Friday, August 31, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me

 I've hit the 33 year mark.  A nice, round number, and still in the early 30's.  I can't complain.

We celebrated early while my parents and sister were in town (thanks again for the yummy Finnish cake, mom and dad):
And we celebrated again on the actual day, and then again the next.

On my birthday, my good friend, K, took me on a good 45 minute drive to Dat Donut shop in south Chicago.  Well worth the drive!  Especially because I brought home a half dozen to share.  And just so you know, they taste almost as fabulous a day old as they do fresh.

Also on my birthday...........we FINALLY closed on our New Jersey house!!!!!!!!!!!!  Details to follow in another post.

And I opened my Etsy shop.  The shop name is katikokko.  I only have a few items posted so far, but more will follow very soon.  And I need to re-do the banner; it didn't turn out how I wanted it, but I really just wanted to open the shop on my birthday.  Just because.  So, spread the news and check back often for new items.  Please.

My birthday evening was taken up with a church R.S. activity.  I normally wouldn't have gone, but they asked me to make the dessert.  I say no to too many things; making desserts are easy.  So I figured I could say yes.  But that's why we celebrated (birthday and house closing) with the family the next evening, with dinner at Ruby Tuesday (only second time eating out the entire year, and we didn't pay for the first!), and ice cream sandwich cake for dessert.

All in all, it was a great birthday!  Thanks to everyone who helped make it so.

Monday, August 27, 2012

How to Retrench

We've survived a year of graduate school life without needing any student loans.  Evan makes a small stipend, but it's about 1/3 of what we were making in New Jersey.  Needless to say, we've had to "retrench" our spending in order to avoid going into debt.  Here's some tips on how to do it: 

1.  Pay your tithing.  It's really the only way we've survived a total of 4 years of graduate school life (3 at UT Austin, 1 at Northwestern) debt-free.  Our monthly budget numbers don't ever add up, but somehow we've always had enough money to cover our needs.

2.  Redefine your notion of "needs."  Seriously consider each purchase. 

3.  When deciding on the worth of an item, ask yourself, "If someone were to pay me ___$ (the cost of the item) to NOT buy it, what would I do?"

4.  Decide what's important to you, and that's what you spend your money on.  Make sacrifices everywhere else.  For us, our living situation, being with family on holidays, and my gym are important.  So 2/3 of our monthly allotment goes to renting a home, instead of squeezing into an apartment, we travel in the summer and at Christmas, and we pay the needed expenses for a nice gym.  But in everything else, we are ridiculously frugal. 

5.  Don't eat out.  It adds up quicker than you think.

6.  Be creative about your means of entertainment.

7.  Limit snacks and prepared foods; learn instead to cook from scratch.  It's a lot cheaper.

8.  Avoid dollar stores and dollar items--it's easy to say, "it's just a buck," but those bucks add up fast, especially when they are unnecessary, cheaply made items.

9.  Sign your kids up for less activities; have them learn to entertain themselves the old-fashioned way.

10.  Take advantage of free library resources--borrow books and movies instead of buying them.

11.  Drive less.  Bike and walk more.

12.  Buy clothing at thrift stores.  You'd be surprised what you can find, especially for kids.

13.  Don't go overboard on clothing needs for your children--there really isn't any need for them to have more than a week's worth of clothes and just a few pairs of shoes.

14.  Buy generics. 

15.  Avoid credit card debt; pay off your balance each month.

16.  Just because something's on sale, it doesn't mean you need it or should get it.  This is where couponers can go wrong.

17.  Conversely, though, if you know you will be needing or using an item in the future, and it is on sale, stock up.  Always be on the lookout for deals on things you need.  (Emphasis on need).

18.  Shop off-season clearance.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

We've Named Him

Our new parakeet, that is.  And before I tell you the name and you think it's lame, let me explain the reasoning behind our naming process. 

Are you familiar with the preschool tv show, "Peep and the Big Wide World"?  If not, you may want to.  It's the best cartoon ever.  The main characters are Peep--a little chick, Chirp--a little robin, and Quack--a duck.  Some of the lesser characters are Squeak--a mouse, Hoot--the owl, Ribbit--the get the picture. 

So in keeping with our favorite show (seriously, you have to watch some episodes--even Evan and I get a good laugh out of them) we've decided to name our parakeet "Cheep."  Cause it's the sound he makes. 

He had a couple of rough days in the beginning, adjusting to a new cage and new environment.  But he cheeped away while Evan played the guitar and sang songs. 

He LOVES the sound of people speaking Finnish (of course!).  We read online that if you plan on training a parakeet to talk, the words they pick up the fastest are the ones with a lot of hard sounds in them.  Finnish is full of hard sounds.  Pappa has been skyping with his sister while he's been here, and whenever Cheep hears them talk, he won't stop cheeping. 

We're still working on getting Cheep comfortable with coming out of the cage and coming on our fingers.  But so far, he's been a fun pet. 

On To Grade 2

 School started yesterday.  Spencer has been counting down the days.  And he actually smiled for the picture:
A large group saw him off at the bus stop:
He's kind of sad--his two best friends are in the other two 2nd grade classes.  But knowing Spencer, he'll have new friends in a matter of days. 

Waimea had a rough day missing Spencer.  She doesn't start her preschool until the end of October.  It's going to be a long two months. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Meet Our New Parakeet

We're still trying to come up with a good name for him.  Any ideas?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

One Down, Three To Go

It's official--we moved into the Chicago area one year ago this weekend.  One year down, three (maybe more) to go.

Here are some interesting/annoying stats:
-It's technically our 4th year of grad school.  Evan got a Master's degree in chemical engineering, then worked for 4 years, and now he's back in school for another 4 to get his PhD in business.
-We've been married about 8.5 years, and over half of that has been spent in the poverty of student living.
-We've gone an entire year without accruing any student loan debt.  Evan receives a stipend from the school and doesn't have to pay tuition, but the stipend is only 1/3 of what we were making in New Jersey (which wasn't enough).  So we're living on next-to-nothing.  But somehow we haven't had to take out any student loans.  I don't think we'll be able to hold out too much longer, though.

It's been a tough year:
-job failure for me
-our NJ house on the border between foreclosure and short sale
-2 miscarriages, one at 13 weeks
-car accident, with the possibility of the vehicle being "totaled" by the insurance
-Mea didn't get into Kindergarten this year, despite our best efforts (she misses the official cut-off by 1.5 months)

But we've had some highlights:
-Evan passed all his prelim exams, so he won't be kicked out of Northwestern
-the kids and I were able to go to Finland for a month
-this has been the healthiest year for all of us--no antibiotics, no significant viruses, and only one sick-child doctor visit all year long
-my brother, Erik, moved to Springfield for his medical residency, so he's only 3 hours away
-all things considered, the kids have adjusted to all the changes very well

What we miss about NJ:
-our really good friends (you know who you are)
-our fixed-up home
-being able to drive 10-15 minutes and at least feel like we're in the country
-direct flights from JFK to Helsinki
-my superb gym, Can Do Fitness

What we like about Skokie:
-we see more of Evan
-Evan is within biking distance of school--it saves us a lot of money
-we're in a larger home, even though it isn't as nice as the one we left behind
-the weather is cooler on average
-we've made some really good friends
-the camping possibilities are better (closer to national forests)
-we're 750 miles further away from NYC

Here's to hoping that the next three years are better than the past one.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Testing My National Forest Theory

 Remember this post from our last camping trip?  Remember how I claimed that camping in national forests was the best kind of camping, followed by national parks, and then state parks?  Well, I decided to test that theory once again.

We tested it out in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin.  We picked our campground by whipping out our atlas, randomly picking a campground located in the forest, and then reading the description online:  "If you enjoy listening to the soothing sound of flowing water, you will appreciate this campground. About one-third of the 30 campsites are located adjacent to the Oconto River. Trout fishing, berry picking, rafting, canoeing, swimming, and sightseeing can all be done in or near this campground. Weekends bring the most campers, with only moderate use occurring during the week. So come and relax among the pines and enjoy the sound and beauty of Bagley Rapids."

Sounded ideal to me.  So off we went on a Tuesday morning, planning to stay until Saturday.  True to its description, we found a site along the river, with only a few other campers to contend with.  And far and away, the setting was better than any we have found in any of our state park travels--tall trees, shade, underbrush, seclusion.

We went on quite a few hikes.  The kids loved this one because of its Lincoln Log benches:
 We went to the top of one of the fire towers from the 1930's.  It was actually kind of freaky:
The view from the top:
 Another hike along another river, with places to stop and fish.  Spencer has bad memories of this hike because he got stung by a wasp:
 The view from the river where we were camped.  The kids had fun looking for crayfish:
 On a particularly hot day, we decided to get a little wet, and had fun throwing water at each other:
 Our longest hike (4 miles) through a wonderfully wooded area.   (Please ignore my 3-day no shower camping ugliness and unintentional scowl):
 The kids were great, despite the bugs, heat, and length of the hike.

I'm a sucker for birch and pine trees:
  It's probably why I prefer national forests over state parks: national forests are located only in places of high concentration of coniferous woods.  None of the deciduous junk you find elsewhere.
I think my theory stands.  The only drawbacks to the entire trip were these:
1)  the heat:  upper 80's, low 90's every day.  That's the difference between camping in the midwest vs. camping in the mountains.
2)  the mosquitoes:  they normally leave me alone, but I had over 40 bites on one foot alone.  I stopped counting at that point.
3)  Friday night bar noise:  apparently the local bar has live bands on weekends nights.  We could hear them clearly, even over the river noises, until well past midnight.  It was quite annoying, and we were glad we weren't staying another night.
4)  Severe thunderstorms:  We had a few roll through the area our second night.  One was bad enough that we felt compelled to wait out the storm in our car at 2 AM.  Nothing we haven't dealt with before.

Conclusion:  We would rather drive the 4.5+ hours to reach the national forests in northern Wisconsin than only drive 2 hours to the state parks in southern Wisconsin.  Even in a crowded Honda Civic.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Angry Bird Dress-Up

For some reason, Mea has always thought that the white pigeon angry bird is the mom, the black bomb bird is the dad, and all the other angry birds are the kids.  So we periodically find scenes like this around the house:
I can't quite decide which is my favorite aspect:  the frog perched on her forehead, the hair clip holding the ribbon in place, the fact that she has no neck and therefore no place to wear a necklace, or her high-heeled shoes.

Camping Trip in the Honda

 Not much comes in the way of our camping plans.  That includes a minivan out of commission due to an accident.  We just had to change our strategy and leave a few things behind.

We bought a temporary car rack ($20) for the top of the car so that we could take our car-top carrier.  Thanks to Evan's engineering abilities and knowledge, even though we stopped periodically to check the straps, we never had to tighten them like the instructions said we would.

We were able to squeeze 4 sleeping bags, 3 air mattresses and 2 backpacks full of 5 days worth of kids clothing into the car-top carrier.
And in the trunk of our Honda Civic:  a 6-person tent, 4 camping chairs, 2 tarps, 2 axes, 1 hatchet, a propane lantern, a battery powered lantern, a camping stove, a 38-quart cooler, a container full of camping necessities (about the same size as the cooler), an air mattress pump, a dutch oven, 5 days worth of food, 5 days of adult clothing inside 2 bags, a hammock, a broom and dustpan, some rope and bungee cords (just in case the car-top failed), and two canisters of propane.  

I think I rival my father for the title of Master Packer.

More posts to follow on our actual trip.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Another Sliver

Two weeks ago, the kids and I were in a head-on collision.  We were driving a friend home and we were just a block away from her house.  We pulled to a stop at an intersection and couldn't proceed because the car heading in our direction was also stopped but was blocking our way.  The driver was looking down, and without even glancing in our direction (or yielding to the cross traffic like he was supposed to), put on the gas and proceeded through the intersection, veering straight towards us.  I started madly honking the horn, but he never even looked up until a split second before he hit us head-on.  Even though we were stopped and he was accelerating from a stopped position, he was still able to push us back with such force that we ended up a full car length back from our original position.  

Thankfully we are all okay, despite Waimea's persistent, frantic screams immediately following the collision.  She and I both had some neck pain, but nothing severe.  

Our car, however...
It doesn't look bad.  There's just the dent and some scratches across the front.  But the hood is askew (possiblly a bent frame) and there's some fluids leaking (probably transmission fluid).

But here are the real issues:

1)  According to Illinois state law, because a police officer didn't actually witness the actual accident taking place, there's nothing they can do.  In fact, they didn't even deem it worthy enough to come to the scene because no one was hurt enough to need an ambulance and because the cars were both driveable enough to leave the scene.  I had to drive down to the police station to fill out a police report.  The other driver was texting (he admitted as much to the first person he called after the accident--"I was texting you when it happened" is what I heard him say when I thought he was calling the police to report the accident) and obviously at fault (he ended up hitting us on our side of the street).  Still nothing can be done--no tickets issued, no blame given, etc.
2)  Because our car is so old, our insurance advised us years ago to take our collision off of our coverage.  But now, because we have no collision, they can't really help us deal with the other driver's insurance.  Which is where the real annoyance with the whole situation is.
3)  It's been over two weeks since the accident, and our minivan is still on our driveway, broken and leaking, with no end in sight.  The other guy's insurance requires a few things to be done before they take any action. First, we had to fill out their paperwork.  Sounds easy enough, except that it took five days in snail mail to reach us (even though they are a local company).  And it was the exact same stuff we had already told them over the phone.  Second, they need to hear from their client, who also has to fill out the same paperwork.  Who is a no-show.  He never contacted his insurance about the accident, even though his car was definitely smashed in, and his insurance company can't get a hold of him.  If he still hasn't gotten back with his insurance by tomorrow, we're going to start calling and harassing him personally.  We tried to get his insurance company to pay for a rental.  They said they would reimburse us for a rental if they find their client to be at fault, and if our car is deemed undriveable.  But we would have to pay for the rental if either of those two conditions were not met.  Technically we can drive our car, but it's leaking fluids and we don't know what's wrong or if something will go wrong if we do drive it.  So, is it driveable?  They won't give us their opinion.  And they won't let us have it looked at to find out.  So we're stuck.
4)  If their insurance deems our car "totaled", which we're guessing they will, then we are without a necessary car with no means to replace it.  We're pretty sure that our minivan would've lasted us the next three years.  But if they deem it totaled, then they will only give us the low blue book value of the car--around $3300--which is not enough to replace that car.  Which leaves us with the Honda to last another three years.  A '98 Honda with over 164,000 miles on it.

So what do we do?