Friday, October 17, 2008

Decisions

Decision - noun - a: the act or process of deciding b: a determination arrived at after consideration

I am dumbstruck by things sometimes. I am working at BMG right now. This is the first close to minimum wage job I have had since I first started college back in 2000. That job was in a movie theater in a college town. Most of the people there college students who were looking to help pay their way through school or just have some pocket money while in school. BMG for the most part is a different story.

Most of the people there are "full" time people, meaning that this is their primary source of income. Some of them are full time status meaning that they get at minimum 32 hours a week, or they are part time which gives them close to 16 hours. Currently, I am in the part time category and I am getting anywhere between 12 and 20 hours a week. There are several reasons that my schedule is so varied - there aren't that many shows right now (there will be more when the holidays get closer) and my personal availability (I can't work on Sundays and once I start my new job I can't work before 6pm). I am giving background so that anyone reading this has an idea of how things work and what some of the situation is.

The people I work with are all really nice people. I have enjoyed getting to know them. I like them and they are fun. It has been nice having people to talk to and socialize with even if it is just at work. I haven't gotten into any major conversations with anyone, but part of that is my ideas, theology, and political leanings don't line up with most of theirs and I would prefer not to get into fights with people about things like that.

I have been talking to some of them and listening to their stories of how the wound up there. They are all interesting and diverse stories, but they are almost all sad. They all focus around decisions whether they are good, bad, or just a lack of decision making. Some of them make my heart sad and others make me want to know more of what got the person to that place.

One person is living with their fiancee who has been out of a job for a year. The one I am working with was working at Disney and then Sea World and now BMG. They are in a position that they haven't paid rent this month, about to lose their car, and having to switch cell phone plans because they can't afford it. They are trying to pick up extra shifts where they can, and for the most part being successful. Interestingly enough they have nifty tech gadgets and I found out that they bought a puppy from a pet store (I would guess they spent about $300 on it, because that is about the average I saw when we went to the pet store the other day).
I feel bad for this person, but I want to know how they go there. What choices they made to wind up in that financial decision.

Another person I talked to today was telling me some about their life. They dropped out of high school in 10th grade. They don't have their high school diploma or GED. They said that BMG was the first job they had been able to get. They said that they can't move out of the place they are living because they can't afford it and they can't get the money together the even really think about moving. This person is really sweet and friendly, and from what I can see a smart person. My heart almost breaks for this person because I can't fathom being in that situation.

Other people have mentioned that their parents are still paying all their bills and they are frustrated because their parents put limitations on their behavior because they view it as their money being spent and they should have those say.

Others are adults and this job as I said is their primary income source. Some have kids and others have families. I don't know how they support themselves let alone kids. Minimum wage/ low wages weren't really meant to support anyone. I do agree with the political statement that minimum wage jobs were designed for people in high school, people with no job skills, and as supplemental income. I will say that is what AJ and I are using our part time jobs for - to supplement the paycheck that AJ is bringing home right now. The extra money has been very helpful and definitely made it so that we can survive, and right now most of our income is going to survival (we do have a little bit going to tiny bits of fun and an even tinier bit going to savings).

AJ and I made the decision to move to Orlando knowing for the most part the situation we were getting into. We didn't think it would take this long to find me a job, or for even AJ to get an interview with the company he is working for. We still don't know if he is going to be hired to do the job that he has been doing for 5 months. But we knew we were moving down here in an unsteady state. That was our choice, and we have prayed a lot to have some stability, and we have had to have faith that things would work out. But, we were moving with job skills that should provide decent jobs. We were not moving ourselves with no idea or clue as to what we would be doing for a career.

I finally got hired into a position that I want and can do. It is in a forensic molecular biology lab. I turned down 5 jobs waiting to get this one. One was a really hard decision because though the pay would have been less it had really good benefits and vacation/ sick time. I am not going to have those options with the job I took, but it is a better fit to me and I really like the guy I will be working for. That was a hard decision and it will affect us in the long run. To take this job I have to keep my BMG job because that is where our health insurance is being provided from right now. It was a hard realization to come to that I was going to have to have a full and a part time job. Honestly, I don't want to do that. The lazy side of me wants to just be a lab tech because I get to sit all day in a nice A/C lab and get to do fun things. The social side of me want to keep my friends that I am making at BMG, but it is much more physically demanding (I don't like physical... see my body size for proof of that - again another decision I make).

I just wanted to remind myself of how decisions shape who and what we are. I was talking to AJ about this on the way home and we were both reminded of the line from Uncle Ben in Spiderman, "With much power comes much responsibility." Not that I think AJ and I have much power - I would like to have more power and more control, but I don't think that would be a good thing because I would fret even more. I just think that we made hard choices and some of them stunk at the time we made them, but they gave us more freedom and flexibility later on - college, cruddy jobs, and moving. Others seemed like good ideas at the time but later on became burdens - loans, limited career choices, and moving.

No one makes great decisions all the time, and honestly I think the bulk of our decision making comes from a lack of decision making at all. It is easier to just continue on the same path without thinking about it and not really fighting the tide. I want to make the decision that I don't want my decisions to be made like that. I want my life to have purpose and my decisions even if they are hard to be choices that will lead me to where I want to be.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Response to The $25 Challenge

There was a challenge in Illinois during September. It was designed to have people live off of a budget of $25 per person for a week. Some of the people in the challenge had families and so they were alloted more money than others. A group of them got together on blogger to blog their experiences, here.

I am very frustrated by this and the people that were blogging. Most of their complaints were of the nature that they could not afford fruit, vegetables, or milk. That they were forced to live off of sub-standard foods, such as freckled bananas (I personally won't eat a banana until it has lots of freckles, but I don't consider yellow bananas sub-standard food). They were also complaining that they were forced to live off of rice and beans or other very starchy foods.

Most of the people you could tell were not used to having to live on a budget (at least for food). Also, I couldn't find any of the official rules, but from reading the post I am assuming that they were not allowed to use stuff they already had in their pantry. There were several people who complained about the lack of salt, pepper, and spices in their diet to make the food taste better. They complained that someone who was living off that tight of a budget can't afford spices to make their sub-standard food taste better. Clearly these people have never gone discount store shopping. When I head to the the Dollar store or Dollar General they always have spices, and occasionally they have them two for $1.

There are several major reasons that this whole challenge frustrates me:

  1. AJ and I live off a budget of $25 a week per person. So for the month of October we have $250 since there are 5 weeks. When we were living in Gainesville and I was more familiar with the stores and the sale papers we were making it off of $15 a week per person. I am not claiming that it is the easiest thing in the world, but it is fairly doable without that much more energy than before I had a food budget. Also, honestly, the food that I cook hasn't changed one bit.
  2. These people only did it for a week. They did not have to really learn how to budget, how to shop, or how to cook.
    1. Budget - Some of the people did a trial run to see what their money would buy, but none of them mention the sales papers, the loss leaders, coupons, or other such things. Like I said before, when I was really familiar with the stores I could find great deals that fit into my budget.
    2. Shopping - They didn't have the time to learn to stock up when things went on sale. When canned goods go on sale for really cheap, you stock up. When meat is on clearance because the store needs to get rid of it to clean the case, you stock up. When you see a good deal on frozen goods you stock up. The weeks that things are on a great sale, yeah other things might not get bought, but it slowly builds up a pantry and a freezer for things that later on will get you through. Then you have a little more freedom to buy some more fun things. As long as you keep your eye out for good deals you will almost always have a perpetually stocked freezer. The other thing is that if you shop for fruits and veggies that are in season they are always cheaper and taste better. If you are looking for peaches in the middle of winter they are going to be super expensive because they are in limited supply.
    3. Cooking - Several people mentioned that if they had cooked from scratch they could have stretched their money a lot farther. Well then, duh! Cook from scratch... A good chunk of the meals in our house are from scratch, namely because they taste better and I really enjoy cooking.
  3. They make it seem like everyone who lives off of $25 a week is walking around starving all the time. Last time I checked, I needed to loose a lot of weight. AJ on the other hand is loosing weight, but that is because he is a hyper monkey and runs around like a silly goose. He has never told me he was hungry all the time (he does say he is hungry, but that is normally at a meal time - which is when a person is supposed to be hungry).
  4. Sub-standard foods! There definitions of sub-standard food make me angry. Most of them didn't like canned veggies. One guy was cranky about canned salmon. Honestly, canned veggies aren't as amazing as fresh ones, but they are good. Also, there are things that they work so much better in than fresh veggies. Canned corn works better in chili than fresh corn does. For things like that it doesn't make sense to spend the extra money on it. The canned salmon thing got me, too. I have bought some really cheap canned salmon and for the most part it worked well in what I was using in it (salmon cakes). It isn't the same as fresh, but it isn't marketed that way. Also, on a side note we have a huge chunk of fresh (now frozen) salmon in our freezer. It was bought on our budget. There is enough to make 3 full servings off of when we need it (again, the benefits of shopping on sale).
  5. No fruits and veggies! We normally have both of these in our kitchen. The fresh kind that came off trees and such and not out of cans. We have frozen berries in our freezers for yummy smoothies. We normally have apples, pears, oranges, bananas, avocados, sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots, greens (spinach), onions, and lemons (or some random combination of the above ) at all times. Yeah, we do run out and we don't restock until shopping day, but that teaches us not to eat all the fruit in one day (which AJ could do).
  6. That food stamps are supposed to be able to fully fund a persons diet. Honestly, food stamps were meant to subsidize a persons food budget not be the entire amount of money that a person spends on food.
I will admit AJ and I have other money built into our budget for eating out ($70 a month) and occasionally buying a soda or candy bar. So our $25 a week is just focused at the grocery store. The thing is that extra splurge money means if we spend it on junky type food we don't have it for other things that we might want to spend it on (it is our blow money and outcome of living on a budget). Also, rarely does our food budget include snack type items - chips, soda, cakes, ice cream, or pudding snacks. It happens occasionally, but that makes it a treat not a way of life.

I know there are plenty of hard working people out there who live on a tight budget. Right now, AJ and I fall into that category. We are trying to make ends meet when they really don't want to right now. We have had to be creative. There have been weeks when we didn't even have the $50 to spend on groceries, and we made it by living out of our pantry. We ate really well those weeks. We didn't live off of our eating out budget (namely because it was already used because it was the last week of a month). There are also plenty of websites that have great ideas on how to live on a really tight budget. One of my favorite ones is if you have to feed a whole family on $30 a week total. This amazing lady feeds her family very well on very little. She admits that it will take work, but it is doable and no one will go hungry.

Our meal plan when weeks are tight:

Breakfast -

cereal and milk
grits
pancakes

Lunches -

leftovers
sandwiches and fruit

Dinners -

black eyed peas, rice, and cornbread
homemade pizza
chicken, mashed potatoes, corn
frozen raviolis with sauce
turkey spaghetti
black beans, rice, corn, and cheese

Our meal plan when we have a full budget:

Breakfast -

cereal and milk
pancakes, eggs, and bacon
french toast
grits

Lunches -

leftovers
sandwiches and fruit and carrot sticks
avocados

Dinners -

pot roast with carrots, potatoes, and onions
turkey taco soup
ground beef in gravy over mashed potatoes
turkey spaghetti (namely because I am craving it again this week)
beef pot pie (made from the pot roast - just add peas and tomato paste)

See for us living off a budget doesn't look that different than living out of our pantry. The major difference is where our protein sources come from. When times are better they come from animals, when times are leaner we tend towards more bean based protein, but not as much as I thought it would.

I am not trying to criticize people who really have a tight food budget. I am in that category myself, but I am just trying to show that if you try you can make it work. It does take more effort, but a crock pot is a wonderful thing to help make food that is good for you, yummy, and lets you buy really cheap cuts of meat to cook with. I am also trying to show that it is possible to live off food stamps, feed your family, and still get healthy food.

Please leave your comments, especially if you agree and are living on a tight budget or if you don't agree and think it isn't possible.