No, you can’t have my money

Somewhere between my childhood and adulthood it became de rigeur for everyone to ask parents for money. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, and then I read a great piece on Slate by Jessica Grove

Somewhere, we got lost.

Somewhere, elementary school became an expression of our egos and not a place where our kids learned all 50 states.

Thanks Animaniacs!
Thanks Animaniacs!

I have 4 kids. This is almost entirely my fault– I took breaks from playing World of Warcraft, which as we all know is nerd birth control.

9 months after each break, a child is born.

Coincidence? I think not.

Each of those children is involved in one or more things where someone wants a “voluntary” donation. Here’s the current list (please forgive me for sounding like a MasterCard commercial):

  • Preschool teacher gifts – $30
  • Elementary school PTA suggested donation: $40
  • Middle School PTA suggested donation: $40
  • Kid #1 Swim group gift: $35
  • Kid #2 Swim group gift: $35
  • Kid #3 Swim group gift: $35

Total for “voluntary” contributions: priceless $215

This excludes the actual cost of these activities, as well as arbitrary fees paid for registration and supply. In other words, this is all guilt money.


Fellow parents: how did we let this happen?

I don’t really think my finance are anyone’s business, but I feel not even slightly ashamed to admit that $215 is a non-trivial amount of money. If I went out and spent $215 on, say, an awesome ScotteVest Jacket (omg 35 pockets!), I would be filling those 35 pockets with my belongings while looking for a nice dry bridge under which to live.

Yeah, well, that's just, like, you know, your opinion, man.

Then the “reminder” emails about my voluntary donations started trickling in.

We can’t have our party without your contributions!

We need to buy the Christmas gifts for the teacher/coach/lunch-lady!

Maybe I was just being a scrooge. I am already no big fan of Christmas: The Extravaganza.  

There is a whole separate rant about the culture of mandatory gifts for everyone waiting to be ranted.

I pay a portion of the salary for my kids coaches with my program fees. Why does thankfulness have to be expressed with a gift card? I want my children to be thankful the old-fashioned way, by saying “thank you”.

Maybe coloring some construction paper.

Really, though, it’s their job. No one passes the hat for me for just doing my job. When was the last time someone thought to collect for a Stay-At-Home-Mom? Why must I give a gift to someone who is doing their job?

It seems that what everyone really wants, though is to be recognized with a gift card. Nothing says “We appreciate you, <insert name>” like a $100 gift card to Target (because WalMart is for filthy poor people, right?).

Filthy poor people, and bizarre man-babies. With stripey socks. Yowza. via

Now I understand (thanks Jessica!).

We have to feel good about how good of a parent we are, because now parenting is verb and not just a byproduct of too much alcohol and Dave Matthews.

Can he sing? Eeeh… Not really. Was “Under The Table And Dreaming” the soundtrack for much babymaking in the 90s? Absolutely.

Is it wrong to push back? Maybe. But until we stop opening our checkbooks, we will keep handing out our money AND our time like they are worthless.


Kerosene Heater Part 2

A few weeks ago I wrote about my new love, my kerosene heater. Since then, we’ve had a fairly cold few weeks, including the dumping of about 20 inches of snow on us in Maryland and I’ve kept up with the Kerosene heater usage. My initial hypothesis was that the more I used the heater, the more money I would save because the electric heat pump is so darn inefficient. So how did I do?

This is what I got my MBA for. Money well spent, right honey?
This is what I went back to school for. Money well spent, right honey?

Compared to the previous year, the story is interesting but ultimately not good. Ignore the dollar values and the size of the bars (A year ago I accidentally double-paid the bill the month before so we had an overage) and just look at the kWh usage and the average temperature.

The glass half-full view is that even though it was a colder period, we managed to keep our utilization relatively flat, so using the kerosene heater helped offset the electric cost. Conversely, I’ve spent about $60 on kerosene in this period, so the gains in efficiency were offset by the cost of the fuel. However, when the heater is on the temperature in the house sometimes gets up to 71 or 72 which we would never do without the heater.

I wasn't sure if I needed to pixelate just the wiener or the entire weiner dog
The gains in belly-warming, however, were astronomical

So are kerosene heaters frugal? Without having a whole-house system that’s attached to a thermostat and automated, it’s too hard for a person to maintain the temperature and cycle the heat on and off appropriately. At this point, it’s closer to a luxury, like running a traditional fireplace.

Is it nice to have? We sit in the same room as the heater, so there’s the soft woosh of the fire and heat pouring off makes it nice and cozy. It’s reassuring to have a heat source that’s off the grid. The house gets much warmer than we’d keep it if we were electric-only.

My best argument in favor though is deeply irrational. When the nights are long and the days are short the caveman wants to huddle around a fire and paint pictures on the wall.

5 tips for travelling light

Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, France. Not pictured: the smell.
Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, France. Not pictured: the smell.

One of the most profound things I’ve done to improve my travelling experience is to learn to get by with only one bag. With Spring Break approaching, I wanted to share some tips for travelling well and easily. These tips work equally well for professionals travelling with suits as they do for families travelling with children.

Make a list (and use it)

This is the top tip in every travel blog you will ever read, and for good reason. In the heat of a frantic packing session, you are much more inclined to pack something “just in case” which leads to nonsense like packing a sweater and a jacket for a summer trip. In the calm, clear light of day make a list, then use it. Every time. I once left for a 3 day business trip– without packing underwear. It was the only time I didn’t print my list. Let the list do the thinking for you.

If you really, absolutely need a panda-bear wearing a bow tie costume, then fine, bring it. But what are the odds?

Kid tip: The first time I did this, I told each kid to write their own list and I would check it. This proved to be too much work, because I had to check the list and then check their bags.  The second time, I wrote the list for them on the computer and just printed a copy for each child. It was easier to note their individual exceptions. As a bonus, the amount of whining about “where’s my …” disappeared completely. They took ownership of the contents of their bag, and even the 5 year old was able to do a first pass by himself.

Limit yourself to one bag is the authoritative reference for one bag travel and is worth a bookmark. If I can summarize some of the many advantages of travelling with only one bag they would be:

  1. You save money by not checking a bag
  2. There is zero chance of lost bags because your bag will always be with you
  3. If you’re subject to broken airplane syndrome, you can get off the plane with your bag and get on anything else without having to stop and collect your things
There is no Hell, we’ve invented it for ourselves.

The rule is:

one to wash, one to wear, and one spare.

What about shoes? My packing rule is usually one casual pair and one athletic pair in the bag, and my work/dress shoes on my feet while I travel (this gives me the opportunity to shine them up in the airport, which isn’t necessarily frugal, but is a great opportunity to relax a bit).

Kid tip: Depending on the age of your kids, you can probably get by with their school back packs for travel. The only time I would suggest something different is if their school bag is one of the cheapo character backpacks where the company spent more money to license the latest Pixar character than they did to construct the bag. I have had two of those bags break mid-trip on me, and it has always resulted in having to split up the clothes between my my bag and my wife’s bag.

Plan to do (just a little!) laundry on the road

Being prepared to do laundry allows you to massively cut back on the amount of clothing you have to bring, which allows you to meet the ultimate goal of only packing one bag. All you need is a travel laundry line (maybe two, depending on the size of your family) and a few satchels of soap.

I don’t know what’s more disturbing, that I googled “travel laundry line” and found a picture of someone’s knickers, or that I am not surprised by this

At this point you might be thinking I do laundry all the time at home, why would I want to do laundry on vacation? The answer is a little bit of work that’s not difficult for a LOT of extra gain. En suite laundry is trivially easy to do– it’s like the crock pot cooking of laundry. It’s hardly as exasperating as household laundry, in part because you’re doing so much less of it at a time. You fill a sink (or bidet) with water, add a packet of handwashing soap, soak your clothes for a few minutes (maybe while brushing your teeth), rinse them, wring out the water, and hang to dry. If you’re in posh digs you can use one of the extra towels to take out a little extra moisture. The whole process takes 15 minutes, tops. You make back that 15 minutes by not having to stand at the baggage carousel one time waiting for a checked bag.

Kid tipYou have a few factors working for you in this scenario. First, if you have small children (and especially boys), they are naturally inclined to wear underwear for days at a time, and you can chose to strategically forget this. If you’re going to be someplace with a “base of operations” — a hotel room, rental cottage, or similar — it’s worth it to pack a small bag that can be used as a hamper. For best results, do the laundry in the morning before you leave for the day. If I had to scale up this process to my family of six, I would fill a tub instead of a sink and let the laundry soak in the soapy water for a bit. So far all of my long duration family travel has been to cottages with washing machines, so it was even easier because 2 days worth of clothes for even the six of us is barely a load in a machine washer.

Buy a good bag (not from the mall)

Even when you’re going to a sunny destination with coral water and white sand, the process of getting there can still be a stressful experience. Your bag is the heart of your little travel universe. If that bag tears, or a zipper busts, or a strap rips, and you’re in the middle of the adventure of a lifetime, your first priority is going to be dealing with your injured bag. Don’t buy a Samsonite, or a Tumi, or a North Face… you tend to spend too much and get too little. It’s just not worth the risk. And you were worried about a little laundry?

Don’t buy anything with wheels. In the same way that the personal warehouse industry has sprung up to meet the  needs of people who have too much crap in their house, wheeled bags sprang into existence to make life easier for people who pack too much crap into their bag. Wheels and handles add weight to a bag, and weight is the enemy. Don’t pack a bag that you can’t run through an airport carrying.

Specifically, the CLT 5K sprint from B15 to E15. STAND ON THE RIGHT! WALK ON THE LEFT!

So what do I recommend? My personal favorite is the Tom Bihn Aeronaut. Red Oxx also makes excellent bags. Neither are sold in stores (unless you live in Seattle, Washington or Billings, Montana respectively). Both bags will be the last bag you ever buy. For kids, we have had good results with the LL Bean backpacks as being durable enough to survive multiple school years and go on vacation with us.

Learn to bundle pack

Bundle-packing is the art of arranging your clothes in your bag to minimize the amount of wrinkling involved. It normally does a great job of getting my clothes to the hotel fairly smoothly, and then a light steaming while I’m showering in the morning helps the rest of the wrinkles fall out. If your wardrobe doesn’t have the same requirements for de-wrinkling, you might be happy with a packing cube system, but I have tried both and tend to favor the bundle method. Yes, it works with suits and jackets.

On the way home, I usually go for the “stuff everything in I’m late for my plane” packing technique.

Pro tip: when using the interior ties/straps in your bag, don’t cinch them down all the way, this will create more wrinkles. Also, don’t put your toiletries in the middle of your bundle unless you want to unpack in front of airport security.

Kid tip: I actually favor packing cubes for kids, because they’re expected to be a little wrinkly under most occasions, and it helps keep their clothes apart from their toys. There’s an REI near us, and they carry the Eagle Creek brand, which are very good quality.

Ramble on

One thing that’s gotten a lot easier with age is the willingness to invest a little up-front effort to save myself some pain down the road, if only because I’ve done it the painful way enough times to eventually learn. I hope you can learn a little from my mistakes and make your own travel experience a little bit easier.