.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say to avoid talking about the kids and family.  Not because it’s bad to talk about kids and family, but because when you’re talking about them you’re NOT talking about what’s important.  You want them to remember your stellar research.  Your great teaching ideas.  Your professionalism.  How you’re going to fit into their program.  Not cute stories about your adorable kids and amazing husband.  That’s not to say if they ask point blank you shouldn’t answer direct questions on how many kids you have, but that you should then follow-up that question with another question about the job.

Now, some parts of the interview may be more relaxed (usually food is involved), and don’t need to remain 100% focused on research.  Those are when you ask questions about the town and they tell you about the school system (whether you have kids or not) and so on.  But you live there so you already know all that stuff.  Still, you can chat about things you like in the area etc.  Stay upbeat and collegial.  And sneak in a little bit of fun research-related talk in there (interesting questions, stuff they’ve done etc.) too.

Grumpeteers, any advice?

Ask the grumpies: Bad work situation

Should I stay or should I go now asks:

Frequent reader, infrequent commenter.  Love the blog!

I was wondering if you could help me with a situation at work, or help me decide if I should quit or what.

I am a PhD in a tech field and I’m working in a specialized industry in a lower-level management/upper-level development position.  I love the current project that I’m working on, my immediate team is great, and my immediate boss’s heart is in the right place.  My current problem is instead with the Powers that Be.

We recently moved floors in the building.  Cubicles were assigned without managerial or employee input, possibly at random.  My cube is placed in such a way that it is actually impeding my ability to work.  Think terrible smell from the restroom that keeps me nauseated or a draft so cold my fingers can’t work the keyboard.  That kind of thing.  I spend most of the day in the library or cafeteria or a conference room with my laptop, which isn’t great for productivity because I don’t have the dual-screen set-up etc.

I put in a request for my desk to be moved.  It was denied without comment.  They did send maintenance by to try to fix the problem, but it’s still a major problem.  My boss tried to argue my case, but that just made the Powers that Be more upset.  In fact, they have reneged on some special work they wanted me to do prior to this fiasco.  I suspect that this situation has caused them to think poorly of me.

And the thought is returned… senior management doesn’t seem to care about the productivity or happiness of their workers.  This example is just the one that is affecting me directly and making me less productive and more unhappy.

I know you guys are really into personal finance, so I think I should say that we have a lot of money saved and my partner makes enough of an income that we could get by if I were unemployed or self-employed without clients for a while.  I could just up and quit.  I’ve looked at the job listings and talked to a few people and it doesn’t look like there’s anybody hiring in my current field in my city right now and moving cities would be near impossible because of our family situation.  I have been thinking about striking out on my own or getting trained in a different field, but that was more a 5-year plan thing.

Should I move that plan up?  Should I quit now?  Should I try harder to fix the problem at work?  How?

What should I do?  I’d especially like advice from your awesome readers to see what they think.

The readers should definitely weigh in!  Our advice may be academic… of course, if there’s a management organization characterized by liking one’s coworkers and one’s work and not seeing eye-to-eye with upper management… academia may be it.

It seems like there are several things going on here.

I want to highlight that you like your work and your coworkers and your immediate boss.  That suggests it may be worthwhile trying to keep this job, at least in the short- to medium-term.

However, your current day-to-day working environment is untenable and you suspect that management has labeled you a trouble-maker.  They may have done that.  Also you have some ideas for future paths and you have the resources that you could spend some time exploring them even if they come to nothing.  That suggests that leaving this job won’t be the end of the world.

Those two facts give you an incredible amount of bargaining power.  You can draw a line in the sand exactly where you want it drawn and whatever management responds with will be fine with you.  Either they will fix the problem and you can go back to being a productive cog, or they won’t and you just left a job that was making you miserable with no sign of relenting.

I want to encourage you, however, to take emotions out of your decision-making.  Stop worrying about if upper-management makes bad decisions or if they think poorly of you in ways that are not deserved.  Don’t stop *thinking* those things — don’t stop putting them into your decision functions, but do stop being emotionally bothered by them.  I know that’s easier to say than to do, but you can leave this job and you can leave it professionally.  You are not trapped.  You also don’t have any time pressure on this decision– you can make it at any time.

Focus instead on the immediate problems and your long-term goals.

First:  the immediate immediate problem.  Having a work environment that keeps you from being productive.  Given that you’ve already been denied a desk change because (presumably) they think the problem can be fixed, go through the procedure to see if the problem can be fixed.  Yes, a new desk would be nice, but what you really need is for the smell to go away or whatever.  First step:  Call maintenance yourself, and politely ask for an update.  That should give you information on whether or not this problem is actually fixable.  If it isn’t, or if fixing it is going to cause the company cost-problems, that’s more information you can bring forward when you ask for a desk-change again.  If it is fixable, then ask them about their time-line for fixing it or if there’s a formal procedure you should be going through to request a fix.  A good way to start the conversation is, “I need your help” or “I was hoping you could help me.”  Second step:  If maintenance can’t fix it, think about creative solutions…for example, headphones or ear plugs can be a temporary solution for a noisy office.  If your cube is untenable, then maybe you can request a cart and an additional monitor for working elsewhere, even if that’s ridiculous.  Come up with several potential solutions, discuss them with your boss, and bring the formal request up again, this time with more information.  Bonus points if you do a cost-benefit analysis of each potential solution, making it easy for them to pick a solution that is little effort on their parts that you’re happy with (turns out adults like choice almost as much as toddlers).  You tried their solution and it didn’t work, here are some additional suggestions.

Next:  Do not ignore this worry that upper-level management has labeled you a trouble-maker.  Instead, address it head on.  Read the book Crucial Conversations (or Crucial Confrontations– but we haven’t read the latter).  It will give you a script for how to deal with this kind of problem, but you need to deal with it face-to-face so that they can see that you’re a real person and you’re professional and you want to solve problems and make the company productive.  Pretend to yourself (or suspend your disbelief) that their goals are to help you be productive and to help the company do the best that it can.  I have found that often when I approach people who I know are all about their own power-trips with the earnest and outspoken belief that they are doing their jobs with the best interests of the department/school in mind that they become more of their better selves and they align themselves with trying to fix the problem I’m having, even if it doesn’t end up being the original solution I proposed.  So that thing they reneged on– talk to them about it, ask if there’s any way that can be re-upped, or make yourself available for similar opportunities in the future.  In person.  Or talk to them about another issue.  But talk to them professionally and politely with an open but guarded heart.  (After reading Crucial Conversations– truly an excellent book.)

Finally:  your long-term goals.  None of the short-term potential fixes preclude you from exploring your 5 year plan options or shortening that plan.  You don’t have to make any firm decisions and you can play it by ear, but definitely think about your next steps and work on those.  If management is truly incompetent, you’ll be leaving this company some day (because the company goes under or you finally have had enough) or the management will be replaced.

So what would I do in that situation?  I would call maintenance, talk to my boss a little bit more, and come up with some potential solutions.  I would also escalate up that reneged thing if it’s important or still has a chance of being salvaged, and hopefully meet with some of these power players so they can see that I’m a model employee and not a trouble-maker.  And I would start tapping those networks and doing some introspection (which for me means looking at my bank accounts).  If my cubicle still had that problem that made it impossible for me to work after my best efforts to fix it or get switched, I would politely and professionally draw that line in the sand.  There’s no point in working at a company if you can’t be productive.

#2 says:
I think you should try to hang on a little longer.  There’s no guarantee you won’t have crazy situations elsewhere.  Everything is great except senior management, but they might change.  You might outlast them!  Especially if they want to move up the ladder at your company (where they hopefully won’t have contact with you anymore) or at a shinier company (even better).

Try to enlist your sympathetic boss to aid you, but approach the conversation carefully.  Remember, you both have the same goal: productive workers who stick around.

In the meanwhile, use technological solutions (acquire some fingerless gloves or a surgical face mask etc.) to wear in your cubicle.  Who cares how you look?  If it helps you be more productive, do it.  (Even try to have your boss pay for it.)  If other people think you look weird they may eventually address the underlying problems and if not, at least you can be comfortable.

#1 is a bit concerned about the face-mask.  People might think you’re a weird germophobe.  But you can probably push pretty close to the line on technological solutions without going too far, especially if you can manage to do it cheerfully with company-make-do-can-do-spirit rather than in a passive-aggressive manner.  Use company branded products if such are available!

Grumpy Nation, what would you advise?  What would you do in this situation?  What should you do?

Books for 3 year olds

CPP asks:

Can you two suggest some good books for two-three year-olds? Want to buy some for our twin nieces. And if you have a blogge post on this topic, link would be great!

Three is a fun age– three year olds understand things and they can talk and they have great senses of humor.  That means you can break away from books that are just animal sounds and opposites etc. and into things that parents enjoy as well.

Probably our favorite author for this age is Mo Willems.  We especially like Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!, and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, and all the others in the Pigeon series!Knuffle Bunny, while not as much fun for the parents to read, is also enjoyed by the children.

Sandra Boynton is more popular at this age, and is always popular among parents.  Blue Hat, Green Hat is always good for a laugh.  And there’s cute little boxed sets you can get of her stuff.

If You Give the Mouse a Cookie– quite popular among the pre-school set, a bit less fun for the parents.  There’s a big series of these as well.

Llama Llama Mad at Mama is a fun one.  Again, there are others in the Llama Llama series.  Some of these others seemed a bit out of touch for kids with a working mom, but whatever.

As we mentioned in our email to you, 3-4 year olds tend to be dinosaur mad.  You can get any book about dinosaurs, fiction or non- and it will be devoured.  How do dinosaurs do X? is a cute series– even though it’s not really about dinosaurs (real dinosaurs presumably didn’t clean their rooms), it does have drawings and the names of real dinosaurs in it.  Some kids are really into Thomas the Train Engine or Dora the Explorer or construction trucks at this age, but that would be something to ask your relatives about as some kids never really get hooked by these.

And, of course, there is always Dr. Seuss.

If you dislike your relatives (the parents, not the children), you can go a bit more grim.  DC1 loved the Gruffalo, but it creeps me out.  Laura Vanderkam’s kid thinks that I Want My Hat Back is great, but my DC2 certainly does not need permission to use violence against people who take hir stuff (as that is already hir natural inclination).

Beginning readers may enjoy Step Into Reading Step 1 books.  Hot Dog was a favorite of DC1.    Cat Traps was another.  There are a whole bunch of these.

If the kids are wunderkinds, 3 is a good time to start The Magic Treehouse.  But this series is of chapter books, and most kids aren’t reading, much less reading third grade level.  We do have a post on what books a three year old who is reading chapter books would enjoy, but that’s probably not what you’re looking for.  The Magic School Bus is another fun series for the more advanced reader.

You may be thinking of chapter books that parents can read to their children at this age.  The Wizard of Oz is a good one.  Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle another good one.  Frog and Toad is another good one (who doesn’t love Arnold Lobel?)

What recommendations do you have for CPP?

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