The final approach

As the big day gets closer [2 weeks, 4 days from today] the tension is mounting around my house.  Everyone is feeling the pressure of our big decision right now. This morning was like most other mornings: harried, chaotic, anything but routine. The closer the big day comes, despite my nesting-like preparation, and maybe even because of it, the more we seem to dissolve into total disarray.

Like most mornings, we scrambled to get the kids fed and ready for two different school/daycare scenarios, cram in some breakfast while standing at the counter [me at the breast pump], and get ourselves dressed for work.  The hubs and I had our usual decompression chat on my morning commute [I use Bluetooth unlike 90% of my fellow commuters, thank you].  This setup isn’t working, we both agreed, feeling like even 1 more week of this interim routine, let alone 2 or 3, might literally kill us both. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder out loud, “is me quitting work the answer or is there something we’re overlooking that could make me working…work?”

The last few days I’ve felt panicky. We’ve all had colds so we’ve been taking turns not sleeping, which means mommy hasn’t slept in over a week.  I’m walking on eggshells, which means everyone else is too. On the phone with my husband this morning I rattled off some ideas that could make our dual-income situation more doable.  “I can stop breastfeeding, we can hire a cleaner, we can find a more convenient daycare setup.”  I could hear him nodding and I knew he was feeling it too. But as the voice of reason in our family, he assured me, “we’re never going to be happy or successful if we’re both trying to do everything all the time.”  He’s right.  We’re both working several jobs instead of focusing on what we want to do, and where our greatest potential is. Every morning for the foreseeable future is going to look like this one.  So why are we suddenly doubting this decision when the state of things in our household is crying out for it? 

We’re scared, simple as that.  We’re quickly approaching the point of no return.  And the reality is that we’re already there; we’re both so invested in this decision now that we’ve cut the engines and we’re gliding toward the runway. It may be a bumpy landing, but it could just be our best opportunity to land without crashing.  Tray tables up, kids.  Let’s do this!

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Outsmarting the Grocery Monster

One of my biggest mommy projects is wrangling the grocery bill. If you’ve ever undertaken the cringe-worthy task of tallying up your monthly spending on groceries, you know all about what I call the Grocery Monster.  The Grocery Monster is the mysterious creature that eats your well-planned list on the way to the grocery store, sneaks overpriced last-minute items into your cart on the way to the register, and whispers into your toddler’s ear at dinner-time that boxed macaroni and cheese is the only ‘vegetable’ worth eating.

A friend of mine lamented on the phone recently, “I tried couponing, but who has time for that?” I nodded. I’d actually calculated that the time I spent couponing at my current hourly rate would have me paying the amount of the coupon savings on top of my grocery bill. Not to mention the time it was taking away from my family, my whole reason for leaving work in the first place.

So I decided, instead of literally working toward a grocery budget, I’d change the way I buy groceries to make my budget work for me, and keep the monster at bay. Here are some tips I’m using to outsmart the grocery monster.

  1. Buy on price, not on need, and especially not on want.  The grocery monster preys on needs and wants. We already know better than to shop when hungry or throw a menu together in the shopping aisle. But we still tend to buy for now rather than buying for price.  One thing the extreme couponers do well is stock up when items are at the best price.  The downsides to the extreme version of stocking are the required space, and the fact that a lot of non-perishable foods are loaded with preservatives and other processed ingredients that make them unhealthy choices. But stocking up on storage bags, toilet paper, and canned vegetables when on sale is better than buying those items on the fly and paying higher prices. It can add up. But be careful. The grocery monster also loves quantity. Make sure you and your family don’t increase your usage of items just because there is a stock in place. 
  2. Don’t always buy ‘low.’ Huh? The grocery monster is easily fooled by sales circulars.  Just because a price is advertised, doesn’t mean it’s the lowest.  Same goes for the yellow tags in the aisles. You may get tricked into stocking up on something that isn’t actually any cheaper than last week’s price. The initial work of creating a tracking spreadsheet is worth it to familiarize yourself with prices, and it doubles as a quick print-and-go list.  Record the lowest, highest, and average price paid for items you buy regularly like peanut butter. I get weekly circulars for the two stores I shop most delivered to my email so I can check sale prices against my price-tracking sheet.  If a price is lower than the average, I add ‘stock up’ next to the item in my list.  If it’s the average price, I just enter the quantity I need for the week, and if it’s over that price, I avoid buying it that week or look for a cheaper alternative. Over time, you get so familiar with the prices, you don’t even have to check the sheet to know if you’re seeing a good deal.
  3. You don’t have to pass up organic to save money.  The grocery monster doesn’t know the difference, but you do.  Don’t be tricked by labels like “all natural” and “eco-friendly.”  You may end up paying more for something that’s not even close to organic.  Always look for “certified organic” to make sure you’re getting what you pay for.  Know what to buy organic and what you can cheat on [meat and dairy are a must, thick-skinned produce is less likely to contain harmful pesticides], and don’t assume that your usual store will have cheaper organics than the big natural foods chains. Most “whole foodies” will tell you that you can get away with non-certified items at the natural foods store and get the same quality while paying less, because of those stores’ stricter standards.
  4. Beware, baby.  The grocery monster forages on soggy, half-eaten fruit-puffs stuck to the side of the high-chair.  These baby snacks are super-expensive for what you get [puffs are mostly air, and many of the packages are only half-filled with product].  Cut-up cheese, fruit, and even grown-up cereal bars make more well-rounded and nutritious snacks anyway, and create less dependence on filler-filled, expensive processed foods down the road.
  5. Don’t give up couponing altogether. Couponing has its place in the saving game, within reason.  I set a timer for 10 minutes to sit down with the coupon pages a neighbor drops off every week [so I save the cost of the Sunday paper and space in her recycling bin]. I flip through them and pull out coupons only for what I normally buy like toothpaste, toilet paper, and organic cereal bars. Most food coupons are for highly-processed, fillered-up stuff, so those go straight in the trash. When the time is up, I stop and recycle the rest or pass them along to other couponers. 
  6. The adage ‘you get what you pay for’ usually holds true. The grocery monster isn’t discerning on quality. As with coupons, items with lower price tags sometimes also are lower on quality. Check labels on food to make sure the lower price isn’t due to a higher content of fillers like fat and sugar. You might save today, but pay later in other ways. And beware of cheaper non-food items too. One-ply toilet paper and paper towels may just have you getting through rolls faster, and cheap-o storage baggies may leak and spoil your freezer stock of on-sale meat.

Conflict of Interests

As the big day approaches [3 weeks, 5 days, but who’s counting?] I find myself almost living a double life.  Not the stashing a family somewhere kind of double life. I can barely manage one family without courting insanity on a daily basis. I mean my work life and my home life.  I gave up on work-life balance some time ago, which ultimately led to the decision to leave corporate life behind to stay home. But as I prepare to make the switch, I find I’m balancing more than ever, and having to work harder to maintain my secret super-hero identity [partly the reason I don’t openly promote this blog yet]. 

The ruse is getting cringe-worthy.  Like when my boss’s boss told me at a conference this week that he trusts me implicitly [to do a good job? to not abandon the team? to finish the projects I’ve spent the last 8 months pushing?] The fact is, I care about my job. That was never really at issue. I have ethical dilemmas about it from time to time [I work in advertising and as a parent I struggle with our culture’s acceptance of pervasive marketing, and feel strongly that if I return to the workforce some day, I want to leverage my experience in the industry to help combat the influence of advertising on youth]. But I love the people I work with, and care about the work I’m doing. I’m pretty invested in it, believe it or not.  I want to see my colleagues succeed, even when I’m no longer a part of the team. And it’s going to be odd to hand over projects I built from scratch, some of which will be revolutionary for the company, if I do say so myself. But I also couldn’t be more invested in my decision to leave it all behind.  So much so that I’m already starting to live in my future as a stay-at-home mother and homemaker, and find it pervading my work life more and more.

I daydream about the time I’ll get to spend with my kids when I’m not exhausted from work or thinking about work. I can’t wait to be more involved in teaching them, and witness fully as they grow rather than reading about it in a daycare report. I’m making a bunch of crazy organizational documents, including a grocery spreadsheet to track our spending and save money, and a schedule to plan activities for the kids. And this blog is my ritual, I sneak in posts during lunch and on weekends, and it helps me organize the myriad of emotions I’m feeling about taking this step.

When it gets tricky is when I have to talk about the future in the context of work and my career, especially at work. I don’t know that my career in advertising is over necessarily, but I don’t foresee a time when I won’t want to be at every game, recital, spelling bee, or hold an office in the PTA, and doing that while working is hard – even when some moms I know make it look easy. I’m having difficulty with discussions at work about October or even September, let alone next year, because I can’t let on that, other than setting my team up to succeed without me, that future is nearly irrelevant to me.  And tempting opportunities I’d normally take advantage of, like a seat on the board of an industry bureau, I have to remind myself aren’t for me right now, if ever. 

But it’s difficult letting go. The idea of trying to consult for my company seems more and more tempting, even though realistically I know it could become full-time work for part-time pay. The truth is, in order to serve my [and more importantly my family’s] best interests, I have to let go of everything else, and my work and career will be the first to go, at least for now and possibly forever.

I’m okay with that.