Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pick Your Problems

Well, the honeymoon's over.

I've been drifting along in my dreamy idyll, working 9-10 hours in the newsroom on Tuesday and Wednesday, and puttering at home the other three days. I've been sleeping better and eating better and enjoying in-depth conversations about Benny's Squirrel Wars while walking him to school.

Ah, but obviously I was tempting the gods, or perhaps nature, which abhors a vacuum. So last weekend a swarm of subterranean termites, driven out of their nest underground by the rain and their own base desires, started coming out of the ceiling lamp. Ron and I beat them back with a vacuum cleaner and a roll of packing tape, and we haven't seen them in a over a week. On Monday the landlords (who I must admit have been very responsive and helpful about this) are sending their structural guy on his third or fourth visit, this time with maintenance guys, and they will do a final treatment.

But the whole thing was enough to freak me out, and on Monday I launched an apartment hunt, with two apartment viewings on Tuesday and two on Thursday. I stayed home from work on Tuesday to meet the landlord's structural guy for the first time.

But then, just to make a party of it, on Tuesday I discovered that my credit card information had been stolen. There I was, sitting at the dining room table (which had been moved away from the Buggy Lamp and now was pushed in front of the sofa) staring at two online purchases from DSW I didn't make. Now I love DSW as much as the next woman, but I'd successfully resisted the temptation to snap up a half-dozen pairs of sandals to celebrate Daylight Savings Time and I resented someone doing it for me.

So there I was, facing bug infestation and credit theft -- all I needed was a nice earthquake to finish me off. You know you're having a bad Tuesday when it's a toss-up whether the exterminator or the cop will show up at the apartment first. The cop arrived around 3 (the landlord's termite guy wouldn't be able to come until Wednesday) and took information on the credit card theft for a police report. Our credit union said it didn't need one to fix the unauthorized charges, but I wasn't taking any chances. I'd heard enough bank horror stories -- what's to stop them from saying, "Oh, we only waive the police report on Mondays and Wednesdays and only if you have at least $20,000 in total balances ..." Even credit unions can develop banklike qualities when under strain.

Anyway, so I spent Tuesday on the phone, clicking and calling and pressing pound and sitting on hold and giving the last four digits of my SSN, or Ron's SSN or Callisto's SSN or Benny's maiden name or whatever. I put security alerts on our credit reports and changed the credit card number on our iTunes and Netflix and other sites after looking up all their myriad passwords.

By Thursday night I was collapsed on the sofa, feeling cranky, stressed, overwhelmed and anxious. Sounds familiar, no? Benny was neglected, Ron and I were bickering. Remember those days? Well, they were back again. Only now it was my personal life tying me in knots, not my work life. I didn't think this was much progress.

But then I thought: Hey, pick your poison — assembling judging books or fighting critters? Making groveling phone calls for award nominations or battling identity theft? Looking for lawyers or looking for apartments? All said and done, I think I'd rather face my current problems than manage one more Green Business or Real Deals, or Corporate Counsel or Chief Idiot Officer Awards.

I mean, this week's problems are real-life issues. These are problems people can understand. When I cry: "I had to cold-call 100 companies and beg them to nominate their in-house counsel for the diversity category!" the honest response would likely be "What the Fuck?" I cry "I had to call DSW Shoes and tell them I didn't buy gift cards for someone in Loveland, Colo.!" people understand.

People know what a credit report is; they don't know what a nomination spreadsheet is. People know what a bug is; they don't know what a Community Champion is. I was pretty mad this week, but at least I did't feel like a total loser stressing out over the number of solar panel companies in my FileMaker Pro document.

So maybe this was progress after all.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Escaping the Hive

For the last year I’ve looked like your typical newspaper worker bee ... but I’ve been plotting and scheming.

Actually, those who know me well know I’m always plotting and scheming. But my goal in 2011 was quite simple: to leave my newspaper editing job. The deadline was Nov. 28.

My plan was to write freelance articles, get more involved in Benny’s school, pursue my own writing projects and generally make life better for the whole family. To make this possible, Ron and I spent 2011 paying off debt and adding to our savings. I worked a ton of extra hours through a colleague’s maternity leave, which helped. An inheritance from Ron’s father helped took care of the debt and we’ve been socking away every dime we could.

Then in November we decided to extend my departure date to Feb. 3, so I could do one more completely ridiculous work project and we could save a little more. My newspaper asked me to work two days a week until they found a replacement for me and I’m happy to do so.

So we did it! After Feb. 3, I’ve been working two days a week. It sure felt like a long road, though. I kept a little diary to keep my spirits up, counting down the days, tracking our financial progress, drawing up complicated schedules for my time after Feb. 3.

The schedules, alas, went right out the window. But I have accomplished a lot: In the first three weeks I wrote a play, started a short story, cleaned out the closets, rearranged furniture, chaperoned a Benny field trip and hosted a playdate. I spent most of one Friday cleaning out my papers, which took forever. I was shredding bills from 2010, with even a little 2009 mixed in. It's very cathartic, shredding bills from now-closed credit cards and other nasty baggage. Ron, meanwhile, found it easier to work out regularly and focus on his own job.

Monday, Feb. 6, was the first day of my new schedule and it did go mostly as I had imagined. I slept through my alarm and woke up at 7. Ron had already left the house. I put on my workout clothes and walked Benny to school.

Perhaps I was a little too relaxed; we were so involved in talking about the “Wicked” musical “Cupcake Wars” episode I’d watched the night before that he ended up tardy and we had to stop by the office to get a slip. Ooops. Then I came home and watched news channels and cleaned the apartment. Then I went to the grocery store and dry cleaner. Then I taught myself Scrivener for the fourth time (since every time I master the damn software, I end up not touching it for weeks and have to learn it all over again). Then I worked on a new idea for a short play until it was time to pick Benny up.

It wasn't the most organized day off, but it was fun.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

'Knock It Out. Duck.'

"You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. You know what to listen for. ... There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck."

— Annie Dillard

How many families can do that in their financial lives? Today's families are often starved for time and energy and buried under mental, emotional, physical — and yes — financial clutter. Bank accounts, investments, policies, subscriptions and credit cards surround them, looking so vital and stable and necessary. But are they? Who has the time to tap on all those financial walls to see which ones are safe and useful, and which are dangerous? And once you identify those cracked beams, who has the time and energy to clear them out?

I'm thinking of this because Ron stuck around the house this morning to untangle some financial snarls. Nothing big, we wanted to cancel a credit card, adjust our 401(k) contribution, close a credit union account and cancel an old life insurance policy. All of these were in Ron's name, so I couldn't do it. None of these were big, but to accomplish them he had to take the whole morning off.

Not all families have this luxury, so is it any wonder that such things are often neglected? If Ron hadn't taken the morning off, nothing big would have happened. No nasty letters or credit dings. We just would have had an inadequate 401(k) plan, an unneeded credit card, a neglected credit union account in Michigan and a tiny, unnecessary policy quietly feeding on $22 a month.

But I've been on a crusade over the last few years to clean up our finances. We've paid off our credit cards, switched to a local credit union, streamlined our bill paying, paid off a personal loan and more. At one point we had money in two banks and two credit unions. Now once we're free of the Michigan credit union, we'll bank only at a credit union here in San Francisco.

Ron completed his tasks and then managed to conduct a conference call with some biotech executives before heading out to City Hall in pursuit of another story. Which left me thinking again how tough it is for many families to clear their financial clutter.

After all, most ordinary people don’t make financial decisions in logical order, coached at every step by accountants and tax planners. We make such decisions haphazardly as problems, transitions and opportunities arise, without any clear plan. People's financial lives are cluttered with old credit cards, bank accounts and insurance policies acquired piecemeal over decades. If a family slides into debt, they take riskier steps just to keep their heads above water, with disastrous results.

But even if a family vows to clean out their financial house, it’s not easy. Financial relationships are so easy to fall into: you click a button or sign a form or mail a postcard to open a card, an account, a policy, a subscription. But getting out – ah, therein lies the rub. Those companies don’t make it easy to leave. Canceling anything often requires repeated phone calls, long hold times, special forms by mail, long conversations with customer retention people begging you to stay. Sometimes you go through all this and the company still doesn’t do it, then sends you to collections for not paying more money.

I think four main factors keep families from ruthlessly stripping down their financial lives and living lighter and healthier:

1. Apathy. Modern life is more hectic and complicated then ever, and a small $5 monthly charge for loan protection that you don’t remember signing up for is easy to miss. If something isn’t annoying you, why fix it? The retirement account, the magazine subscriptions, the insurance policies you set up 10 years ago might not be good for you know, but why rock the boat?

2. Fear. People often feel insecure about their financial judgment. They don’t want to think about this stuff. They’re afraid of messing up. It’s all so complicated! Plus, they keep getting all this conflicting information. A person might hold three credit cards he never uses, each one sending blank checks in the mail every month, but he's nervous about canceling the cards because it might hurt his credit score. No, he's not buying a house or car anytime soon, and yes, those cards leave him open to identity theft, but logic doesn’t matter here. Anyway, what if his family needs those cards someday? What if a $10,000-$20,000 line of credit isn’t enough? Let me tell you from experience. Having more than $20K in available unsecured credit is a recipe for disaster. It guarantees that a sudden financial crisis (a job loss, a hospital bill, an unsold home) will haunt you forever in finance charges at 17 percent APR. And if you make one little mistake, one tiny little error, up it goes to 29.99 percent.

3. Frustration. Even if you find a bank mistake or previously unnoticed monthly debit , fixing it means calling a company up, sitting on hold, explaining the problem. A person might carry an envelope containing the info needed to cancel the protection around for months before calling – if he remembers to call at all. Meanwhile, that charge sucks money every month. Since it’s so painful to change, fix or cancel anything with financial companies, is it any wonder that families just eat the costs?

4. Just plain feeling bad. Personal finance often requires a businesslike approach, but it feels so personal, for obvious reasons. Finally seeing a sneaky monthly debit makes you feel stupid you didn’t notice it before. Calling up the company makes you feel stupid, and usually they’re trying to make you feel in the wrong – you don’t want to get rid of this charge, or you should have done that to avoid that charge, or this is the incredibly convoluted justification for the charge ... you understand, don’t you?

Aaargh! And never mind about canceling an account. When I do this, some part of me is transported back 20 years, telling some guy I don’t want to see him anymore. “Why?” they ask. “Let’s talk this out.” And here’s that nice credit card company saying “I’ll change, I’ll lower my APR, I’ll give you more rewards,” or “How will you do without me?” or, more ominously, “You don’t want to do this. If you leave me, I’ll trash your good name and you’ll lose 100 points off your credit score.”

So for someone to clean up their finances, they’ll often have to fight apathy, fear, frustration and bad feelings every single time. Companies know this, and they’ll play on all these feelings to get what they want.

This is tough for people of all ages, but I’m thinking mostly of families because, well, I have a family and know the challenges. Parents are living busy lives, they have children keeping their emotions in constant flux, they spend so much time trying to Do the Right Thing, and that guilt trigger is never far away.

I recently read a blog by a mother torturing herself because, while she was frantically working to prepare her family for a trip one day — with a to-do list a yard long — her 9-year-old daughter wanted to give her a hug. “I brushed her off. I said I didn’t have time to cuddle right now,” the mother confessed. The girl was upset, “You don’t want to hug me?” she asked. Immediately the mother broke down, confessed to the girl that Mommy made a bad choice, but knew forever that the child would be a broken shadow of her former self.

Mind you, this mother didn’t smack the kid or shout “Get the hell away from me!” She just made it clear she couldn’t stop right now. How in God’s name is this little girl going to learn to think of other people’s feelings and understand that if Mommy doesn’t have time to cuddle right now, it’s nothing personal? And how — how — how in God’s name is this mother going to call up Bank of America and take the polite but firm tone necessary to get that unwarranted $50 fee erased?

She probably won’t. She’ll carry around the little Bank of America envelope in her purse for months until she “accidentally” throws it out. A $50 fee isn’t enough to start her on the long, involved process of getting it erased, not to mention the traumatic job of changing banks, painfully teasing out every tiny string that ties this bank to the rest of her life.

Companies know this and they’ll keep trying to play us.

Just like that blogger’s little girl was probably playing her.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Benny's 8th Birthday Party

Here are some pictures from Benny's 8th birthday party -- only a month late! He had his friends Noe and Fritz over for cake and ice cream and they went to the Randall Museum, which is this awesome natural history museum only a few blocks away.

He's still rocking the whole football thing, so he and his friends dressed in jerseys and helmets and he got a football cake too. (Benny was my expert consultant on this cake and carefully placed the candles so they were players with the football between them.)