Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Milestones, pt VIII

Justin's biggest changes since the last milestone entry are: the ability to use his walker, the emergence of his laugh, and his changing diet.

Cruise Control
The walker thing started out as a fluke a few weeks ago. The first time he did it, it totally baffled us. You have to remember that we've been stashing him in his walker since 6 or 7 weeks old... and so for 5 months we got used to putting him down someplace, being able to turn away, and having him be in the same exact spot when we returned... no matter how much time had passed. And so when I put him down, turned to work on the computer for a few minutes, turned back, and he was 8 feet closer than where he started... it totally bugged me out. It was like having a piece of furniture move all by itself. Just picture your dining room table up and moving to a better spot while you had your back turned. I think it would freak you out, too.

Well, Justin is "furniture" no more. Sure enough, by virtue of moving his feet and lunging for the toys on the walker tray, he started moving around just over a month ago... but more by accident than intention. However it didn't take long for him to start putting 2 & 2 together and figure out the mechanics of it. At this point, he now has full control of his walker and can maneuver it to get pretty much wherever he wants to go... which opens up a whole new can of worms that I'm not sure we are ready for. Can you say "babyproofing the house?" Forward. Reverse. Right turns. Left turns. And u-turns. All that is missing is for him to pop a wheely and do donuts on the front lawn.

Personally, I'm still waiting on him to either crawl or roll over from his back to his stomach (you know, the "simple" stuff)... but the boy evidently has his mind set on walking. So I've learned not to hold my breath on the other two milestones. Maybe we'll just concede and get his walker fitted with some rims for Christmas so that he can at least cruise around in style. Click here for Justin's Wobbly Walker Video.

This one is self explanatory. Long story short, Justin Alexander has finally added a soundtrack to that big cheesy grin of his. When he first started his giggles a month ago, I would have to throw him in the air 6 to 10 times and act the fool for 2 minutes just to get him to chucke for 4 seconds or less... but he's progressing. He still mostly just holds his breath and grins in lieu of a full-out laugh, but it is becoming just a little easier to get him to crack up. Click here for Justin's Screams and Giggles video.

Feed Me, Seymore
He has graduated from his sporadic oatmeal feedings to a consistent diet of solid foods. He has also mastered the art of eating in general, so there's barely a need for a bib anymore and also no more "face painting" at each meal (even though that was more me having fun than anything else). He still gets solely breast milk for the first and last feedings each day. However, breakfast, lunch and (sometimes) dinner are now his "big boy" meals... complete with a high chair, a spoon and a bowl or two of something good. Lunch is probably his favorite since that's the only meal where he consistently gets two entrees instead of one (peas followed by applesauce, for example).

Honorable Mentions
All in all, I think those are the big things to report this month. Other things that probably deserve a mention: He's fast approaching 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep at night (I think his schedule is somewhere around 7-to-5 or 8-to-6 right now). He also turns on his side now to sleep most nights. He's putting syllables together a little better each day. Still a shamelessly noisy eater. Not sitting without support yet, but making progress. No crawling. No tummy rolls. No teeth. And still no job to help pay for all of these diapers.

Did I miss anything, mom?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Justin turned 6 months old yesterday, and I was poised to dive into his latest list of milestones until we got upstaged by a phone call from the Artis family.

Weighing in at 5 lbs, 13 oz and stretching out at 18 inches long, Gabriela Simonne definitely stole the show with her Christmas Eve arrival. Funny enough, she arrived 6 months to the day of Justin's birth, and at 9:29pm was just eighteen minutes shy of matching his day and time exactly.

Once again, congratulations to DeVon and Danah! We are excited for the birth of your healthy baby girl, and look forward to watching our kids grow up together. God Bless.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Stanley Johnson (5 of 5)

For those of you who made it this far, hopefully you realize that the point of this series was not to sell you on FPU, the Momentum program, or any other finance program for that matter. Financial strategies are just like diets; what works for me may not work for you. And vice versa. But! That's definitely not a reason to avoid setting your own goals, developing a strategy and figuring out what does work for you.

Besides, there may be plenty of things about Dave Ramsey's philosophy that you disagree with (V and I certainly don't do everything that he suggests). There may also be plenty of things that I have said in this blog that you disagree with. But the point is not for you to take someone else's strategy or advice and blindly apply it to your life... Don't let the details of the message rob you of our own financial opportunities. Instead, the point is just to get you thinking about your money from a more positive perspective.

As I've hopefully demonstrated, by no stretch of the imagination do V and I have it all together. But we finally got to the point to where we are willing to take a long, hard look at our financial situation and make some difficult decisions and sacrifices in order to turn things around and get headed in the right direction. And simply put, we challenge you to do the same thing.

Will your financial legacy be wealth and prosperity...
or credit card debt and poor money management
for generations to come?

Maybe I should also add that this is certainly not a "get rich quick" scheme. It would be nice if we could get out of debt in the same blink of an eye that it takes to get into debt. But barring a winning lottery ticket, it just doesn't work that way. Instead of a sprint, it's a marathon. It's gonna take focused intensity over (possibly) a long period of time. And even at that, once we are at the finish line, V and I (for example) will have only freed up about $500 a month after eradicating over $35,000 of debt. Only a fraction of our combined income. After so much work, it just seems like it should be so much sexier than that. I feel like we should be able to quit our jobs and start a chicken farm or something (my dream, not hers).

But no such luck. Then again, we are not fighting for instant wealth. Instead, what we are fighting for is the opportunity to control our own purse strings and at least have the options available to us to take the next step. The opportunity to give more freely. The opportunity to save and invest. The opportunity to build wealth and freely pursue investments and new business ventures. The opportunity to be aggressive with securing our financial legacy and ensuring that we leave Justin and his siblings more than a funeral bill. Because right now, as long as our debt remains overwhelming, its like being handcuffed to a chair in a candy store. Lots of sweet opportunities, but virtually nothing good in reach.

With those handcuffs off, the next step will be to become as deliberate with what we do with that "extra money" as we were with paying our bills beforehand. We still haven't figured out what to do about retirement, our mortgage or the possibility of V staying home to raise Justin's brothers and sisters... not to mention diapers, clothes and college tuition for the 14 more kids V wants to have. But without our financial handcuffs, our salary and bill collectors will no longer drive our decisions. With that freedom, we will increase our options immensely and be able to take advantage of the true-to-life adage that it often takes money to make money.

So in the end, we don't care what you do! Just make sure that you are doing something!!! Be deliberate with your money. Pay off your debt and save with the same fervor and intensity that you put into Christmas shopping. Question your purchases. Rethink your goals. Develop a strategy. And most of all, take your financial future seriously.

As Dave Ramsey puts it... If nothing else remember that, in America, to be "normal" is to be in debt.

So why not strive to be weird?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Stanley Johnson (4 of 5)

Salary Shenanigans
I've gotten a raise every December since I started working my current job 4 years ago. The sad part is, I cannot tell you anything specific about what I did with the extra money that made it into our bank account after each pay increase. Evidently, every time my pay was adjusted, our lifestyles adjusted too. And if the pay increase was $50,
then we suddenly needed exactly $50 more each month in order to survive. I think that was just the universe's way of keeping everything in equilibrium. Of course I'm being sarcastic, but the point is still the same: Where is that extra money and if we were doing okay before the pay raise, then why can't I account for the additional money?

The problem is, here is the average person's response to getting a salary increase: first we buy new stuff before we even get the raise, just based on the anticipation of making more money. Then once we actually get it, we catch amnesia concerning our previous purchases and buy more stuff as if we are getting the entire annual raise all at once. This behaviour totally ignores the fact that a $2000 annual raise means that we might get another $60 per check after taxes. With that in mind, maybe we should hold off on the new living room furniture and wardrobe upgrade (ya think?). Finally, even though we were doing just fine before the raise, in due time the "new money" just gets absorbed into our cost of living and miraculously makes no positive impact on our financial situation, let alone our debt-to-income ratio.

[Sidenote... most people tend to do the same thing with tax returns, don't they?!]

So to combat this, my thinking now is to be deliberate with this new cashflow and treat it like what it is: money that we were able to live without prior to the salary increase. In other words, don't adjust your spending to match your income (subconsciously or otherwise) but instead adjust your thinking and pinpoint specific ways to use that money to reach your financial goals.

In our case, effective 12/16/07 I will receive my annual salary increase which this year amounts to an additional $82 per paycheck, or $164 a month. This means we can pay off $150 more of our student loan debt every month and still miraculously have $14 more than we would've had previously. $14... whoo hooo! Okay, that's not exactly a king's ransom. But think of it as finding $14 on the ground every month. It's still 1400 cents that you would not have had otherwise.

The key is to make that change right away, not even giving yourself a chance to miss the $150... because you can't miss what you never had. Conversely, try just absorbing the extra money into your usual cash flow and then attempting to take it back out 6 months later. You'll feel the effect big time because by then all of your spending habits will have shifted to account for the increase, and the $164 will now be part of your requirement to survive. You will suddenly neeeeeed that money, in essence making you worse off than you were before the raise. And so needless to say, the call has already been made. Effective January 1, our student loan payment has been increased from $200 to $350 per month. Why in the world didn't we do this 3 years ago?

Rabbit Ears
V and I have mulled over cancelling our cable for almost a year now... and just to show that you never know from where inspiration will spring... after all of our waffling, it was Miranda's blog comment on "Stanley Johnson pt. 2" that finally pushed us over the edge. And so as of today, V and I no longer have cable television. We also combed over our telephone bill and found a way to cut that down by $5.95 per month (services like call forwarding and call waiting all got the axe). Combine that with the $46.67 savings in cable, and we're looking at about $52 per month or $630 per year in savings. Those are not earth-shattering amounts, but they present the another good example of being deliberate with your money.

Without a plan, that $52 would be just like the "extra money" I talked about with the salary increase. It would be absorbed into our cost of living, and in the long term would make no positive impact on our finances. So again, the challenge was to not only make the sacrifice in the first place, but to be calculated with how we redirect the savings. V and I decided to do something a little different with this one. Even though we are not big television watchers, just redirecting the $52 to a bill still did not seem like enough to justify the extent of the sacrifice involved. With something tangible like television, we decided that it would be best to try to find something to replace it that was also tangible and hopefully more rewarding, too. So here is what we came up with:

The first month's savings will go towards buying two good antennas for the two televisions that we have since (contrary to popular belief) no cable does not mean no television. In fact, we checked the line-up at and were both surprised by how many channels a decent antenna can still pick up. Once that is done, here's how we plan to redirect the rest of this pocket change.

The $52 will be split in half each month. $26 will go towards the student loans, bringing that total payment up to $376 per month. With the other $26, we are going to borrow a page from Dave Ramsey's book and set up an envelope system. Each month we will now have $26 earmarked for Justin Alexander's DVD and book collection. It doesn't sound like a lot, but truth be told, we haven't bought any books or DVD's for him since before he was born. Having an envelope set aside for his educational purchases will allow us to not only budget for it, but will also force us to be more deliberate with making periodic purchases and building his library. Even at two books and a DVD per month, by the end of each year the addition to his library should be both noticeable and impressive, not to mention more rewarding than yet another episode of Law and Order (oh how I'll miss you, Detective Benson).


The bible says "let love be the only thing that you owe another man" (Romans 13:8). That, and (I'll add) perhaps some accountability. So with that I leave you with the same question that I've hopefully provoked over and over by now: What are you doing to change your financial situation?

Stanley Johnson (3 of 5)

What would it take to curb your spending habits?

We have all paid our fair share of what Dave Ramsey calls "stupid tax". Stupid tax is exactly what it sounds like; anything stupid that we do that costs us money. Examples include investing in stocks based on a tip from a homeless person, spending $50 more to qualify for the $2 shipping discount, or co-signing on a car loan for your cousin who has been unemployed since 1988. Of course, most of the time the things that lead to stupid taxes aren't as obvious as those examples. But then if they were, we'd never fall into the trap. In our case, we won't say what our particular stupid tax was, except to say that it involved credit card debt and over $8000 of money loaned out that we probably will never see again.

And so at the beginning of 2007, V and I had the following non-mortgage-related debt:

Student Loan I: $8,647.19
Student Loan II: $12,125.40
Stupid Tax: $8922.51
Debt Total: $29,695.10

Plus, if you've been keeping up with the blog, then you also know that according to our super nifty budget calculations, we are already in the hole $7000 next year. In other words, we are projected to spend 7 grand more than we make next year, and thats after we include the sale of the flip property. [Sidenote: I previously blogged it as $10K shortfall for next year; but I found a couple of mistakes in the 2008 budget that knocked it down from 10 grand to 7]. Combining the four categories, that all adds up to a $36,695 hole that we are trying to shovel our way out of sooner than later. So now that we have an accurate figure to post on the refrigerator, the question is, what are we going to do about it?

The Stupid Tax
Well, at some point earlier this year V just got fed up with the stupid tax thing and decided to pay it off. The debt was in our name after all, and by waiting on someone else to pay it we were essentially sitting on naive optimism and hindering no one's financial future but our own. And so we had to take responsibility for our own mistakes. And with that she started what I have to admit was mostly a single-handed crusade to crush the stupid tax so that we could move forward. To do so, she forfeited about 90% her personal "blow money", tutored on the side ($30 an hour adds up), stripped all types of pseudo-necessities from the equation (bye bye hair salon) and in general sacrificed a whole lot over the past 8 months. In all I have to say that I admire her for the determination she exhibited in order to make it happen. As for where it led us, more on that in a bit.

50% of college graduates have student loans, with an
average loan debt of $10,000. The average cost of college is also
increasing at twice the rate of inflation, which means
that the situation is only bound to get worse.

The Get-Smart Tax
Student loans are a funny thing. When considering debt totals, I think most people (me included) tend to overlook student loans and I guess it's for two reasons. For one, we don't have the same level of guilt associated with them as we do with "typical consumer debt" like car payments or credit card bills. Instead we view them as a necessary evil and excuse them as the price we must pay to get ahead. And secondly, they tend to be at a much lower rate than other owed accounts, so they seem so much more harmless. However, this is where V had to check me because evidently I had gotten pretty comfortable and cozy with our student loans. [Are you starting to see who the real no-nonsense financial tyrant is in this house? And people thought it was me]. She came to me one day and flat-out said, "You know, you seem pretty content with just paying the minimum and having these student loans around forever."


Like a lot of people probably do, I thought I was doing pretty good already since we didn't have any consumer debt, paid all of our our bills on time, and was at least making a little progress towards a retirement fund. But she checked me on that, and by her example she convinced me to join the crusade she had started earlier in the year to get rid of all of our debt and get things moving a lot faster. As I talked about earlier, it started with her desire to finally pay off the stupid tax... but it spread like wildfire as she started to ask more and more "innocent questions"... all the while keeping a steady eye on our student loans and spending habits. Once I saw her commitment to this getting-out-of-debt crusade, I finally started to catch on and about a year later (okay, so I'm slow) here I am, finally on board.

Financial Lab Rats
So with both "taxes" in mind, we conducted a little experiment this past month. For the entire month of November, we pledged not to buy anything that was not necessary. And necessity is a funny thing because over time the line between what we want and what we need becomes so blurred that most of us truly lose scope of the difference. And so for a month we refocused our spending radars, dined out less, put a few more desires on hold, and only put things in our shopping cart that we honestly needed to survive to the next month.

As I mentioned in a previous entry, our annual budget is an Excel spreadsheet that is "broken down on a month-by-month basis and includes just about every expenditure you can think of... From big stuff like our mortgage payments, grocery bills, salaries, emergency car funds and estimated water bills... down to our newspaper subscription, Christmas budget, and ink pens for grading midterm papers." And so at the end of each month, we are able to sit down and see how our ending point compares with whatever the projection was. Usually we are within a couple hundred dollars of the target; sometimes under and sometimes over depending on what curve balls we got thrown that month.

But at the end of this experimental month we were both baffled. We were under by more than $700 and couldn't figure out where that money came from. Granted, the number is probably a little inflated since we also held off on a few household inevitables... but it is still hard to believe that as disciplined as we (think we?) are, we still spend so much money on "stuff" that we can obviously live without. While November could have been a total anomaly, it still gave us an idea of how many holes we might have in our budget... Places where hard-earned money is still seeping through the cracks and getting away from us. Long story short, the experiment was an eye opener as to how much room we still have for improvement and what we can acheive by paying a little more attention to where our dollars go.

As for the mystery money, we took every dollar of it and made our first ever "above the minimum" payment on the student loans. In hindsight, it's kind of sad that we've just been paying the minimum for this long, but hopefully it will be the first of many "extra payments" to come.

So where are we now? Over the past 8 months we've paid off over $5000 of the stupid tax and have about $3200 to go. With just the usual monthly payments plus the extra payment, the student loan totals are down to about $6500 and $11400. But those should also start dropping now that we're becoming more deliberate about how we spend our money. Combining that with the shortfall for 2008, that leaves us with about $28,100 to go. Still a huge amount... but it ain't $36,695. Nobody said it would happen overnight.

But once it's done...

Well, one step at a time. For now, here are two other steps that we are taking in the right direction, and one final illustration about being deliberate with your money...

[To Be Continued]

Friday, December 7, 2007

Stanley Johnson (2 of 5)

If you missed part 1 of this series, you may want to start by clicking here. Otherwise... How many of you remember these commercials? It's hard to believe it's almost been 30 years.

1979 - "Star Wars" Drunk Driving PSA Commercial

1983 - "Crashing Glasses" Drunk Driving Prevention Commercial by AdCouncil

Financial accountability reminds me of the "friends don't let friends drink and drive" campaign from the 80's. But in this case, it's more like: friends don't let friends break the bank for the sake of vacation when they just borrowed money for last months rent, are living check-to-check, have furniture in their house from Rent-A-Center, and still owe money to six different people. That's just good ol' fashioned irresponsible. Better yet, friends don't let friends spend $10 on lunch everyday (i.e., $50 a week... or over $2500 a year) when there are better alternatives. The list goes on. Of course, you can't control what people do with their money, but if you care about them then you at least have a responsibility to bring their frivolous spending habits to their attention.

Because the question is, would we still try so hard to keep up with the Joneses if we knew how broke the Joneses were? In my humble opinion, financial discipline is like muscle: Contrary to popular belief, we all have it... most of us just choose not to exercise it. Sacrifice is a very, very, (did I say very?) very difficult thing. In a culture in which we are programmed to believe that we are owed our instant gratification, who has time to wait until they can afford it? "Why delay when you can charge it today?" That is most certainly the American Way.

Here's A Quick Story: I have a coworker who has been at the job for over 10 years, and yet he is living check-to-check and has ZERO DOLLARS in his savings account. Put another way, he has received over 260 consecutive paychecks and does not have twenty dollars to show for it at the end of each pay period. And his debt level is through the roof. He is also one of those $10-a-day-lunch people I mentioned earlier, but that's not the point here. The point is that his car broke down last semester and (as I was advising him financially at the time) I suggested that he started taking the bus to work since the route was so convenient to him. Even aside from the obvious advantage of avoiding a car payment for a while, the difference between bus fare and gas alone would've given him an opportunity to make up some ground with his short-term finances.

Long story short, his response was "The BuS? Oh Heck No. That's for poor people... I work way too hard to be caught on somebody's bus! That's okay. I'll walk to work before I got caught dead on the bus."... And so a week later he had a new car. But (surprise surprise) it was repossessed just 6 weeks later due to missed payments.

His level of ignorance and pride may seem extreme, but my point is that we all have our fair share of pride to contend with. We watch enough television to where we're convinced that the we "deserve" a certain type of lifestyle regardless of what we can actually afford. To make a long story short, I bet you that he is not the only one who's pride is getting in the way of his prosperity. Why are we more concerned with how we look and what people think of us than we are about our own financial health? If you stopped working tomorrow, would your family be able to last even 6 months without a paycheck? And if not, then would those people who you are trying to keep pace with be able to help you out? Nah. Probably not. Instead, they'll still be at the deli sipping Cappuccino-Grande-Double-Latte's saying, "that's too bad what happened to Stanley Johnson, eh?... and he was such a snappy dresser too! I loved his car... I wonder if it's for sale."

And so the question that V and I find ourselves asking more and more often is, what is 2 or 3 years of extremely driven and calculated sacrifice in exchange for financial peace for the rest of or lives? Heck yeah we feel we're due a nice vacation just like everyone else, and yes a minivan, new camera, and a bluetooth thingamajig to replace my wired earpiece would be nice to have... But could we endure the delayed gratification and judgement that comes along with a little sacrifice for the betterment of our long time financial security?

When you think of things like no vacation, no cable television, no fine dining, no whateverelsepeoplebuy... for 2 or 3 years, the initial response may be, "wow... that's a long time". But here's the thing. Those 2 or 3 years are going to go by ANYWAY... so why not do something absolutely radical so that once that time is up you do not find yourself in the EXACT SAME situation or worse than you were in 2 or 3 years ago. Why not grab those years by the horn and brand them as the small price you are willing to pay for 20, 30, 40 or 60 years of financial peace afterwards. In the scheme of things it doesn't really seem like that much to ask. Why is it that when we look backwards, we always remark about how fast the time has flown by... but when we look forward with the thought of injecting financial discipline in our lives, 2 years suddenly seems like foooooreeeeevvveer? Which one is it? Does it fly by, or is it forever?

And no, "injecting financial discipline" is not a fancy way of saying that you can't buy Christmas gifts, have to go out and sell your car and must pawn your camera equipment immediately... But it does mean a commitment to at least start with the little things. Here's a perfect example:

When it comes to orange juice V and I consume about a gallon a week, if not more. With that in mind, we recently switched brands from our beloved Tropicana (Calcium enriched, no pulp, thank you) to some other brand that I don't even recall the name of. It's not the greatest tasting o.j. in the world, but it's good enough for the fruit and protein shakes that I make everyday. Why the switch? Well, Tropicana was getting expensive, and at over $2 less a gallon and over a gallon a week, just using a different brand of orange juice can potentially save us over $100 a year.

Okay, so this is where you say, "That's a ridiculous example"... to which I respond "EXACTLY!!!" Because if you understand that something as "ridiculous" as switching orange juice brands can save $100 a year, then it also forces you to ask yourself, "what are some of the bigger not-so-ridiculous things in my life that are causing my money to get away from me faster than I can save or invest it?" I think we all have more holes in our pockets and checking accounts than we realize.

And on that note, let V and I be the first to make ourselves, our finances, and our intentions transparent in hopes that, if nothing else, this will be our accountability and perhaps also spawn inspiration for someone else to take the challenge of working towards becoming debt free...

[To Be Continued]

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Stanley Johnson (1 of 5)

Every now and then I write what amounts to a magazine article about something that most of my readers couldn't care less about (i.e., it has nothing to do with Justin Alexander). Yet and still, I proceed unfazed and defiantly make no apologies ( hey it's our blog :oP )... but I will at least remind you that you can always change the channel to something more interesting. Otherwise, read on... and let's figure out what I'm babbling about this time.

I'm not advocating Lending Tree (I don't think the answer to debt is to take on more debt) but that has to be one of my all-time favorite commercials. I think I love it because of how authentic a picture it paints of the Average American Family. It's hilarious, but only because it rings of so much truth. And it's also the essence of what I'll be yapping about for the next 4 entries or so. [Justin will be back in January].

Next month, V and I will be going through Financial Peace University (FPU) for the second time as part of Dave Ramsey's most recent brainchild called Momentum. This time we'll be serving as group facilitators, which means we have an entirely different level of accountability in store for us. According to the website, the course is designed to be "a life-changing program that teaches you how to make the right decisions with your money. You'll be empowered with the practical skills and confidence needed to achieve your financial goals and experience true financial peace!". This is a program that our church sponsors every year in hopes of transforming the financial livelihood of the congregation and anyone else who is willing to listen.

The problem is, we are so entrenched in the American way that most of us couldn't even imagine being debt free. For a lot of people, asking them to imagine being debt free is as absurd a statement as saying "imagine being President of the United States". It's possible, but overwhelmingly unlikely. But picture this for a moment... no car payment, no credit card payments, no bill collectors, no student loans, no mortgage... nothing. And so every two weeks when your paycheck comes, you are just left to sit there and try to figure out "what am I going to do with all of this money?". Imagine being able to buy everything with cash without having to leverage your financial future every time you make a major purchase. Picture being able to write a check to a friend or family in need without blinking an eye or expecting anything in return. The truth is, I think we are all givers at heart... it's just that most of us are in such a financial bind that the things we wish we could do are often suffocated by the monthly bill collector.

And the irony is that as much as we all want some, the subject of money is so taboo for the majority of us. Most of us guard our salary information like it was Fort Knox. And we most definitely hide our debt-to-income information like doggy bones buried in the back yard. After all, how proud would John and Jane Doe be of the Chevy Tahoe parked in their circular driveway with the boat hitch attached if everyone really knew how much of a struggle it was for them to keep it? I've always believed that our inability to work together, share information, and discuss our financial situations has been the death of us (and conversely it is also why sects of the Jewish, Indian, and Native American population have been so successful in America). When it comes to our money, not acting in a communal fashion strips away 99% of our accountability and allows us to operate in a financial vacuum, void of judgement and (worse of all) sound advice.

How many times in life have you been about to do something incredibly stooopid, only to (thankfully!) be stopped by someone who cared and had better judgement from their outside perspective? I bet that the answer is "a whole bunch of times!" From little stuff like hitting the reply button on email while emotion still has the best of you... to bigger things like advice on which house to buy, which job to take, etc. But yet, in everyday financial decisions that can impact not only ourselves but generations to come, we make whimsical decisions at the drop of a hat before anyone can tell us about the extent that we've most obviously lost our minds.

Some things to think about...

• The average household has 6.0 bank credit cards, 8.3 retail credit cards, 2.4 debit cards for a total of 16.7 cards.

• The average credit card interest rate is 14.71%

• About 20% of all credit cards are "maxed out" by their owners.

• 70% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.

• Excluding mortgage, the average household debt for our age (30's) and income bracket (50K - 100K) is $35,510.

• Approximately 35 million Americans pay only the required minimum (as low as 2 percent) of their balance each month.

• The August 2007 issue of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine reports that American families owe $9,900, on average, in credit-card debt. They pay $1,500 in interest annually.

• According to different sources, the average American is spending somewhere between 10% and 25% more than they make each month.

• Only 44% of Americans are preparing for retirement.

So what are you doing with your money to make sure that you and your family are not part of those statistics? Maybe it's time to reevaluate your financial situation and get a grip on things before it's too late. This is exactly what V and I intend to do over the next 36 months, and of all of our dedicated readers out there (our webstats say that there are at least 2 dozen of you) we hope that at least one of you makes plans to join us in our crusade against financial bondage. Stick around for more details.

To Be Continued...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Car Trouble II

Quick update on the Altima...

Thanks to Google, I now know which part is the distributor

If there is any truth to the old saying that "bad things happen in three's", then our latest car debacles make perfect sense. Just my luck, on my first trip on the highway after the repairs I got hit with a rock dead smack in the middle of the windshield. Also, to complete the replairs from last time, we still needed a new distributor to remedy the problems that I talked about in the previous car entry. So one windshield repair and a distributor later, the total for 2007 is now $2634.77 (or $109.78 per car per month).


Much higher than previous years. We usually earmark $1000 per car for maintenance each year and typically have a couple hundred left to spare by Dec 31... But then I guess it's still not a bad price to keep both cars on the road for one more calendar year. Besides, things usually balance out in the end... so hopefully this means that all we'll need in 2008 is an oil change and a new air freshener. Who knows, if things are going really good next year then I might even be extravagant and spring for a car wash, too!

Stay tuned (no pun intended).

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Go to sleep grandma!!! It is 2 o'clock in the morning. There will be no new posts tonight or tomorrow.

How many times do you plan to check the website? Don't you know we have tracking software? We see you. You've seen and read everything already... LIKE THREE TIMES.

What is wrong with you?

I said Good night!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

Yesterday we went to Ina and Marcus' house to have dinner with our (pseudo) extended family. I think it was about 20 people there (including the little people), so it was definitely a festive family environment and we all had a really good time. Everybody got their fix: V got to eat and talk to people, I got a slice of Junior's Cheesecake (I also got hooked on Pokeno), and Justin was just too thrilled with trying to keep up with all the commotion going on around him.

Before we got there, V also whipped up some homemade sweet potato baby food so that Justin could share in the tradition of holiday grub. Needless to say, he devoured it like he does every other bowl of solid food: as if it was his last meal and he hadn't eaten in weeks. His only disappointment is that she didn't let him paint his face with it like daddy does.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Poked and Prodded

No sooner than when I just finished talking about being a needle punk, of course I had to go to the doctor and take a cold hard poke of thin steel to the vein in order to fill up (what always seems like) five 2-gallon containers of blood.

That's just.... Great.

Justin and I evidently have the same cold, including the same whooping cough that has been keeping us both up at night; me a lot more than him fortunately. At almost five months old, he doesn't have much a choice but to wait it out without medication. But after getting just 84 minutes of sleep last night, I finally decided to make my pilgrimage to the doctor to plead my case for antibiotics for myself. It's funny because when I was in college the docs and nurses always seem a little stingy with the antibiotics (until I found a hookup)... but ever since then every doctor I've had gives it out like it was leftover Halloween candy, handing over the prescription without batting an eye. Anyway, I got my fix. So lets hope that it works. As for Justin, I'll just have to keep smuggling him shots of Robitussin and Ricola cough drops in the middle of the night until his immune system knocks the cold out for good.

It's hard out there for a pip (see comments here to make sense of that one)... but he's definitely a trooper. Granted he's a little dramatic with his coughing episodes (he puts on a show like every cough might be his last dying breath) but that's classic Justin. I'm sure he'll whip this cold sooner than later. Ironically though, the coughing and congestion seem to bother us a lot more than him, as he has been about as happy as ever over the past few days. So much so that I haven't been able to put him down or stop playing with him lately. For some reason it seems as if he has stolen my heart all over again over the past few days.

Beyond Adorable.

In the meantime, here are my most recent photo favorites. He can't pull himself up to that position yet (thank God!) but yes, he is holding on by himself... and yes he can stay like that forever. He is just so thrilled with himself when he stands up unassisted. And his kung-fu grip is incredible. Two days ago in the supermarket as I was carrying him in one arm, I gave him a pack of hamburger buns to carry in his free hand while we stood in line to checkout (yes I exploit my child at every opportunity). For one, I was amazed that he never dropped it. I never realized how heavy a pack of buns could be. And so when it came time to ring up, first the cashier gave his buns a little delicate tug (the hamburger buns, that is). He wouldn't let go. A second tug. Nada. I just kept smiling as her facial expression quickly went from "he's adorable" to "gimme the bread, boy!" and she decided to tug a little harder. What probably took about 4 seconds seemed like a 5 minute duel as I laughed hysterically on the insides. In the end Justin was victorious as her final tug ripped the plastic wrapper in two, leaving him standing there with a little piece of plastic in his right hand and a little grin on his face... as if he had just won some unspoken game of tug-of-war with the check-out-girl.

Another notch on the diaper of the baby Kung-Fu Warrior.

Titi Monica & the crew during her visit to VA this past week

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Milestones, pt VII

At 4 months and 24 days, Justin Alexander...

• knows and responds to his name (although thanks to us he's not sure if his name is Justin, Punkin, or Doogie)
• has eaten pureed frozen peaches from a spoon (and the doctor said that the rash was *not* an allergic reaction... so daddy is off the hook for that one)
• has learned to paint his face and clothes while eating oatmeal from a spoon
• reaches for everything with his left hand
• chuckles a little when daddy throws him in the air (he won't laugh any other time... but he still grins wider than the interstate)
• holds his bottle with a little bit of help getting started
• stretches his arms out and reaches towards you to be picked up (heart wrenching)
• moves backwards in his walker (mostly accidentally, but hey we'll take it)
• is starting to grow his hair back on the sides (even though the Mohawk part is also getting longer... and longer... and...)
• still refuses to stay in the seated position
• takes needles better than his punk daddy who is scared of them
• stands while holding onto inanimate objects
• tries to pull himself up to his feet using pretty much anything he can grab a hold of
• still has no interest in crawling
• is usually put in the swing to fall asleep and then transferred to the crib... but as of today (per doctor's orders) he has officially graduated to putting himself to sleep in the crib instead.
• has fought through two colds to-date
• is happy that A-rod re-signed with the Yankees
• speaks french fluently (just making sure you were paying attention)
• and, last but not least, is taking donations to get his parents a new car.

His words, not mine.

According to Dr. Oliver, Justin's...

• parents were wrong about his teeth coming in early
• weight is 14 lbs 12 ozs
• height is 25.5 inches
• head will start reshaping once he gets more tummy time
• ability / desire to stand versus sit or lay, and penchant for taking steps is unusual for his age
• level of strength is also unusual for his age (maybe we should cut back on his taebo routines)
• weight, height and head circumference are in the 50th, 75th and 75th percentiles; respectively. Translation: he is strong and tall with a big head.

Rico Suave

These two pictures are being published solely to let everyone out there know that we DO brush the boy's hair from time to time. But seriously... what's the point? How long do you really think it's going to stay like that?

You can comb it, brush it, spit it down, or throw a hat on it... try as you may... but let it be known that the Mohawk will not be denied!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Car Trouble

Yesterday I joined a very elite club. It's called the "Go Around" club. To become a member you must allow your car to break down at the most inopportune moment, and certainly in the most inconvenient of places... forcing people to blare their horns at you while you holler and wave your arms in an effort to get them to (you guessed it) go around.

And being the overachiever that I am, of course I refused to join the club in an ordinary fashion... Nope. I chose to have my membership initiation (i.e., breakdown) in the left turning lane on Virginia Beach Boulevard at the start of the rush hour commute.

So where do I get my gold star?

But seriously speaking, our 1997 Nissan Altima really did give up on me yesterday to the tune of about $670. Which absolutely begs the question, when is it time to get a new car? What is "too much" when it comes to continually pouring money into that beat up car in the driveway? V and I have two cars, a 2000 Honda Civic with 170,000+ miles, and the Altima, which topped 150,000 miles sometime last week. Would we like new cars? Sure, who wouldn't?! ... A minivan is looking real sweet right now. Especially with Justin and the car seat in the back... Once the stroller is in the trunk (which takes about 20 minutes of maneuvering to squeeze into the Civic) don't even think about going shopping. There's just no room.

But the joy of not having car payments is something that you get used to Really Quickly, to the point where I don't know if there is any turning back. Right now the leap from no payment to payments again just seems unfathomable. But as the cars get older and repairs start to increase, it forces us to take a look at the financial pros and cons again. I think we go through this like every November or so. And the argument always goes the same way... something like this:

Car Repairs
In 2005, we spent $1726.58 in car maintenance for both cars combined. It sounds like a lot... actually... wait... it is a lot. And because it's rarely a planned event, it always feels like I'm being mugged when I have to dish out 7, 8 or 9 hundred dollars unexpectedly. But then the math kicks in (hold on tight my arithmetically challenged readers)... With two cars over 12 months, divide by 24 and that's equivalent to paying $71.94 per car per month. That beats a car payment every day of the week, and twice on Sundays. In 2006... we spent $1735.20 on car maintenance, which balances out to $72.30 per month per car. It's crazy how close those numbers are, ain't it? Well before yesterday's snafu, we had spent a total of $1728.21 for this year... which is about $72 even. How's that for consistency: 3 years of being within 30 cents of $72 a month for each car. Our streak would've been flawless, but the additional $670 from today pushes this year's average to $99 a month... Which is $39 more than riding the bus to work (yes I've done the math)... but then having a car is still far more convenient than having to ask Ray Ray (or Pookie) down the block for a ride when it's raining on a Sunday and the bus isn't running. So the score so far is

Old Cars: 1 New Cars: 0

Car Insurance
I have to admit that I haven't done the research, but my guess is that car insurance on anything new could easily double the rate we pay per month (about $80 for both cars combined). So there are advantages to having cars worth a combined $5000... but then that same number is also what makes it hard to justify continuing to pour cash in these old clunkers. When your car is only worth $1800, who wants to hear that they've spent $3000 over the past 3 years to keep it running and on the road? Yet and still, doubling our insurance premiums is not something we're exactly anxious to do... even though 15 minute could save... nevermind.

Old Cars: 2 New Cars: 0

Apples and Oranges
The last point is that new cars need love too! Not all of that repair money went into things like distributor cap assemblies and valve cover gaskets. There were also new sets of tires, oil changes, scheduled maintenance work, and new brakes to consider. And last I checked, the newer cars out there still require a little TLC that the warranty won't cover. New cars also don't dodge rocks any better than the older ones. So the cost of the two new windshields we got last year is probably a wash, too. Truth is, while I'd like to believe that a new car would keep all of that repair money in our pockets, comparing apples to apples I think we'd be surprise at how much of that money we'd be spending either way. But of course it would feel better spending it with a new car since those new cars just smell sooooo nice [insert sarcastic grin]. So the score is:

Old Cars: 3 New Cars: 0

So what's the conclusion? The conclusion is the same conclusion that I come up with every year (much to V's chagrin)... we'll be riding our cars until the wheels fall off. Hey, if braking with your feet was good enough for a hard working family like the Flintstones, then it's surely good enough for us. And now that we have Justin that just means we've got one more pair of feet to use and even more braking power to look forward to.

So if you're in our car and notice the scotch tape on the fuse box, or mis-matched hubcaps, or that the driver-side rear door doesn't lock anymore... or that the top left vent on the Altima doesn't quite blow air like it used to... Don't talk about us. We're just trying to hold it together until we can slap down cash for our next car. Because every time I go through this exercise and figure the prospect of finding an additional $500 a month for a car payment (and double that if we replace them both)... the more I realize it ain't gonna happen.

Unless, of course, you guys (our devoted and dedicated readers) would like to take up a collection for us.


Where'd everybody go?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Almost Famous

It's official. Justin Alexander is now a superstar. First he signed a contract to be the exclusive spokesperson for the new Pampers "JAE, Unlimited" diaper line. Then he landed the cover of next month's issue of People Magazine. His mohawk is now the official logo for the Pampers brand of diapers. In fact, there will now be a picture of him and his trademark hair tuft on the center of every diaper. Check out the magazine cover to see for yourself.

His mom and I thought that his pose on the cover was a little risque for our taste... but hey, I guess that's what sells these days. As always we're just happy that he's happy and we will continue to do what we can to support his acting and modeling career.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Milestones, pt VI

Justin turned 4 months old yesterday, which means it's time for the next milestone check.

4 months
• Smiles, laughs
• Can bear weight on legs
• Coos when you talk to him

(1) seems like he's been smiling forever, but he is just starting to consistently make noises that resemble a laugh (2) for sure, he's got legs like a tank (3) I'd say he's a little past cooing... and he does it whether you talk to him or not!


5 months
• Distinguishes between bold colors
• Plays with his hands and feet

(1) Seems to do so based on what catches his attention, but of course we can't know for sure, (2) Started this a couple of weeks ago. He says his feet taste like chicken.


6 months
• Turns toward sounds and voices
• Imitates sounds
• Rolls over in both directions

(1) Yes, (2) No, and (3) No. The turning towards sounds is totally cool... but even cooler is that he seems to be getting familiar with his name. Say Justin and his head will swivel more so than with any other word. I guess it helps that he's hearing it twice as often now that 2 outta 3 kids in daycare are named Justin. As for "imitates sounds", I don't think he's there yet... but the coincidence of his "words" sounding like what you just said seems to be slightly increasing every day. It also amazes me how much he studies your eyes and mouth when you talk to him. It's like he's really trying to pick up the pattern.

Other than those milestones, he is still working towards standing and sitting. The two newest "toys" we bought last week should help towards both of those goals. He's not too fond of the Bumbo, but he'll tolerate it if you hang out with him. For the most part, the problem is that (just like with everything else) he tries to stand up in it rather than stay seated. On the other hand, he seems to be having a blast with the Baby Einsteen Jumper. The sunflower teether on there is his new best friend, and the range of movement it allows is really forcing hiim to learn to stabilize / balance on his own way more than his walker was (which he hasn't used in weeks).

The two "Emerging Skills" listed for 4 months (i.e., "1/2 of kids can do") are grasping toys, and rolling over from tummy to back. As I mentioned before, he is grasping pretty much EVERYTHING. It started two weeks ago while my parents where here when he grabbed the hanging keys on the activity mat and wouldn't let go (that was a first). And at this point, I'd wish you good luck if you were trying to unravel his monster grip from anything he gets a hold of.

On the other hand, rolling over from tummy to back does not seem to interest him at all. But then again, I've definitely stunk lately when it comes to giving him consistent tummy time. We'll have to put that back in his busy schedule somehow... I'll see if we can squeeze it in somewhere betweem his bath time, photo shoots, movie roles and interviews. Hey, the boy is a superstar. What can I say?

No autographs please.

Justin practicing his "no comment" face for the press

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Inside Out

We took Justin to the beach for the second time. It was a little chilly, but he had a lot of fun. He said it was a lot brighter and way more spacious than he remembered from his first trip to the beach. After another look at the photos from his first trip there, I'd imagine that he was right.

Justin's Crew

Here are some photos from Justin's first week of childcare at Sharita's ("Mrs. Rita's") house. In all, the week went great and it seemed like Justin enjoyed himself while spending time with his new buddies. From youngest to oldest, the clan consisted of Aurora (6 weeks), Justin Alexander aka Baby Justin (3 months), Big Justin (11 months), and DJ (23 months). Aurora was only hanging out with them while her childcare provider was on vacation, so usually it will be just the three boys.

As you can see from the fourth photo, Justin has switched his hobby from blanket wrestling to feet grabbing. That's pretty much all he wanted to do over the past week. V says I cheated on this one since I've been trying to give him his feet for about a month now. But of course it wasn't until I left him alone and forgot about the feet thing that he started to show interest and began perpetually swiping at his limbs. It started with the knees on Monday, and it seemed like he got stronger and more flexible each day. By Wednesday he was grabbing his toes consistently, and by Friday (unfortunately I missed it but) V witnessed what was probably the first dip of a toe in his mouth. With all the constant grunts, strain and struggle it was pretty comical how hard he had been working all week to get one of his feet in his month. If nothing else, he was determined! So now that he has accomplished his goal and knows what they taste like, we'll have to wait and see if his interest wanes or not (I doubt it).

Watching DJ and Big Justin motor around still hasn't inspired him to crawl yet, but he is enjoying his tummy time way more than usual and is also propping himself up higher than before. It also seems like the consistency of a daycare schedule has improved his sleeping patterns. Granted, he stopped waking up for a middle-of-the-night (i.e., around 2am) feeding at least a month ago (yes!)... but he's never been this accurate. He's asleep for the night by 8pm as usual, and sometimes as early as 6 or 7. But this past week he was unbelievably precise about waking up for his AM feeding at 4:30AM on the dot. I told V that I think we should check underneath his bed... "I think the boy has an alarm clock in there." He is still getting his 8-hours-plus, but the weekend has thrown him off a bit. We'll see what happens once Monday rolls back around.

In other news, Justin's teething process is becoming more obvious. Still everything goes to the mouth, and now he has started biting down on the nipple of his bottle to try soothing the pain. The only thing that has struck us as odd throughout this whole process is that it seems like his BACK teeth are the ones that are coming in. The gums there are white, and if given a finger to chew on, this is the only area where he likes to smash down for comfort. Of course it would be absolutely bizarre and against all logic for his back choppers to surface first. But as I told V, nothing surprises me with this boy. He's so unusual that it would almost make sense if his wisdom teeth came in first.