Don’t Feed the Alligators

A Personal Finance Blog from a Small-Scale Landlord’s Perspective

Archive for the 'Children' Category

Working at Home

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: Inferis

*Work being defined here as something you get paid for. Everything else I do daily (child rearing, cooking, cleaning) is, of course, gratis!

I probably have the ideal job situation, well certainly for me anyway. I have a Master’s Degree in Structural Engineering, and got my Professional Engineer’s license just prior to giving birth to our first child.

A while back a co-worker and I discussed the possibilities of working together in the future when he started his own company and I wanted to be able to stay home with my children. As luck or timing would have it, he was ready for his first employee as I was ending my maternity leave with my former employer. I may have been able to work out a part time schedule with employer at the time, but this was the opportunity to work exclusively from home, indefinitely. It was an opportunity that does not present itself to everyone and I am blessed to be able to stay at home, while still significantly contributing to the family finances. It also gives me the chance to exercise my brain so I don’t get mommy brain (which I have anyway, but at least this way I’m still sharp with the calculator!) This job has given me the ability to work from home and make great money. At the same time I can stay home with our daughter, which has always been a goal for our family.

For over a year I have managed to work a 20 hr week and care for a our child. Aside from a few weeks here and there. I typically work while our daughter naps and then after MITBeta gets home from work or after she is in bed for the night. She has been very good about sleeping (we did have some rough patches but I’ll save that for another post!) She has recently transitioned to one nap in the afternoon and I can typically get about 2 of my 4 hours in at this time. Since she just made the switch I’m hoping it may get a little bit longer, but for now I’ll take what I can get! I do have a little desk and coloring station set up downstairs in my office, but I haven’t really had a chance to test that out. I think she is still too young to be able to sit and entertain herself in one spot while I get anything productive done.

The other day I got to thinking about the pros and cons of being a work at home mom. It came up because I became annoyed by the opportunity for MITBeta to get a nap in after work. I suppose the reason it upset me is because it’s tough to work from home. It’s obviously a huge blessing to be able to work in my field, from home, and set my own hours, all while bringing in a healthy income. I can choose to work 4 hrs/day or do it all in a few days. Up until now I have never really asked anyone for help so that I can work unless I have appointments outside of the house. I’ve been lucky and have been able to get my work accomplished and still be able to do what I want to do in the evenings and weekends. As the months have passed we have had to re-evaluate and change our expectations.

Recently we switched from my company’s health insurance to MITBeta’s. This has removed the pressure to work the full 20 hrs every week. I try to work between 15 and 20 hours and have been averaging around 18. Although we lose some money this way, the pressure is eliminated and which may have been the hardest part of the being a work at home mom. Imagine the idea that you need to work, and have to constantly make choices between housework and “real” work. I think I’d rather do “real” work most days!

In the near future, it might be time to re-evaluate the situation. We do have a mother’s helper that is in the neighborhood that I could use for a few hours a week, although with summer quickly nearing an end, that option will go away. But more importantly, I realized the other day that we need to budget in time for me into our weekly schedule in the same way we budget savings into our financial budget. Unfortunately when you have to work while your child naps you don’t get much, if any, downtime. It’s amazing how much downtime there is at a desk job! So in order to maintain my sanity, since working at home means I can be working at all hours of the day, night, and weekends, I need to carve out time for myself each week. I think this will go a long way to helping me to be a more productive mom and employee.

Here are some Pros and Cons, as I see it, of being a WAHM:

Pros:

Flexibility to attend playdates, appointments, and lunches with Daddy and grandparents, the ability to run errands in the daytime when the stores are less crowded, able to personally care for my daughter and attend to her hourly needs. This last one has allowed me to breastfeed until my daughter was 19 months old and hopefully will also lead to quick potty training, but I’m not holding out too much hope for that one yet!

Cons:

No down time, always either working, watching the baby, doing housework or cooking. You need to work some evenings and weekends to make it work without outside help. You feel guilty about hobbies (reading, scrapbooking) while you still have work hours to complete for the week.

I think that as long as I can maintain my sanity I will continue to love working from home. It’s important to stay flexible and treat each week as it comes, but I have enjoyed it so far and hope to continue doing so in some capacity for many more years and children to come!  I will keep you posted as we experience this journey first hand and live with the ups and downs of generating income while child rearing, all from the comfort of home.

What about you? How do you handle child rearing and budgeting time for yourself? Do you work outside the home and if so how does that change the dynamic?

Reminder:You still have 1 day to get your entries in for the Don’t Feed the Alligators Giveaway!

I’m pleased to present the first ever giveaway here at Don’t Feed the Alligators. The folks at Baby Signs, Inc. have been gracious enough to provide a Potty Training Made Easy with the Baby Signs Program kit. Now I know that this won’t interest some of you, but you can always give this to friends with a toddler!

ScrapperMom has written before about our great results with the use of sign language over the last 9 months with our 19 month old daughter. Linda left a comment on that post that introduced us to the product featured below. She pointed out that you can save LOTS of money on diapers by training your toddler as soon as possible. You can find out how to enter to win at the bottom of this post.

Potty Training Kit

Everything you and your baby need to make potty training fun and easy! Kit includes 5 exciting products:

  • A Parent’s Guide to Potty Training Made Easy with the Baby Signs® Program This straightforward parent guide from trusted child development experts will help you confidently lead your baby to potty success. Includes illustrated Signing Glossary.
  • All Aboard the Potty Train DVD With its catchy tunes, delightful animation and real kids, this exciting DVD will teach your baby five potty-time signs and reinforce each step of the potty routine.
  • All Aboard the Potty Train Lift-the-Flap Book Your baby will love discovering the potty-time signs hidden under each flap in this fun and interactive board book featuring the DiaperDoodles™.
  • Job Well Done! Stickers These colorful reward stickers feature fun images and positive messages such as “Good Job!”, “I’m on the Potty Train!” and “I Rode the Potty Train!”
  • All Aboard the Potty Train Conductor’s Whistle Whether to signal it’s time to go potty or to “sound the trumpet of success,” this fun-to-blow whistle will put a smile on your baby’s face when it’s potty time.
Potty Training Kit

ScrapperMom, Daughter #1, and I have had a chance to review the DVD and while it’s a bit repetitive for my tastes, Daughter #1 gives it two little thumbs up. In fact, she is happy to sit on her potty, and sign along with the babies in the video! It looks like she’ll enjoy the lift the flap book, and it’s not clear yet whether she’ll be able to figure out how to blow the whistle. The parents’ guide book is really interesting and points out that like so many other things in our daily lives, it’s big business (namely the disposable diaper companies) that has delayed the onset of potty training in the United States. In fact, there is a vested interest in keeping kids in diapers as long as possible.

At a $40 value, this set should keep toddlers entertained while giving Mom and Dad clear guidance on how to get started with what is usually thought of as a frustrating and arduous task. We have already ordered our own set, so you could say that this product has the Don’t Feed the Alligators seal of approval.

To Enter to Win this great set, simply subscribe to this blog, if you haven’t already, using either an RSS Reader or by email by filling out the form below. Then send me an email with the secret phrase that appears at the bottom of the post you receive via the subscription feed. Contest entries will be accepted through midnight EDT on August 15. One lucky winner will be drawn at random using a random number generator. Odds of winning depend on the number of entries. While no purchase is necessary, the folks over at Baby Signs sure would appreciate your business!


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07.23.2008
Charlie Brown knows American Sign Language

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: A.M. Kuchling

Take it from us: Save yourself some frustration. Teach your toddlers to sign. I know it probably sounds crazy and same naysayers may think it prevents or delays speech, but the facts are your babies are able to gesture before their speech is such that you and others can understand them. Babies often wave long before their first birthdays and may not say their first words until 18 months. A friend of ours recommended baby signing (we basically use American Sign Language with a few shortened signs for ease). We have prevented a lot of tantrums this way and have probably saved a lot of frustration, as well, on both of our parts.

I started signing with our daughter around 6-8 months and must admit I was frustrated by around 1 year. I think you could start around 1 year and still get the benefits. At around 1 year something amazing happened, she started signing back! At first they were very common and necessary ones: Milk, More, Eat, Baby and Bath. In 6 short months her signing vocabulary has grown to include all kinds of signs: Help, Drink, Cracker, Water, All Done, Daddy, Mommy, Dog, Please, Thank You, Bird, Train, Plane, Cat, Hat, and ones that hopefully will become very important in the next few months to a year: Potty and Diaper! By having her know what she needs and being able to sign it, we have avoided a lot of frustration. She is also very proud when we tell her what the signs mean. She knows she is able to communicate with us. She does babble and has a few words in her spoken vocabulary, but it’s quite normal for her age and until all the words solidify this is an excellent way to get over the hump of toddlerhood.

One important note: you may want to show babysitters and grandparents some important signs or they may feel like they are hearing/seeing a foreign language. Some helpful ones for them are her favorites: Milk, Help, More, Please, and All Done.

The teaching video I recommend is Baby Signing Time. There are two main volumes and if you are lucky your local PBS station may carry the show. As Michelle commented on another post, it probably would be a good idea to show your support and buy the video and I am ashamed that I haven’t done so yet as I really love its approach to teaching babies to sign. The family that produces the video has a great, captivating and educational style and I feel that I should better support their business. But alas, this is a frugal blog as well, so we save when we can (but hint, hint to the grandparents for gift ideas!). The format of the video separates signs into groups and each group has a catchy song that goes along with the signs. This way it’s easier for mom and dad to remember the signs as well, since you are learning too! During the song Rachel, the singer/signer, tells you why signs are the way they are; milk: like you’re milking a cow, eat: like you are bringing a piece of food to your mouth. Then the song is accompanied by toddlers (under 2) signing and demonstrating the action. I believe the babies signing really helps captivate our toddler and lets us see variations of the signs when performed by babies. For a while our daughter was tapping her nose and I had no idea what she meant, but she was signing bird, which is actually your thumb and forefinger forming a beak at your mouth, but I realized she did it every time we heard birds singing! Just like speech, their first sign attempts may be cryptic! We were able to use Netflix to rent a few other signing videos, but they were not nearly as good as this series. We also have a board book that has signs in it.

So although it doesn’t have a lot to do with finances, getting your child off to a good start with communication is a great thing. Whether you teach a second spoken language or sign, you are taking advantage of the fact that children at this age are sponges and love to learn and imitate you. Also they say it is great for old people like us parents to exercise our brains as well by learning new skills. So drop me a comment and tell me if you have had experience signing with babies/toddlers and if your child is older, how you may use that now. Our friend who recommended sign language to us has told me that, “We love sign language and although he is fully vocal, sometimes we use it for games (guess the sign) or when we need to speak to him “in private”!” So have fun with it and even if you only pick up a few, you may find it’s a great tool.

Credit Cards Accepted

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: TheTruthAboutMortgage.com

Just about a year ago, ScrapperMom and I decided that we had reached the right end of the Credit Card Contiuum and that it was time to start earning some rewards for buying all of the things that we buy or pay for on a monthly or yearly basis anyway.  We went in search of a rewards credit card.

Rewards credit cards come in many different flavors.  There are air miles cards, new car purchase cards, free gas cards, free coffee cards, cash back cards, and even dedicated 529 earnings cards.  ScrapperMom and I decided that since we could not afford to contribute anything specifically to our daughter’s 529 plan that we would look for a card that would allow us to earn money for her account.

One might think that since we wanted rewards to fund a 529 account, that we would choose one of the 529 rewards credit cards that are available.  Unfortunately, the few 529 rewards cards out there have terms that are worse than those available from some other cards.  For example, one card we looked at has a limit of $300 in earnings per year.  Our goal was to put as many of our purchases as possible on the card, and knew that we would easily exceed the $300 limit.  Another card we looked at was linked to a specific 529 plan that did not fit our criteria for such a plan.

Instead, it made more sense for us to apply for a cash back credit card.  There are a lot of cash back cards on the market, and they all have different terms.  Using the credit card finder at Bankrate.com, we looked through many different cards.  Some, like the American Express Blue card have different rates for different spending amounts.  You have to spend a lot of money before the rates rise to a level on par with many of the other cards.  Most of these cards offer around 1% cash back on all purchases and 3%-5% on certain types of purchases, like fuel, groceries, and fast food.

Ultimately, we chose the Chase Freedom Card.  This card offers 1% cash back on all purchases as well as 3% cash back on things like groceries, fast food, and fuel purchases. You can redeem your cash whenever you accumulate $50 worth, but if you are patient then you can collect $200 and trade that for a $250 return (which brings the cash back bonus to about 1.25%). We can’t use this card for most of our big bills like our mortgage, car, and student loans, unfortunately, but we can use it on a lot of the small stuff like cell phones, satellite TV, Netflix, periodic insurance payments, etc.

In the past year, we have earned over $750 in rewards that we have applied to our daughter’s college savings.  In a typical month, we earn about 75% of our points at the 1% level and the remainder at the 3% level.  Since it only takes about 4 months to accumulate $200 worth of rewards, it’s worth our while to wait until that point to cash out the extra $50, since that’s a much better return than putting $50 per month into almost any investment.

Obviously the key to this whole plan hinges on spending within our spending plan.  We pay this card off every month with money from our checking account.  Again, we don’t use the card to spend on things that we would not otherwise have purchased.  One splurge purchase can wipe out a year’s worth of rewards in no time at all.

Many people have difficulty handling credit cards, and I understand that.  However, many others have aquired the self-discipline to be able to handle credit cards without breaking the budget.  I believe that not using a rewards credit card for things that we are going to buy anyway is just leaving free money on the table.  I have spent years giving the credit card companies my hard earned money, and now it’s time to redeem some of it.

Do you use a rewards credit card?  What kind of rewards do you get?  Do you find it worth it?

Piggy Banks

Creative Commons License photo figure credit: Jeff Kubina

Our daughter was born in early 2007. Knowing what I know about the power of compounding interest, I knew it was important to start a college savings fund early with something, even if it wasn’t much.  We definitely subscribe to the belief that saving for retirement and debt reduction come first in the savings plan and that college savings has to take a back seat to these higher priority expenses.  Still, it’s difficult to be a parent and not try to put something away for your kids.

With that in mind, we opened a 529 savings account for our daughter when she was almost a year old.  A 529 plan is very much like a Roth IRA — except it’s for kids and their family and friends who are saving for their future college expenses.  Money put into a 529 plan grows tax free, and withdrawals are tax free as well.  529 plans are administered by individual states, and some states also offer an income tax exemption on contributions made to your home state’s 529 plan.  It’s interesting to note that many states now offer more than one plan.

With so many plans available, opening a 529 plan can be a daunting task.  Luckily the folks over at SavingforCollege.com have made the task a bit more manageable with a search function to find the characteristics of a 529 plan that you want.  We started with this list of wants:

  • low fees — no point in having high fees eat up a large portion of the gains
  • a variety of investment options — age based, index funds, etc.
  • low startup costs — we wanted to be able to contribute small amounts at irregular intervals
  • state tax exemption — your gains only get better if you can deduct the contributions on your state taxes

Another great resource at the time we set up the account was Nickel who did a lot of the homework for us.  My search did seem to concur with his assessment.  We got 3 out of 4 of our wishes in this search.  Unfortunately our state does not have any kind of income tax exemption for contributions made to 529 plans.

We decided on the Ohio College Advantage Plan to get started.  This plan offers very low contribution amounts at $15 per contribution.  It offers a range of investment options including portfolio blends, index funds, CDs, age based funds, etc.  Most of the fees for these options are low.  The Vanguard options, for example, start with an expense ratio of 0.23%, and there are no other management fees of any kind.

One nice feature of 529 plans, however, is that you can generally switch from one plan to another with little trouble (the one great exception being after you just got a state tax exemption…). So it’s not only possible, but probably quite likely, that you may pick a plan today but change to a different plan at sometime in the future.

It took until nearly her first birthday, but we finally managed to open an account with $1,100 that we had saved over the course of her first year.  Most of this was her money in the form of gifts that she had received.  We have since made a couple of additional contributions.  Our plan for the near term is to use the cash back from our Chase Freedom Card, as well as any additional birthday, Christmas, or any other kinds of gifts she receives (at least until she’s old enough to understand money…) to fund this account.  We don’t expect it to grow like gangbusters, but we expect that every little bit that we are able to save will help.  If we get to a point where we are saving 20% or more of our income for our retirement, then we will consider contributing more towards this 529 plan as a savings plan item.

For Part II of this article, we’ll look at Pre-Paid Tuition plans.

The cost of education is already scary, and it feels good to be contributing something to help our daughter’s future, even if it eventually amounts to just a drop in the bucket.  Are you saving for your kids’ education(s)?  How are you doing with it?