After a very long absence due to family illnesses, I have returned. I hope to restart this blog and resume my place as a guide to creating a work-life balance now that my own life has settled down. I hope to see my readers back as well.

I do have something to report.  During my absence here my family radically altered our lives once again to find that elusive work-life balance.   My husband left his stressful, job with long hours as an engineer in the private sector and returned to his first place of employment – a state agency.    Three years ago, we were both lulled by the siren song of high pay opportunities and he left his job at the state agency for the private sector.   Three years later, he had seen the sun come up at his office more times than either of us care to think about, he worked six days a week and thought about work 24/7.   Our lives were unravelling. 

We looked around at friends who are also engineers and realized it would be years before he saw any relief, if he ever did.    We had to really focus on whether the money was worth him being an absentee father and husband in order to join the ranks of the upper middle class.    Our decision….the money wasn’t worth what we were having to give up. 

Today my husband is back at the state agency.  He will never earn six figures.  His job isn’t sexy or glamorous. But he goes to work at 7 am and comes home at 4 pm.   Without exception.  I have my husband back.  Our son has his father back.  And the state has a damn fine engineer. 

This means we will never be able to move into the tonier part of town…but we like our small home in our modest middle class neighborhood.  I will never have granite counter-tops or a pool in my back yard nor will I be able to quit my own job to devote my time to writing…but my question is…why should I be able to pursue my dreams at the expense of someone else, namely the man I love?   Everything requires sacrifice, who better for me to sacrifice my dreams for but the man I love and with whom I intend to spend my life?   And I still get to write, I just have to juggle it with my job. 

So there you are.. I put my money where my mouth is and you know what?  Life is sweet.


The third step in simplifying your life is to look at your obligations and prioritize them.   Once you have prioritized your list, eliminate anything that isn’t a required obligation.  For instance volunteering, book clubs, bunko groups, birthday parties, etc. etc.   You won’t have to eliminate these things forever, just long enough to regain control over your life. Once you have freed up time and money, you can bring back the things that are most important to you.

Below is a look at some of my obligations and the changes I made:

Most of us have to work in order to feed and cloth ourselves so obviously work goes to the top of the priority list.  But you will find that as you simplify your life, you need less money and you may be able to work less in the future.   However, there may be things you can do today to lessen the burden of a stressful job.  Can you work from home, eliminating a commute and possibly reclaiming two or more hours a day?   Can you work part time, freeing up more of the day to put toward the wants in your life?

Volunteering is important but it can be put off until you have achieved balance and simplicity in your life.   I have always volunteered.  In the past I was on a homeless feeding group, I was on the board of my son’s daycare center, I was on the board at church to establish a mobile homeless food canteen and I volunteered at my son’s elementary school.   In the end, I had to drop every single one of those until I had gotten my life where I felt I needed to be.   Today, I have a saner volunteer schedule.  I volunteer weekly in my son’s school on a program that early identifies and early intervenes in dyslexia and other learning disorders but don’t volunteer for things like parties.  I do try to make one class trip a year because it makes my son happy for me to be there.   I am slowly getting back into my homeless causes, something that is very important to me.  I will realign those and re-volunteer because now I have the time to devote to it without feeling overwhelmed and pushed.

Family and friends.  I used to be involved, along with  my crazy volunteering schedule, in many neighborhood activities like a book club and a bunko group as well as sitting on several committees for our neighborhood association.   Many women in my neighborhood enjoy this time out.  But I found it became mostly an opportunity to complain about their lives, their husbands and their children.  I wasn’t comfortable in that environment because my husband has always been my refuge so, after deciding I wasn’t getting anything out of it and spending money on hosting or providing entry fees, buying books and the obligatory holiday white elephant gift exchange, I dropped them all.   We try to spend more time on what really matters,  family members and close friends.   We have a standing Friday  night date with our son for dinner and a movie – we cook at home and watch a family movie from Netflix.   We reserve Sunday as a time for just us and our son because it is easier to do without interrupting his time with friends.   Most importantly, we remain flexible and if he has a Friday night sleepover with friends, my  husband and I lock the door, light candles and enjoy being together.

Incessant child parties, and adult parties for that matter…We completely eliminated these.  We don’t even go anymore.  With 22 kids in our son’s class, we could be having at least two parties a month (and sometimes we did).   This costs money for gifts that the kid probably doesn’t need and won’t play with more than once, money that you could be saving for something far more worthwhile.   It also takes time and lets face it, with a large, rambunctious party the kids aren’t really attending to developing meaningful relationships.   We usually RSVP with regrets that we have a conflict that cannot be avoided.   That conflict may be us staying home and riding bikes together, the host doesn’t have to know and I don’t feel I have to explain.  I haven’t seen where this as unduly affected our son’s friendships.  We make sure to organize meaningful time together with friends so he  can build relationships and spend meaningful time on friendships that are very important to him.

Grocery shopping.  Many of us live in areas that have grocery delivery.   If you do, take advantage.  Shop on the internet and let the groceries come to you.   If you can’t, plan well in advance what you need and minimize your stress level by going at an ‘off peak’ shopping time – I used to leave my husband and son home and shop at 9 pm because I knew the crowds would be at home getting ready for bed.

Kids activities.  These need to go right now.  Yes, extracurricular activities are important but in America we have over scheduled our kids to the point they need their own daily planners.   Our child actually did this for us when he broke his arm so spectacularly that he couldn’t participate in anything for three months, it was during this time we realized how crazy his life had gotten.   Once he was able to rejoin extracurricular activities we decided to limit it to one a semester.  Instead of robot club and chess club after school, music lesson and baseball – most of which he didn’t care about, we now focus on one activity.  If he really wants to join a second we probably wouldn’t stop him but we encourage him to rationally choose what he wants to join, keeping a balance between activities and school work as well as prioritizing free play.   He chose to drop everything except music lessons.  We have one music lesson weekly — for 1/2 hour plus his daily practice sessions.  The rest of the time he spends time with friends and free play activities like riding his bike or scooter around the neighborhood or playing legos or games indoors.   There is nothing quite like the shock on your drum instructors face when he shamefully asks if we can accommodate a schedule change and we happily say “Dave, we are at your disposal, you are our only obligation on Saturdays….”   There is also nothing quite like the beauty of waking up and knowing we don’t have anywhere to be on any given Saturday or Sunday with the exception of our one half hour commitment.  Again, we have freed up more money by not being involved in many organizations that each require a fee and support throughout the season.  Kids don’t need a host of activities to be happy and healthy or have strong sense of self and accomplishment.  That is an adult creation and a fairly modern one at that.  I believe kids need far more free time, down time and opportunities for free play than they need soccer three times a week.

All Son Sunday

November 9, 2008

Life gets busy, even when you try to live simply.  To counter-balance being working parents, we have a weekly standing date.   Because we aren’t religious, we reserve Sunday mornings to afternoons for all “son” Sunday.  This is time dedicated to spending time with our son.  We usually do something he likes to do like putt putt. 

This time is just for the three of us – mom, dad and son.  It doesn’t matter what we do, it just matters that we are together.  We try not to let anything or any person intrude on our special time.

Schedule time together like you do any other appointment.  Time for yourself and with your family is just as important as any other commitment.

One of our Simple Family goals is to free ourselves from debt, including mortgage or any rent outside of annual taxes. 

We already have paid-for cars that look fine and run fine and are in no need of immediate repacement.  We have no credit card debt.  But we do still have one student loan and our biggest bill, our mortgage.  Freeing yourself from mortgage is a pretty ambitious thought, you say, especially in this time of all-time-high foreclosures…but it can be done.  And think of this…..what would life be like without a mortgage hanging over your head?  

You hate your job?  Great, quit and find a new one.  You want to change your career, excellent, you are now in a position to do so because you don’t have a mortgage.  You want to move into a bigger, better house?  If you current house is paid for, the entire selling price is profit to be rolled over into your knew home because federal law does not require you to pay capital gains taxes on profit from a sold home so long as it is reinvested into a new home within a specific time period.  Then the small mortgage you have there can be paid off early and man, you are in your dream home with no mortgage.  The point is, these days keeping a roof over your head often means you have to compromise your life and stay in work that may not be satisfying to you.  It also may prevent you from saving for your children’s education and your retirement.  

But how do you do it?  Did you know that paying only ONE extra mortgage payment a year on a traditional 30-year fixed rate loan will cut your loan in half?  My husband and I have figured if we add $100 a month to our $1200 a month mortgage, we will cut our 30 year mortgage to 15 years.  BUT! We have decided that wasn’t good enough, we want to repay our loan in this decade, not the next.  We decided to find $300 a month to apply to our mortgage.  This will take our repayment down to 5 years!  Think of all the interest we are saving!  Money in our pockets that will pay for our retirement (early perhaps) and our son’s education.

So how do we scour the budget and find the extra $300 a month to pay toward the mortgage?  Easy, we eliminate most of our entertainment budget.   We already do things free or at low cost but we can do better.   But we don’t want to feel deprived so we mystery shop.  We get paid to eat out.  We get paid to go to the movies.  We get paid to go to an entertainment complex, have lunch and spend the day rock climbing, playing glow in the dark mini golf, and playing laser tag.  

On a typical night out, I spend another 20 minutes filling out a form on service quality and we are reimbursed most or all of our costs.  We get paid for fast food, we get paid for high end food, movie tickets and popcorn.  All I have to do is be observant – and if you do this often enough, you get it down to where it isn’t even noticeable to you and then you find yourself rating every place you visit even if you aren’t getting paid for it!

Here is a quick run down of our latest fun-filled adventures.  Last month, my husband and I had a date at a high-end restaurant.  The meal was almost $150 for the two of us, we paid $15 because we ordered the most expensive entrees as a treat.  This month, I took a few friends, my sister and my niece out for a Christmas Dinner at another high-end restaurant while my husband was away on business.  The evening included drinks, appetizer, entrees, and dessert.  I paid nothing.   And then just before Christmas I am taking my son for an afternoon of lunch and rock climbing.  For free.   Next month, my husband and I have a movie date that includes dinner and a movie and my sister and I will have lunch the next day at a local restaurant. 

My sister is a single mother and the budget is tight.  She has a great job but lets face it, money is never flowing for a single mother.   So, routinely, I take her to her favorite restaurant for lunch and get reimbursed.  It is one of the easiest shops available so we enjoy lunch and catch up on local gossip, spending sister time together without the kids and the spouses.  We also love “chick flicks” or girly movies and we look for opportunities to have a girls night out with me, her and my niece.  So, even though this isn’t mystery shopping, we watch the movie premiers at our local radio stations and get tickets to the premiers (which we will be enjoying tonight) at no cost.  No cost to us and we just give our opinion of the movie once it is over.   

If you think you want to mystery shop for fun, I have a few pointers from my years in the business.  

  1. Never pay to sign with a mystery shopping company.  These are scam artists and will take your money and leave you without any fun. 
  2. Check out MSPA, the mystery shopping association, and consider getting certified.  Certification does cost money but it opens you up to some of the better shops. 
  3. Be reliable and thorough.  If you sign up for a shop, make sure you perform the shop and submit your reports on time.    Make sure your reports are thorough and well written.  This will give you a solid reputation as a mystery shopper and get you the better shops out there!  Remember, you are doing a job and don’t let your enjoyment of the evening distract you from doing your best, quality work.
  4. Consider using a credit card (without a balance of course) – this ensures you will always get a receipt, which is required for all shops for verification and payment.  It also helps with your accounting.  I have a specific bank account I use.  I “seeded” it with my own money and make all payments to my credit card out of that account before the end of the month (the card carries no balance so I pay no interest).   Then my reimbursement goes back into that account and, for the most part, I stay even in that account.  This just simplifies things – which as you know is my life long goal – simplicity.

Other free or cheap entertainment ideas:

  1. Pay attention to free events in your city that will have local radio personalities.  Radio stations usually give away tickets to movie premiers happening in your area.  A great way to see a movie without the costs.
  2. Take advantage of free events.  We just toured a lovely lighting of the local wildflower center.  The cost was cans of food donate to the local soup kitchen.  I tend to buy canned goods and then either forget about them or never use them because we all prefer fresh vegetables or I get them with free promotions at the grocery store.   They aren’t weird foods that won’t be eaten but things like canned corn, canned green beans, packets of dried beans, etc. etc.  I got to clean out my pantry by taking two bags full of good, quality canned goods and donating them in exchange for seeing the lovely Luminaria Lighting (a Mexican traditional Christmas Lighting).  It was beautiful, there were carollers, cheap hot chocolate for the kids, free movie tickets to a movie premier, and holiday crafts.
  3. Do outdoor activities like ride bikes together or discover hiking trails in your area. 
  4. I believe I mentioned this before but letterboxing is a great family activity that sneaks learning into the day.  Kids learn to read maps, clues, directions, and compasses.  They learn to follow directions and get a good dose of outdoor air and exercise, which kids today sorely need.  Lots of letterboxes are hidden in state parks.  We also enjoy the playgrounds, cheaper camping and swimming, canoeing  or boating.   We purchase an annual pass to our state and county parks.  We easily pay for the passes within the first few months of owning the pass.   

The point is, entertainment shouldn’t cost a fortune and you don’t have to feel deprived to live on a tight budget.  You can have fun and enjoy time together, you can eat out and get what other people are paying for – for the price of a bit of your time, a little research and some creativity.

Now get out there and get debt free so you to can simplify your life.