Sunday, January 22, 2012

So Momma, you want an Education? - Part 2 The best laid plans...

As I said in my last part of this series, my biggest mistake I have made is failing to plan for my return to school. Now, that said, I know better than anyone that life throws you a lot of curveballs and planning isn't always easy or possible, BUT... if you are reading this, chances are you're considering starting or finishing a college degree program. So even if you're just dreaming about it, there ARE things you can do to plan for and achieve it - even if schooling is years off for you!

1. Get yourself in a good place.  Being a mom/dad and student is very stressful - both physically and emotionally. Before setting out on that path, make sure to have YOU in order. Its time to assess where you are at and make changes. Make an appointment with your doctor and make a check of your health. Make changes that are necessary NOW - long before you start classes. Starting an exercise routine, healthier eating habits, and getting more sleep will become a habit that will serve you well once you take on the extra responsibilities of school. Are you in a good place mentally? If you're feeling uncertain, stressed, or sad, or if you don't handle stress well, the extra workload is only going to compound that. Talk to a professional and work on coping techniques - they can be a real lifesaver later. Get in the habit now, and it will be one less problem area for you later.

2. Build a Support System. It takes a village. Never more have I understood this than as a Student Mom. If you're like me, you might not even realize how much you need support until its just not there. So often I feel like an island, floating off by myself, with nothing nearby in sight to cling to. Neither you nor your family should feel this way! So start by listing the resources and people you have to turn to in times of need - friends, family, spouse, and other outside organizations such as a church group or professional society. Do they support you in your educational goals? One great tragedy is that my decision to pursue my degree has shown me the true nature of my friends and family. I had to sever ties with my best friend of 20 years when she flat out told me not to finish school and that she thought it would ruin my marriage (well, that and a host of other transgressions). It was the most painful thing I've ever had to do, but I learned that it just wasn't a friendship built on true love and mutual appreciation, so I had to let it die. I've had to distance myself from family members who do not understand my desire to complete an education. Be prepared for the people who are negative and bring you down - they are out there. There are people who will think you are selfish - that if you are a Mother that you are not allowed to pursue anything outside of the total fulfillment and needs of your children and spouse. Thankfully, I have found that new people will emerge that WILL understand and support you - classmates, professors, professionals in your field, fellow student parents, and friends whom you may not have been super close with in a long time. These people are your angels! When things are bad, they will lift you up, and when things are good, they will be happy and share your joy. Anyone who cannot do this with you... you either have to be prepared to walk away from or at least temporarily distance yourself from their influence. No matter how much you may want them to care or support you, if they cannot do so, they will only be poison. Float your educational goals and ideas past friends and family... you will likely know quickly where they will fall. My own parents just don't seem to understand. I still love them with all of my heart but I find my family and I are happier and more positive when we spend less time with them. I view it as a temporary sacrifice and hope eventually I can be closer with them. Embrace those who will be a positive voice, and be prepared to distance yourself from those who just cannot. A negative reaction doesn't necessarily make them bad people and it doesn't invalidate your desires and feelings. If it is important to you, it matters. Don't let anyone tell you differently. Keep positivity around you.

My Spouse and best friend, Neil. I couldn't do this without him!

Now, I recognize that I am extremely fortunate that I have a spouse who agrees that my educational goals are important and vital to our family to thrive. I know I am blessed. I have witnessed some of my fellow students who have spouses who are not as supportive... and sometimes not supportive at all. Many times, a spouse who is negative or voicing concern is doing just that - VOICING CONCERN. They worry about YOU and the immediate family- your mental and physical health, the time you will take away from your family and kids, and the financial impact your education will have on the family unit. These are valid concerns, many of which you may have also worried about. Communication is vital! Talk with your spouse about why you want your education. Plan together what your educational goals are and how it can better your family. Involve your spouse in all of the planning and preparations. This is a big investment for them too - financially, emotionally, and from a workload standpoint. Your spouse will likely have to take on extra household duties and other responsibilities to help you achieve that degree -so it is vital that you both agree on the goals, the plan, and the action steps that you will all have to take as a family. If your children are old enough, get them involved as well. Talk to them about why an education is important and what it means for your family- not just you but how it can make a difference for them too! Make sure they understand the changes in the family routine that may have to take place in order for you to finish your education. And most of all - communicate that no matter what you are a family! You stand together. They support you for now and you will be there for them when they decide to attend college. And do it. Make the commitment to each other now and decide what you will - and won't - sacrifice for each other. Doing this now will go a long way to family harmony. These are the people who love us, and whom we love best - we need to anticipate how our decisions and pursuits will affect them. Talk about it and work at it until an agreement can be reached.

Now... if you have a spouse who is flat out opposed to your education (and there are some who are!), you need to find out why. Ask questions. Get them to talk about their misgivings. Most often, they are just insecure or worried about the impacts your education will have. However, even if you've discussed your feelings with them and they will absolutely not see your side, help from a professional intermediary may help. It has always been my opinion that if your spouse knows you, loves you, and wants the best for you and your family, they will be honest with you. Be prepared to hear hard truths that you may not want to hear - and think about what your spouse has to say. Sometimes they know us better than we think. Listen without anger or judgement to their concerns and take time to consider if perhaps they could be correct. If they cannot give you a good reason for their opposition OR if you both seem to have vastly different life goals, you may need to evaluate what is more important - your happiness (assuming your education is vital to your fulfilling your personal happiness) or your marriage. Be prepared to discover some painful and dark truths. If a compromise cannot be reached, you might have dire decisions to make. BUT... for purposes of this blog, we are going to assume even the most difficult situations can be overcome with love and communication! Right? RIGHT!

3. Adopt a routine/schedule now. Again, being in the habit of doing something is going to serve you well when finally entering the classroom. So get yourself and your family on a routine. Get up regularly at a time that allows you all to have a healthy breakfast, get dressed and out the door without stress, and if you need to, schedule your day to ensure you can get everything you need (and want!) to do completed. Before bedtime, pack lunches and have everyone lay out what they are going to wear the next day - this can save valuable minutes in the mad dash to get an entire family out the door on time. I pack the lunches, day care bags, and lay out the clothes for the kids and myself before bed because otherwise I will forget things in the morning! In fact, this semester I'm planning on showering right before bed and blow drying styling my hair... that way my husband and I aren't both trying to get through the shower and use the bathroom at the same time in the morning. I'll just have to touch up my hair and do my make-up while my husband showers, then I can relinquish control of the bathroom to him. You should schedule time to rest and spend time together with the kids, each other, and get a short work-out in too!
Desmond "vacuuming" for Mom.

Routines will also help when trying to keep the household from falling into chaos and epic filth while attending school. Make out a list of household cleaning duties and divide it up among the family. Even small kids can help with more than you probably realize - incorporate putting away their toys into their bedtime routine - even my 17 month old has fun with this "game". Have each person in the family do one thing to help make or clean-up after meals - while you do dishes, have the kids sweep the floor. My four year old loves helping mom dust while I vacuum, etc. Even if you won't be returning to school for a year or two, having your family life organized and in a good habitual routine is something you can do NOW to best prepare you and everyone involved. I admit that this is something I have not always done well in with in the past, and it is the single biggest thing I am working to change in my last year of school.

4. Get used to living with less. Much less. This is something we had to learn to do very quickly, as my return to school was very sudden. Things were very painful that first year back, but through help from friends, fellow students, and lots of research, I've found ways to cut back and live with less in order to make finishing my education possible.

I first suggest assessing what you really NEED. For instance, I had a Blackberry phone with a data plan, and so did my husband. It was costing us $190+ per month. We realized we didn't use the data services enough to really warrant the expense - we found we usually were at home or on campus or somewhere were a computer was available to us. So we cut back to a simple cell phone plan for each of us. We now pay $80 per month for BOTH phones. No, they are not fancy. Yes, sometimes I miss fancy. But... you have to decide where your priorities are. We also decided to cut out cable TV. We found that we were DVR'ing many of our shows, and most of them were on local television stations. With the advent of online streaming video content, we found we don't really miss cable TV. We bought a good digital antenna and we receive local signals in High Definition. In fact, the over-the-air HD is BETTER than what we were getting through cable! We DO still pay for cable internet service, and we sprung for a Netflix account where we get streaming content. But, we went from paying about $110 per month to $45 per month. And you know? Quite frankly when classes are in session, I rarely have time to watch TV. The kids love PBS and streaming Netflix for their shows, and my husband has discovered many awesome TV shows and movies that he was missing out on. When I actually have free time, I love Netflix because its totally on-demand. I can watch a documentary or a movie or whatever I want whenever I want!

We moved from a 3 bedroom duplex to a 2 bedroom apartment that had heat included to get rid of the "surprise" enormous heating bills of our Wisconsin winters. In doing so, we sold off a ton of our unnecessary stuff on Craigslist and made some cash. Its amazing what you probably have that you really don't need. I had lots of home decor items that I no longer had room for once I had a smaller home. So I pared down and just kept my favorite things. It means less to move later too!

Start looking carefully at your grocery bill - this is the NUMBER ONE place we cut back. We went from spending about $900 per month to just about $400-$500 a month on a family of four - and I think we could still pare it down more! Now, it helps that our son switched from drinking formula to soy milk. But the biggest changes we made that made the difference were finding better places to shop and making a meal plan. That's it. Two things. That's not so scary is it? It just might take some research and asking around.

Instead of shopping at the "convenient" local food store chain, we started going to Aldi. Yup... Aldi. I admit, I was always too snobby and afraid to go there in the past, despite friends that sung its praises. It took fellow students telling me how to shop there to convince me to try it. Yes, everything is "store brand", but our family has come to be some of Aldi's biggest fans. I'll have to write a bit more about how to shop Aldi at another time... it's too long to do here. While we're on the subject of store brands, are you still using name brand formula and/or diapers? STOP! Even with a coupon, they are usually more expensive. With my first child I clung to the name brands, but a year into his life realized the store brands were every bit as good! We really like Target's Up and Up baby formula and Diapers. For wipes, I prefer the thicker brand carried by our local grocery store chain. Our oldest still uses Pull-Ups at night - but buy the Walgreens brand - they are awesome, work well, and cost a ton less. Start trying new brands out - you'll be surprised. For the big ticket item on the grocery list - MEAT - we heard through word-of-mouth about a local butcher shop that was cheap and good. And they are! We cut back our meat consumption considerably and substituted eggs, peanut butter, and tuna for much of our protein needs, and then go to the meat market for the cuts we plan to eat that week.

That brings me to the last grocery savings - PLAN  YOUR MEALS. When payday is coming, I pull out my cookbooks and poll the kids for what we want to eat for the next two weeks. I decide on some favorite recipes and things that are healthy and easy to grab-on-the-go and plan them out for the three meals and snacks. Then I shop my cupboard - if I have certain ingredients, I keep them off the list so I only buy what I need. It keeps our pantry neat and costs down! When possible, if I'm making a recipe that calls for an odd ingredient (for example, buttermilk, which I don't often use) I will try to select another recipe that will use more of that ingredient so the remainder won't go to waste. I like making buttermilk dredged pan fried Tilapia one night, then using the rest of the buttermilk to bake banana bread or use in pancakes later. We spend about $160 at Aldi for two weeks of basic groceries. We aslo have to supplement unusual ingredients from another store and buy more milk and soy milk since many things don't last two weeks. But we've gotten the bill down to half of what it was. And my goal is to do even better!

Homemade Pizza! Fun and delicious.
Now... as for dining out. Do I even need to say it? DON'T, unless it is a special treat or unavoidable. (We keep things like delivery pizza or Chinese Take-out or McD's to twice-per-month treats to celebrate things - like Mommy's 4.0 semester, or Liam doing something particularly good, or Daddy having good sales numbers at work). That fancy coffee in the morning or fast food lunch adds up quickly, both in the budget and on your waist. I KNOW - It is VERY hard when life gets busy not to be tempted. I, too, have those days where I've left the house at 7AM, commuted, had internship or class all day, then picked up the kids from daycare and commuted 45 minutes home, it's been a 12 hour or more day and we are all STARVING. What can you do? What we've done is found healthy snack options that we can grab and keep with us at the office, in my bag, or wherever hunger strikes. Granola bars or dry breakfast cereal, crackers, nuts, apples, bananas, and other fruit can be tossed in my school bag.  Cans of soup or frozen meals (kept at the office) for my husband are helpful as well. I don't always have time to drink my coffee in the morning since it takes time to brew - so instead of buying it, I take my travel mug and several bags of my favorite tea. When I get to campus for class, I go to the cafe or into our department office to get some hot water (or microwave some from the water fountain), put my tea bag in and TA-DAAA! No fuss hauling it in the car and spilling it on your clothes, (and how DO you carry a travel mug while also carrying a wiggly 17-month-old and your school books while herding a four-year-old across campus anyway!?!) its nice and hot, and even great quality tea bags are pretty inexpensive. You could probably do the same thing with instant coffee, but I haven't tried it yet.

Other things I've done to cut back? We bought a trimmer on sale, and I have been cutting my husband's and kids hair for the last year. I've gotten very good at it, and the electric clippers has paid for itself many times over already. I have also foregone the salon myself... I color my own hair at home, and go to Cost Cutters and pay $7.99 for a haircut. Recently I have re-kindled a friendship with an old high school friend who is a stay-at-home-mom and ex-stylist. I plan pay her to cut my hair - its less expensive than my former salon, I get a great haircut, and my money goes to someone who really can use it! Talk to fellow moms and students - you might each have skills you can trade.

We buy my husband's work clothes at our local Goodwill Store. Yup. And he is well dressed too - better than me and very often in designer duds! We found the Goodwill in the more affluent parts of town are a goldmine. We have bought dress pants, shirts, sweaters, and other business attire there - sometimes with the tags still on them - for about $3-5 per piece. We can spend $30 and get my husband 4-8 pieces of new clothing, when I used to spend that for one pair of new dress pants on sale. It takes some digging, but its worth it. Likewise, we shop at Children's Orchard, a resale shop, for all the kids clothing. We usually find what we need. If not, we cruise the sales or get hand-me-downs from other parents we know. And, in return, we give away our boys' outgrown clothing to other friends. Some items, like foundations (socks, underwear, bras, etc) and shoes, you can't really get used. So for those we wait for good sales at our favorite stores to purchase those.

I also make many of my home cleaning products. It is more eco-friendly, better for our health, and saves us a ton. Liam loves helping momma shave the soap to make our laundry detergent. It doesn't take more than 10-15 minutes to make a batch every few weeks, and it only costs a few cents per load. Our laundry is cleaner too.

We drive two old cars. My husband's 1997 Saturn is a two door and not ideal as we have to contort ourselves to get the kids in their carseats in the back. It is not very pretty but it runs and is paid off. As a result of its age, insuring it is cheap too. We will drive it until it dies. We most often haul the kids in my 2002 Subaru wagon because it has four doors and lots of storage. It also is paid for. Yes, it has dents in it. No, its not uber fancy. BUT... it's reliable and paid for. Again... what are your priorities? A new car? Or the education that help you get the job you want, make you happy, AND allow you to probably buy that newer car? Exactly!

So start cutting back NOW. Then there is no "culture" shock to deal with when you finally do get to school and have to cut back. Take the difference and put it in savings toward school expenses. You will be glad you did later.

5. Take stock of your financial assets. I know, you don't have a tuition bill yet. But now is a good time to look at your overall financial picture and figure out what resources you have and which you do not have available to you. If times get tight or you have an emergency and you need the dough to finish your semester, its good to know what resources you might be able to tap. What is your available credit on  your credit cards (assuming you have any.) What do you have in checking and savings accounts? Home Equity? A 401K and IRA? Are withdrawals available to you, or can you loan against it? Do you have stocks or other investments - and how long does it take to liquidate them out if you need money? You might not necessarily want to tap these resources and hopefully you never need to, but its very good to make a list of everything you have and how quickly you can utilize it for needed emergencies. Its helped us in a pinch a few times.

So these are just a few suggestions of how you can begin to prepare for your return to school long in advance. You'll likely notice one very important aspect I left out - selecting the College or University you will attend. That will be the topic for the next part of this series.

As always, there are many ways to prepare - particularly when cutting expenses. I'd love to hear some of the things my readers do to save money and other ways people have prepared themselves for classes.


  1. First off Michelle, you are a wonderful writer. Your tips are absolutely great. I have shopped at Aldi's forever and also the Super WalMart here in Muskego.

    I also make my own laundry detergent and clean mostly with baking soda and vinegar. I use a spray bottle with bleach and water and my steam mop to clean my floors. Great way to save money.

    I have sold everything I can on Craigslist to fund any redecorating projects I do.

    Keep on doing what you are guys have a master plan and will be stronger for having gone through it.

  2. I LOVE your blog, Michelle!!!!!!!!! As a stay at home mom, we do many of the same things. We also shop Aldi and Goodwill and Target, but unfortunatly our cars re not paid off yet. We also do not have cable and with Netflix, you really don't need it! Can you suggest to me wht TV antenna you use though? Ours isnt that great...and I love the idea to make your own laundry soap!!!!!! Can you share your recipe? love love this blog!

  3. Tina... we have a GE model 24700 antenna... purchased it from Target for about $25. It's not the greatest though. We plan to get a better one soon. This antenna didn't work all that well until we broke one of the rabbit ears - then it worked much better! LOL. Unfortunately some channels like 58 don't come in very well. I will put together a post soon of some of my favorite cleaning recipes and items for you!