Cost/Benefit Analysis

If you have read my blog at all, you know that I am a teacher. I work hard, every day, to help my students learn not only academic content, but life skills as well. I have spent class periods diverging from discussion of the themes of The Odyssey and Hamlet to show students how to apply for scholarships and how to check college/university credit equivalency. (Our high school does have a single academic counselor, but we won’t talk about how over-taxed our school staff is and how we all share roles to make our school a community of learning and growth right now.) I’ve even spent a class period on how to make a simple budget because many of my students are income contributors in their families and they have bills they have to pay each month.

Which brings me to today, and how I spent 15 minutes before school this morning helping a student to navigate his recently created 401k account. My student, M, talked about how his parents have nothing saved and how he’ll have to support them completely soon as they are growing older and have many health problems between them. M is the son of immigrants who came to this country from a war-torn country. His mother has never worked, does not speak English, and culturally is not expected nor wanted by her family to work outside of the home. His father did not complete high school and works long hours in someone else’s store – he never learned about “saving for retirement” because in their home country, it is assumed that the parents will simply live with one of their children until they die. M, however, has.

M has been working in the U.S. for the past two years for a well-known chain retail store. Once he turned 18, (last month), he received some mail that he brought to me about being eligible to contribute to a 401k and he wanted to know what it was. I spent my lunch hour for several days after that helping him to fill out the paperwork and teaching him how to use the internet to search for information about 401k, Social Security benefits, etc. for future use, and showing him several different ways to calculate his personal budget.

After working with M the last few weeks, I have also begun looking far more closely at my own finances as well as our family budget and how we spend and save attempt to save money. I never had anyone mentor me through these topics when I was young and actually had money to invest/put away; everything I have learned about finance was through the School of Hard Knocks. Yet, by the time I began a retirement account in 2010, I had a great deal more financial and personal responsibility than I did ten years ago, working in a profession that is underpaid, making it even harder to put away a significant amount each paycheck.

Fast forward nearly ten more years to 2018 and I have roughly $10k in my 401k, and I’m beginning to truly worry for the future. According to my investment account, this is where I am:

Retirement Calculator March 2018Something tells me that the “milestone” on that sign won’t remotely be enough by the time I am “retirement age” (is that even a thing anymore?). Also…I’m not remotely on track to reach my bare minimum retirement goals:
Hypothetical Retirement Income March 2018
According to these calculations, I will be dirt poor, living under a bridge.

I’m scared. I know that looking too far ahead isn’t healthy because we cannot tell the future, and worrying about it will only negatively affect my mental state and my physical health. This is particularly difficult for me in that I’m a planner, and I need to plan! Being unable to come up with a feasible plan is difficult to deal with as someone with anxiety and depression. Planning helps me to relax and feel more in control of my surroundings, and not being able to come up with a better plan that the current one is upsetting.
Until recently, I was only contributing 1% to my retirement fund. I dropped from a 5% to a 1% contribution in 2013 after I found out that I was pregnant with my first child and we had to begin saving for medical costs, furniture, and diapers. My employer matches up to 3% contribution yearly, so that’s where I have it at for now as we try to use all available funds in our plan to become debt-free by 2021. I know that NOW is the time that I should be saving as much money as possible in order to allow my investment to grow. But when you’re scraping by, living paycheck-to-paycheck, planning financially for the future is an exercise in frustration and sometimes feels like an impossibility.
One of the biggest lessons I took away from my courses in economics is the concept of an  “opportunity cost” (which is also something that I teach to my students at the beginning of each school year). In short, an opportunity cost is a benefit or outcome that could have been received, but was given up in order to pursue another opportunity. For example, if I spend $5.85 every Friday for a Venti Java Chip Frappucino at Starbucks, my opportunity cost is what I could have gained with that money instead:
  • a McDonald’s biscuit breakfast combo with coffee (and I’d have change)
  • a new coloring book and crayons for both of my children (and I’d have change)
  • 2.34939 gallons of gas for the car (at $2.49 a gallon)
  • a gallon of milk (1.99) and loaf of cinnamon swirl bread (2.99) (and I’d have change)

I don’t think about these things constantly or 100% of the time, but I do find that lately I have been weighing opportunity costs more and more in order to try and squeeze more money from our family budget.

Specifically, I’m seriously thinking about dropping AFLAC as a benefit/insurance. I currently carry short-term disability and accident coverage from AFLAC. Thus far, in the three years I have carried the extra insurance it hasn’t paid out a cent to me in wage-benefits when I have had health related illnesses and absences (like my gall bladder removal and extended hospital stay in 2015 for which I filed all the correct paperwork, but somehow did not meet the requirements for wage assistance). Though, it did pay some of my medical bills related to a car accident from November 2015.

This coverage costs me $65.64 a paycheck. $131.28 a month. $1,575.36 each year. So by the end of this school year (June 30, 2018), I will have paid $4,726.08 to AFLAC without seeing a direct benefit from it.

Now, rationally I know that this is smart coverage in that I make the majority of the income for our family and that if something happens to me, we will really be hurting. But the opportunity cost for AFLAC is so high.

  • Bi-weekly, that money could go toward diapers, food, or as an extra payment on a bill to help us get out of debt faster.
  • Monthly, that money could go into my 401k (I could double my current 3% contribution!) helping to reduce my future income gap by increasing the amount currently invested
  • Yearly, that money could go into our savings for a house, which is another one of our long-term goals
I recently had to take 4.5 days (not consecutively, but all within a two-week period) off of work to care for myself and my two children. Between the three of us we had pneumonia, influenza B, and a double-ear infection, some of us with more than one at the same time. Fun! At any rate, the absences cost me over $1000 in lost wages because I did not have enough PTO to cover all of the time. AFLAC doesn’t cover any of that because a) it wasn’t just for me, b) the absences weren’t consecutive, and c) I wasn’t hospitalized.

On the other hand, AFLAC is a preventative cost – so one can’t really weigh the opportunity cost the same way. If I terminate the coverage and then need it in the near future, I’ll be kicking myself. Conversely, since it’s preventative, if I continue working and do not end up needing/using the coverage, there are no refunds, and all of that money that could have been doing so many other things for our family will have been spent for “peace of mind,” but nothing else.

I don’t have an easy answer today, but I do know that the struggling to get by is taking it’s toll on me and by extension, my family, and I’m tired of it.
Yet, for all the exhaustion, I know that I have to keep going. I have to keep finding ways to make it work not just for myself, but for my family.

Distraction, or “OMFG this hurts!”

I had to go to the ER on Wednesday night for severe back/kidney pain that I (and anyone I disclosed my symptoms to) thought was a kidney stone.

The pain started around 2pm while I was on my prep period at school, and I thought it was just from my lazy posture while sitting at my desk grading, so I got up to stretch and walk around. It didn’t help.

By 3:30pm (dismissal), the pain was coming in waves that spiked up to a 6 or 7 out of 10, accompanied by nausea that was enough to make me gag.

By 4:30pm (I was still at work, grading and planning since it’s the end of the semester and shit has to get done regardless of how I feel), the pain had elevated to the rank of “what fresh hell is this?” or 9 out of 10, and I began dry heaving and finally, before 5pm, vomited. The vomiting continued for some time, despite my stomach being fairly empty.

I then had to stay at work until nearly 6pm because I could not get the pain/nausea under control enough to feel safe to drive home during rush-hour traffic. When I finally left (just after 6pm), I took the side roads in case I needed to stop suddenly and did not arrive at my apartment until nearly 7pm.

At home, I sat on the couch, my two young children (ages 4yo and nearly 2yo) climbing all over me as I became more and more irritated – not at them, but at the fact that nothing I could do was making my pain any better. I was also extremely annoyed at the prospect of an ER visit, the likelihood of passing a kidney stone, and probably having to call off work (anyone who teaches knows what a pain-in-the-ass it is to be absent, even if you are TRULY ill and need the time off to recover). When my husband got in the door from work half an hour later, it was clear that I couldn’t continue to simply bear the pain and both he and my mother (who watches the children while we’re at work) encouraged me to go in and be seen.

My husband, despite not having eaten dinner, changed out of his work clothes and grabbed a phone charger as well as his Kindle Fire to drive me and keep me company. When I was apologetic for forcing him back out after he’d only gotten home he smiled, “Are you kidding? I’m bringing the Kindle, we’ll have a ‘date night’.” He knows that laughter puts me more at ease, and this was no exception.

The ER was terribly busy, as I knew it would be from my own past experiences as an ER tech during flu season. After a quick and dirty triage I was placed on a gurney in the hallway next to a mural of sea turtles and fish. I couldn’t even hold a conversation with my husband because I couldn’t concentrate beyond the pain and onslaught of nausea, so I attempted to distract myself with games on my own tablet.

People have compared the pain of a kidney stone to that of labor pains, but having gone through two births (induced with pitocin), I can honestly say that that hormonely fueled hell was worse than this…but it is a damn close second. On the drive to the hospital I remarked to my husband that I was at the point, pain-wise, where I begged for an epidural. Of course, it didn’t help that the road to the hospital was riddled with potholes from the snow plows and it felt like we were riding in a 1870 covered wagon vs. a 2004 VW Passat.

Regardless, the night in the ER passed rather uneventfully. Based on my symptoms the attending physician ordered the “kidney-stone protocol” and I had an IV placed, blood drawn, urine sampled, and CT scan. Because of the pain and my lack of ability to keep anything down from earlier that afternoon, it took a while for me to be able to provide a urine sample, and when I finally did, it was…gross, to say the least. And I should know, while pregnant with both of my children I had to give urine so often at my OB appointments that I am confident urine should never, ever, look like that.

When I came back to my bed in the hall I was instructed to place my sample on the back of the gurney on top of a plastic bag with my name on it. It was some time before a nurse returned to check on me, and it was a different nurse from the one who had checked me in and as she pulled up her computer cart beside me she exclaimed, “Oh! Is that your urine back there? Fantastic!”
I laughed out loud musing, “You know, I can honestly say I have never had anyone so excited to see my urine before.”

After that and the CT scan, it was just waiting: waiting, waiting, waiting.

As I said previously, I was not “good company” during this time. I didn’t feel like talking, and it was all I could do to play my silly little shape matching game on my tablet while breathing thorugh both pain and nausea. It took two doses of Zofran before I felt any relief from the nausea, and whatever they gave me for pain (liquid Motrin, I think) wasn’t touching it.

Diagnosis: “Flank pain – unspecified”

The CT scan showed no visible stones anywhere in my kidneys or urinary tract, and while there was a definite presense of blood in my urine (along with white blood cells and hyaline casts), there were no visible stones their either. So they talked me through “pain management” and following up with my PCP but that the diagnosis could not be specified beyond “possibly you had a stone and already passed it,” or “you may have a kidney infection…we’ll have to wait for cultured results to know more about that,” or “it may be something else entirely.” Isn’t modern science a marvel? /sarcasm

My husband took me home in the wee hours of the night and I went to bed, vowing to call off if the pain/nausea returned or if I was going to allow myself to recover and heal as I should. The pain lessened overnight, but I still felt bad enough to call in, which I did at 5:30, submitting my lesson plans from my phone before returning to bed. I slept in, rested and took things quite easy all day and aside from some residual achiness, was not having “pain” like I had the day before.

But I was up late last night because the nausea crept back along with the pain, and then woke up sometime between 3-4 with the same stabbing pain and nausea great enough to force me from my warm bed to sit by the toilet “just in case.”

I did make it to school this morning, but immediately put in a call to my PCP to be seen as soon as school is dismissed (Fridays are always early release days for PD, don’t ask, it’s a separate and equally stupid issue) and have been taking long, slow, deep breaths to keep the nausea at bay. I also logged onto my electronic chart and read through all of my medical reports and tests from Wednesday night. (For those who do not know my background, I was a certified Emergency Medical Technician in the early 2000s and was continuing my education to become a nurse, but ultimately I changed my trajectory to become a teacher instead of staying in medicine.) The chart confirms everything the medical professionals told me last night, but reading through my CT scan, I had a number of thoughts (bracketed words are mine):

History: Cholecystectomy. [My gall bladder was removed]
Flank pain. [duh]
FINDINGS: Without contrast, CT of the abdomen and pelvis was performed. The
lack of IV contrast limits the solid abdominal viscera. [We can’t see stuff as well without contrast, but we can see most of the stuff.]
Clear bases. [good] Significant pericardial or pleural effusion. [hmmm…fluid around my heart and/or lungs and no one mentioned to me that it was “significant?” likely means it is related to current infection/not to worry, but will ask anyway] Hepatic steatosis. [Fatty liver – pretty common in adults my age, likely caused by my being obese]
Spleen, adrenals, pancreas unremarkable. [as they should be] Gallbladder removed. 
No hydronephrosis. [no visible swelling/inflammation of the kidneys]
Appendix not seen with certainty. [huh…maybe cause I’m too fat? or it’s such a small organ…] Small bowel loops are not dilated. There is
no free intraperitoneal air significant free fluid. [both good] Uterus and ovaries grossly unremarkable. [Bitch, what do you mean, ‘Uterus and ovaries grossly unremarkable?’ Fuck you dude. My reproductive organs are the SHIT! Evidence: My kids.’ …ahhh…if I don’t laugh, then the pain has won]
IMPRESSION:
1. No obstructive uropathy. [no kidney stone or obstruction, i.e. no answers]
Having been through undiagnosed pain for years (2008-2015, ultimately turning out to be a bum gall bladder) and feeling ignored and misdiagnosed (likely on account of my being a woman who is medically obese), I am not about to sit on my hands while the pain continues.

P is for Potty… or Poop.

Warning: I AM NOT ASKING FOR ADVICE.
If you have a quaint anecdote about how your child learned to use the bathroom in 24 minutes or some other fairytale bullshit, please keep it to yourself. No, really,…do not come at me with any of that crap. I won’t believe you, and we won’t be able to speak for a long time because I will harbor a deep and enduring resentment for you and your perfect potty-using child.
I need to vent. I need to unload my burden and hope that someone, anyone of my fellow parents (or caregivers) out there can relate to my problems and hold me while I cry and tell me everything is going to be okay. It will be okay. …right? 😦
My son will be 4 in just under two months. He will not use the potty.
Today, he went more than 8 hours without urinating because he will hold it as long as possible before he can’t anymore and then floods his pull-up or diaper and needs to be stripped, showered/bathed, and redressed. It gives him stomach cramps. His back hurts (his poor kidneys). I’m shocked he has not had a UTI.
I’m at my wits-end.
He does not care about “potty prizes:” sticker charts, toys, prizes, new undies, new clothing, unlimited tv shows while he sits, a BIG toy from the Learning Store {cough “up to $50 and it can’t make noise…} – NOTHING EXTRINSIC APPEALS TO HIM.
He will not go naked. He hates not wearing clothing and will scream and tantrum if we try and have him go “without pants,” but wearing undies, so he can feel when he needs to go.
He doesn’t give a fig for Daniel Tiger using the potty, or Elmo, or any other character or program that talks about using the potty. “If you have to go potty, stop and go right away…” Yeah, D.T., go find a trolly and *dingding* yourself.
He was closer to using the potty at 18 months than he is now, at nearly 4 years old, and I’m terrified. I’m scared that there is something wrong with my child. I’m scared that we’ve waited too long and now he’s not going to be able to learn how to go without some massive intervention and money that we do not have to get a “potty specialist” or some other new-fangled bullshit that no one ever needed before. I’m scared that our anxiety about his inability to use the potty is bleeding over and causing him to internalize it and make him not want to use the toilet even more. I’m scared that his bathroom avoidance will transfer to Z (my daughter) and that she’ll never use the bathroom either. I have nightmares that I’m suffocating in diapers and my children can never go to school or camp or anywhere far from home because they’re still in diapers and they won’t use the bathroom.
The rational part of my brain tries to assure me that he will learn, that he will be able to go to school and won’t need to call me or my husband from work because he pooped in his pull-up and the school isn’t allowed to change him. However, that part of my brain is being over-ruled by the anxious and over-worked parts of my gray matter that, while exhausted and over-taxed, still finds a way to have enough anxiety juice to fill me with existential dread and self-doubt.
I’m in touch with his pediatrician. I’m awaiting an e-mail reply that will assuredly tell me to relax, that my son is healthy and stubborn and will go when he’s ready. It doesn’t make the waiting or the situation any easier.
The only easy thing about parenting is loving your children;
the rest of it is incomprehensibly difficult.

Tikkun Olam – reflecting on another’s words

This post by Peter Holtzman is something that really resonates with me given some of the hypocrisy I am seeing from MOTs in my various social media feeds.
 
You are not for human rights if you are only outraged when it affects you.
You are not for true social justice if you are only active when it affects you.
You are not really awake to the problems of this world if you do not notice them until they are affecting you.
 
When I converted to Judaism, the rabbis at my beit din (loosely meaning “house of judgment”) asked me if I was prepared to be different. Specifically, they wanted to know if I was prepared to carry the often unspoken mantle of being “Jewish” or “other.” They wanted to know if I was prepared for anti-semitism that I may never have noticed before, or if I would shy away from my “Jewishness” if it meant that I would be open to more scrutiny and attacks in this regard.
 
I do not recall my specific answer, but I do know that it had something to do with being strong and strong-willed, and that I have always been willing to stand up for myself as well as the “little guy,” and that if being Jewish meant that I had to step into that role more frequently that I was unafraid.
 
I admitted in a recent conversation with my husband that I had been unwilling to believe that the sort of widespread organization and proliferation of anti-semitic attacks could happen here, now. I admitted in a recent conversation with my best friend that until recently, I didn’t really and truly understand what the rabbis had been asking me until now.
 
But the truth is this: I’m white. I’m a woman. I’m a third generation American. These three things grant me a helluva lot of privilege that, as Holtzman points out in his post, has granted me a freedom of “whiteness” that was never under threat. Until now.
 
Despite that, it is also true that these types of hateful acts (vandalizing cemeteries, defacing houses of worship, bomb threats to social centers) are not new. They have been happening for decades not just to Jews, but to every other minority group one could list with the only difference being that it hasn’t been happening in the quantity or the quickness to our group lately as it has in times past or to other groups. Now that it is, and our privilege is threatened, our hackles are up. We’re rankled. We’re pissed. We’re upset.
 
…but we should have never stopped being upset because our “freedom” was just a cover, and there were still others being oppressed.
 
Tikkun Olam means to “repair the world,” and is one of the reasons why I believe that I have always been called to be a teacher.
 
“The phrase “tikkun olam” was first used to refer to social action work in the 1950s. In subsequent decades, many other organizations and thinkers have used the term to refer to social action programs; tzedakah (charitable giving) and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness); and progressive Jewish approaches to social issues. It eventually became re-associated with kabbalah, and thus for some with deeper theological meaning.” (http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/tikkun-olam-repairing-the-world/)
 
When we turn our eyes from the suffering of others, for whatever reason, we are turning our eyes from HaShem, from the goodness that we aspire to, and from the very core of Judaism, which I believe is to “do good and be good” in every possible form.
 
I retain the position that I asserted at my beit din. I am not afraid to stand up for myself, I am not afraid to stand up for the “little guy,” even if he/she is outside of my group.
I am unafraid.