Thoughtful Thursday: Tip

March 21, 2013

Thoughtful ThursdayMy mother was a terrible tipper. 15% was her max, but usually her tip was closer to 10%. As a kid I’d calculate a proper tip and insist that she leave that amount; she’d often try to sneak a dollar or two back into her purse as we exited, but I always caught her and put the money back.

In restaurants I’m usually somewhere around 18% unless the service is particularly good or particularly bad. When the bill is small, though, I often bump it up. When it’s a place I go often, I bump it up. When I’m on an expense account, I really bump it up.

I’m not always a great tipper, though. I rarely tip maids in hotels: it just doesn’t make sense to me, I dunno. For people like shuttle bus drivers I tip sometimes, but if they’re unfriendly or make me lug giant suitcases onto the bus while they sit watching me I refrain without guilt. I’m an inconsistent tipper when it comes to picking up takeout and getting counter service: should I really be tipping the same amount to someone who does nothing more than hand me a bag as I would to a waiter who attends to a table for an hour or more? I didn’t even realize that anyone tipped on takeout until a few years ago when I saw a friend tip $15 on a $60 order — like many who have worked in food service in the past, she is an excellent tipper. Now, I might tip 10-15%, or if it’s a bakery or something then I toss in a dollar, maybe two, which might turn out to be 10% or might be 40%. If I’m putting the money in a jar, I try to do it when the person is looking, not because I want to get credit for tipping but because I don’t want them to think that I didn’t when I actually did. I totally get that wages for many jobs assume a certain level of tipping, but sometimes I feel like it’s all an extortion scheme. When I was in college, the student-run pizza place literally had a Shit List of non-tippers; after a few times, they would refuse to bring you any more pizzas.

I’ve been to many countries in Europe that don’t tip in restaurants, or maybe something small like rounding up to the nearest Euro. In Japan, you don’t tip at all, for anything. That is one of my favorite things about Japan, that people try hard because they want to do a good job, not because it might increase their tip. I believe in the free market economy, but sometimes it’s lovely to get good service because the person chooses to give you good service.

What kind of tipper are you?

Thoughtful Thursday: Fund

August 16, 2012

Thoughtful ThursdayFollowing last week’s discussion on using gifts that “belong” to children:

Several commenters brought up the topic of college funds and other money that is given to children. Since I didn’t mention any of that in my post, I thought I’d discuss it more explicitly this week.

I believe in college funds. I believe that if a family has the means, they should pay for their children’s educations. I did not have a college fund by the time I got to college, even though there could have been an ample fund if my parents had made different decisions over the years. I was pretty pissed about that in college. Now, 15 years after graduating, I’m mildly annoyed that my loans aren’t yet paid off.

A friend of ours does not believe in college funds. He chooses not to have college funds for his children, thinking that they can go to state colleges. He chooses to bring in less income than he could and to spend the family’s disposable income on hobbies and vacations; he gets a lot of flack from his savings-minded friends for those choices.

Burrito and Tamale have college funds, but due to the way that tax benefits are structured, we put most of our savings into our own retirement accounts. We have every intention of paying for their educations, and moving the money around as needed, but thanks to Uncle Sam it looks on paper like we prioritize ourselves over them.

Even though we haven’t put that much money in yet, the balance of their college funds is still higher than the sum of the gifts they have received in their lives. As far as I am concerned, the money that people have given them has gone to them. In fact, we tend to do sort of a matching system, because in addition to putting money in the college funds we tell the gift-givers that their money is going to specific purchases like big-ticket toys. Relatives seem to get more enjoyment out of their gifts being enjoyed immediately by the children rather than paying for one college textbook 16 years from now.

However, at the time the gifts are given, we actually take the money. It’s pretty amusing to see DH take cash from a toddler’s birthday card and put it in his wallet — but it’s only amusing because I know that they will get their due at the end of the year. I’ve known parents like the one that strongblonde described in her comment last week who have taken money intended for their children, not out of need but out of selfishness. I certainly don’t believe in that.

What’s your stance on college funds?

Thoughtful ThursdayYears ago, I gave a present to a friend when her first baby was born: a gift certificate to Nordstrom. I told her that she was welcome to use it for herself instead of the baby, since there are lots of nice things adults would enjoy from the store whereas babies don’t know the difference between a $3 t-shirt and a $40 t-shirt. She replied, “Oh no, I would never take something that belongs to the baby!”

Yeah, so I totally don’t subscribe to the same philosophy. Case in point:

These cupcakes came with the twins’ meals when we went out to dinner tonight. Their dinners were more than ample: main courses, 4 kinds of vegetables, 2 kinds of fruit, and milk. When they were done eating, they both still had some food left, but their tummies were full. They didn’t know that their meals came with cupcakes. They are rarely allowed to eat sweets, and they don’t even really like cupcakes. So, I asked the waiter to box them up. And then, after Burrito and Tamale went to bed, DH and I ate these cupcakes. Burrito and Tamale will never know about their missing cupcakes, until a couple of decades from now when they read this blog (Hi, kids — I mean, hi, adults! Next round of cupcakes are on me!).

If we had limited resources, I would never take something from the children. But, we as a family have access to an almost infinite supply of cupcakes. My children get everything they need — much more, really — and so if I were to do something like use an upscale gift certificate that had their names on it for my own purchase, plenty of other gifts would be headed their way and they would still come out far ahead. If we were not so fortunate, though, if there were not enough disposable income or cupcakes or even basic necessities to go around, then everything would go to them first. But thankfully that’s not the case, and these cupcakes can go to me.

If they wouldn’t miss it, would you take something that “belongs” to a little kid?

Thoughtful ThursdayMy real estate agent isn’t that great. Not terrible by any means, but not the best. My now-former house has been for sale since my mother’s health took a turn for the worse, almost 6 months before she died, which was over a year ago. That means my house has been for sale for a year and a half. It’s been empty for 3 months and counting. We keep dropping the price, and it keeps not getting bought. Our agent does all the things she’s supposed to do, but we can’t help but feel that if we had someone top-notch, they’d be doing more. More marketing, more staging, smarter pricing from the outset, something. It may be the horrendously crappy real estate market, or it may be her.

The catch is that we can’t fire her, and we couldn’t have gone with any other agent — because she is my now-former boss’s wife. He never said that I had to use his wife, but it seemed like it could really be asking for trouble if I didn’t.

DH has a good friend who is the opposite kind of real estate agent, in a different city. He’s the kind you see on billboards. Everyone in the industry knows him. He’s been featured on one of those TV shows that follows someone looking for a new house. If we lived in his city, we’d be obligated to use him, the same way we’re obligated to use my boss’s wife, but I’m glad that we’re not. He is The Best, and he knows it. Maybe because he and DH have been friends for more than 30 years he’d give us extra personal attention rather than charming us at key points in the process and delegating all of the real work to his underlings. Maybe. But he is The Best because of volume, not because of personal attention. No, in the case of real estate I’d rather have someone who wants the best price for me rather than the fastest sale for him. I’d rather have someone who is good but not a superstar.

In many domains, though, I do extensive research to find The Best. Burrito and Tamale’s first pediatrician was absolutely the best in the area, in terms of both skill and bedside manner. My first RE was one of the most famous in the world; my 2nd RE was the most respected in the region. Each car we have bought has been the absolute best possible choice for our needs at the time. Twice I have worked for one of the most important people in the world in my field; both times I have gotten mistreated and been miserable, but I also ended up with letters of recommendation from two of the most important people in our world, and for the rest of my career people will say, “Oh, you worked with him? Wow. He’s my hero.”

In other domains, I settle for fine. For example, the guy who plowed our driveway was fine — I don’t know if it’s even possible to be the best at plowing driveways. Even if it was, how much better could the best plow guy be than the fine one? What difference would it really make? Sometimes, beyond driveways, it does matter. Trust me, when it comes to dentistry it matters — I once had a filling fall out because the crappy dentist hadn’t removed all of the decay. When it comes to selling a house, so far it’s made $100K of difference in the asking price (and counting? please, no, just let it sell, c’mon, please?).

When I was a child athlete, the difference between best and fine was the difference between 1st place and 3rd place.

I was a competitive figure skater as a kid. I was not blessed with natural athletic talent, but I had been taking dance since I was 2, which made me flexible and graceful. I don’t know how my mother chose my skating coaches. My main coach, Brenda, was very nice. Everyone in the rink liked her. Her students did pretty well in competitions. I, however, was perennially 3rd place. There was a Girl Who Won Everything, and every time I moved up to the next level she did too. She was way better than I was, but somehow she didn’t advance faster than I did. It was really annoying. That explained not being 1st, but I almost never got 2nd either. I just wasn’t that good. Not that I was the worst; I usually scored above the middle of the pack. But once I was the only one in my division, and I didn’t get 1st place. They only gave 1st if you deserved it. I was the only competitor, and I placed 2nd. Humiliating.

The Girl Who Won Everything had a very young coach, Tania. When I started skating, Tania wasn’t a coach, just a teenager who skated at the same rink. Then, when she turned 18, she became a coach. And, because Tania had been one of us, a bunch of kids left their coaches and went to her. She was fun and young and so nice, and good. Really good. I stayed loyal to Brenda. I went to her wedding. I helped her evaluate potential baby names. I accidentally blew out the candle on her baby’s first birthday cake. We had a relationship.

Meanwhile, Tania’s students started winning. And winning. And winning. Especially the Girl Who Won Everything, but everyone else too. They collectively swept every competition.

One day, my mother arranged for me to have a single lesson with Tania. I would still be staying with Brenda (and my 2nd coach; don’t ask me why an 11 year old who’s not that good has to have 2 different coaches, but I did), but everyone knew that Brenda’s students were killing it, even the kids who weren’t naturally talented, and I wanted to know what the fuss was about. I had just one lesson with her. In that one lesson, Tania completely changed the way I jumped. I was a better skater after 45 minutes with her. My muscle memory can still recall how it feels to jump the old way vs. the Tania way — I can’t do it anymore, but my brain remembers exactly how Tania taught me to jump twice as high. She was clearly The Best. Yet I stayed with Brenda, fine but unremarkable Brenda.

I don’t know what might have happened if I’d switched to Tania from the start, or what might have happened if I’d switched after that life-changing lesson. Maybe I would have stuck with skating longer. I was never destined for the Olympics, but maybe I could have learned to do the double and triple axels that Tania’s students were doing. I probably would have received at least a few 1st place trophies, which seemed so important at the time even though all of my trophies and medals are gone forever now: after my mother’s death they were all thrown away when her house was cleared out.

Or maybe if I’d switched to Tania, I wouldn’t have learned the feeling of being with someone mediocre and knowing that you could do better, knowing that you are trapped by your own inertia. That feeling is now embedded deep within me. When I should be choosing something better, I feel it at such a visceral level. That feeling has saved me from bad doctors and loser boyfriends and inferior cupcakes. That feeling is why I will find a kick-ass real estate agent for the next house.

When do you want The Best? When do you settle for fine?

Thoughtful Thursday

Somewhat related to my last couple of Thoughtful Thursdays about where you live now and where you’d want to try living for a little while

I keep thinking about this article I read about the medium chill, also known as satisficing: “abandoning the quest for the ideal in favor of the good-enough.” It’s about making a choice to live with less “money/stuff/status” in exchange for more time, freedom, and happiness.

That tradeoff became especially apparent for me as we recently spent time with two of DH’s lifelong chums: a guy with a fine-paying, skilled job who chooses to work at that job part time so that he can spend more time with his kids as well as on his hobbies; and Mr. Moneybags, whose moniker says it all. One is the embodiment of satisficing; the other relentlessly accumulates wealth and prestige.

I was raised in a rich/poor family: one parent came from a poor family, and one came from a very rich family. My own upbringing was sometimes rich and sometimes poor. There was no satisficing when I was growing up: you never knew when lean times were coming, so you made the most of the fat times. My father recently spoke about the choices he made, to pursue big things even though it sometimes meant failure because working at a normal steady job would “kill his soul.”

My husband also came from a rich/poor family, but to a more moderate degree than my family. Also more moderate: the big things and the failure.

We both ended up with the good/terrible sense to choose a career that was fulfilling intellectually rather than financially.

Neither of us currently lives a satisficing life at all, working much harder than we should, but we are both pursuing accomplishment more than money. To the extent that we (esp. DH) have pursued money, to a large extent it was to pay for all of those fertility treatments and, now, sustain the results of the fertility treatments.

We both think every day about going somewhere exciting and satisficing for a few months — but only a few months. We both like having some extra money in the bank in case of emergency, or in case we suddenly need to go get some gelato — in Italy. I guess we’d both rather work very hard then relax very hard in a marvelous place than live a balanced but frugal life in a regular place.

How much do you pursue money/stuff/status? Have you made conscious decisions to follow a certain path, or just ended up there?

Welcome to my contribution to the Dollars and $ense of Family Building blog extravaganza!

I am one of the organizers, along with Lori Lavender Luz of WriteMindOpenHeart. At Lori’s blog you can get the background and overview of the project, as well as add a link to your own post if you’d like to join the fun.

Lori and I wanted to get a variety of bloggers’ perspectives on the role of finances in family building, and you can find a dozen others at the main Dollars and $ense page. There are infertility and adoption bloggers with just about every perspective you can imagine. The perspective I’m bringing is that of a longtime infertile who pursued treatments with no regard to the cost.

I didn’t set out to break the bank. I got into treatments, both financially and medically, little bit by little bit. I started TTC at age 26, and after more than a year of patience I decided that my charts just didn’t look right and I needed some help with my luteal phase. I was a graduate student at the time, so I went to the student health center. The pediatrician who saw me obviously didn’t know how to handle infertility, nor did the gynecologists who spent most of their time preventing girls from getting pregnant. They immediately referred me to a specialist affiliated with the medical school, who just so happens to be a world-famous reproductive endocrinologist (Dr. Fancy Pants, as I’ve called him before on my blog). It doesn’t really make sense to send someone just starting out to a doctor at the very top of his field, but that’s where I was sent.

I expected Dr. Fancy Pants to start slowly with a month or two of assessment, but he preferred to jump right in with Clomid and do the assessment along the way. It was just a little pill, it didn’t seem like a big deal. Then the next cycle we added progesterone. Then the next an HCG trigger. Meanwhile I was paying out of pocket for each ultrasound (performed by the doctors themselves rather than a tech, ooh la la), each blood draw, and everything else. A hundred bucks here, a couple hundred there. Before I knew it we’d spent over $10,000, which was all of the money we had saved in the 6 years we’d been married. We stopped treatments, in part because a miscarriage took the wind out of my sails but also in part because we were out of money.

I needed to stay away from treatments for a couple of years but decided to try acupuncture (which was covered by my student health plan). When I finished my graduate program, acupuncture stopped being covered, but by that point I felt like it was benefitting my cycles enough to be worth the expense. Through two long-distance moves I pursued Eastern rather than Western medicine. Casually at first only every few weeks, then I added herbs, then I started going weekly. All of those treatments added up too. Eventually my (3rd) acupuncturist and I simultaneously came to the realization that I’d given Eastern medicine a full try and it was time to go back to Western medicine. He referred me to Dr. Full Steam Ahead.

By that point I had turned 32 and “you have plenty of time” was starting to become “you’re not getting younger.” Along the way we had sold a house at a large profit (thanks, housing bubble!) and had replenished our savings substantially. We decided to go full steam ahead with Dr. Full Steam Ahead, who within 6 months had put me through a full assessment, two IUI cycles, and my first IVF. DH and I had committed to finally getting pregnant successfully, no matter the physical or financial cost. Adding a second IVF that year, we ended up spending so much money on medical expenses in one year that it recently resulted in an IRS audit.

At that point our ample savings had ceased to be ample, and we wondered how much longer we could keep going. As with Dr. Fancy Pants years earlier, each new cycle brought an additional tweak such that each time it seemed like this must finally be it. Add this drug. Try IVF. Try ICSI. After the second IVF failed, though, we’d been through 10 treatment cycles and the excitement had worn off. We also looked at our finances and realized that our large savings had now become rather small. Along the way I’d taken a new job largely motivated by the need to secure (any) health insurance. The new insurance happened to cover IF – but only assessment and IUI, which we’d already moved beyond. Then I learned about a way that I could get health insurance that would cover IVF. (I was sure I’d blogged all about the trick long ago, but I can’t seem to find the post… hmm. Briefly, it requires starting your own company, and it only works in certain states, but if you can pull it off it’s a fantastic loophole.) In preparation for that, I did one last IUI to satisfy the future insurance company’s requirements for IVF, and from that perfunctory IUI came my twins.

In an alternate universe, if it hadn’t worked, we would have secured the IVF-covering insurance and exhausted the 3 IVFs it would have given us, bringing us to a total of 5 fresh IVFs. If that still hadn’t worked, I just don’t know what we would have done. Presumably by that point some doors would have started to close themselves – maybe the doctor would have declared that egg quality or my body’s response was inadequate, or something about the sperm-egg combo, or who knows. We very well might have gone back to paying out of pocket, and if we’d had to pursue something like donor eggs we definitely would have paid out of pocket. Thankfully we didn’t have to find out, and I was able to end my infertility tally at only $70,000.

Now, answers to specific questions that the participants raised.
1. Consider your now or future children as adults, and consider the fact that you had to spend money to either conceive them or make them part of your family. What effect do you think the latter will have on the former one day? What, do you think, your grown children might feel about the funds it took to create your family?
Honestly I think it’s a huge compliment to them, and a testament to how very much we wanted to bring them into our lives. While they’re slinging burgers to pay for college they might lament the “wasted “ money, but without all of that water-under-the-bridge money spent, they wouldn’t have come into existence.

2. How did/would you handle it if your child asks you, “Mom, how much did I cost?” How would you answer at age 7? At age 18?
At 7: We wanted you so much that we did everything we could to bring you into our lives. It did cost a lot of money, and we had to experience a lot of medical procedures, and it was very hard, but it was all worth it. We love you so much, and we loved you so much even before you ever existed.

At 18: Bringing you into the world cost a lot less than we’re about to spend on your college education.

3. When calculating the costs of your family building, what do you include? The direct costs are easy (such as RE fees for a cycle or homestudy fees), but what about fees that didn’t directly lead to your child’s existence in your life, such as cycles that didn’t work, adoption outreach avenues that didn’t work, failed adoptions, avenues that were explored (and that cost something) but not pursued, etc.?
I count everything. Each cycle that didn’t work was a necessary step in bringing us to our children, and each dollar spent was a dollar that we spent.

4. If two children in a family “cost” different amounts, should that have any significance?
My two children happen to cost exactly the same amount because they are twins who were conceived in the same cycle. If we’d had two singletons who came from cycles with different fees, I don’t think that would matter to us. But, if we had one child from treatments and one child naturally (did you know that people have babies without doctors? or maybe it’s just a fairy tale), it would seem significant – though less because of the financial cost and more because one conception was so much “easier” than the other.

5. To what extent have finances determined the family-building decisions you have made? How have you able to balance financial considerations against other factors such as medical, ethical, emotional…?
Finances have determined our decisions far less than they probably should have. As I mentioned above, we stopped treatments for a few years to replenish our savings, and we did opt for our 11th cycle to be an IUI rather than IVF specifically because of insurance requirements. We also opted to start IVF when we did rather than continue with another IUI or two because the IUIs were so expensive with such a low success rate that IVF just made more sense. Otherwise we didn’t pay much attention to money and just kept writing the checks until the account was empty. I don’t know that I recommend that approach, even for those who have the means, but it’s the approach we took.

6. Has institutional and governmental support for certain family-building paths impacted your choices? For example, ART being covered by insurance, tax deductions for adoption expenses, etc.
The fact that ART was not covered by insurance for most of our journey certainly had a huge financial impact. Once we secured insurance that covered treatments, you’d think that it would have been liberating. In fact, in our interactions with the insurance process, I realized how much leeway we had when we were paying out of pocket. For example, in our one covered cycle, the FSH wasn’t approved until it was too late to start the cycle, and I was only able to proceed as scheduled because I had leftover (and presumably spoiled) FSH from a previous cycle. If we’d ended up doing IVFs covered by insurance, I’m sure there would have been a lot of bureaucracy, to the point that it would have interfered with the cycles in terms of timing or even what procedures/drugs could be used. At $15K per cycle saved, though, it would still have been worth the hassle.

7. Have you considered having ART treatments abroad, either due to lower cost or due to certain methods being unavailable or illegal in your own country? In your decision-making, how did you balance the financial savings against issues like the unknowns of the country, perhaps not speaking the language, and medical practices that may differ from those of your home country? If you did travel abroad for treatments, what was your experience? Would you do it again?
The “IVF cycle as extended vacation” idea crossed my mind only because I’d seen others do it, but doing it locally was more practical and there wasn’t anything we could do abroad that we couldn’t do at home. There are other participants who can answer this question differently, though… Speaking of which, it’s time for you to visit the rest of the Dollars and $ense posts! Thanks for stopping by!

Visit Write Mind Open Heart for more perspectives on the Dollars and $ense of Family Building and to add your own link to the blog hop by May 1, should you want to contribute your thoughts.

Audit, Part 7

April 18, 2011

We left off in the office of our surprisingly human auditor

I continued in sleep-deprived blabbermouth mode about how I understood how spending over $40,000 in medical bills despite having health insurance and not even counting the health insurance premiums must seem like a lot and it’s reasonable that it would raise their red flags but yes we really did spend all of that, on infertility treatments, the IUIs and the IVFs and the acupuncture and all of it, and they all failed and we were at it for many years before that and it was another $30,000 in the other years put together and it doesn’t look like we have enough extra income to spend that much money on medical bills but we did and we spent everything we’d saved and now we’re broke but it’s okay because now we finally have babies and they are so beautiful do you want to see a picture but yes we really did spend over $40,000 in one year on treatments that didn’t work.

Auditor: “How much do the cycles run?”

Well it depends on what kind of cycle and which drugs they use and what extra stuff they do but the IUIs are the cheaper ones and they each cost us around $5000 though some people spend less if they go to their gynecologist instead of a fancy reproductive endocrinologist or something but each IVF cycle cost about $15,000.

Auditor: “Oh shit!”

That’s really what happened, I swear.

Come back tomorrow, as all of this has been leading up to a very special bloggy extravaganza! Eventually we’ll get back to the audit story but it’s still in progress so you’ll have to wait.