How to Cut Your Budget Quickly and Drastically

There’s this myth out there that some people are immune to poverty. It just isn’t so. What if your primary breadwinner had a medical problem like mine… Not enough to be totally disabled but not enough to earn as much?  Or worse?  But you aren’t collecting on life insurance yet (thankfully!)

What if more economic craziness happened? What if your industry moved overseas or was completely dependent on another industry that crashed? My step dad lost his job due to defense department cuts because his company was hired to do work for them. A lot of my patients do work like painting, concrete, electrical, or real estate and all of them suffered with the housing crash. Entire cities can suffer when a major industry in the area takes a hit.

After what we’ve been through in the last few years, I will never ever let myself get in a position where our core expenses are more than the federal poverty level. I pick that number because it’s an easy, predetermined amount that the government recalculates for us. And I’m pretty confident that unless one of us becomes really badly disabled, we can always manage to earn that much. A friend recently asked for suggestions as she just found out that her husband is going to be downsized and his prospects for finding another job aren’t as good as they once were. This gave me an opportunity to really think about what we did to prepare when I had my stroke and we knew we’d have only a couple more paychecks and what we would do in addition.

If you are preparing for an impending income loss (due to stroke, illness, job loss, a parent quitting in order to care for a child, etc), here are some things I’d recommend you do right now. And since life is so unpredictable, I’d honestly recommend it for everyone who isn’t sitting on a trust fund or a nice retirement account:

1. Cancel everything that’s not a necessity. TV springs to mind… If you must have screen time get Netflix streaming instead for $15 a month. Or just use YouTube for free. Gym memberships…You can get your exercise without the gym. Decide if you really, truly need a home phone; if not, cancel it. We haven’t had one for years and haven’t missed it (and couldn’t afford it anyway). We’ll probably be getting our son a cell phone younger than his friends because of this but at $10 a month, it’s a lot cheaper than a home phone.

2. $10 a month phone? Yes. At the suggestion of one of my patients (and Mr. Money Moustache) we use Republic Wireless. For the data it runs over WiFi when WiFi is available so is a lot cheaper than the competition ($25 a month). And for voice and text only on cell, and data just when WiFi is available, is $10 a month. You have to buy your phones up front… But you’re getting prepared to not have much money so you would’ve done that anyway, right?

3. Cancel anything that has a contract and replace it with something with no contract. If you find yourself unable to pay your bills, you won’t be able to pay the termination fee either. For internet we use Clear. You can buy the spot or hub on Amazon and then just call to sign up. I do recommend calling them to make sure you can start a new account in your area before doing this. We appreciate that it’s month to month. If we ever can’t pay it, we can just go to the library for internet and use our phones for talk and text only.

4. Pay off everything you want to keep (except your house… Unless you happen to have $100k lying around). Pay off your car. Pay off anything else that can be repossessed. If you don’t mind it being repossessed or don’t have the money to pay it off, return it now and figure out how to live without it now. Or get a cheaper alternative. Pay off all credit cards starting with the one with the highest interest rate. The whole concept of “leveraging credit” is stupid. That’s banks and credit card companies taking advantage of you. We have a credit card balance with a great interest rate… 4%. But I still wish we’d paid it off before all this happened. We’re still paying $40 a month minimum payment for the next twenty years and I can think of a lot of things I’d rather do with $40!

5. Clean out all the crap that you’ll never eat from your freezer and pantry and replace it with foods you enjoy. I discovered I had to be pretty desperate to eat the foods we wouldn’t eat before and I still didn’t like them. (Remember that next time you donate to a food pantry too.) Include foods that make life good. Chocolate really helps make life seem more luxurious (hide it in the back of the fridge or freezer if you think your family will eat it all).

6. Come up with an energy use plan. Turn off and unplug everything possible. Buy a Kill-a-watt and go crazy. It something is costing $5 a month to run, that’s $60 a year. That’s $60 you could spend on shoes or other necessities. If you live in a cold climate, weather proof now. Buy heated mattress pads so you can keep the house cold at night. Turn down the temperature on your water heater and install a water heater blanket. Install a clothesline and practice using it. Turn off the pilot light on appliances you don’t use regularly (such as the heat in warm weather). Have a rule that everything is turned off at dinnertime except the light in the room you’re in.

7. Question every single bill. Do you really need that? Can you find it less expensively elsewhere? Can you make it yourself?

8. Learn to make bone stock and yogurt and bread. Learn to meal plan. Look up the current amount for the USDA Thrifty Food Plan and make sure you can feed your family for that amount or less. That’s how much you’ll get maximum on food stamps (usually half to two thirds that). If you don’t want or qualify for food stamps, it’s a good budget to shoot for initially. Be warned… The USDA has really horrible recommendations for living on this food budget. Things like a slice of white bread OR a glass of lemonade for a snack. (Neither is adequate and both are unhealthy.) And their recipes require about 2 hours a day of prep time. There are better ways of living on a tight food budget. But also don’t beat yourself up if it’s a struggle to get there. If we ever get to a better place financially, we are definitely increasing our food budget. I am so grateful for what I have but fantasize about CSA fruit shares and Costco shopping sprees. :-)

9. Plan ahead for upcoming clothing expenses. Do you have next winter’s coats for everyone? The next size shoes for your kid who needs special shoes? Buy yourself some good shoes that will last a few years but not if you already have a bunch. I have slippers, winter shoes, summer shoes, sneakers, and sandals.

10. Figure out how to buy clothes inexpensively or not at all and make sure everyone has what they need for the coming months. First off, no one needs more than a handful of outfits. Having a different top every day for two weeks is completely unnecessary. We find it’s cheapest to have a “uniform”. For my son it’s jeans and something on top. For me it’s slacks and sweaters in the winter and a flowered skirt and solid top in the summer. Start asking around about hand-me-downs. We receive big bags of clothes for my daughter and pass them on to one of my patients, a little girl a couple sizes behind.

11. Stock up on things you use regularly. Printer paper, toilet paper, sanitary pads. Seriously consider reusable since you can buy once and use forever.

12. Pay ahead on anything extra you can that you absolutely don’t want to lose. Can you buy three years of museum memberships? A lifetime membership to your homeschooling forum? I paid for a dozen massages ahead when I saw what was going to happen because they were the only thing managing my migraines. This gave us a year to figure out an alternative.

13. Start stashing money and gift cards.  I kept a cash stash for small emergencies, an emergency fund in the bank for larger emergencies, and I have a tin in which I stash every gift card we receive to use for either necessities or those extras that make such a difference.

Graduate level prepping:

* Grow a garden. I recommend Square Foot Gardening for a beginner who needs it to succeed for financial reasons. This year we finally grew a ton of food after I read the book last winter.  Instead of Mel’s Mix, use straight compost that you make yourself (cheaper). And bury logs at the bottom of the compost. They will hold water and rot in place to improve your bed. Maybe I’ll write a whole post on cheap gardening.

* Learn to do your own plumbing repairs. And electrical. And HVAC. And everything else.

* Sell your stuff on Craigslist

* Join Paperback Swap and bank a bunch of credits.  I try to buy most of our books for homeschooling from the thrift store but there are some that are just hard to find that way.  The library is a good option for some people.  I use the library for myself but the kids like to hear the same book until it falls apart so owning a copy works best for us.

* Learn to repair clothes.

* Learn to do any skilled services you receive. My husband learned to do massages and we bought a portable massage table cheap on Craigslist. I learned to cut everyone’s hair. All with thanks to YouTube University.

* Diversify income and/or find sources of passive income. We haven’t gotten this far but I’m told this is the next step. Life is too complicated as it is, so this will have to wait for the time being.

What would you recommend people do to be prepared for a sudden pay cut? What have you done? What are you planning on doing?

Almost Two Years Later

After my strokes when I was trying to find out what to expect, I found lots of people writing in the immediate aftermath but the information about what happened long term was less available.  I wanted to believe it was because everything was fine but I figured it was just that people lost interest in writing about it.  But I promised myself I would keep updating for those recent survivors looking for stories and information.  So here’s an update.  (For my long term readers, go to the bottom for a fatigue scale chart…I hope some of you may find it as useful as I have!)

Once you’ve lived the same way for almost two years, it feels pretty normal.  You get into a routine and pattern…just like any other life change whether it’s a change in jobs, having kids, getting married, etc.  It takes a change in routine sometimes to notice the difference.

Today the kids and I met friends for a walk around a local living history museum.  I use the stroller as a walker.  My daughter is two and a half so it won’t be long until I have to either use a real walker or stop using it altogether.  I don’t really need it most of the time, but it helps me to not trip and fall or drag my foot.  It also gives me a better idea of what the ground is doing because I lack proprioception (the sense of where you are in space).  I walked on a sidewalk, on a boardwalk, on uneven ground, through a historic house, and through a corner of a garden.  I sat for quite awhile right in the middle of it all.

By the time we were headed back to the cars, the world seemed to be bobbing gently up and down.  My friend must’ve noticed something because she started checking in with me. While we strapped in, I was irritable with the kids and on the verge of tears from fatigue.  I drove home via a quiet side street I know well and made the kids maintain absolute silence so I could focus (by yelling at them if they spoke, unfortunately).  By the time I got home, the spinning was just starting.  My right leg dragged and I had a panic attack about falling down the stairs.  My husband helped me into the house and straight to bed where I fell asleep immediately and slept heavily all afternoon.

And that is the progress I’ve made in almost two years.  I can take my kids on a normal sort of activity and spend time with friends (major plus!) but I’m completely wiped out and miserable and end up losing the rest of the day (major minus).  Most of the time I have my life set up around how easily I fatigue so that I can function through the entire day.  Sometimes I break out and do something “normal” and face the consequences.

Most people would never guess my limitations because I have set up my life around avoiding them.  I only park the car where I can easily get out again without whipping my head back and forth; I don’t drive on a busy freeway.  I never bike further than I know I’m able to get back from (six blocks away if my husband is available to help me lift my leg to get off the bike at the end of it; four blocks away if I’m going to have to manage alone).  We don’t travel at all; even an hour long car ride leaves me too exhausted to function.  I spend a lot of time sitting; I used to sit rarely.  I don’t try to step over things, I walk around.  I don’t reach too high, especially to the side, and I don’t try to reach underneath things unless I’m sitting flat on my bottom.  My close friends and family are all used to me flailing my hand for help if I step too close to the edge of a sidewalk and can’t get my foot back up.  I can’t walk backwards so sometimes I have to just turn around even when it looks a little funny.  I have breaks scheduled in to my work day to lie down and close my eyes for at least twenty minutes if I have to work more than 2-3 hours.  I have to drink water and eat regularly because the slightest dip in my blood sugar or slightest dehydration completely lays me out.  I still mix up everyone’s names (including my husband’s and kids’) when I get tired.  I can’t go to any Christmas lights events or places with crowds without an escort who knows me and my needs very well (my husband or sister are about it).

I finally figured out a way to communicate my symptoms to other people.  Just like there are pain scales for people to describe their pain to others, I’ve made a fatigue scale.  It rates my fatigue symptoms in the categories I experiences such as sleepiness, arm sensation and control, gait, dizziness, emotions, and overstimulation.  Before I wrote this up, it felt like I was always trying to explain how serious my fatigue was, even to my husband whom I felt should understand: “No, I’m really, really feeling crappy right now.  This is bad.  We need to figure out what to do about it right now.”  It was incredibly frustrating!  I could tell that therapists working with my husband and kids thought I was being a little histrionic.  And it seemed as if I had to become truly hysterical before anyone took me seriously.  I look okay on the outside until it gets really, really bad.  Making this chart has changed that.  Suddenly everyone who reads it takes me seriously.  My husband comments, “It looks like you’re getting to a five, what do you need me to do?”  That is balm to my strokey soul.

My Fatigue Scale

Click on this image to get a larger version that you can magnify to read in detail.

Please feel free to borrow this fatigue scale chart and personalize it for your situation, just don’t make money off it and do credit me if you’re using it for someone other than yourself. :-)  Fatigue is such a life-limiting symptom that is so misunderstood and unappreciated by others.  I’m excited to have a tool to finally have this conversation with those around me.

What has helped you in your recovery?  Have you found something that helps other people understand better?

Keeping Up Appearances

I’ve realized in the last few weeks that perhaps one of the reasons that young stroke survivors are such an overlooked group is that so many of us are trying to live as normal a life as possible that others can easily forget what happened. I’m regularly told that I look great, look normal. And while I certainly am feeling significantly better than I was a year ago, I can’t say that I feel normal!

I’ve practiced everything I need for regular daily life so many times now that I can pull it off just fine. But ask me to jump with both feet off the ground at the same time or do a small motor skill that I haven’t practiced yet and you’ll discover that I’m faking it. I’ve learned everything necessary to get by and stopped there. I’m so grateful I’ve even been able to make the progress I have…the fact that I am able to perform all my daily activities is a blessing that many stroke survivors are still hoping for. But I suspect that there are a lot of other stroke survivors like me…who inadvertently make people forget how devastating stroke is.

The absolute worst part is still the fatigue. I wish there was a way to explain brain injury fatigue to someone without a brain injury. How do you explain the fog, the wall? I’ve learned to pace myself, “zone out” to conserve energy, function in “idle” more of the time. So to others I look normal because I haven’t hit the wall yet. But my entire life has to be planned around it…and that’s not normal.

What stroke symptoms do you have that are invisible?

Life In Small Bites

My husband and I have always been big bite people.  When we reorganized our books (this was back before children when we actually organized our books), we took all the books down off the shelves, organized them in stacks and rows around the house, and then reshelved them.  When I sewed my son a cat costume for Halloween a couple years ago, I started with fabric and ended with a costume complete with hem and zipper.  If there was only an hour of time to work on something, we’d decide it wasn’t even worth starting.

We’ve realized that to move on with our lives, we need to learn to work in small chunks.  This sounds pretty easy, but it actually requires a huge change in how we tackle anything.  Here was my husband’s previous work flow when doing a house project:

1. Wait until he had a full day to work on it.

2. Spend the first couple hours hunting for his tape measure, work gloves, spare saw blade, packet of hardware he bought, etc.

3. Start working.

4. Realize he didn’t have a vital piece and run to store to get it.  Come home and eat lunch.

5. Really get working.  Hit his groove mid afternoon.

6. Stay up until midnight.

This doesn’t work anymore.  I am doing well enough to manage the kids alone for about an hour or so.  In a crisis I can do more, but then we have the repercussions afterwards.  So for normal life, we need to count on hour long chunks (longer if the toddler is napping).  Using the previous system, nothing would ever get done because that hour would always be used hunting for the work gloves.  Now Hubby has to be in early enough to fix supper.  He does occasionally work on something until midnight, but only after he’s gotten the kids ready for bed.

So we’re learning.  We’ve had to learn to approach everything in a more organized fashion.  We have to have our projects always ready to go…if we have to hunt for something, our time is up.  We have to be ready to leave projects in a partially done state.  It’s honestly a vast improvement from the previous system and once we have it figured out I think I’ll count it as one of the benefits of stroke. But we’re still figuring it out.

Sensory Overload

I know I’m not the only one who suffers with this since my strokes, though it’s not something I ever expected or anyone involved in my care has ever asked about.  It’s gradually gotten better as I’ve recovered and as I’ve learned to manage it, but if I go beyond my limits or am fatigued, it’s completely unmanageable.  I’ll bet I’m not the only one to yell, “Shut up!” apparently out of the blue.  The people with me don’t realize that the curtain is swaying in the breeze, the dishwasher is whirring, there is a bird outside, and that voice, that voice is talking so fast and high and I can’t take it anymore!!!!

I usually don’t attend church (largely for the above reasons but also for others that I’ll discuss another time) but today I had to be there at the beginning to stand beside a woman making an announcement (I still actively volunteer).  No one sat still in their seats; they leaned to talk to each other, swayed, wiggled.  The pre-service chatter ebbed and flowed.  Then the music started.  Everything seems a little too loud when I’m overstimulated so this was REALLY LOUD.  The background on the lyrics for the music was moving, which to me was positively psychedelic.  The person behind me kept bumping into my chair.  The music was your typical “contemporary service” music with a heavy drum beat and people kept doing horrible things like waving their arms and bobbing their heads.  I was a wreck by the time I left, about ten minutes in to the service.

I’ve learned to monitor how much sensory input I’m getting and if I start getting that irritated, anxious, about to scream feeling, I pay close attention.  Would turning off the fan help?  Or turning off the radio?  Dimming the lights?  Walking into another room? I’ve also explained the problem to everyone close to me so they understand. But I know it sounds crazy and is hard to really, truly understand.

And then I found this video…it does an amazing job!  I had to look away during several parts because it made me more dizzy than I am already but it is so close to how the world actually looks…throbbing, spinning, and loud.

 

Do you struggle with sensory overload? How do you cope?

A New Beginning

I feel like this is my first spring since the strokes.  I wish I had the words to describe the profound difference between last year and this year while describing the profound difference between now and before the strokes.  I am still so limited.  But I can do things!  My brain still gets so overloaded sometimes.  But it recovers more quickly.

Last year, overdoing it would mean a week of recovery.  And it didn’t take much to overdo it.  This year, I can gently push myself.  And when I do overdo it (because I am the sort of person who doesn’t know my limits!) instead of falling or lying in bed, clinging to the bed, telling myself over and over again that I am not actually spinning, I feel somewhat dizzy and really snappy.  I don’t like this aspect of me now, but I’ve learned it’s common among stroke survivors.  When my brain gets tired, everything seems to be coming in too fast, too loud, too bright, and I snap at my kids, my husband, my dog, or (most often actually) my “stupid arm” and “stupid strokes”.

Be that as it may, it is spring and I’m out in the garden again.  I can walk over irregular surfaces like a pro with a really funny wide-based gait but without falling.  I started numerous batches of seeds indoors and I can transplant 8-10 seedlings before I have to stumble back inside to rest.  This is HUGE!  This is freedom.  I don’t have to wait for someone else to do it for me or just do one plant a day. Not only that, I haven’t killed a single seedling through clumsy handling (though I do have trouble getting them in the hole without mauling them somewhat).

Seeding is still a bit of an issue.  I’m starting everything from seeds…mostly leftover seeds from a couple years ago (stored in the fridge and still quite good).  I enjoy the process and can’t justify buying a plant for a few dollars when I can start a plant for pennies.  I have excruciating arm pain from the tension of trying to get just one bitty seed at a time.  I’ve found that starting everything indoors in some old disposable plastic cups with drainage holes punched in the bottom and then transplanting out is much easier for me than leaning over the bed trying to plant those annoyingly tiny seeds and then care for them outside during those care-intensive sprouting days.  Instead, I’ve claimed half the stovetop for trays of my seedlings. Broadcast seeding is also amusing…my mesclun is in little clumps instead of nicely spread over the bed.  But I am gardening!  We are on the way to the absolute most beautiful, productive garden I have ever planted.

It is also a huge relief to have a hobby again.  I used to be a very busy person and loved biking, scrapbooking, knitting, writing, gardening, and baking in particular, in addition to being the sole provider for the family and mom of two small ones.  My hubby has learned to bake.  The scrapbooks and knitting are languishing (though my son convinced me to start working on a sweater for him on huge needles with chunky yarn).  The blogging is nearly non-existent (as you know…sorry!)  The biking is still pretty limited (I made it up to 6 blocks away with my hubby and didn’t know if I’d make it back!)  But I can garden.  My brain has something fun to fiddle with in my spare moments.

What hobbies have you lost?  What hobbies have you reclaimed?  Do you have a garden?  If not, I highly recommend it!  Even a pot of chives in the window sill is lovely.

Today

I am sitting in my office finishing my work.  If someone didn’t know, they’d think I was just an average mom doing my normal stuff.  I could be anyone.  They don’t know that every time I tell the story of the last 16 months, I hear gasps.  They don’t know that while I look the same on the outside, I will never be the same on the inside.

But for others who are just starting on this path, I wanted you to know that whatever happens in the coming months and years, you can choose what you make of it.  No one else knows what you’re going through, what your priorities are, or what you need to do to get there.  Doctors may tell you the medical information, but they don’t know your particular path.  Other people may not encourage you to take care of yourself the way you need to.  Do it anyway.  Do what you need to do.  Create the meaning in your experiences.  Decide where you want to go on this new path.  You didn’t die so God still has some use for you here.  Start working toward that today.

I miss blogging and the “strokey” community.  Sometimes I feel like I’m masquerading in another world.  I can keep up appearances for a short while and then duck back home to rest.  But I know my life isn’t like other people’s.

Last year I wrote a lot trying to process what happened.  I miss the writing.  I still have a lot I want to say.  But until someone pays me a living wage to sit and write, I’m going to have to focus in other areas.  I hope to stop back in once and awhile for an update.  My kids are growing so I may find more time there as well someday.  My son (3 years old when I stroked) is attending Kindergarten Round Up on Friday.  My daughter is almost 2 now and insists on doing everything herself.  We’ve all gotten so used to the new normal, that sometimes we forget that it isn’t normal.

Hope you all are doing well.