Sunday, March 23, 2008

9-Month Swing / Milestones XI

Justin Alexander turns 9 months old tomorrow. Or put another way, he has now been outside of the womb for just as long as he was inside. So that 9-month swing means he's been around for a total of 18 months already. That statement alone leaves me to marvel and wonder where the time has gone. He is such a "big boy" now, it's incredible. And as much as I look forward to the millions of moments we have ahead of us, I find myself already growing sad and trying to hold onto the 1/2 million heartfelt moments that have already passed right by us. Kids have a funny way of growing up. And I guess parents have a funny way of being surprised by it everytime; as if they never knew it would happen. These are the idiosyncracies of life that I wouldn't trade for the world.

As for Justin's milestones, I don't think much has changed since our last milestone check. In terms of the "Not-The-Momma" syndrome that I wrote about not too long ago, V was exactly on point when she commented on how cyclical his favoritism is these days. It could not have been 48 hours after I published that entry that Justin started staying DaDa and giving me the sliced bread treatment. My guess is that he read the blog and was just feeling bad about the whole thing. Either way (I can't lie) I ate it up, am still loving it, and have become a sucker for the boy all over again.

In other news, there are still no definitive words being uttered (outside of mama, dada, and the likes) and still no teeth...which has not stopped him from brushing his gums to attain that minty fresh feeling in the morning. He's also thrilled to sit around and practice the opening and closing of his hands a la the bye-bye motion, but hasn't quite learned when he's supposed to use this new skill just yet. Also, after having me think he'd never crawl at all, he now crawls at the speed of light and in fact seems just a heartbeat away from walking unassisted. As of now, he's constantly amusing himself with his ability to balance with no hands (he can stay up for about a 10-count), and if you catch him in the right mood he'll take a step and a half forward before it all comes tumbling down. V had a hunch that he'd be walking by 9 months old... and to be honest, even with less than 24 hours left on that timeline, I'm not so sure she won't be right. Stay tuned.

Easter Runaway

At 9:32 this morning, Justin Alexander found out that he would be spending Easter morning in the doctor's office rather than in church. At that point, he proceeded to run away from home but as expected he didn't make it very far.

"Another doctor's visit? ... I'm so outta here."

Umm... This is the part where you chase after me... Hello????


The Verdict
And so to the doctor we went to finally address the remnants of cold that Justin has had for over two weeks. As it turns out, the (ear) infection that he was treated for some weeks ago never fully left his system; which explains the lingering cough, runny nose, and occasional sneezes with icky discharge. The verdict today was a sinus infection and we were sent home with some more antibiotics and the usual order for plenty of fluids.

In terms of every other factor in his life, Justin has been all that we could have possibly asked for in a baby... everything from his intelligence to his temperament, down to his sleeping habits and adorable smile. But if the boy is one thing, he is apparently a sponge for health issues. If he could spell it, I'd accuse him of being a hypochondriac. But on the other hand, in the larger scheme of things, the truth is that he is probably not considered very sickly. Nor have any of his ailments been anything out of the norm as far as baby illnesses go (common colds, breathing issues, chest congestion, ear and sinus infections). But of course, when it's your child, it seems like the sky is falling and that the healthy days are too few and far between. And of course as new parents especially, we sometimes struggle to not take it personal.

It is especially demoralizing given that we are so overly cautious with him. We carefully monitor the temperature of his room, dress him appropriately, keep tabs on his contact with other people, etc... yet and still we end up in the doctor's office every 6 hours for something new. Meanwhile, every time we go to Wal-mart we see families with either... (a) babies that look about 12 minutes old and don't even have immune systems yet. Sometimes they look so young that I swear they had to just give birth to them in aisle 15 or something... or... (b) an infant / toddler on the coldest day of the month with no shoes, no socks, no coat, and no hat (all of which the parents have on themselves, mind you)... and a short-sleeve tee-shirt that says, "My Mommy Loves Me"(but yet mommy couldn't buy you a scarf).

But WE are the ones that end up in the aisle 26 looking for the Baby Motrin. These other kids look like they could lick a shopping cart wheel and not catch a germ, while Justin will get a runny nose from passing by the frozen food section. Good grief. Where's the justice?

Pros and Cons
Then of course there's the whole daycare vs. stay-at-home and breastmilk vs. formula-fed debates that some would argue until they were blue the face. The truth is, those are experimental statistics, not absolutes. And so I often find myself reminding V that, yes, "statistics show" that breastmilk-fed babies are less susceptible to illness... BUT that does not translate to the statement "breastmilk babies do not get sick". These studies are done across samples of thousands of kids and based on overall percentages (45% of type A stayed healthy versus 51% of type B, for example). Which means that for any given individual, anything can happen. And so the way I look at it is, imagine if Justin wasn't breastmilk fed!! Without the extra antibodies and whatnot that he gained from his mom, the kid would would've probably contracted some new cross-strand of polio and small pox... followed by measles, tuberculosis, whooping cough, tetanus, and Alzheimer's. All before turning 5 months old.

As for the daycare vs. stay-at-home argument, the doctor this morning was quick to point out that this is often overstated as well. She went on to tell a story that we've heard a dozen times already: Her first child stayed home for a year and contracted every possible sickness in the process... while child #2 was sent to daycare, ate dirt and drank mud everyday, and never sniffled until she was 14 years old. And of course for every six people with such a story, you'll have 1/2 dozen more that tell you the exact opposite ("junior was never sick until that first week of daycare!")... As a statistics teacher, I've gotta admit that it irks me when people cannot discern the difference between correlation and causation... but that's a whole different blog entry...

In the End...
As for Justin's experience, with only 3 other kids in his small daycare environment (none of which ever seem to be sick) I'm guessing we'd be hard pressed to pinpoint this as the culprit either. And so although we'd love to blame ourselves and sit around contemplating what we've done wrong... the bottom line is becoming more and more apparent. Justin's immune system is about as strong as Popeye, pre-spinach, and we're just going to have to endure these occasional bouts with illness until his system matures enough to put up more of a fight (which can be any day now... tomorrow would be nice). In the meantime, we only ask that you try your best not to laugh, point or stare as we roll our beloved son down the block in his hypoallergenic transportable bubble.

Here's to good health.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Nickels and Dimes

In Virginia, we have to get our cars inspected every year at a state certified inspection station. There are hundreds of certified stations, with most being repair shops and car dealerships. As the inspection procedure is standardized, so is the price: $16.00 for a motor vehicle, $12.00 for a motorcycle, $51.00 for a tractor-trailer. So needless to say that upon completing my inspection at "Accurate Tune Plus" in Norfolk (an inspection that I failed, by the way...) I was a little miffed when the bill rang up as $20. Here's the conversation that ensued.

Me: $20? What are these two charges?
ShopGuy: $2 for tax and $2 for EPA.
Me: EPA? Whats that?
ShopGuy: That's the EPA charge. That's that environmental stuff they're doing now. We've gotta charge that for everyone. Man, that's some new stuff they've got us doing. I don't know.
Me: I don't know about that... state inspections are $16. I've never paid this much for a state inspection.
ShopGuy: Yeah, but I've gotta charge you tax and EPA
Me: [looking very skeptical] You sure about that?
ShopGuy: [starting to look nervous] um... yeah.
Me: Okay... if you're sure... then I'll pay it.

. . . . .

Granted, I knew I was getting ripped. But I've finally learned that you can't fight every battle... and on this particular day I had already decided in my mind to eat the difference on this one and let it ride. For me, it was going to be enough that he'd lost my future business and would probably end up on the blog as business to stay away from. But as he swiped my credit card and payment was completed, I noticed that ShopGuy was starting to look more and more nervous. And so as I walked away, I started to smirk... and the more I smirked the more nervous he got... and the more nervous he got the more I smirked.. and so we continued this cycle until I finally laughed out loud... and at that point I couldn't hold it anymore. It was time to have a little more fun with ShopGuy. So I walked back to the counter...

Me: Hey, let's talk about this tax charge now. What's the tax rate on car repairs?
ShopGuy: 5%
Me: That's interesting, because 5% of $16 is 80 cents.... How'd you get 2 dollars? [Lots of awkward silence as ShopGuy tries to choose his words carefully]
ShopGuy: Um... I rounded it to make the math easy.
Me: Hmmm. I see. 80 cents... rounded to 2 dollars. Didn't know that was legal. [more awkward silence...] You know... any half decent math teacher that comes in here is going to call you on that tax thing.
ShopGuy: Yessir.
Me: Have a good day.

. . . . .

So I go back outside to check on the car and ShopGuy has a quick conference with some other maintenance dude on the other side of the garage. A few seconds later, he is in front of me again trying to shove some crinkled up dollars into my hand.

ShopGuy: [still looking nervous... talking fast and shifting his weight from side to side]. Hey... you know what... I was wrong about the EPA thing. I apologize. This whole process is new man, so I didn't know. I thought I had to charge you that. Sorry about that, man.
Me: You know what... At this point, just keep it. I'm not even worried about it. Thanks anyway though.
ShopGuy: No... please... take it. I want to do right... And when you come back for re-inspection, I won't charge you the dollar that most people charge. It's a courtesy. I always do it for free. I don't believe in charging people for that. I do it as a courtesy.

. . . . .

As a courtesy? Did he say as a courtesy? Won't it be more like "free out of obligation" since he hiked up my bill by 20% which means I essentially pre-paid for FOUR re-inspections? What a joke. By now, his face was so ridden with guilt that I finally let it go, took the cash, and was on my way. But ohmygosh, I was laughing hysterically on the inside. As I drove away, all I could think about was how cool it would've been if I really was some kind of state auditor or something and had the ability to slap this guy with a huge fine for fraudulent charges and tax evasion. Oh man... that would've been awesome. Heck, I would've thrown some jail time in there, too, just to make an example of him.

It's people like him that give the good mechanics a bad name.

Either way, it made we wonder... how often do they get away with this? For some reason, repair shops are one of those places where people rarely question their bill amount. $4 may not seem like a lot, but if they overbill even 1/2 of their customers by 10 to 20%, those fraudulent charges add up and in the end you're talking about some serious swindling. [It reminded me of a gas station in Manhattan that used to habitually charge my credit card about 10 cents extra every time I filled up. Seems like nothing worth writing about. But given their location on West Side Highway, you can conceivably multiply that by the thousands of people that pump there each week... and now you're talking about some serious illegal cash flow]... On top of that, I'm willing to bet that the 150% increase in the tax that he charged me will mysteriously disappear by the time he gets around to reporting his sales tax figures to the IRS. Combine this with the fact that he documented these blunders on my receipt, and I all I can say is: That's Just Dumb! Its one thing to pull a fast one... but its another thing altogether to leave a paper trail in the process. In the end, ShopGuy lived another day to continue his business and his con-artistry on future customers. But I'm convinced that all of these things will catch up with him in due time.

As for the car itself, with over 10 years and 150K miles, I hold my breath every year when inspection time rolls around. This year our 97 Altima failed due to the headlights being too dim (same problem the Civic had last year after the accident) and a crack in the intermediate tailpipe. While they didn't offer to fix the tailpipe, the guys at Accurate Tune Plus did offer to clean my headlights for $70. SEVENTY DOLLARS? As if everything else I've mentioned wasn't enough of a reason to consider their business practices crooked and unscrupulous. They wanted to charge me 70 bucks for 3 ounces of plastic polish and 8 minutes of elbow grease. Um... thanks but no thanks.

I went and got the tailpipe fixed at Big Al's mufflers, and stopped at K-Mart on the way home for a bottle of Plastx plastic cleaner. Two hours, 6 dollars, and 60 cents later I came back to Accurate Tune with my tailpipe fixed, headlights cleaned up and ready for my free (ha!) re-inspection. Not only did I pass inspection with flying colors, but for some strange reason they seemed extremely happy to see me drive away.

What a scoundrel.

Financial Snapshot II

Hello Rental #2
Well, it only took forever... December 17 to March 14... but as of Friday, we officially closed on rental property #2. In the end, taking 88 days to close on the property probably worked in our benefit since it almost took that long for us to find a new tenant for rental #1. But with the closing behind us and rental #1 back on track, we can now turn our attention to getting the new place move-in ready and advertised. This particular property was a HUD home with a purchase price of $126,260 (about $15K below fair market). With a $3K seller's assists, our total closing costs ended up being $314.

$314!!! Those are the types of savings I get excited about. I wish I could say the same for rental #1 (those closing costs were literally about 20 times more)... but you live and learn. As for the required repairs, here is what we're looking at:

Remove the gawd awful wallpaper throughout
Remove the what-were-they-thinking do-it-yourself molding around the ceiling and windows
Paint entire house
Paint exterior of front door and shutters
Remove storm door framing and refinish surfaces
Replace spring on backyard screen door
Order garage door openers & reprogram frequency
Ensure that all ceiling fans work
Pressure wash entire home exterior
Replace mailbox and wooden post
Install blinds throughout house
Change the locks on all exterior doors
Install all missing bathroom fixtures (faucet knobs, etc)
Install vanity lighting in master bathroom
Replace all carpet
Replace one window
Install new window screens where needed
Replace or repair banister
Replace or repair laundry room doors
Inspect and repair closet shelving where necessary
Install new toilet seats in upstairs bathrooms
Fix hot water heater
Fix running toilet
Address any problems with water pressure
Install closet door in 4th bedroom
Address the 200 little things that might be overlooked, but that have to be done to get the house into move-in ready condition (cut padlock to backyard, replace light bulbs, door stoppers, toilet paper holders, matching wall plates, fireplace key & covers to light fixtures, etc.)

Green stuff on the siding is nothing that a little bleach pressure
wash can't take care of.... but there may be no hope for the
decorating skills of whoever put up that bathroom wallpaper.

The targeted completion date is April 5, with tenancy beginning by May 1. Those may be high hopes but hey, if you've gotta hope for something, why not hope for the best? A lot of things will have to line up perfectly for us to pull that one off... but stranger things have happened.

Financial Strategy
As for the purchase itself, we definitely skipped a few steps to get to where we are now. From everything we're learning now in FPU, building wealth is supposed to be Step Three in the overall get-rich-slowly scheme that we've got cooking in our financial crock pot. Presuming at least $1000 in savings to begin with, Step One is having all of your debt paid off and Step Two is having an emergency fund of 3-to-6 months of expenses put aside. Without those first two steps taken care of, I'll be the first person to tell you that owning three mortgage notes (2 rentals + our primary) can be a surefire recipe for disaster. Just last week in FPU class, Dave Ramsey reiterated that a person should never invest in real estate without having substantial cash reserves in savings to smooth out the rough months. And in December, V and I certainly got a taste of the ugly side of real estate when our first tenant bailed on us... leaving us with an extra mortgage payment and utility bill to carry for about 2 1/2 months. Long story short, it was a reminder that responsibility for a bad rental property with no back-up savings can potentially have "financial disaster" written all over it.

Up to this point that was a (calculated) risk we were willing to take in order to get Step Three of the process jump started. But now it's time to stop tempting fate and re-prioritize our goals... because tenants do leave (sometimes in the middle of the night, as we've learned) roofs don't last forever, dirty walls need repainting, and carpet eventually needs replacing. So with that, there won't be another rental property (or any other investment tools) for a good while to come. For now, our attention will be squarely on those first two steps: eliminating debt and raising cash. And on that note, here was our financial snapshot from about a year ago:

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

Even including the proceeds from the flip property, we were projected to spend 7 grand more than we make this year, bringing the total up to a $36,695 deficit that we needed to shovel ourselves from under. Since that snapshot was taken, two things have happened. For one, we ended up with a tax refund of $4000 rather than the tax bill of $3000 that we projected and set aside for. So that $7K swing eliminated the 7K shortfall that we were bracing for, bringing the total back down to $29,695.10. Secondly, over the past 12 months (and particularly since FPU and Stanley Johnson) we've become fanatical about budgeting our money, curbing our spending, questioning or purchases, and paying down debt. So with that, the here's our new financial snapshot:

Student Loan I: $5,682.45
Student Loan II: $11,048.44
Stupid Tax: $1966.35
Debt Total: $18,727.35

Still a big number, but we are excited about our progress. So now, one year later, it's time to tweak our goals. The (short term) Goal #1 is now to eliminate Student Loan I and the Stupid Tax completely by the end of the year (leaving us with Student Loan #2 and about $10K to go). That will position us nicely for Goal #2 which is to save at least 10% of our salary each month (as of this month we've worked our way UP to a measly 3%). With Goal #1 accomplished by December, my hope is that we can accomplish Goal #2 by the first quarter of 2009. Goal #3 is then to work towards having our 3-to-6 months of expenses put aside as an emergency fund / buffer against financial crisis. For us that equates to having about $40K in some type of liquid investment (e.g., in our ING money market account). Granted, that's a whole lot more than either of us have ever had at one time... but after just 2 months of using a zero-based budget and the envelope system, those numbers no longer seem as far-fetched as they used to. For us, that amount should be enough to withstand a dose of catastrophe to our careers, health, or lifestyle without having to endure severe and immediate financial hardship (or bankruptcy). My projection for this goal is somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 or 5 years. That gets knocked to 3 years if we're super aggressive about it, the photography business takes off, and everything else goes perfectly. And if we sell our house, then we get to "pass go AND collect $200 dollars", as we'd be able to use our equity to fund our emergency fund in one lump sum. And knocking 4 or 5 years off of your financial planning horizon is always a good thing.

Goal #4 is to revisit the various investment strategies and wealth building tools that we are currently putting on hold (401K, 403B, real estate, ROTH IRA's... yadda yadda yadda). We'll probably reinsert these objectives when we're about halfway to achieving Goal #3 since (1) I'm a sucker for overlapping tasks and having things cooking in the background, and (2) the sooner we starting diving into this arena, the sooner we can begin reaping the benefits of compound interests, matching programs, and long-term market performance. But until we've got enough cash to where a tenant dropping dead tomorrow does not make our financial stability implode, putting any more money towards Goal #4 would probably be a mistake.

And of course, ALL OF THIS is subject to change at the drop of a hat (or more specifically, the drop of another baby... or change in job, location, prerogative, or financial objectives). But hey, you've gotta start somewhere. So that is what we are doing to secure our financial future. Being deliberate with our money. Pay off our debt and saving with the same fervor and intensity that we put towards everything else. How about you? Motivated yet?

Sunday, March 9, 2008


As of a couple of weeks ago, the installation of our new fence was finally complete. While we absolutely love the end result, there are some obvious things that our local fencing company (Hamilton Fencing and Decks) still needs to learn about professionalism and business acumen. Click here for the full story.

We didn't know that the new fencing came with complimentary dirt,
muck, and a grand opportunity to clean up someone else's mess.

Aside from that, we are both anxious and excited at the prospect of selling our home. Granted, if the house was sold today, we'd have no clue where we'd end up and how (in-state? out-of-state? owning? renting? house? apartment? long-term, short-term?...) but those things will have to take care of themselves once we get there. For now, we simply recognize this as a chance to take advantage of our home equity, eliminate debt, build wealth, increase our mobility, and establish a new situation in which we stay well beneath our means with respect to living expenses.

So with that, we are certainly eager to see where this FSBO thing leaves us in the larger scheme of our financial, family, and career goals. Wish us luck!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Not The Momma

Reminiscent of the Dinosaurs sitcom from the 90's, over the past couple of weeks I have gradually learned the full definition of Dad. According to Webster's Dictionary...

Dad (dād) –noun [informal]
1. Father.
2. Male giver of life.
3. Not mom.

Justin Alexander has not quite crossed into full blown separation anxiety for either of us, but he is definitely aware of who his parents are and will often become decidedly (albeit temporarily) whiny when asked to separate from his mommy. And what I've found out over the past few days is that, given how much I do for the little squirt on a daily basis, this subtle (albeit unintentional) act of rejection can cause some cosmic-sized emotional wounds. I know... I know... every seasoned dad reading this is laughing at me and probably saying something along the lines of "get used to it buddy" or "join the club pal"... After all, what athlete, actor, or otherwise celebrated icon has ever stepped up to the microphone and said "Hi Dad!"... um... no. That would be the obligatory "Hi Mom" moment of sports and entertainment. It's as if it's in their contracts or something. One day somebody will thank dad instead... and they will probably get kicked off the team or go to jail or something.

Of course, the problem is only compounded by his association of mommy with food. Even after just 8 months of life, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that Mommy = breastmilk, while Daddy = way to get to mommy. And so when I go to get Justin out of his crib in the morning, I sometimes have to wait through his 2-minute drill of pushing away from me and looking over my shoulder to see if mommy is coming. And only then I can get a little acknowledgement as that other parent that works here too. Oh, and on his "needy days", don't let mommy pass by when I am trying to feed, play with, change, console, hold, dress, or photograph Justin. It's over. And while V, has been real good about working with me on this subject (downplaying his reactions, trying to sneak by when I'm with him, allowing me to feed him more often, etc.) having to go from being "the best thing since sliced bread" to chopped liver can still be a tough pill to swallow. Anyone who knows how involved I am with Justin will quickly understand the frustration here. Sometimes I rush to pick him up and in his eyes his only response is "Cool... are you taking me to mommy now?". Man... that's cold, homey.

Okay... Okay... so I readily admit that my claims are all exaggerated. Yes, Justin still has plenty of fun with his dad, we still have days when it is totally cool to be daddy, and overall there's no question for his love for both of his parents. But those few times during the week when it doesn't quite go that way always seem like an eternity to me.

To be honest, it has also driven the occasional tension wedge between me and V, leaving me to sometimes begrudge his affinity for her and subconsciously admonishing her penchant for breastfeeding him at the drop of a hat.... hungry or not. Just today, as I watched him gravitate towards her, I found myself trying to calculate the amount of time she spends with him without it leading to breastfeeding. And while I am still (not very, but) just a tad apprehensive about him becoming overly dependent on the breast, for the most part I do understand that this shouldn't bother me nearly as much as it does.

Now mind you, I don't want to paint the picture that we are over here competing for his love and attention, because there is certainly enough to go around. But I do want to honestly document what it feels like some days to be the residential hot potato. And so, with that said, I know I have to do better to not resent V for her desire to breastfeed, nurture or provide for Justin Alexander in her mommy-like ways... especially knowing that he may grow out of this and not be such a momma's boy after all [Yes, his daddy is a momma's boy too... but that's not the point here...] In the meantime, if the boy tries to jump out of my arms one more time just because his mother entered the room, I may have to slash the tires on his walker and vandalize his playpen. Because I've been peed on at least one time too many to put up with this any longer. So, Justin Alexander... stop this prejudicial behavior immediately, or else I'll feed you to the night night monster. Understood?!

Phew. That was therapeutic. Thanks for listening.