Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Retirement Planning: 10 Things You Need to Know

Hello Everyone! I am still in way over my head with this move (moving is really one of the worst experiences ever, even when the move is the best possible thing for your family). Luckily, though, John found time to write a guest post when he was stuck in a hurry-up-and-wait situation. I am very excited to bring you this interesting and useful post from my brilliant best friend and love-of-my-life.

Without further ado, a guest post from John Applebaugh!


Although money doesn't equal happiness, worries over money can certainly make person unhappy. 

Unless you plan to work until you die, you should think about your retirement when you are young. Many people don't really pay attention to their 401k or IRA, but you should. Not only can being informed about investments make your retirement happen sooner, it can also lessen your anxiety about money overall.

Frequently, I encounter young professionals who believe that retirement is so far into the future that it really isn't worth worrying about. Other times, I have encountered experienced workers who assume that getting 3-5% from their savings, pension, and retirement accounts is quite good. This post is written to dispel such notions.

Saving earlier is much better for your overall financial health. Though it seems like a burden and a waste of hard-earned money, putting away money for retirement is the best thing you can do in your youth. Why? When you are young you have many years of being in the workforce ahead of you. Every year is another year that your money can be compounded (meaning that it earns interest = more money). If you wait to put money away, you'll still earn interest but it won't be as much as if you had started when you were younger. Also, when you are younger you can take more risks with your investments because over time any losses you might incur from a risky investment will be smoothed out. This is different from when you are older and closer to retirement -- you can't take risks thus you are stuck with weaker (but safer investments).

Three to five percent is nowhere near good enough if you actually want to retire on time. When you are young (less than 40), you should be earning somewhere above 10% (above 15% is great) in returns on your investments. Earning only small amounts like 3% basically means you are losing money because of inflation. 

So, now that I've convinced you to start your retirement in earnest, let me give you some general guidelines. There are several strategies for what you should do with your retirement investments and a many more how-tos for investing day-to-day; however, what I'm giving you is a general road map for you financial future. Think of of it like a GPS that you have in your car -- it is mostly the best path and will get you there.

Assuming  you are still working and under the age of 45, here's what you should be considering:

1) If your place of employment has a 401K, does it offer a contribution match? If it does you should contribute to that plan up to that matching amount (typically 1 to 5% of your salary). This is free money, are you really going to pass that up? If there is period before you start to get matching contributions, wait to invest until your employer is actually going to contribute. 

2) Find out how long before you are "vested" in your 401K. Being vested means you will get to keep whatever your employer contributes (note: you always keep what you contribute). This will give you the knowledge for how long, at a minimum, you should try to stay at your place of employment.

3) Determine the costs associated with your 401K. Costs, what costs? Plans like 401k are setup and run by investment companies that your employer will contract to provide such plans. Most 401K plans have investments that are mutual funds. The mutual funds may be setup by the company administering the 401K, or they may be from another investment company. The mutual funds themselves will have costs associated with setting up and running the fund (which includes managing which stocks are held in the mutual fund, how often investments are re-balanced (changed) and other administrative costs). Additionally, the company that administers the 401K will also charge administrative costs to the holders of 401K (aka you and your co-workers). The costs are typically taken out of returns before they are distributed to plan holders, so you never actually see what has been taken out. However, they are required by law to disclose this information. A 401K plan with an expense ratio (cost) of 1% or less is pretty good. If your plan is over 1.3% in costs, then you are paying too much. If you change jobs, compare the costs of your old 401K to your new one -- keep your money in the old plan if it costs less than your new one (otherwise transfer your funds to your new plan)

4) Open a Roth IRA. A Roth IRA (Individual Retirement Account) is an individual retirement plan that isn't contingent on where you work. Unlike the 401k, you make contributions to this type of account with post-tax dollars (like you how you pay for basically everything else). The benefit of the Roth is that you do not pay tax on your earnings. If you make a million dollars in your Roth, you pay no tax! Additionally, you can invest in just about anything -- stocks, bonds, ETFs, mutual funds, etc. The downside is you can only contribute $5,500 a year, per person (roughly $105 per week). When you retire, you can take money out of your Roth and avoid paying tax. Do not open a traditional IRA.

5) Try to keep your IRA and 401K portfolios diverse. As a young professional, you don't need to put any money in bonds, government treasuries, or anything that is fixed income -- they just don't earn enough for what you are trying to accomplish. If you are under 35, you should have at least 20% of your portfolio in foreign investments (international stock). The remainder of your holdings should be a mix of domestic (US) stocks. For your 401k, this will mean mutual funds. For your Roth, the easiest way to get diversity is through ETFs (exchange traded funds). These are funds that act like stocks. You don't actually own any of the companies in the ETF (unlike mutual funds) but you benefit from making money off of the index (which exposes you to less risk). You should also look for ETFs that have low costs (expense ratios).

6) Do Not Mess with your investments more than once a quarter. Too often, people will react to the market and sell when there is drop and buy when there is a spike. These are the worst and most inefficient things you can possibly do. If you are young, you want to let your investments sit and not think about it often (once you've set it up like I'm suggesting). At a minimum, you should look at your portfolio once a year and re-balance (moving money to different investments) as necessary. As you get older, you will need to shift your portfolio away from high risk assets (international and small companies) and into more reliable assets (value stocks and some fixed income securities).

7) Once you have maxed out your Roth IRA (and that of your spouse) for the year, then work on increasing your 401K contributions up the maximum amount for the year (currently $17,500 per person). This may seem unattainable, but if you make small increases over time your lifestyle and household budget will adjust. One strategy is to increase your contribution every time you get a raise, that way there will be no real difference in lifestyle.

8) Do Not take money out of your 401K or Roth before retirement. The only time you should consider doing this is if there a dire situation -- someone died or is about to die, your house has burned down, etc. If you have to take money out, consider taking money out as a loan rather than withdrawal. You will pay interest but if you pay it back in time there will be no tax penalty . The whole point of putting money in these accounts is that you plan to use it solely for retirement (which is why you get the tax benefits). Additionally, there are better ways for getting access to money that won't put your retirement in jeopardy. Consider peer-to-peer lending (Prosper or Lending Club) as an option since the interest rates are often better than credit cards.

9) If you max out your 401K and Roth (and your spouses' accounts), then pay off your student loans and/or mortgage. Up to this point, I've assumed you aren't delinquent on your debt. If you are, however, get up to date before shifting money into retirement accounts. There are very few good reasons to be behind on making payments to creditors. If you are current on your debts and have your credit cards paid off, this is point where you start to make larger payments to your loans, starting with the loans with the highest interest rates.

10) Once you have all the above completed, consider putting money into other investments -- like a brokerage investment account. You will pay tax on investments like these but you are able to take deductions if you lose money (isn't America great!). 

There are many other bits of advice I could impart on you, but I think for now this should be sufficient to get you started and well on your way to successful retirement -- one which you will be able to live free from fear of want. 

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Moving Fast: A Brain Teaser

Photo Credit: Emily Kubley

Dear Friends and Readers,

It is official and, therefore, can now be Blog Official -- John got a new job! This is great news for both of us. John is excited to be moving on to new work challenges, I am happy that he is excited, and we are both looking forward to being able to move back to the Midwest where we will be nearer to friends and family. Overall, this is GREAT news!

It's important that we all remember that over the next few paragraphs and, indeed, over the next few weeks.

Those of you who have done it know -- moving is a complex, difficult experience. The logistical problems alone are enough to drive most sane folks temporarily batty. Add in the need to find another place to live, close out the place you are currently living, and somehow managing to coordinate leaving your old job in such a way that you will still maintain that health insurance until the health insurance from your new position begins... well, it always strikes me as a miracle whenever anyone manages to survive all a move entails.

For our part, things are even a touch more complex. You see, this 1000ish mile move has to happen in, now, about 2 weeks. To keep things that much more interesting, too, I am still taking hormones, I still have that illness I wrote about a few days ago, and I can't do anything too physically strenuous because my body is, essentially, candy glass.

There is, of course, an obvious solution to our problems. It is to hire movers. I like this idea... unfortunately, so far, every moving company we have talked to only manages to fulfill one or the other of our required criteria -- never both. What are our criteria? Well, they have to be competent and within our price range. So far we have found people who are highly rated (on Angie's list), but they have a minimum weight of 4000 lbs and charge $4000. We have also found people who will charge only about $900, but they have no references whatsoever.

It is worth noting that, in order to make things easier, we are selling many of our things. There is no way that our weight would even approach 4000lbs.

So, now, we are trying to figure out again if we need to just get a truck and drive it ourselves. That would be okay... except for the fact that we also have two vehicles. Someone else suggested that we should just sell my car -- which I found just a lovely suggestion considering that it would mean that it would essentially strand me alone all day in our apartment once we actually do move. Apparently someone likes the idea of me becoming Miss Haversham during the hours of the day that John is at work.

Oh, and to make things that much more fun, we still have to figure out how to get Buddy and Fuzzy from point A to point B (about a 20 hour car trip apart). They hate driving. (Though, that's kind of a poor way to say it. I think that they might like DRIVING -- I just don't think they'd be any good at it. It's RIDING that they don't enjoy.)

It is all rather like a brain teaser. "John and JoAnne have to get from Washington DC to Wisconsin. They also have to get Buddy, Fuzzy, and all of their stuff to (including two cars) from Washington DC to Wisconsin. They have two to three weeks to do it. They are on a budget. The cats can never be left alone for more than a couple hours at a time -- and not at all in a hotel room. They have a small moving budget. They don't want to have any of their things destroyed, but they also cannot afford to spend more than $2500 on movers, fuel, food, and at least one night in a cat friendly hotel. How do they do it?"

Please, if anyone knows how to solve this particular riddle, include your answer in the comments. If you come up with something particularly useful, I will find some way to reward you.

I will TRY to keep you updated throughout the course of this move. For the next 3-4 weeks, please forgive me if I don't post as much as usual. I am going to try to post at least 2x a week, but my hormones and I offer no promises. If I should disappear, then please send out a search party no later than August 11th, 2014.

Thank you!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

9 Tips to Help a Cough

Ah, it’s that time again. The time when I develop some sort of unpleasant lung infection that is immediately made at least 10x worse by my asthma.

I always have a cough. I am used to it. I don’t even notice it anymore unless it gets really bad. My husband doesn’t either anymore, though it used to frighten him. No, now we only notice my cough on two occasions, (1) when others ask me if I am dying, and (2) when it gets bad enough that I am tempted to answer that question with a “yes”.

This is the way it has always been for me, so I don’t really worry about it much most of the time. My asthma is, actually, pretty well controlled. About 2-4 times a year, though, various dominos start to fall – things like weather, pollen counts, stress levels, and people sneezing on me in the theater or on the Metro. When that happens, I get sick. Now is one of those times. In this case, too, it is probably at least partially related to the most recent fertility related medicine I am taking.

It isn’t ideal, but it has made me an expert on self-care for such ailments. So here’s some of the most helpful things I have picked up.

Push Fluids
Shocking, I know. No one has ever told you this. You’re welcome. Seriously, though, THE most useful thing you can do is drink A LOT of water, tea (herbal), and Gatorade every so often.

Vicks and Socks
You may or may not have heard of this, but it helps me. It has also helped most of the people I have recommended it to. You put the Vicks (or Vicks-like substance) on the bottoms of your feet and then pop on some comfy white socks. Do this before bed. Bonus, this is way less messy than having to put it on your chest. (Which, let’s face it, feels like vacuum sealing a t-shirt to your chest.)

Teddy Bear Brace
This one is actually one of my favorite tips. Coughing can get violent and hard on the muscles. You can lessen this by holding something to your chest. You can use a pillow or, if you’re like me, take extra comfort from using a Teddy Bear or other adorable stuffed animal. Oh, yeah, kids like them too.

Alternate Hot and Cold
After you drink tea, try a fruit popsicle. The alternation can help break up the gunk in your lungs.

Warm Compress
A warm compress on your chest can be really soothing. I highly recommend it.

Fresh Air
One of the most helpful things you can do, if you can find it, is get some fresh, cool air. I, unfortunately, am currently living in Northern Virginia (in the summer), so “outside” is not an option. If, however, it is an option for you, a few minutes will help a bunch.

This one you have to be careful with. There are a few ways to do it ranging from old school (boiling a pot of water and then hanging your head over it), to the more reasonable way of doing it – just taking a warm shower or bath. The latter idea has the benefit of also soothing sore muscles.

Tried and true, soup is a great option when you are sick. There is a reason that Chicken Noodle Soup (or, in my case, Noodle Soup) is considered one of the best ways to “cure” a cold. You see, many of the ingredients have health benefits. I recommend making your soup “from scratch”. I use quotation marks because, really, how many of us make our own broth? If you do, good for you – but you probably already know you’re in the minority. 

Extra Pillow
If at all possible, when you are laying in your bed trying to rest, try to use an extra pillow… or, if you’re a member of the Frequent Cougher Club like me, consider buying a wedge pillow. I realize that most people already know this pillow trick, but my very unscientific polls tell me that many people don’t remember this simple trick. You don’t have to sleep all night that way if you’re not up for it, but if it gets you to the point where you can sleep at all, then you’re golden.

So, there you have it, those are the top 9 things that I know of that can help you get through your next lung-based illness. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go practice all of them.

What do you think? What tips or tricks do you use?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Happiness is a Habit

Happiness is a complex concept. Philosophers and poets have wrestled with the idea for centuries. Recently, however, scientists have also begun to weigh in.

It turns out that there is a formula for happiness. The formula is, approximately:

50% genetic + 40% life events + 10% choice and/or values

There is still a lot of work to be done in this field, and it is obviously more complex research than this deceptively simple formula. For most of us, though, this formula presents a good working concept.

I like this formula, but I don't think that it really captures everything... or, more accurately, I don't think that most people really think through all of the implications. I like the idea that I can control about ten percent of my happiness by doing things like practicing mindfulness and gratitude. I don't, however, believe that is all I can control. If 40% of happiness is about life events, then I have a role to play there as well.

Life is full of events that we have no control over, but it's also full of events that we can better the odds of a certain outcome. A college bound high school student can't control whether or not their first choice institution will accept them or not -- but they CAN make a habit of studying for a couple hours every evening. That studying will increase the chances that their desired outcome will come about.

Similarly, if I know that having a clean house makes me feel more relaxed, then I can practice certain habits (like washing the dishes before I go to bed) that help make my desired outcome (feeling more relaxed because I have a clean house) more likely.

So, there are habits that directly impact our happiness levels (like meditating or practicing mindfulness), and there are habits that can indirectly influence our happiness levels (like consistently studying). Either way, much of our happiness is habit based.

Go practice!

Original Photo Credit: Emily Kubley

Sunday, July 6, 2014

I Hate Everything: Prometrium for Infertility

Here's a Pretty Picture of Fireworks (Taken by Melissa Burke)

I am now on new medication. Prometrium, if you were wondering. I am glad to be on it, since it means that I have actually made it to this part of the timed cycle, but, at the same time, I hate it with every fiber of my being.

Really, I hate it. I hate the medicine and I hate everything else. I hate the headache I can’t get rid of, I hate that I get super tired, I hate the additional acne, I hate the sour sort of stomach ache that somehow still doesn’t prevent me from being ravenously hungry at odd intervals, I hate the other symptoms that are not bloggable… I hate two things most of all, though – the anxiety and the irritation.

I am basically dealing with supercharged PMS.

Have you ever noticed all of the little annoying things that go on around you every moment of every day? Ever been hyper alert to the fact that your refrigerator runs loud, your cat smacks his mouth when he gets hungry, or how it feels when you lose your train of thought in the middle of what you are saying (or typing)?

Yes, that is fun. That’s a side effect that I forgot to list – the fact that I am more forgetful and having a hard time articulating anything.

You know what is really irritating? Really, irrationally, irritating? Being around someone who is so understanding of the fact that you are easily irritated. You tell them that you want to punch them repeatedly in the arm and they respond by just asking that you don’t used the hand with the ring on it. It’s terrible. You know what’s worse? Being away from them. That’s right, I hate my husband’s stupid, adorable face and I never want him to leave me… but I wish he would stop being so damn annoying… but I know that he’s not really annoying, I’ve just become bat**** crazy… great, now I am writing run on sentences… AND WHEN DID I START FEELING ITCHY!?!

I wish I could have a drink, or take some anti-anxiety medication, or some cough medicine (the last one isn’t to relax, it’s because the medication also gives me a cough). I can’t, though, because nature is a cruel bitch that puts you through all kinds of stress and anxiety and pain when you are trying to have a baby – and then makes a good chunk of the things that you would want to do to relax dangerous for said baby. I hate nature.

Dear Katy Perry – if I have "Dark Horse" earworm through my head one more minute then you’re going to owe me a new MacBook because the one I have is going to break when I hurl it across the room. (And that is a song that I actually LIKE. Woe unto Robin Thicke if anyone plays "Blurred Lines".)

Seriously, though, is itchiness one of the side effects of Prometrium too? This is getting ridiculous.

I just deleted 5 paragraphs of self-indulgent nonsense. You are welcome.  Also, sorry for the previous 9ish paragraphs of self-indulgent nonsense.

That is all.

Wait! No it isn’t! I actually do have a lesson to share:

Be kind and considerate to everyone, because you never know who is hyped up on hormones and ready to cross check you into the cereal shelves at the grocery store. Also, pick your damn cereal faster!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Infertility: Cycle Ups and Downs

Note: This post was written on Tuesday, July 1st. Happy Canada Day!

Photo Credit: Emily Kubley

Today I woke up at 0640. I dressed in jeans, a long sleeved T-shirt, and knee high socks – all in spite of the fact that, even then, the temperature was in the mid 70’s and humidity was at about 80-90%. Why would I do such a thing? Because it is Day 12 of my cycle and I had some Pooh Bearing to do.

Photo Credit: Emily Kubley
When we arrived at our doctor’s office ahead of our 0730 appointment, I noticed a woman coming out of the building. I immediately knew that she had been the 0700 appointment even though the building is not exclusive to our doctor’s office. How did I know? Because she was wearing loose fitting yoga pants, a longer shirt, slip on shoes and regular socks. For the uninitiated, this is essentially the uniform of a woman getting frequent TVUltrsounds. (I made up that acronym because I don’t like writing transvaginal and "TV" sounds so much less threatening.) This allows you to easily get into and out of your pants and shoes but still provides you with some warmth in the air conditioned rooms (via the socks and longer shirt that will actually cover down to the table while you are sitting and waiting for the nurse or tech). I immediately felt a kinship… and immediately cursed myself for wearing tennis shoes. All those laces! Rookie mistake.

After arriving and having my blood drawn we went into the exam room, where the real party starts. Skipping the details, I have 3 viable looking eggs. “That’s fantastic!” you think. You are, of course, wrong. You see, in spite of the fact that they reduced my Clomid dosage down to the lowest possible one, 3 eggs is about 1 too many for my age unless my estrogen level is in a certain range. Nope, I want to have 1-2 eggs because risking more than 1-2 babies is dangerous for the babies, and something that the doctors won’t do for safety reasons.

Right now I am waiting for my doctor or nurse to call with the direction to “trigger” or not. (Triggering is when you take a shot to release the eggs from the ovaries and proceed with the next steps.) If I can’t trigger, it will be the second time I have taken Clomid and had “too positive” results… meaning that I responded to the medication too well for our purposes, which is essentially bad news for John and I. I couldn’t trigger two months ago either because I had 4 eggs and estrogen levels that were off the charts high. The month following I had cysts – which were likely the result of the eggs that we didn’t trigger in that prior month.

Photo Credit: Melissa Burke
I’ll know in a few hours whether or not we can proceed. I really hope that we can. Not even getting to a point where we can try has been exceedingly frustrating and more than a little heartbreaking. Getting to this point this month, too, hasn’t been easy. I have been emotionally reactive, fatigued, tired, unmotivated, and self-conscious. I also have had sharp pain in my left ovary, a headache, nausea, and muscle pain. It is unclear how much of this is directly related to the medication and how much is related to other stressors. One thing I know is that the various ailments that I suffer from are all pretty tightly interwoven. My depression and anxiety is at least partially due to the hormonal imbalances of the endocrine disorder, and depression and stress can cause real physical pain through a variety of means. Emotionally – well, I have been under a great deal of stress lately due to a lot of general concerns, work related concerns in particular. Add more messing with hormones to that and it really is no wonder that I am a bit frazzled.

While we’re sort of on the topic, I would like to remind people of what I said in the Infertility: What to Say and What Not to Say post. In particular I want to talk about how it doesn’t help me AT ALL to tell me to relax. It’s like telling someone who is crying not to cry, or, even more, telling someone having an asthma attack to breathe. In other words, telling someone to do something they are already trying hard to do is not helpful. It is, actually, rather insensitive because it really just comes off as a means to blow someone off and invalidate them. If you are genuinely concerned about my need to relax, how ‘bout you do something about it? Feel free to clean my house, not give my husband a hard time about the time he spends taking me to the doctors appointments or helping me with other health concerns, or hook me up with a spa day or just generally be nice. If you aren’t going to do anything to help, then you don’t actually care. If you don’t actually care, just shut up about it. Really. I could put it more delicately than that but… I don’t want to. Be Nice or Leave.

Photo Credit: Melissa Burke

Relatedly, stop telling me stories about that daughter, sister, or friend of a friend of yours tried fertility treatments for months with no luck… and then they had a baby without any help. This isn’t helpful. I am still involved in fertility treatments, so that’s my reality right now. Your telling me, essentially, that I would have more “luck” going sans treatment and hoping for the best because ONE person you sort of are acquainted with had good luck, well it just isn’t helpful. Not only are the chances of someone who has ailments severe enough to be on fertility treatments in the first place actually having a baby without help extremely slim (8%), it also just refuses to acknowledge or be supportive of my reality. Anecdotal evidence about your friend’s cousin twice removed isn’t doing anything to help me.

Photo Credit: Emily Kubley
I’m already feeling pretty disappointed. I already know that the odds of them telling me to trigger are slim. I really wanted this to work this time around, and I am afraid of how much longer this could take or what medications I might have to switch to. As I said before, the last time I couldn’t trigger I ended up with bad cysts the next month and we couldn’t do anything. There are other, not blog-ready, things going on in our lives right now as well that could disrupt my infertility treatments in the near future. How long would I have to wait then?

It helps a little that they told me I was young at the clinic today. As in, you’re young so your eggs are in better shape. It’s a complication right now because all three eggs are probably viable. I could end up with 3 or more. Triplets are tough, but I’d do it if the risks to those theoretical children weren’t so high. Twins are a go, but triplets are not. So what helps about being told that I am young? It helps to know that if everything fails and I have to postpone even longer then I probably still have a number of chances. Right now, the determinant of whether or not to go forward is how much estrogen I have in my system.

It hasn’t escaped my notice, either, that if I were doing IVF then these “extra” eggs wouldn’t be a problem. They would just remove them and then reinsert what they need. (Major oversimplification of the process, but basically true.) Of course, IVF is very expensive and not covered by most insurance plans (including mine). It has always been a little bit confusing to me that there are so many groups working hard to make sure women have to cover all of the costs of their own contraception and preventative care but won’t connect the dots any further to help those of us who are ready and trying to have children. It just doesn’t make sense.

Today is not a day that I have answers or the ability to spin the Wheel of Morality. Today it just goes back to that central theme. Whatever you’re doing, just keep trying. Keep working at it. Very few good things happen without hard work and persistence. That is true in my life and in yours. It’s true in everyone’s life, so also remember to be kind to those around you so they can be inspired to be kind to those around them.

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UPDATE: In case you were wondering, it turns out that I DID get to trigger, so that is awesome!!! (Note maximum acceptable number of exclamation points.)