Friday, February 27, 2009

5 School Conferences, 3 Schools, 2 Days, and 1 Elementary Economics Lesson

It's that time of year again. It was Student Led Conference time. That is really just a fancy way of saying that the kids get to bring the parents to school and show off how much they have learned so far this year. The teachers spend a lot of time prepping the kids and preparing a portfolio of their work and mini stations to let the kids show off. I really enjoy it. They all have samples of work that were done at the very beginning of school and samples from current work. I love to see the progression of how far they have come in just a few short months.

This past week, we of course had 5 conferences at 3 schools, on 2 different days. Not too bad as long as we stay on schedule and don't get behind. Monday night it was middle school night. Jackson and Scott went and Jackson said that he really enjoyed showing dad what his schedule looks like in real life. He is over half way done with 6th grade. Wow. Time flies. Tuesday, Scott was out of town and I had the 4 remaining elementary school conferences at two different schools. I started with Julia's at one school at 4pm, and then Jenna, Joseph, and Jacquelynne at the other school. By the time we made it home it was 8pm (a half hour after bed time) and every one was tired and a bit grumpy. But, they all seemed to have a blast showing off their work. Each child had between 30-45 minutes and we went table to table in each class completing little activities as a sample of their regular learning. The kids did great and I appreciate the hard work the teachers did. Of course I know my kids are great, but it was so nice to hear them praised in by their teachers.

By the time we made it to Jacquelynne's class, Jenna and Joseph were wearing down. Poor kids, this was done after a full day of school, and it happened to be on the same day my mom flew in for a visit, so they had used up all their energy earlier. Jenna spent Jacquelynne's conference time on my lap at each station, resting her head on my shoulder. After they were all done, we still had to swing by the PTA book fair. Jacquelynne had some of her spending money, and she wanted books. Joseph and Jenna had already spent theirs, and they didn't understand why I wouldn't just buy more books for them. It took a bit of time for Jacquelynne to select her books, and estimate the tax so she could make sure she could cover the bill, but she did great, and didn't complain. She is such a wonderful young lady. She selected her final purchases and stood in line to check out all on her own. She paid her bill, and we were finally done.

Oh yeah, did I mention that while she was selecting her books, I stood by the register with Jenna and Joseph crying into the hem of my sweater because they didn't have spending money? They didn't like my answer that they had already spent theirs and that Jacquelynne had saved hers for this book fair. Kindergarten/First Grade Economics 101: If you spend your hard earned $$$ at Toys R Us, you can't buy books at the book fair. The Bank of Mom does not issue credit. Of course the school principal and other moms around me smiled sympathetically and nodded in agreement that budgeting is hard to learn sometimes.

We all made it home, and bedtime soon followed. They were all down by 9 (an hour and a half late) and mommy was off to bed too. Despite our meltdowns at the end, they did a great job. I am so proud of them and all they have learned so far this year.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Goals, Software, and a Couple "B" words (Budgets and Blogs)

This year I have tried a few new things to help me stay on track of finances here at the funny farm. Seeing how our economy has tanked in the past year has been frightful, and I am thankful for the steps we began taking years ago. We have been refining our finances for the past 4 years or so. There were many times when it seemed difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it is coming along. Also, I have found some really great (free or really cheap) resources along the way.

For a long time we ran our budget using excel and it worked well. It was very basic, and I still keep some of my info in excel documents just to have it handy in one place. This past January I started using Microsoft Money Plus and I am now a HUGE fan of it. I admit it was frustrating to figure out how to set up all the little features, and I still fiddle with it now and then. But, it has been great to see what categories can still be trimmed, or need to be expanded.

When we first got married, I read a book about budgeting by Larry Burkett. I cannot remember the name of the book, I just remember that it was way to complicated and I overspent the first week and then felt guilty, and I stopped all together. Since then, we have tried different methods of managing cash flow, but it seemed that I was spending hours on end trying to plan for the unexpected. Didn't work so well. About 4 years ago, we found a way that both Scott and I could understand and use easily to manage cash flow. The excel spreadsheets were born out of the fact that I was too cheap (and broke) to buy expensive software for it. Since that time, I have learned that the word budget is actually a really good word, and even better if used properly (unlike my early attempts). I have come to enjoy seeing our financial picture improve over the years, and I am excited to be able to plan better for the future. We have learned to really determined needs and wants, and we save for big expenses. Of course we have our set backs, and the term "emergency fund" seems to create little emergencies (like a $700 repair bill on my car last month), but overall my budget is my friend. And with the help of free online resources we are on our way to a debt free life.

The other thing I have found this year has been personal finance blogs. Just like I still garner encouragement from adoption blogs, and large family blogs, I am now building a small list of personal finance blogs that encourage me to stay on track with our goals. One of my favorites so far has been "Budgets are Sexy" (see the link on the side under Blogs I follow). This is written anonymously by "J. Money" and I found him originally from MSN Money's Smart Spending Blog (another really good resource). As I find some that I really enjoy, I will add them to the list on the side. I hope that these resources are helpful to you as well.

Till next time.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I finally did it....and it WORKS!

I planned meals for an entire month, printed the menu, and we are actually staying on the schedule. This is a super easy way of planning and grocery shopping that I got from Jillienne (click here for the link to her post). In a nut shell, every night has a theme and a pre-set side item. Then in each category, make a list of 4-6 different entrees that go with that theme. Throw the whole thing onto an excel spreadsheet, and then at the bottom of the page add a monthly shopping list. Planning the meal list took less than 10 minutes. Compiling the shopping list and checking what I have on hand took about 45 minutes. So in less than 1 hour I have a month worth of meals planned, and posted on a spreadsheet for everyone to see.

I broke down the shopping list by how items are stored or found in the grocery store so I can stock up on items that I need several times during the month. The shopping list has one column for weekly items, one column for meats, one column for shelf stable pantry items, and one for produce and frozen veggies, and one for dairy. After I print off my menu/shopping list I sit and check off which items are on hand, and I know which items I need to pick up for this week or for the rest of the month. This way I can check to see what is on sale and try to get the right amounts when they are on sale.

In planning the meals I could see at a glance which meals would have left-overs for me to use in a different meal later in the week so everything is used efficiently. For example, on the weeks we have a roast chicken on Sunday, we boil the left over anyway to make broth and use the remaining meat for a casserole or soup later on in the week. Also, I planned meals according to how much prep time is available on each weeknight. Evenings that are typically more rushed because of school and work schedules have super easy prep meals, and days where we have more time, we have more in depth meals.

I did this up 3 weeks ago, and it has made dinner time so incredibly easy, I could just kiss Jillienne for the idea. Even the kids love the plan. They like to know what will be for dinner ahead of time, and they can easily see when their favorite meal is coming up on the schedule. Scott and I don't have to stare into the pantry wondering what to make for dinner anymore, and since I can see at a glance what is coming up the next day I can get meats pulled out of the freezer the night before.

Dinner time got a whole lot smoother here at the funny farm. This is working so well that I now have planned out 6 weeks, and keep an ongoing shopping list of items I can stock up on and know they will be used in the right amount of time to eliminate waste. So, if you plan on stopping by for dinner, here you go:

Mondays: Chinese Food (I am learning so it is not great, but Julia gets happy when she sees it so it is totally worth my effort)
Tuesdays: casseroles
Wednesdays: Soups in the crock pot
Thursdays: Italian / Pastas
Fridays: Mexican
Saturdays and Sundays: Homestyle (roast chicken, meatloaf, meatballs, cooking the grill, etc)

Till next time,

Monday, February 9, 2009

Counting My Blessings

Throughout our entire adoption process, we have been asked many questions about how we are doing. Ever since we arrived home from China, we have been asked how she is doing with the change, and how all five kids are adjusting to each other. I have this standard response, "She/They are doing awesome."

For those in the adoption community, you can probably understand that it is difficult to answer this question sometimes during the initial adjustment time. I have read and read about the trauma of change, and about the stages of adjustment for an older child. Let me be the first to say that I have had to draw on that pre-adoption education more times than I thought I ever would. However, I am afraid that my "awesome" response does not do justice to my children.

You see, I mean it when I say that they are doing awesome. Are things perfect? No. Is this the hardest adjustment we have had to cope with when adding a new child? Maybe. Are there really THAT many levels of grief, trauma, adjustment, and attachment? OH Baby, YES!!!

These past few months have stretched me past what I thought I could be as a mom. It has been difficult, and heartbreaking to see my daughter grieve. It has been frustrating to deal with the red tape. It has been comical to begin to see just how many idioms in the English language are really quite ridiculous if you take them literally; Amelia Bedelia anyone??? It has been down right irritating to hear comments of "Now, why would you do something like that?" and "Aren't 4 kids enough?" Once again, God has taught me more about the love He has for us, through the gift of my children.

I love adoption. I love the promise that God makes that He will not leave us as orphans. I love the scripture that promises a hope and a future. But, this is tough work right here, getting to the promise. And, we have a long way to go as we evolve into the family that He wants for us to be.

I have seen with my own eyes how much I have taken for granted all my life. I have celebrated when my child trusted me enough to feed her again, that she walked away from a half a plate of food because she was full. I never thought I'd have to earn that level of trust. My other kids learned it so early, from the day they were born, and I took it for granted. I celebrated when I got my first spontaneous hug and kiss from Julia because she wanted to show me that she loved me. I don't remember having to earn the other kids' love. I love all of my children as much as I thought was possible, but now I can appreciate their love for me in return. I took for granted that my kids would snuggle with me as we watch a family movie. Now I celebrate that Julia wants to snuggle with me too. I rejoice that she allows me to comfort her when she is sad, or lonely.

I thought I knew what family meant. I thought I knew how to love unconditionally, without the expectation of love expressed in return. How wrong I was. I am so thankful to have the opportunity to open my eyes to the miracle of how God is developing this family into what He wants us to be.

Julia has endured a greater trauma than most people will ever face. Even though we know what she has gained, she has had to give up everything she knew to gain all we can give to her. And top it all off with learning a new language at the age of 6. Jackson, Jacquelynne, Joseph, and Jenna have learned about poverty and abundance, and the meaning of losing parents at an early age. They have battled fears that most children in their circle of friends have never had to consider. After all, if Julia could be orphaned, could they? These five kids are amazing. Their capacity to love and accept each other without reservation is astounding.

Please don't misunderstand me, this is tough. We are this family, and yet we are still becoming. And, even though my answer to "How are you doing?" may sound too easy, it it true from the bottom of my heart. They are doing awesome. We are doing awesome. I am blessed to have each and every one of my 5.

Even though we have a long way to go, especially with the language barrier, I am treasuring every moment. I don't want to take any of it for granted.