Thursday, May 31, 2012

Take The Next Right Step

My apologies for disappearing--I've been spending a lot of time on the road lately. Posts with pictures to follow!

I've been reading the book God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life's Little Detours, by Regina Brett. It's a thoughtful little book of lessons Regina has learned in her 50 years of life--a life spent dealing with alcoholism, single parenthood, college, marriage, cancer, and, well...


It's a book I could have written, I think. It's a book I should write, if not with ink and paper, then at least with my actions.

In looking back on almost 52 years of living, and forward to at least another 52, I'm struck by the fact that while many folks my age seem to feel that life is almost over for them, I've got the sense that my life is just beginning, and I don't want to waste the next 52 years by doing what I've already done, and taking up space while I wait to meet my maker.

I want to live.

But how? That's the question.

In this, I'm guided by Regina and her little book, and also by the FLYLady, whose site has helped me in so many ways over the past six months.

FLYLady says: Take baby steps. You didn't get into this mess in a day, and you won't get out of it in a day.

Regina says: Take the next right step. If you're driving to California, your headlights only illuminate the next 350 yards. But assuming that you live in continental North America, and that you're actually heading in the right direction, those 350 yards of illumination are all you really need.

Take the next right step.

In order to make sure the next step I take is right, I need a goal, or goals. Otherwise, my steps are random, and not in the right direction. I can waste (I have wasted!) a lot of energy going off in myriad directions because I didn't know where I wanted to end up, or because I had conflicting goals. If you want to go to California and Nova Scotia at the same time, you're going to end up doing circles around Ontario. (Which is what I was doing for the last two weekends, but that was intentional.) If you want to get somewhere, the first thing you have to know is approximately where you want to end up.

So I've made a list of goals I want to achieve over the next few years:

Within the next year:

Declutter, organize and clean my house.
Paint my townhouse and decorate.
Complete and e-publish a novel.

These goals are SMART goals, and the one year timeframe is reasonable. I've already started the first and third, and I have almost everything I need to complete the second. (Did you know paint can last for years if it's left sealed in the can? :) )

Within the next 2.5 years:

Lose 57 pounds, bringing my weight down to 180 lbs.

Again, I've really already started this, having lost 12 or so pounds in the last few months. I've given myself a reasonable time frame based on the amount I've already lost and how long it took me to lose it.

Ten years:

Get out of debt.

Again, already started. I have a budget (which I regularly exceed--gotta work on that!), I've got a plan to pay off my housing charge arrears, my car loan, and my humungous student debt. The next right step here is likely going to be getting together exact figures (I know approximately how much I owe to whom, and how long the repayment is for, but not exactly...) and put together a timetable.

Fifteen years:

Gather a down payment and buy my own house, or some property on which I can build my own house.

Right now I'm living in a co-op. My housing is stable, with the housing charge geared to income, but it's not mine. I can never pay it off and be mortgage free, and I know that when the co-ops mortgage is paid off, there may well be no housing charge subsidy available. Add to that the fact that my backyard is too small to have a decently-sized garden, and I'm facing the fact that I will eventually need to move. Not to mention that I loathe general meetings, which are an important part of living in a co-operative housing arrangement. Needless to say, I'm NOT considering buying a condo.

So there you have my "bucket list," so to speak. It hasn't really changed much in the last ten or more years. What has changed, and only within the last six months, is my belief that I can actually achieve these goals. And my beliefs have changed because my experience with FLYLady has taught me that all I need to do is take the next right step.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Finance I: The Cost of Pets

My daughter and I took a trip to the pet store yesterday, because she's applied to adopt two rats from a local rescue group, and she wanted to get food, litter, and toys for them. (She already has at least two suitable cages.)

While we were there, I took a look at the kitties available for adoption from our local shelter, and found myself staring at a beautiful grey boy cat. Daughter said, "No, Mom. You gave away Phil (my last cat, I gave him to her father) because you couldn't afford him, and you still can't afford a cat.

(Phil, my former dust bunny. Have I mentioned the cost of allergy medication in this post yet?)

It's true, unfortunately. Even if I could afford the $230 adoption fee (which covers spaying/neutering if needed, a check-up and all vaccinations, and includes a bag of food and a tub of litter), I still can't afford a regular vet check-up or even food. At this point, I'm barely staying ahead of my bills.

mintlife has an informative article about the lifetime cost of pets, along with an infographic depicting the costs of various pets. The costs are grossly over-inflated, in my experience and opinion, but the graphic does show that pets cost more than many prospective owners think they do, and all too often, this leads to neglected or abandoned pets. Some of the highlights:

Spaying or neutering:
Ogden Nash said it best: Cats have kittens, dogs have puppies, but guppies just have baby guppies. Lots of kittens and puppies and baby guppies. And unless you're into killing baby animals, each of those kittens and puppies and baby guppies will need to be fed and housed and cared for properly. Or you'll have to abandon them at a local shelter, where maybe someone will adopt them who's more responsible about spaying or neutering their animals. Except for guppies, which can't be spayed or neutered, which leads me to ask you all a question: Does anyone out there want a tank load of guppies. Cuz I haz them. :p

Food: I found, when I did have a cat, that the cheapest food was usually not the cheapest, as it leads to overeating because the food is not nutritionally dense enough, and because it leads to health issues, and vets aren't cheap. If you think you're going to save on pet costs by buying the cheap stuff, think again. I get my fish food from the dollar store, but never again will I buy any cat food that does not list meat or fish as its first ingredient. It just isn't worth it.

Housing: Sure, the cat or dog can live in the house (and cats SHOULD live in the house), but a cat will need something to scratch other than the furniture or carpeted stairs (look closely at the picture above, and you'll see Phil has had a go at the bottom of the box spring), and a dog (and sometimes a cat) may need their own bed. Fish need tanks, rats need cages, and so on. Be very diligent in researching the ultimat size of your pet--far too many goldfish die simply because they're kept in bowls that are too small for them. Goldfish, in fact, need tanks larger than most fish--my two goldfish are currently in a twenty gallon tank, and they would be happier in something a little bigger.

(The sharks in their tank)

Leashes, collars, and clothes:
Yes, sometimes clothes are necessary, even for dogs. I live in Canada, and it can get very cold in the winter. Short haired dogs may need coats, and some dogs may need booties or shoes, especially if there's a lot of salt used on the sidewalks where you're walking them.

Poop and pee disposal:
Every animal does it, even human ones. And somehow, that poop and urine must be contained and removed from the house. Cats and other animals need litter, dog owners need to carry little bags on walks, even fish need filtration and frequent water changes. This is often an overlooked expense, especially when keeping fish (how many times have I forgotten that I need to buy filter media???).

Toys, decorations, etc.:
While not strictly necessary, it's the little things in life that keep your pet amused and sometimes make life worth living. A caged animal, in particular, needs something other than just the bare cage to distract it and keep it from terminal boredom during its owners absences.

Vet fees: For some animals (like my fish) these can be non-existent. However, for anything bigger than a rat, a yearly check-up is necessary to prevent health problems that will end up costing even bigger bucks down the line, and to keep your animal healthy and happy. If you can't afford a yearly vet check up, then you can't afford the dog or cat! I'm not going to waste ink waffling on this one--you made a committment to this animal by bringing it into your home. While I don't equate pets with children, they're still living creatures deserving of utmost respect.

Some animals need more than just their owners to thrive. Fish need other fish--when one of my two goldfish died a year or so ago, the remaining fish seemed likely to follow suit. Then I got him a companion, and everything is fine again. Rats need to be in pairs or larger (same sex!) groups. Hamsters, however, should be kept in individual cages. Know your animal's needs, and it will save you money and grief in the long run.

Time: All animals need time and attention to thrive in the artificial environment of a human dwelling. That time and attention will take you away from other pursuits. Some animals will require babysitting if you're away even for a few hours, some can be left alone for a day or two, and some as long as a week. (Which is why I have fish...) If you can't provide that time and attention, you'll have to hire someone to do it for you, or find a willing sucker (I mean friend or family member) to help you out for free.

Training: I'm of the firm opinion that no-one should own a dog who isn't willing to put the time in to train it properly. A dog is more like a child than any other pet. You wouldn't let your child grow up with no schooling or rules (would you???), and you shouldn't do that to your dog, either. Not only is it bad for your reputation as a dog owner, it's bad for the dog. A dog that hasn't been taught proper behaviour around people and other animals is often a stressed dog. A dog not trained to obey voice commands may bolt when off-leash, possibly becoming lost or getting hit by a car. The saddest pet story I have is that of trying to catch a dog that had been hit by a car and was still running, after being spooked by fireworks while off-leash. I did catch it, but not before it was hit by a second car. The animal control folks were called in, and I learned the owner had already been located. But the whole incident could have been avoided by having the dog on leash and properly trained to stay with its owner.

There are many, many benefits to having a pet. But even an animal as lowly as a guppy costs more than most folks think it does. There is no such thing as a "free" kitten or puppy or even guppy. The mintlife article says that 21% of animals surrendered to the Humane Society Silicon Valley during a 12-month period were given up for financial reasons. That's traumatic for both the animal and for you, the former human companion.

Think before you buy is a good mantra to adopt for any purchase, but for pets, think two or three or four times, and not all within a ten-minute period of time. Pets should always be a planned addition to the family, and with eyes wide open as far as the financial aspects are concerned.

And my daughter, the one who's getting the rats?

She's twenty-four, has more income coming in that is going out, and is an experienced caretaker of rats. When her last rat (adopted by itself from the humane society) went to rat heaven after living a long and spoiled life, she delayed getting another because she was hoping to go to grad school in the States. After she learned she wasn't accepted and shed a few tears, her first action was to check the adoption site for the rat rescue. It's been a couple of months since then, and she only just put in the papers to adopt this week. Before she was even approved, she went out and bought what was needed, with her own money.

She's ready for pet ownership. Are you?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What's Really Important?

A recent survey of Canadian homeowners between the ages of 30 and 59 with a household income of more than $50,000 revealed that almost nine out of ten believe that the most important factors in having a "successful" retirement were being debt free, and being healthy. These two factors were more important than living near family, keeping busy with a hobby or volunteer work, or having a broad group of friends.

I work almost daily with seniors in a wide range of financial situations, and with a wide range of health issues. Many of them are in their late eighties and nineties, and some of them have been retired almost as long as they worked for pay. And I can tell you from my observations that the ones who have been happiest in retirement--and I will assume that the word "happy" can and should be substituted for "successful," since enjoying your golden years is what retirement is really all about--are those who have close ties with family and friends, and who have a variety of interests to keep themselves busy.

It's not that being debt free and being healthy aren't important. They are. Very. My parents, aged 75 and 80, are enjoying retirement, but there is no doubt at all in my mind that they would enjoy it more if they weren't paying mortgage and car and credit card payments. And they'd certainly be able to do more and enjoy more if their health was better.

But they ARE enjoying themselves, at least most of the time, which is all anyone can hope for, really.

However, I have known some seniors who retired without having cultivated friendships with a broad base of people, or who moved away from family and friends to be in a place that was either less expensive or had a better climate. and they ultimately ended up being much less happy than those with family and friends to help them through the rough spots. My granparents, for example, moved to Victoria, BC because it was a beautiful city with a milder climate than Toronto. My father, their only child, could only visit occasionally because of the cost, and after they moved they never saw their grandchildren again. The friends they made in Victoria were all of similar age, and my grandmother outlived them all. She died alone.

If that's your idea of a "successful" retirement, then you have my condolences. As for the rest of us, it's fine to be debt-free, and it's great to be healthy. But most of us are relational creatures, and if we fail to build healthy relationships now, when we're in our prime, by the time we hit retirement we may have lost those who should be our "nearest and dearest." New friends, as wonderful as they can be, cannot replace those to whom you were close while your children were growing, those who walked beside you during your darkest times, and who valued your support as they walked through theirs. And nothing can replace the support and companionship of your own children, if you have them.

As for me, yes, I'm working (very slowly) towards a debt-free retirement--details to come in another post. And yes, I'm working towards improving my health--again, more details later. But more important than either of those is nurturing the web of friendships I've developed, especially the friendships I have with my children. Because at the end, when I'm 105 and my health is gone and inflation has eroded the value of whatever wealth I've managed to accumulate, it will be my family and my friends who either care for me themselves, or choose the care providers I'll need. And if my helpers don't like me, I'm really in for a rough ride!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

If I Were Mozart, I'd Be Dead By Now

I'm sitting at a picnic table in the park, watching the kids, and I suddenly realize that if we don't go and totally fuck things up, most of the children I see playing in the playground today will still be alive eighty years from now. This is not an expectation my parents had when I was a member of the under-10 set, and yet it's true.

When I was born, the expectation for a life well lived was five years of the unrestrained bliss of being an infant and toddler, followed by entry into kindergarten and between 12 and 15 years of public school. If you were rich and/or smart (I qualified as one of the latter), you chose what you would like to do for your life's work, and went to college or university, got a diploma or degree, got a job, got married, bought a house, had kids, paid off the mortgage while raising kids and working at the same job for forty years. The kids grew up, moved out, got married and had families and jobs of their own. Eventually, forty or so years later, you would be expected to retire with a gold watch, a decent company pension, a paid off house, and the expectancy that you'd have ten or so years to travel and enjoy "the good life" before you kicked the bucket.

That was the expectation for a life well lived when I was born. Out of all of my friends, I only know of one couple who have actually lived that particular life pattern (or are living it, I should say, as they're not retired yet). The rest of us have gone through career changes, going back to school, children with disabilities, separation and divorce, being laid off and fired or even never being able to find a decent job at all. And through it all, constant education and re-education as the world tilted and changed around us.

Life expectancy has blossomed. Mozart died aged 35 years, and that was not exceptional in his day and age. In fact, it wasn't exceptional in Austria as late as 1900, when the life expectancy for males was 37.8 years, and for females, 39.9 years. In other words, there was very little change in over 200 years.

But the next fifty years saw the discovery of penicillin, and other advancements that saw the average life expectancy almost double, from about 38 years to 62 years for males and 67 years for females. In the United States, where the average lifespan had been 48 years for males and 51 years for females in 1900, the life expectancy of a male born in 1950 was 66 years, and a female could expect to live 71 years.

And the sixty-two years since 1950 have seen the advent of things that were not even imagined in 1950, things that have increased our lifespan even more. Our cities are actually cleaner than they were a century ago, mostly due to improvements in technology over the last fifty years. We have many more diagnostic tools at our disposal, and many more ways of dealing with illness and disease when they do strike.

I've just completed two on-line life expectancy calculators. I did so without trepidation, knowing the news would be good, but it could be better. After all, I don't smoke and never have, I drink very rarely, I walk for half- to three-quarters of an hour six days per week, my blood pressure and cholesterol and blood sugar number are within healthy ranges, and I'm working on improving my dietary habits and losing weight.

At the age of fifty one, I've learned that I can expect to live another thirty-five to forty-five years more, most of it in good health, and if I lose about fifty pounds and raise my good cholesterol level a bit, I can add anywhere from half a year to ten years to that total. Indeed, one of the surveys boldly proclaimed, "You could live to be 105!"

By the time he was my age, Mozart had been dead for sixteen years. Barring sudden catastrophe, I can expect as many more healthy years of life as he had total years of life. And the question becomes, "What am I going to do with myself?"