Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Changes Part 3 -- God's Provisions

Having come up with a plan and implemented it, we discovered that we could do more than we had originally hoped for. We were also learning a hard, yet needed, lesson. The simple fact of the matter was, we had a great deal of abundance right after we were married, and we squandered it. We were poor stewards of what God had given us. Had we lived as wisely and frugally then as we were forced to do so now, we likely could have gone 6 months before even having to start worrying. As it is, we were being made to rely on God. And God provided.

We went to KC for Thanksgiving, and stopped and visited my parents on the way up and back. It was an excellent trip, and one we desperately needed to make, if for no other reason than to just get out of town for awhile. When we made it back, Sam did his two gigs--neither of which he was paid for. Both were through OCU, and the bureaucracy there to get paid is atrocious. Once again we were faced with a situation where money we had counted on in our budgeting suddenly wasn't there. However, Sam also picked up a job playing for Hanging of the Green at our alma mater, and it was going to be a hefty paycheck, so we weren't overly worried. My parents came down, and all of us went back to Shawnee to see the performance and just enjoy Christmas cheer.

After the show, we went back to meet up with Sam, only to find out that the check that he would normally have had waiting for him on his music stand wasn't there—we wouldn’t receive it until after Christmas. So, yet again, the rug was pulled out from under our feet. Thankfully, God provided for us through both sets of parents. They really came through for us, and I hope to one day be able to do the same for our children.

Time and time again, God showed us that if we relied on Him, He'd always come through. Thanks to such kindnesses, we were able to get through December. Another plus about December was Sam going on Winter Break. We finally got to have our honeymoon--three weeks of just basically the two of us in our apartment.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we continued to do the two-week menus and shopping. I revised my schedule, so that instead of doing particular duties each day such as sweeping or dusting, I assigned a particular room to a day. I also decided that I'd do what I called my "Daily clean," wherein right after breakfast I'd always do a certain list of chores: empty the dishwasher, wipe down the counters and stove, wipe the table, pick up general clutter, clean the litter box, make the bed, pick up clothes, wipe down the sink/counter in the bathroom, and check to see if the trash needed taken out. It sounds like a lot to do, but the thing is that after a couple of days, I had it to where I could get it all done in about 20 minutes. And that 20 minutes makes a HUGE difference.

After that I'd do my thorough cleaning of a given room--vacuum/mop, dust, disinfect, etc. All in all, it would take a grand total of about an hour to do my daily and room cleaning together. Then came the job hunting activities. In the afternoons, when not working on Christmas, I’d organize some part of the house—closets, drawers, cabinets, etc.

I was very happy making our apartment into a home, but I also continued to look for a job. I got an interview with a temp agency, which wanted to place me into another call center situation. However, the tests they wanted me to take, and the regulations for the business (very strict regs), discomforted me, and Sam was weirded out by the whole situation as well. So we decided that I wouldn't do it.

About this time we took another hard look at how we were living. The simple fact of the matter was that while we were tight on money, we were the happiest we'd ever been. I began to slow down in my job hunting. I did fill out a few more applications, the last of which was Wal-mart. In all of the time I'd been doing this, the call backs I'd gotten were all from smaller businesses or adverts I'd seen on Craig's List. Not one of the big retailers/companies had gotten back to me. I kind of figured that if anyone would hire me, it would be Wal-mart, so I submitted an application to them.

To this day, I have not heard back from them.

Fast forward past the Christmas blizzard of '09 (a separate post for another day) and the trip to Wellington to the beginning of the New Year. I sat down and built a menu for the whole month, and we went and did all of our shopping in one fell swoop, aside from things like milk and eggs, which wouldn't necessarily last a month. So far we've managed to stay in our budget of $200 for the month (or $50 a week) for both groceries and household supplies, such as toiletries, paper products, light bulbs, etc.

Sam and I also sat down and discussed the changes in our lifestyle. We found that, frankly, we both liked and enjoyed having me home and not working. As Sam put it to me, "It's not like you sit at home and just surf the internet all day. One look at our apartment shows that." In many ways, I feel like I've become, instead of a Stage Manager, a Family Manager. I keep the house clean, I provide meals, I plan the grocery trips, I track receipts and purchases, I balance the checkbook, I keep track of bills... and by doing so, Sam is free to concentrate on finishing his Masters degree and worry about getting gigs and providing for us. Sam told me just this afternoon: "Frankly, I think I have the easy part."

But it's not like its drudgery, or I'm his servant. I genuinely enjoy and have found a peace taking care of our home that I've never had in anything else I've ever done--and that includes theatre, which I greatly love. I find it fun to figure out how to make our budget work, how to take care of household dilemmas, and re-organizing everything so that we have an efficient household.

This is the biggest change of all, for me. Never in a thousand years would I have thought of myself as a homemaker. I was taught my entire life that I had a responsibility to go out into the workforce and earn my respect and honor that way. Staying at home, taking care of a house--those are things that either "lazy," "unqualified," or "dumb" people do. No one explicitly told me this, but it was very apparent in the way people talked about it, in the expectations teachers, friends, family, and society have of me. Never in a million years would I be "Suzy Homemaker."

But you know what? I'm working harder now than I ever did at AT&T. The aches I have at the end of the day from hauling laundry back and forth between the apartment and our laundry mat, or from scrubbing the bath tub, or moving furniture to vacuum, prove that. I am working on accounting our family budget. Every day I have to wrack my brain to figure out how to fix and improve things with nothing more than what I have on hand.

Also, because I have the time to devote to making our meals and planning out what we eat and need to make said meals, we are eating better and healthier than we ever did when I was working. We have tasty, homemade meals every day. And because it's from scratch, we're not eating nearly as many chemicals and preservatives as we used to--nor do we intake nearly as much sugar, even with my baking treats for us every week. As a result, between the time I was weighed when we had H1N1 and when I weighed myself at Christmas, I've lost over 15 lbs.

It amazes me. I'm still myself, but I've grown and learned so many things in the past three months, that in many ways I feel like a completely new person. Every day God is teaching me something new about myself, my relationship with Sam, my relationship with the world, and my relationship with Him.

That's it. That's what I have to share with you, my dear friends. I wanted to expound somewhere the changes I've discovered within myself, and I wanted to trace for my own benefit where each of the changes occurred. Do I suddenly think that every woman should be a stay at home wife? Absolutely not. Do I think our lifestyle is the only one that works? Again, absolutely not. But I'm happy with it, and content with what God is doing in Sam and I's lives. And I hope, as time goes on, to share little tips and tricks I have learned. Maybe. If I have the time. :-)

"The ordinary arts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest."

--Thomas Moore

Monday, January 18, 2010

Changes Part 2 -- The Experiment

So to recap thus far: no job for me, savings wiped out by car issues and illness, Sam had a reduced income from what we had had, and I was spiraling towards depression since I was unable to find another job and felt guilty for my parting of ways with AT&T. Allow me to state, unequivocally, that it's a good thing I have an amazing husband. At this point, I think many couples would have been at the yelling and accusing part of the equation. Thankfully, God blessed me with an understanding husband, who told me on numerous occasions he still thought it a good idea that I was gone from AT&T, even if it meant things were tight.

About the second week of November, I privately decided I could not continue the way I had been. I was spending all of my time either looking for jobs or playing on WoW. My sleeping schedule was in disarray. My house around me was in disarray. My finances were in disarray. My life was in disarray. And Christmas was coming.

I knew we weren't going to have much in the way of disposable income for Christmas, but I wanted to make sure I had good gifts for the people in our lives. So I started looking around the 'Net for cheap, homemade Christmas gift ideas. In doing so, I came across two different site types which would be integral in changing my thought processes. The first were "Frugality" sites; these were website dedicated to finding ways to save money and be good stewards of said money. The second types were "Homemaking" sites; these were websites for men and women who for whatever reason didn't have jobs in the workforce, but instead stayed home and took care of it.

As I read through the sites, several things crystallized in my mind.

1. I needed to build myself a schedule. No more going to sleep "when tired" and getting up "when I woke up." No more spending all day, every day at my computer, either searching for jobs or playing computer games. I needed a list of things to do each day and a set time to do it.

2. I needed to get the house under control and keep it under control. In general, since I moved out on my own, I'd been pretty good about keeping up with the house--typically by having a big cleaning day 2-3 times a month. But this meant that in the weeks between cleaning binges, the house would get pretty wild and overwhelming. I decided that if I was going to be home a good deal of the time, then my home should reflect that fact.

3. It was time to accept the fact that I would get a job when God wanted me to, not when I wanted to. As such, we needed to look at what we were spending money on each month, and figure out how to reduce the bills. It wasn't going to be pleasant, but it needed to be done. This also meant finding ways to reduce home expenditures--food, household products, etc.

4. Lastly, but most importantly, I needed to start relying on God and letting Him get us through this, instead of constantly worrying about it and making myself sick with stress. He feeds the sparrows in the air, and clothes the lily in the fields. He wasn't going to let us starve.

By the time Sam got home from rehearsal that night, I had skeleton of a plan, and by the time we went to bed that night, we had given it some meat as well.

I drew up a schedule for myself for the following two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. I would get up when Sam did to go to classes and allow an hour and a half to do morning ablutions, make us breakfast and coffee, and then pack him a lunch and send him off for the day. Next would follow an hour and a half of intensive job hunting/applying. At the end of that time, I would spend an hour cleaning something specific around the apartment. (i.e. today I dust, tomorrow I vacuum, etc). If Sam had a short day and was home for lunch, I'd cook us lunch and then spend the rest of the day hanging out with Sam. Otherwise, I'd make a sandwich for myself, and then spend to afternoon working on projects. In this case, those projects were Christmas presents.

We also determined what we could cut out of bills. iPhones had to go--couldn't do the $60 a month data plans. Texting needed reduced. Time to cancel the WoW subscriptions. And so on, and so forth.

Oh, and absolutely

We had already cut most of the eating out, but there were times when we still fell off the wagon, for the simple fact that it was habit. I'm ashamed to admit it, but even though I'd worked hard on making sure we had lunches to take to work with us, when I was at AT&T we probably ate out of 4-5 nights a week. When you consider that for the two of us that meant the bill was typically between $15-$25, we were spending over $100 a week. Obviously, that was no longer feasible.

By this point I had seen several websites about doing menus and doing grocery shopping based off of said menu. As such, since I was already doing the schedule experiment, I decided to make up a 2 week menu and buy groceries to match those meals. I also decided that, as I'm a fairly decent cook, I would stop buying pre-packaged foods such as macaroni and cheese and instead buy the components and make it from scratch. I also dug out my bread machine and decided to make my own bread.

By the time all of this was taken into account, I took my regular two week grocery bill of ~$100 plus two weeks of fast food at over $200, and reduced it down to $46.00.

Now, admittedly, I had a metric ton of foodstuff in my kitchen that just never registered in my brain, and when I built my menu for those two weeks, I based it around what I already had. However, it completely amazed both of us how much we were able to save by making that simple decision.

Armed with our plans, we commenced upon the next two weeks. During that time, I made a startling discovery--I enjoyed keeping my house up. It was hard to get myself into the routine, but I liked how much better the house looked. I also enjoyed cooking meals and taking care of my husband. My kitties were happier because I was up and about and playing with them, talking to them, and cosseting them once I reached the point in the day when I could sit and relax a bit. I found myself constantly attacking the challenge of how to reduce what we spent. I have always reveled a bit in problem-solving, and this was one of the most interesting problems I've had to solve in a long time. Finally, I enjoyed making things for my friends and family. Since I started working on everything so early (for me), I was able to take time and make things properly and with attention to detail, instead of blazing through it all like I normally would.

I also continued looking for a job, and managed to score a handful of actual interviews in that time. I'd had another business request an interview with me, but they sent the request via email and asked for it the same day. I, of course, did not come across said email until that evening.

Despite that, we were feeling more upbeat about our situation than we had in months. Best of all, we'd managed to scrape and scrimp enough that we were able to go to KC and see Sam's sister and her family for Thanksgiving. Sam also had a couple of gigs lined up for after Thanksgiving... yes, things were looking up.

Happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.
--Franklin D. Roosevelt

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Changes Part 1 -- The Setup

(Editor’s Note: When I originally typed this up, it came out to be 13 pages long. As such, I've gone back and broken this up into multiple posts which I will post over the next couple of days.)

Time and again, I'm amazed at the changes God can make in our lives--changes that we never would have dreamed of or contemplated just a year ago. Not all the changes are obviously big--moving, marriage, babies—often it's the little changes, particularly in thoughts and attitudes, that fascinate and amaze me.

Back in October, I parted ways with my full time job at AT&T, and there was much rejoicing throughout the land.

What Sam made between his two regular jobs and the extra gigs he'd picked up would be enough to cover our regular bills, and even if for some reason his gigs dried up, we had enough money put back that we could still pay the rent for 2-3 months. And, by the end of the week, I had a job lined up with a local vet clinic to work as their receptionist, starting the following Wednesday. It seemed that getting away from my previous job was the best idea ever.

That's when Things Started Happening(tm).

First of all, Sam had a gig/audition lined up off in Midwest City with someone he'd met at the school. On his way there, the van died at an intersection with all of his musical equipment in the back end. What's more, his phone did not receive service in the area at that time, so he had no way of contacting the person he was supposed to be playing for. Three hours later he was able to tow the van home and let me and the guy he was auditioning for know what was going on.

As a result of this, Sam never played for that guy again (Sam was unable to contact him until the gig was halfway over), and most of what we had put back into savings went to paying to get the van running again.

The following weekend, Sam, Sherri, and I went to my parents, since we hadn't seen much of them since the reception. We had a good relaxing time (yay for fall break!), and much fun was had by all. However, just before we headed back to the city, I received an email from the clinic I was starting at the following Wednesday, saying "Thank you for your interest in the receptionist position. It has now been filled."

Not a happy Holly.

After church that Sunday, Sam and I met his parents for lunch to catch up on life and to see new pictures of Ruthie. They had come home early from KC due to the fact that Susan had caught H1N1. We commiserated over that, enjoyed the food and pictures, and then went on our merry way home.

By Monday afternoon we were absolutely miserable. We both had H1N1. The next week is a blur to the both of us--neither of us recall any absolute details, except that three days into it Sam became coherent enough to drag us to the doctor, only to be told we had H1N1 and to stay home with plenty of fluids, try to rest, and take this super-duper prescription cough syrup since it was too late to give us Tama-flu.

When the next Monday rolled by, we were at least able to get up and move around, and Sam started going back to school even though he hadn't fully recovered. To be honest, the cough didn't go away for him until the end of November and he didn't recover his energy until Christmas break.

The following two weeks were very rough for me. I spent all day every day trying to find a job. I quickly learned that the big companies don't even ask you to come by any more--they just want you to go to their website and fill out the applications online. I also learned that while my resume was for perfect theatre, it was horrible for getting a job in the "real world." Why? I have a college degree and I've worked for over seven companies in the past five years (because theaters, by and large, are seasonal creatures). Most of these places took one look at my resume and decided I was "over-qualified" or unstable. I managed a couple of interviews, but in the end they didn't pan out.

To put it bluntly I was headed to a bad place mentally. Two weeks of spending all day, every day, combing the internet for job opportunities, filling out the same applications over and over (because most companies use one of three different online forms, any more), and facing rejection over and over again... yeah, it was rough.

Also, at this time the highest paying extra gig Sam had on a semi-regular basis dried up, and we were suddenly looking at trying to get by on basically a third of our "normal" income with most of savings wiped out by car/illness.

I'm not telling you this to throw a pity party or be like "Look at how bad we had it!" Rather, I'm explaining it to you so that you can understand where we were so that God could begin to make His changes in us. As Sam puts it, "Context, dear. Not whining--context!!"

And without this context, God could not setup His changes in us.

There are three stages in the work of God: impossible, difficult, done."

--James Hudson Taylor