Things We Can Control

With the world in its current state, it seems like we have no control over anything.  But the reality is there are SO MANY things we can control.  And what we do with that control can actually affect how we get through this challenging time.

We can control several things that improve mental well-being.  Maintain a routine.  Shower.  Exercise (even if it’s a march through the apartment or a YouTube workout video).  Go outside, even if only for a few minutes—preferably while the sun is shining.  Eat fruits and vegetables.  Talk on the phone with people you love.  Talk on Zoom with people.  Sleep.  Binge watch Netflix.  Listen to music.  Play video games.  Work puzzles.  Do your schoolwork.  All of these things have a way of making us feel better in this upside-down world.

We can also control some things having to do with finances.  You should be noticing significant decreases in many areas of your budget.  My Subaru is currently getting about three weeks to the gallon.  My outlay of funds for restaurants and concerts is much lower than a normal springtime.  I’ve had the same $20 bill in my wallet for the last two months.  But this is NOT carte blanche to spend frivolously on Amazon.  It IS an opportunity to get a little bit of money into savings for the future.  When the world turns right side up again, I’ll have a cushion.  Some protection against the unexpected.  And as we know all too well, the unexpected can and will happen.

We have so much that we can still control.  Use it wisely.

How Can I? We are DOING It!

Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like the last three weeks have been going on for at least a year.  In that short time we have gone from “Penn State is going remote for the rest of the month” to “Penn State will stay remote through spring semester” to this weekend’s announcement that Centre County is under a “stay at home” order.  Covid-19 has gone from something that is in far away places to something that Tom Hanks is recovering from to something that has claimed the lives of people that I have admired (Terrence McNally and Joe Diffie, with John Prine likely to be next).  The progression is frightening to say the least..

Every day we wake up to more bad news and new challenges (for example:  where am I going to store all of my recyclables until curbside pickup resumes someday?).  During times of great challenge, one learned skill towers over all the rest as being important right now:  adaptability.  We are in an unprecedented time right now, as our new normal evolves daily.  Online law school seemed impossible only a month ago.  Now we are doing it.  Virtual happy hour was never a consideration before. Now it is the social event of the week.  That meeting that could have been replaced by an email?  It has been.  Unnecessary items are no longer being purchased.  Unnecessary trips are not being taken.  Gasoline is cheaper that it has been for a long time, and nobody is driving their cars.  Within a few weeks life as we know it has shifted dramatically.  And we are DOING it!!!

With “I’ve always done it this way” removed as an option, we must replace “I can’t” with “How can I?”  Creative juices are flowing for everyone as we explore new ways to do just about everything that used to involve person-to-person contact.  As I work from home, everything I used to do with paper is being shifted to electronic versions (and the trees will thank me!)  Senior citizens are learning online bill pay and mobile check deposit.  Elementary school kids are learning online education.  Parents are learning how to balance working from home while taking care of their kids.  Sit-down restaurants are learning how to offer take-out and delivery efficiently.  The reality that this is not a short-term scenario, and that we really are living in what often feels like a scary movie, has kicked in.  And we are adapting.  We are DOING it!

Life will continue to throw you curve balls, long after Covid-19 is a thing of the past.  And you will have the most important skill to deal with them:  adaptability.  Most of life’s curve balls will NOT be life-altering historic events like the current one.  But the skills you are learning from this will carry you through quite well.  We are DOING it!  WE ARE!!

 

 

Focus on the Positive

When life becomes difficult, I often turn to one specific line from a Sheryl Crow song.  “It’s not having what you want.  It’s wanting what you’ve got.”

This is time of great uncertainty.  Not just at Penn State.  Not just in the United States.  This is a global time of not knowing what is next.  And at times like this it is really easy to focus on the negative—all the things you can’t have or do.  We can’t be in our law school building.  We can’t hang out with friends.  We can’t eat in restaurants or drink in bars.  We can’t attend live music concerts or festivals (and many of you know this is my favorite thing to do!).  We’re all going a little stir crazy.  But changing the focus to the positive side can go a long way in uncertain times.

We are fortunate in so many ways.  We can’t be in our law school building.  But classes and services are still happening through the magic of technology that didn’t even exist not too long ago.  We can’t hang out with our friends in person.  But we can call.  We can Facetime.  We can Zoom.  We can watch Netflix together.  We can use the social networks (as a Gen-Xer I’ve favored Facebook as the best way to stay in touch with friends for a very long time).  We can’t eat in restaurants or drink in bars.  But we can buy groceries and take-out food (and beverage).  And it’s a great opportunity to explore cooking as a hobby!  We can’t attend live music concerts or festivals.  This one hits me close to home.  But there are a lot of recordings of concerts and festivals available to view and listen to.  I’m looking at this as an opportunity to listen to shows on the Internet Archive that I wasn’t able to attend .  And so many musicians are doing live performances from their living rooms right now!  The reality is I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to ticket prices for canceled festivals being refunded to my credit card.  Not-quite-quarantine is saving me a boatload of money!

We are, however, all going a little stir crazy.  It’s important to practice some self-care at this time.  Go for a walk or a run.  Fire up the YouTube workout videos.  It’s important to keep your body moving, even if you can’t really go anywhere.  Eat healthy foods.  Loading up on chips and chocolate to drown your sadness and fear will not help anything.  Eat some protein and vegetables.  That will actually make you feel better.  Establish a routine.  I’ve done everything I can to keep my remote work life as similar as possible to my on-campus work life.  I built myself a little office in the corner of my guest room.  That’s my daily 8 to 5 spot.  I turn on the lava lamp on top of my desk (yes….I’m very much a hippie) to symbolize the start of the day.  I turn it off when I finish working for the day.  I (usually) take a shower before I start working.  I get dressed.  Not dress-up clothes—I’m not crazy! But something other than what I sleep in.  These little steps make me feel more normal.  In a time that is very much not normal.  And I have to say, I’m liking it.  I’m comfortable in my new routine, and a little bit of comfort goes a long way right now.

It’s not having what you want.  It’s wanting what you’ve got.  And right now I’m so amazingly grateful that I’ve got so much that I want.

 

Taking One for the Team

Life has suddenly become very weird.  There are certain things that happen in your lifetime that you know are history-making events.  For many of you the first one you remember is 9/11/2001.  For some of you it may be the unfortunate demise of the Space Shuttle Challenger.  For me it was the resignation of Richard Nixon.  I was a young girl and my family was visiting with friends.  I remember wanting to play, but my father said I needed to watch this on TV because it was history.  He was right and I am grateful.  And now we are once again watching history unfold before our eyes.

We have arrived at a point in our world where everyone is making major sacrifices for the greater good.  We are all being asked to take one for the team.  It’s not an unusual concept.  We do it all the time.  A football lineman takes a hit to protect the quarterback.  A basketball player intentionally fouls the other team to stop momentum.  A family foregoes a vacation because a child needs braces.  A student rents textbooks instead of buying so that extra money is available for dog food.  I buy secondhand clothes for myself to better afford new for my husband.  We have all at some point made a sacrifice to allow for others to have something.

We as a country have been asked to keep our distance from each other.  Penn State is venturing into a world where not only are all classes being taught remotely, but all major services are also being offered from a distance.  And we are very fortunate to be in a good position to be able to do so.  The technology we have available to us is going to make this much easier that it would have been only 10 or 15 years ago.  It’s very strange to be swapping in-person contacts for phone calls, emails, and Zoom meetings.  But life has sent us a curve ball.  And we all need to take one for the team.

There are a lot of things we don’t know right now.  Including how long our new social distancing lifestyle will last.  But we should focus on the things we do know.  Your Penn State Law faculty and staff are still here for you.  We may not be in the building that is our home away from home, but we are here for you.  The quality of education that brought you to Penn State will continue.  That familial feel our community prides itself on is still here.  I am embracing the opportunity to employ new (to me) technologies that will improve my services for the long term, not just for the duration of this weird time in life.  And I’m not heart-broken that every day is casual Friday and I can have my cat on my lap while I work now.  I’m trying to keep myself focused on the positive things and the things I actually can control.  We are all in this together (from a distance), taking one for the team.  We can do this.  Because WE ARE!  And someday I hope we can look back on this time and think, “Wow, that was a huge overreaction!”  And that’s how we’ll know it worked.

 

I Spend HOW Much on Food?!?!?

It’s been a while since I told you all about my New Year’s resolution to slowly create and live within a budget.  I’m thinking it’s time for an update on my process.

After trying to track my expenses without third-party help, I quickly came to the realization that I am never going to succeed without some help.  Writing down and tracking my own expenses is not so bad, but staying on top of what my husband spends as well just adds a layer of complexity that I’m not up to.   There are seemingly endless budgeting tools available online, and I feel like I’ve tried most of them at one point or another.  But when it comes right down to it, what I really wanted is a good old-fashioned spreadsheet.  I’m pretty good with spreadsheets (because they are very handy for my job), so if I could just get my account data transported into a spreadsheet I know I’m capable of manipulating it in ways that are useful to me.  Thankfully I found Tiller.  This tool connects my accounts to a customizable Google Sheet, so I can sort my transactions by date and category.  I’m on a one-month free trial right now, but I’m already thinking this will be worth the $59 a year it will cost me to continue.  I was able to get it all set up in about an hour, and quickly saw that the biggest consumption of my money (beyond housing and medical bills) is food.

I looked at my food expenses and saw that there is definitely room to cut back on dining out as well as on groceries.  Dining out is the easy piece.  We just won’t do that as often.  This will end up being better not only for the wallet, but also for the waistline.  Groceries are more complicated.  As I’ve done my tour through a few different stores lately, I’ve been paying better attention to how much things I consume regularly cost.  There are some things (predominantly pet supplies) that I sometimes buy online.  This week I compared that cost to in-store prices, and discovered that online is indeed cheaper for these things.  But it would have been easy to just never check because I enjoy the convenience of having kitty litter delivered to my front porch.  Now that I know the online price is less, I’ll make sure I have enough coming that I never have to buy it in store.

Another grocery cost-saver is whole foods versus prepared foods.  A bag of steam-in-bag brown rice is significantly more expensive than a bag of raw brown rice.  A little planning and some quality time with my Instant Pot can make that transition very easy.  A jumbo tub of old-fashioned oats is much cheaper than pre-packaged instant oatmeal or any boxed cereal.  For produce it’s important to consider the time of year.  Fresh produce is not cheap in Pennsylvania in February.  But frozen berries and vegetables can get the job done for a lot less money.  I’ll wait to enjoy fresh when things are in season.  And then there is meat.  There is definitely savings to be found from buying in bulk.  That jumbo pack of chicken breasts can easily be broken down into individual packages and frozen.  That 9-pound pork shoulder roast can be slow cooked and then frozen as several individual pounds of cooked pulled pork for future burritos and casseroles and sandwiches.  Today’s rotisserie chicken is tomorrow’s chicken casserole.  And don’t forget about the poor-man’s staples:  eggs, pasta, beans, rice, and meat that comes in a can (I prefer tuna, but I know there are still Spam lovers in the world!).

There are a lot of ways to shave the food bill.  I’ll keep exploring them and sharing what I learn.

 

The Levels of Need

It’s so hard to stop money from flowing out of my checking account when there are so many things that I need!  But when I stop and think about it, there are a lot of different levels of “need.”

I need to pay my bills.  Housing, my car loan, my utility and credit card bills.  These absolutely NEED to be paid.  Everything after that has some variation to it.

I NEED to have clothes to wear.  I don’t necessarily need to buy new clothes.  I may be fine with the clothes already in my closet.  If I absolutely need something I don’t already have, I may be able to find what I need secondhand.  The State College Goodwill Store and the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store are two of my favorite shopping spots.  And if I don’t find what I’m looking for there, I check ThredUp or Poshmark for online secondhand clothing.  Most of the clothing I own came from one of these four sources.  It’s pretty rare that I buy clothing brand new.  I need to have clothes.  I don’t need to have new clothes.

Food is another need that has a lot of degrees to it.  I NEED to consume food to sustain my life.  I need that food to be healthy enough to meet my nutritional needs.  I don’t, however, need that food to be processed or pre-packaged, or ready to eat at the time of purchase.  I’ve been focusing a lot this year on buying real food and cooking it into healthy meals rather than focusing on ready to eat freezer foods.  It takes more time to cook from scratch.  I spend a lot of time on the weekends making ahead some meals for the coming week.  But for that effort, I’m getting a lot healthier food for a lot less money.  And because those meals are prepared ahead of time, I don’t spend extra money on restaurant food.  I NEED to eat.  I don’t NEED to eat out or eat prepared foods.  Sometimes a meal at a restaurant is a nice treat…but it’s not a necessity.

I NEED to get myself to work every day.  I typically accomplish that by driving my 2012 Subaru.  But the reality is that my car is not a necessity.  I could take the bus to work and back.  I could ride my bike to work.  I could carpool.  There are a lot of options other than owning a car.  I CHOOSE to own a car and I accept the expenses of fuel and maintenance and insurance and parking that come with that.  But my car is not something I need.  It’s something I WANT and I have it because the ease it provides me is a priority to me.

There are a lot of levels in between what you NEED and what you WANT.  Wherever your priorities lie will determine where you spend your money.  The next time you are making a purchase ask yourself, “Do I need this?”

It’s Not As Taxing As You Think

Just like that we’re in February.  Punxsutawney Phil did his thing.  The NFL did their thing.  And now it’s time for you to think about doing your IRS thing.

It always amazes me when I hear from students that they are “having their taxes done.”  It’s really not as intimidating as you might think to file on your own.   Here is what you need to know:

  • The Lifetime Learning Credit will allow you to reduce your tax liability if you had expenses for tuition and fees in 2019.  You will need to complete IRS form 8863 and Schedule 3 to claim this credit.
  • Student loan interest can be claimed as an adjustment to income, reducing your tax liability.  You will need to complete Schedule 1 to claim this credit.
  • Student loan disbursements that you received DO NOT count as income.
  • Scholarships that do not exceed tuition and fees DO NOT count as taxable income.
  • If your income for 2019 is less than $69,000 you can e-file for free, with assistance from one of several well-respected tax software companies.
  • If you need to locate your 1098-T from Penn State, it is available on LionPath.  Click on the “my finances” button, select “manage my account/make a payment,” then scroll down to the bottom of the page.  You’ll find the link in the right column.
  • If you are living in Pennsylvania, you will likely also need to file state and local income taxes.

Filing your income tax may feel a little intimidating.  Throughout my career I have learned that nobody comes to law school because they love math.  But filing taxes is definitely something that a law student should be able to handle on their own, without having to pay a professional (or persuade a parent).  The online/software programs available to help make it really easy.  And if you are getting a refund—that makes it all worthwhile.  And if you are NOT getting a refund, all the better.  That means that you have not been giving the federal government free use of your money all year!

There’s no need to fear.  Your “I Filed My Taxes” adulting badge is just around the corner!

A Money-Saving Change of Pace

Sometimes a change of pace is really good for perspective.  For months I have been visiting the same two grocery stores every week.  I load up on most things at a discount store on Saturday, then Sunday I visit a more “upscale” store for things that are either cheaper or better there.  And I’ve been completely ignoring the fact that there are two more middle of the road grocery stores a little further down the street.

Yesterday I couldn’t stand the thought of the crowded aisles of the more upscale store on Sunday afternoon.  So I headed down the road to one of the other stores.  And it was amazingly refreshing!  I hadn’t been there in months, so it was kind of novel and exciting to be someplace different.  And I was pleasantly surprised to find lower prices than the discount store on some things I buy every week.  And there were sales on some things I was already planning to purchase there.  When I got home with my two bags of food, I had to spend a little time pondering why I never go there.  It’s only an extra five minutes in the car.  And I found some really great deals (as well as buying my weekly supplies of some things the discount store had been completely sold out of—was there some sort of a run on fat-free cottage cheese and frozen berries?!?!?).

The change of perspective was good for me.  I’ll likely build this store into my more regular plans.  Maybe I’ll go there every other week instead of the more upscale grocery store.  I’ll likely start studying their sale flyers for bargains on things I use.  And I’ll likely save money as a result.  And why?  Because I changed my perspective and tried something out of my norm.

You’ll never know how something will work out until you try it.  A random change of pace may turn into a new favorite plan!

The New Year’s Resolution that Scares Me Most

I’m terrible at budgeting.  It’s a hard thing to admit, given that I’m supposed to be some sort of expert on financial stuff.  I’ve tried apps and books and spreadsheets and everything else you can imagine.  And I always struggle.  I understand the concepts.  I know what I’m supposed to do.  I’m supposed to categorize things and track things and spend less than I earn.  It’s easy in theory and really hard in practice.

I think my big road block is that it’s a really big thing to tackle.  Tools and concepts make it easier, but I still just have to do the work.  And I’ve made it my resolution to do it this year.  But my plan of attack is different this time around.  I’m breaking it down into steps.  This month I am focused on one thing only:  tracking my expenses to see where my money is going.  After that is done I’ll be better able to analyze where I am overspending so I can shave my outgoing cash flow.  Then I’ll build the budget spreadsheet from there.  Then I’ll focus on paying debt.  Then I’ll focus on increasing income.  Then I’ll focus on saving more.  And so on…

It’s a lot of steps and the whole process is going to take a long time.  A very long time.  Months.  Years.  Until retirement, probably.  But starting is the hardest part.  I’ve always done it wrong.  When I tried to do all of the things at the same time it became overwhelming and I either failed or gave up.  I have promised myself not to let that happen this time.  I’m going to take baby steps.  And it’s going to be hard.  But now that I’ve put it out there, I’m accountable to you for this project.  And I’ll keep you updated on my progress.  Hopefully we all can learn some things together.

Food on the Road

Thanksgiving is the biggest travel holiday of the year in the United States.  Whether by car, train, bus, or airplane, there are steps you can take to save a significant amount of money on food while you are traveling.

If you’re heading out on the ground (car, train, or bus) it’s easy to pack a lunch, including drinks, to eat along the road.  A sandwich and soda or water that you bring from home are a lot less expensive than those you buy along the way.   Throw it all in a bag and you are set for hundreds of miles!

Things get a little trickier when you are traveling by airplane.  The TSA has restrictions on what you can bring through security.  Luckily, the restrictions only apply to liquids.  So your sandwich (and apple, and chips, and crackers) is fine to go through security.  The beverage is the tricky part.  When I fly I always carry on an empty refillable water bottle.  Most airports have bottle filling stations, so once you get through security you can fill your bottle and be set for the day (also an effective strategy for staying hydrated at the law school!).

Traveling is expensive enough on its own.  There’s no need to compound that with the cost of road food!