On knowing what’s out there: loosely connected thoughts from vacation with the relatives

Over the holidays, DH’s newly retired parents kept talking about how truly blessed they are.  None of their kids are in jail.  All are gainfully employed.  They themselves have more money than they ever dreamed and will actually be able to increase their quality of life in retirement (or rather, FIL now has both time and money for all those hunting trips he’s been wanting to do), at least while the stock market is booming.  (A couple of weeks ago, FIL called up to ask DH to ask me whether or not it was ok to have 90% stocks/10% bonds…)

DH’s relative that we’ve talked about before is not doing so well.  He’s got arthritis, which makes being a construction worker difficult.  His oldest two both had children as teenagers (the oldest is living at home with her toddler, the second moved West with her two kids to live with the biological mother who abandoned her as a baby).  His wife is recovering from brain cancer.  His third attempted suicide via electricity socket recently and is depressed because he’s too blind to legally drive.  His fourth has gotten in with a bad crowd and started stealing from family and was recently on suicide watch at a hospital.  We didn’t hear much about the fifth this time around except that she was driving the oldest’s car when it got totaled by an uninsured driver (which means the relative is now chauffeuring everybody around).  Also one of his two much younger brothers (his brothers are the same age as his oldest daughters) has been jailed for possession of stolen materials.

Focusing a bit on that third kid– he graduated from high school last year and the plan was to take the year off working (he’s washing dishes at a restaurant) and then spend the next year at community college.  Community college is about an hour away, so he would have to be driven.  He’s really depressed that he will never be able to drive and it’s not clear that he’s actually going to do community college next year, or ever.  He’s smart and has the grades and GPA to go to the flagship school or one of the closer regionals.  The flagship’s admission deadline has come and gone and the closer regionals have passed their priority deadlines but still have rolling admissions.  Over break, he and DH talked about careers and DH tried to convince him to just fill out one of the two page regional applications for either of the closest schools (while DH was there to pay the $40 admission fee), but no luck.

And the thing is, this kid has never been anywhere with public transportation (or even taxis!).  He has no idea what it’s like to be someplace where you can take yourself where you need to go without having to depend on the kindness of someone else to drive you.  It would be best for him to skip community college and to just go straight to a 4 year college with an extensive bus system and counselors.   He should be eligible for plenty of need-based financial aid and what’s left we can pay.  But… he doesn’t know that’s best.  He doesn’t know what is best and his parents don’t have 4-year college degrees (his mom never finished high school) and his dad has been on his own since 16, so they’re letting him do what he wants since he’s officially an adult.

Growing up I knew I wanted to be upper-middle-class because I knew people whose parents were upper-middle-class and I had an aunt and uncle who were judges, and I thought, I want that.  I want to not have to worry about money and to have the temperature always set to something comfortable.  DH never had those thoughts, but his parents were doing pretty well compared to everyone else in his family, and at boarding school he learned a lot about what all was out there.  And his mother had a wide variety of experiences growing up and she told me this most recent trip that she always thought it important to make sure her kids saw places outside the small town, so they went to camps (or in DH’s case, boarding school) and visited relatives (from her side of the family) up north and so on.  She also took them to get professional career testing before college and told them not going was not an option (for DH she also controlled where he was allowed to apply), just as her father had told her that not going to college was not an option.

Going back to DH’s family’s place at Christmas does tend to make one feel #blessed because it reminds us how well we’re doing and how well DH’s immediate family is doing.  It also forces the comparison of how hard it is for so much of America to get ahead outside of our highly educated McMansion-owning bubble.  DH’s relative is plenty smart, but his life diverged dramatically from DH’s at 16 when he got married and left home and had two kids.  But there were also a lot of factors that led up to that point and after– his parents also had two kids by age 18.  Our kids’ lives will diverge even more dramatically.  His kids are not our kids, and we don’t know how to help, or if we even can help.   So, we will continue to feel #blessed and to keep things in perspective while doing what we can to make it easier for poor kids more generally to get ahead.  We have our oxygen masks on, but there are still a lot of people out there who need assistance with theirs, and even more who don’t have access to oxygen masks at all.

A sad update on the relatives

The babies were set to be delivered at 37 weeks, to be induced if necessary.  The smaller twin had had several scares and had forced at least one extended hospital stay.

Just before 35 weeks, she went into labor.  They rushed to the nearest big hospital, and then to the big city hospital two hours away.  The smaller twin had died.  They stopped the labor and recommended she try to keep the babies gestating a little longer.  A few days later she went into labor again and 18 hours later they were born.  The larger twin was 5lb 4oz and other than standard preemie stuff (not wanting to be touched, lungs not fully developed) was doing fine at birth.  They held a funeral service at the hospital and another back home for the smaller twin.

The other baby is now off the ventilator and feeding tube and is cuddly and should be coming home soon.

An emotional update on the relatives: Also, a love note to having money

So, long-time followers of the blog may remember that one of the things we’ve committed to doing is paying college costs for DH’s relatives (5 kids, though technically we’ve only committed to the two oldest) in the hopes that they’ll be able to break out of the cycle of poverty that happens when you have several generations of rural teen pregnancy.

Unfortunately, the matriarch of this family branch is about to be a great-grandmother at the age of 56.  Our connecting relative is to be a grandfather at the age of 38.  The great-grandmother is, in fact, expecting three bouncing baby grandchildren this fall and the grandfather two.  His second oldest is having twins.  (An 18 year old step-cousin is having a singleton.)

This is a real shame, because the second is smart and has a solid GPA and solid ACTs.  She could easily have started a regional state school in the fall with money and would have gotten into the flagship had she applied (though probably not much financial aid there based on her scores).  She’d decided instead to commute with her sister to the community college for a year and then transfer– at that point, with college credit from high school she’d be a junior psychology major.

Instead, she recently found out that she’s heavily pregnant with twins and due in October.  We don’t know if she suspected earlier but was in denial or if she’s been lying– she had a surgery 3 weeks ago on her face that she should not have had if pregnant.

It’s too late for even considering an abortion and she doesn’t want to give the babies up for adoption (she did not think of it as an option).

They’re high risk in many ways– she is 17, she hasn’t been getting prenatal care (wasn’t even on vitamins), lives in a house with a smoker, she and her sister were both premature, twins… twins are an expensive proposition even when the circumstances are perfect.  Chances are these kids could have special needs, though we will hope they don’t.

One thing she has going for her that her parents didn’t was that even though she’s not marrying a boyfriend (hopefully they will work out paternity, hopefully the guy will pay support), her parents aren’t kicking her out of the house.  Her biological parents had to set up shop on their own when they were 16.  Unfortunately the previous matriarch who provided free child care passed away last year, and the current matriarch is still working.

There’s a supportive environment, possibly the more-so because the situation is so common.  The relative tells us that his other three kids and the extended family (on the step-mom who raised them’s side) have baby fever in anticipation.  They’ve been hitting up garage sales for baby things.

The oldest is still doing fine.  Her first year at community college went well and she’s proud she passed (with a B) her super-difficult science class even though most of the class dropped.  She’s still working her part-time nursing home job and the proceeds from that go towards her car so she can commute to school.  At 19, she’s broken the family not-getting-pregnant record.

The grandfather-to-be has no money.  The (step-)grandmother-to-be is finally working again, but as a waitress, so no time but not a huge income either.  The bio-grandmother-to-be has no money and owes years of back child-support.  The great-grandparents-to-be are also in huge amounts of debt– the husband is on disability, they own a farm (that they bought on credit from a scam artist… long story there) that costs them tons of money each year, the kids they decided to have in their mid-30s (instead of say, not kicking their 16 year old kid and his pregnant wife out of the house) are still living at home and not contributing to the family household.  There’s really nothing.  Nothing but family with no money and perpetual hands sticking out.  It’s terrifying.

If we didn’t have our own babies to consider, we’d do more.  As it is, we reminded the grandfather-to-be that we’d still be paying those college costs, so he doesn’t have to come up with $650 in tuition for the oldest or $200 in books.  Or $1000 for the second if they can make her going to school work.  (I think he’s not used to family members keeping promises, so he’s never thought of our offers as more than one-time deals.)

What this really makes us think about is how glad we are that we didn’t have children in our teens.  That we waited until we were out of school and had jobs that paid a good salary and a house and precautionary savings and an emergency fund.  We can handle emergencies.  We can send our kids to private school.  If, God forbid, one of our children becomes a parent in high school, we’ll be able to help without sacrificing our other child(ren).  We’d even be able to pay for daycare for twins if we needed to.  It will never be a question of who gets to go to school, or do we get to keep Netflix, etc.  Our children have a lot more second chances.

I love being upper-middle-class.  I wish everybody had the opportunities that we can give our children.  I wish it were easier to break out of cycles of poverty.  I wish we could do more, but we never know what to do, and there are things we could do that might make things worse.  And sacrifices we don’t want to make, not with us living on one salary and having a baby of our own.

Any suggestions for a 17 year old about to have twins?  Or a 38 year old dad who doesn’t understand why his kids are making the same mistakes he made, even though he’s tried his best to keep them from repeating the cycle?

Update on personal sagas: DH’s relatives, DC’s school

DH’s Relatives

It turns out that if you are truly poor and have a zillion brothers and sisters (give or take), the Pell grant covers 100% of community college, including books.  So… so far we’re not paying for any of the relatives’ schooling.  Although they screwed up with the books and forgot to order them, despite multiple calls to the people.   Because the books are being bought via the grant, the school orders them for the students instead of the student being reimbursed… and they never actually checked to see that they were ordered when DH’s relative called, so the eldest daughter doesn’t have them.  She is borrowing from a friend until they come in.

She got a nursing home job (yay!) and spent the summer working and saved up to buy a clunker.  She will be working p/t to pay for her gas.

Already she says she likes community college classes a lot more than high school classes.  I hope she does well.  Right now she wants to transfer to a 4 year school (to major in architecture, but I’m hoping she’ll change her mind as there are very few job opportunities for architecture majors and it’s really hard to get into the architecture programs at the state 4-year schools).

DC1’s School

Right now they have 1 student fewer than what they need with normal fundraising and minimal services (down 20 students from last year).  The hope is to make up for it with extra fundraising.

The new head of school is professional and refreshingly not crazy.

Even better than that, the ineffective board president has been replaced by an extremely competent woman who is new to the board.  She’s getting things done.  She communicates professionally.  She’s a pleasure to deal with.  This was a new and unexpected pleasure.  We foresee a positive trajectory for the school if these two women remain in charge of things.

There are 10 kids in DC1’s 2nd grade class, down from the 15 that were in the first grade class (including DC and hir best friend who were technically in K, but spent half the day in first).  10 is still a good number for a private school class and doesn’t require an additional aide, although DC says they have a student teacher helping out.  The syllabus for the year that was sent home is intriguing.  They’ll be starting junior great books and doing book reports and science reports and all sorts of exciting and fun stuff.

DC’s formal dress shirt for formal days still hasn’t come, so DH picked up a too-big used one that will do for hir while we wait.

So that’s our excitement.  I sure hope it is a good year!

And one more

Remember my cousin who didn’t have the Catholic wedding?  They’re expecting twins.  :)

Update on the relatives

Scalzi once said that “Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.”

The oldest of our young relatives is graduating from high school this year.  She was excited about applying to colleges, but unfortunately she made some bad choices when she was 14, and again at 15.  Things like getting low grades in PE and driver’s ed and other classes that one shouldn’t do poorly in.  That combined with crippling math phobia caused by a bad algebra experience that killed her math and science grades after she otherwise got her act together has put her in the bottom half of her class.  That means no four-year college for her.

We think she has two choices in terms of schooling– she can do an academic associates degree and transfer to a 4 year state school to finish out in a major of her interest or maybe some new love.  Or she could do a 2-3 year practical degree in something like nursing or drafting.  She’s not sure what she wants to do yet.  We think that’s ok– she can change her mind after a semester or a year or even two.  What’s important is that she get started.

Unfortunately the local community college is at least an hour away.  This distance presents a problem because she doesn’t have a car, and even if she did have a car, the family has no way of paying for insurance and gas.  Community college is more difficult than a 4 year school would be in that respect because there’s bus service in college towns.  Yes, a 4 year college would cost more, but those would be long-term expenses rolled into loans and grants.  These are short-term credit constraints.

She’d love to get a job to pay for transportation, but nobody is hiring.  Her mother cannot get a minimum wage job in their town.  McDonald’s had 500 applications the last time it was hiring.  When a factory town does massive lay-offs, high school students are pretty low on the jobs totem pole.

Of course, since nobody is hiring, she can’t just go straight to work after graduation either.  She needs education in order to get a job because the only jobs available require education.  And if she has education she might be able to get a job that makes enough money she could get her own place– maybe even in a different town.

So community college it must be.  There should be carpools that she can join at least until she gets a job that covers transportation.  (And maybe the job market is better in the community college town.)  We’ll pay for her tuition and books, and she should be eligible for fairly large Pell grants compared to the cost of community college.  We’re hoping not to pay for transportation costs, but we will for a short time if it is truly necessary in order to get her to school.

Having always lived in a college town, it’s really hard wrapping my head around just how necessary transportation is if you don’t have public transport, and how difficult it can be logistically to even get to the “local” community college.  Even if the buses to my neighborhood only ran once an hour I could still get to the university or community college without a car.  And it’s crazy how small an amount of money can keep someone from having any options.  (Not a trivial amount, and not small compared to what their family has to spare, but small compared to the value of a degree.)

We’re hoping that being poor won’t mean that she’s stuck with choices she made at 14 if she has well-off relatives.

Do you know anybody stuck where nobody’s hiring?  What do people do if they can’t afford to get to school but they can’t get a job without school?

Tales from the relatives: Why you need a college degree

A common pf blog (and news article) meme is the admonition not to go into huge debt for a college degree.. is it worth it?  Obviously it makes no sense to come out from a BA with 6 figure debt.  But there’s some amount of debt that it’s worthwhile to take on for the better earnings power.  Liz Pulliam Weston suggests one year’s expected salary in your major field from your school and that seems to be a good heuristic to me (YMMV).

The folks for whom this should be the biggest concern are those from low income families– they don’t have as much of that family safety net to fall back on.  But, so long as the parents are willing to fill out a FAFSA, the students in question should be able to get financial grants conditional on being accepted to school.  School may not be as expensive as anticipated, and indeed, there’s an excellent study that’s been done by a handful of famous economists working with H&R Block that finds that helping parents fill out the FAFSA when they put in their tax returns dramatically increases college participation.

For all the discussion of a how a university degree isn’t worth it, the sordid world of jobs that don’t require more than high school degrees is beyond belief, especially since union power is declining, and companies are even getting around unions by using unprotected contract labor.

My partner’s large extended family mostly lives in a small town and has a wide range among educational and income spectrums.  We hear a lot about what can happen in jobs for the less educated.  The kinds of jobs that many of us took in high school but some people need as adults.  Here’s some snippets from the family that convince me how much nicer life is with a college degree:

Had worked at the video store for 3 years, manager decided to replace her with one of his friends.  No notice given, no two weeks pay, just, tomorrow you’re gone.

Fired the first week on the job because the daughter of the manager wasn’t working, she told the daughter to work, and the daughter told her mom some sort of lie, and the mom believed her daughter.

Worked as a waitress, a competitor tried to hire her, she said no.  Then the competitor bought the bar where she had been working at and laid her off.

Hurt his hand off working hours.  Didn’t have insurance.  Got fired because he couldn’t work.  Went bankrupt because medical bills + no income.

Can’t get a job at the Dollar Store or Walmart because when you don’t have education, they check your credit, and your credit isn’t great.  (Not all folks have poor credit, but for jobs requiring more education, they are less likely to run a credit check on you.)

Contrast this with the kinds of jobs my college and higher degree educated friends have– they always get at least 2 weeks notice, they almost always get some kind of severance package.  If they’re let go they’re generally laid off; it’s more difficult to get flat-out fired.  There’s generally a lot of notice about what’s happening, and sometimes they get furloughs instead of lay-offs.  We tend to complain about not getting raises, not about being fired with no notice for no good reason.  The cost of our benefits keeps going up, but we have benefits!  If we get hurt we’re insured.

When you’re in one of these marginal labor markets, there’s less job security, there’s less fairness.  Even when you’re protected by law, the company is more likely to ignore the law, because what can you do?  Especially when it’s a your word vs. someone else’s word situation.  Education makes you more powerful, it allows you entree into labor markets where this kind of treatment is less prevalent.

Do you know anybody in the low-wage job market?

My Catholic relatives aren’t really Catholic: A rant.

That’s not to say they’re my only Catholic relatives– we were all brought up Catholic (who wasn’t!).  Some of us converted to religions that better express our beliefs about social equity (such as Episcopalian), some are Christmas and Easter Catholics, some are even more lapsed and secular.

One of my uncles married a not very nice woman (I say she is not very nice because she was a bitch to me at my grandmother’s funeral because I dare be a working mother) and had a passel of children.  The not very nice woman did not work.  IIRC, my uncle is/was a forest ranger or something like that.  Growing up I remember seeing videos of the family opening their Christmas presents (they would send the video to my grandma and she would show it) and being absolutely astonished at all the fancy electronics they could afford and we couldn’t, not even including the video camera they were using to shoot the footage!

Turns out, spending a lot of money doesn’t actually mean that you *have* the money to spend.

But this isn’t a story about relatives making foolish choices with their money.  This is a story about hypocrisy and me being judgmental, judging the judgers.

These folks have drunk the Fox News koolaid.  They quote “Rush.”  (Not the band– people who listen to Rush Limbaugh on the radio are apparently on a first name basis with him.)  They complain about how the lamestream media is out to get Sarah Palin and death panels are going to destroy the nation’s elderly.  (No matter how many times my other poor uncle, the one who took care of my late Grandmother unfailingly for over a decade after my parents could no longer lift her, tried to explain how helpful it would have been to know what *she* wanted before she descended into Alzheimer’s.)

They complain about all the poor people who don’t work and expect government handouts.  Government shouldn’t give out health care.  Government shouldn’t feed kids.  Government shouldn’t aid the poor.  Government shouldn’t help people get educated.  The poor should help themselves.  Apparently they don’t realize that the Catholic church has some pretty important tenets that have nothing to do with Gay marriage or the status of women.

My liberal elitist relatives, including my own parents, the ones who saved instead of buying those boom boxes and video game systems (back when such things were pricy), are sending their myriad children to college.  That’s 2 high-powered careerist aunts (one with children, one without) and my own working parents.  Giving charity to this family of supposed Catholics who thinks nobody should be allowed charity.  Having the money to do it because the women worked and the families saved.  We take care of our own, even if we disagree with their parents.

The one kid we’re not sending to college (yet, anyway) is a son who is serving our country in Afghanistan.  He has fallen in love, with an American Christian even. They’re getting married.  In a church.  But she’s not Catholic, so it isn’t a Catholic church.  So my uncle and his wife are refusing to attend.  They’re not even paying for the reception and they think they should have final say in the type of church.  They’re refusing to attend the wedding ceremony of an American soldier serving overseas in a dangerous country, their own son, because he is not getting married in a Catholic church. They’re also not allowing his siblings to attend.

That is just reprehensible.  I am ashamed to be related to these people.  If they were some small sect evangelical I might understand better (disagree with, but understand why it is consistent with their religious beliefs), but they are giving Catholics a bad name.

The wonderful thing about the Catholic church is its reminder that we are supposed to do Good Works.  What we believe is not as important as what we Do (though both are important).  They couldn’t have been listening to my Grandma’s wonderful funeral sermon, because that’s pretty much what the priest officiating reminded us, illustrating that reminder with the wonderful things my late grandmother did throughout her life (come to think of it, this uncle did spend the entire time complaining about the funeral– the rest of us thought it was bang-up).  Story after story in the New Testament reminds us how we are supposed to help those less fortunate than ourselves.  More than one story tells us how we’re supposed to act with grace and forgiveness, especially with relations, when they do something of which we disapprove.  And the Catholic church does not twist these messages– they go full out.  We accept prodigal sons, we forgive prostitutes, we love, we guide, we help.

All of my liberal elite relatives will be going to this wedding.  My aunt will be acting in place of mother of the groom.  We’re going to show this young couple that they do have support, and our family was brought up in love and respect and kindness, just like we’re showing them the value of charity as we help them reach their own goals.

We will help the children of this family get educated because their parents did not save.  We will be there when the depressed daughter who is possibly a drug addict is ready for help (her parents “don’t know,” though she could not be more obvious– my medical professional aunt is keeping a watchful eye).  And we will definitely be there for one of the most important days of this young man’s life.

And if eventually the grown children renounce their parents’ ways and see that there’s another way?  Well, that’s kind of what true Catholicism is all about.  Not the renouncing so much, but the going to where the love is.  Putting good deeds into action.  Helping others as you have been helped yourself.  Giving back to the less fortunate.  (And maybe making a few converts in the process to carry on God’s Good Works.)  It’s a shame that this couple is turning their backs on that.

Would you judge these relatives harshly for refusing to go to their son’s wedding?  Did you think the Catholic church was all bad?

(#2 has a somewhat different view of Catholicism, but I agree with much of what #1 says, so let’s leave it there.  Also, Jesuits have good wine at parties and Jesuits in Space are totally awesome.  #1 is not denying that there are bad things about Catholicism… but charity is kind of one of their big things.  BTW, these relatives hate the Jesuits and think Notre Dame is too liberal [it’s actually very conservative] because Obama spoke there.  I think maybe that’s just an excuse because they didn’t want to tell their daughter they couldn’t afford ND even if she got in, but whatever.)

Ask the Grumpies: I moved into a rich subdivision and my neighbors gave me way too much

Moved to the Southern US asks:

My husband and I (immigrants from [an Asian country]) have done very well for ourselves lately, and after living in a 2200 sq ft house in a standard subdivision with mostly people affiliated with the local university, we saved up and built our own house where the minimum allowed house size is 3,500 sq feet and there are plenty of trees and lots of land between houses.  Lot sizes are big.  According our HOA, we could have horses if we wanted, but nobody does.  On one side of us lives a surgeon and his younger SAHM wife with their two children (neither of whom are close to my children’s ages).  On the other side are a couple of older lawyers (we think) whose children are grown (we think).

We moved here mid-September, so this is our first holiday season here.

Recently the SAHM gave us an enormous box of homemade cookies.  Along with the box she provided a holiday card and a lengthy very personal holiday letter with pictures and information about their “magical” summer vacation.  There were also a lot of bible verses.

The cookies were, sadly, not very good.  Neither my toddler nor my growing pre-teen ate more than one, which is saying something.  (Our builder also gave us a tin of cookies as a holiday gift, but there were a lot fewer cookies and they were good!)  We ended up throwing them out and sending a thank-you note.  My DH initially wanted to invite the family over for tea, but thought better of it.  We thought about reciprocating, but… it seemed weird and we don’t want to encourage such gifts.

This morning [a Saturday] around 7am while we were all still in bed, we got a knock on the door and it was our other neighbor, the lawyer husband, with a box from honeybaked ham for us.  My husband groggily thanked him and took it inside.  When we opened it later, it had an entire ham in it with a price tag for almost $60(!) along with a Christmas card saying, “Hello neighbor, have a wonderful Christmas!” with the word “Christmas” underlined twice.  I’ve never met the lawyer couple and know very little about them.  My husband has not talked with either of them much either.  (We’d at least seen the cookie neighbor around the neighborhood while walking our dog, though we couldn’t tell you the names of her kids.)

Is this normal?  Do we write a thank-you note?  Are we expected to reciprocate in kind?  I don’t want to spend $60 on someone whose name I don’t even know.

We are Christian and we do like ham, so we will be eating it, but we would still have preferred not to have gotten this gift.

That definitely sounds WEIRD!  It is so tacky to leave a price tag on a gift!  What is up with that?

And who gives a HAM?  And who gives a ham 4 days before Christmas?  I may be biased a bit because I don’t like ham and we’re about to leave to visit relatives (and there is usually a lot of ham at Christmas dinner but without pineapple which is the only thing I like about baked ham so I can’t imagine coming back to an entire ham after that).  There’s so many people who can’t eat ham, not just for religious or vegetarian reasons, but also for reasons of cholesterol and salt content.  That’s just so WEIRD.  (Also, not a fan of Honeybaked ham– they somehow seem even saltier than normal.)

Let’s assume that there’s nothing overtly racist about either of these neighbors, they just can’t imagine a world where anybody wouldn’t be Christian.  It’s just easier to live that way.

I find people over the age of 25 who proselytize to not be very interesting to talk with, so I think not having tea and just sending a thank-you note was the right call there.  (My students often outgrow the proselytizing as they meet more new people–it’s just how they were raised.)

My guess with the holiday letter and cookies is that they had a bunch leftover from their friends and family giving and decided the neighbors would get the overflow.  Possibly she went to a cookie party (where people make and trade huge batches of cookies), though if that were the case *some* of the cookies would have been good because they’d have been made by other people.  So you got the letter because she had some extras printed out, not because she really wants you to know about her vacation.

As for the ham… I was completely mystified about that too until I talked with one of my friends who knows more rich people than I do.  (Technically we know a lot of Silicon Valley rich people, but Northern California rich is a lot more like upper middle class most places, and most of them are only first generation rich because of the dot com boom.)  She said he’s probably giving said hams to everyone on his list without really thinking about it.  $60 seems like a lot to most of us, but it’s like that arrested development clip with the banana.  They don’t see it as extravagant because they can’t.

Image result for how much does a banana cost meme

[This, grumpy nation, is but one reason that we need higher marginal tax rates.  Wealthy people should not be gifting each other bad hams!  What a waste!  (Personally, I’d try to give it to our local food pantry, but I don’t know they’d even accept it and they’re impossible to get on the phone.)]

So, Moved to the Southern US, eat the ham as you wish and write a thank you note as you did with the cookies.  Either they’re giving you outsized gifts because you’re new to the neighborhood and they’ll scale down next year, or these gifts are such a small part of their lawyerly budget that it just doesn’t seem over the top (and maybe you’ll just come to expect your annual ham until it’s time to move to a nursing home).  Send a thank you card and move on.  You do not need to reciprocate!

Makes me glad that the only gifts we get from our neighbors are the occasional much appreciated overflow summer tomatoes!  Oh, and when DC1 was little a number of our neighbors used us as an opportunity to get rid of outgrown toys and clothes, which was also appreciated.  Also, several years ago we did get into a banana bread war with one of our neighbors– she ran into DH doing yardwork one evening and they got talking and she mentioned she had lots of extra bananas from her work and somehow that ended up with him getting a bunch of very ripe bananas, which he turned into several loaves of banana bread.  So he gave one to their family…  And then she gave us another loaf of banana bread in return.  At which point I’m fairly sure we realized we needed to stop, but it might have gone another round.

Grumpy nation– Do you get holiday (or other) gifts from your neighbors?  Have you ever lived in an upper-class neighborhood and is it different from where those who barely qualify as having mcmansions live?  Do you know rich people and do they give you hams?

Ask the grumpies: How much to save for different long-term priorities

Ali asks:

How much to save for college vs retirement vs other savings, etc.  Basically, tell me what to do.

The vast majority of our readers should max out their retirement savings prior to saving for kids’ college.  The reason for this is that you can get loans for college, but you can’t get loans for retirement AND US colleges don’t include retirement savings in their financial aid calculations.   That means every dollar that you hide in retirement is a dollar the universities don’t take into account for their financial aid calculations.  If worse comes to worse (ex. student loan rates are high), you can contribute less to retirement while the kids are in college (because you already have so much saved up) and cashflow some of those college expenses with what you would have contributed to retirement.

Disclaimer:  This is not what we did.  Originally I paid a lot of attention to the “recommended” savings percentages in various books and made sure we were putting away 20% of our income for retirement (recommended is 10-20%, we were on the “went to graduate school and need to save extra to make up for low savings years” track).  Then some extra money went into 529s (tax advantaged college saving) for our kids and then the stock market went crazy in a bad way (remember 2008?) and we started prepaying our mortgage as well.  It wasn’t until later that we started contributing to a 457 plan, even though that would have made more sense than contributing to the 529s.

The following assumes you have no debt other than a low interest mortgage.

  1. Save an emergency fund that will get you through a missing paycheck or late reimbursement or small emergency.
  2. Put money into retirement up to any employer match.
  3. Save an emergency fund that will get you through a reasonable job loss or other large expense.  (A Roth IRA is a good place to stash this when you’re just starting out since you can tap the principal without penalty and it can go to retirement if you don’t have a major emergency.)
  4. Save 10-20% of your gross income for retirement (or the max if are a high earner).  Play with retirement calculators to get more specific on the percent.
  5. Start putting money away in a 529 plan based on how much you’re planning to contribute and what schools your kid is considering.  We have more details here, and also more generally with other 529 posts.  The short is you’ll want to play with some college savings calculators AND the financial aid calculators at individual schools that you’re looking at.  (You might want to pay down your house at this step instead because colleges don’t use most housing wealth in their calculations for financial aid, but play with those different assumptions with the calculators.)

I DO think it is important to have a 529 for relatives to put monetary gifts in if you have relatives who are likely to think that’s a good idea, and don’t just have one for the oldest boy even though the money is fungible across kids.  That’s not how gifts work– people want to give to both kids, not just one.

So… I guess that’s the basic advice.  There are exceptions to the above– people who have access to a backdoor 401k at work but don’t have high incomes might never be able to max out their retirement, for example.

Grumpy Nation:  What advice would you give?  How do you decide how much to save where?

RBOC

  • DH and I have decided that if we ever have someone ask for permission to marry a daughter, the answer will be no.  (Because nobody should be asking a parent permission for an adult to get married.)
  • One of my colleagues said she just wouldn’t vote if Bernie was the nominee.  I told her that not voting is half a vote for Trump.  She said she couldn’t bring herself to.  I said I would vote for road-kill over Trump.  Because there are children in concentration camps in our country and children’s lives are at stake.
  • One of my RAs got hir entire school account suspended because one of the datasets zie was working with was called sex_and_gender
  • One of our relatives just named her new son Pnykolass.  The P is silent.  [Actual name may have been changed to protect the innocent and to prevent googling!]
  • Remember how we got a whole house water filter?  It turns out that unfiltered water has chlorine in it and filtered water doesn’t.  Which means that that pink/orange bacterial slime that loves to eat soap has infiltrated the master bathroom.  We are debating the pros and cons of getting a bleach tablet for the toilet (which will corrode the toilet innards) or hiring a cleaning service just to do the kitchen and bathrooms (since I hate putting stuff away before a full clean).  Spending every weekend cleaning the bathroom sounds not fun to me, but I also am squicked out by pink slime.
  • update: a single intensive cleaning session with bleach is buying us time.
  • DC1 went to two different programming camps and got two Raspberry Pi.  I said zie didn’t have an r so zie didn’t have a circle, just two pi.  DC1 pointed out that Raspberry starts with an R.  DC2 chimed in that no, DC1 has two pi Remainder asberry.  I’m so proud!
  • Every time I see a headline or tweet for 90 day fiancé I get really excited until I realize (again) it doesn’t say finances.
  • The new countertop in the kitchen settled, taking the shiny new caulk down with it, so we had to recaulk.
  • When I was starting college halfway across the country, I was the only kid I met there whose parents didn’t go with them on move-in day.  I thought that was weird.  Plane fare was so expensive.  And why pay for crowded hotels?  (My parents did move-in my sister but she went to school in-state so it was just a lengthy drive.)  And yet… when it is our kids’ turn we will probably go because it won’t be a big chunk out of our budget and it is one of those milestones.  And I guess DC1 will be younger than I was, depending on what zie decides to do 4 years from now.
  • OMG, can you believe [bachelorette spoilers].  I sure hope she doesn’t [more spoilers] because I want him to be the next bachelor.  But they never pick the guy I want, so…
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