Sunday, December 4, 2016

Life Hacks For Large Families On A Budget

For anyone who's curious about how we live our lives with five kids six and younger... 

KIDS' ARTWORK

I'm a compulsive trasher. When there's clutter on the countertop, it's really satisfying to just sweep it all into the trash can. Our younger kids' artwork pretty much goes straight to the recycling bin, except for some handprints on the fridge. Our older kids each have a folder in which they can save papers. They know Mom trashes anything that's left around. 

SHOES

Each kid has three pairs of shoes at any given time: sandals, tennis shoes, and church shoes. I keep a box of extra shoes in the closet to save for hand-me-downs.

SHOES WHILE TRAVELING

Each child travels with one pair of shoes. For summer travel, their sandals are their church shoes. For winter travel, their tennis shoes are their church shoes. 

SOCKS

We buy one type of sock. It's black, so it's good with tennis shoes and church shoes. This is our sock pile after sorting the rest of the laundry: 



GATES

Our house looks like children live in it. But we can comfortably let kids play unsupervised in a room, knowing they won't break anything [valuable] or hurt themselves. Still, it's amazing what they find to break, and how any wall can cause a concussion.


Living Room (toddler play room) looking into Dining Room (kinder play room)

PRAY FOR IT

We pray for stuff, and God has provided in some pretty awesome ways. I can't tell you the things I've mentioned to the Lord in prayer that have shown up timely via a friend's hand-me-downs or a neighbor's trash pile -- a kickstand for my son's bike, a desk, an umbrella stroller, a pair of size 8 toddler tennis shoes, a play gate, a rain coat... And we join the circle of sharing too, passing on extras and anything that's still in good condition. (These prayers for stuff aren't fancy: "Lord, a desk would be nice, instead of this tray table and stack of boxes. But You know, whatever.")

NAP TIME / QUIET TIME

I insist on quiet time, if not nap time. As an introvert mom, I need a solid two hours without kids after lunch. Everyone is in their beds from 12-2 pm. Sometimes I let the older kids read instead of rest -- but still in their beds. 

Each bedroom has blackout curtains (or basic curtains doubled with a repurposed bed sheet). 

We're currently at two kids per bedroom, with the baby in the master with us. 

HAIRCUTS

We cut our own hair. You can buy clippers on Amazon for under $10. We spent a little more on some similar to this, because there's not time to change guides when cutting kids' hair. I'm sure there are YouTube videos to help, but we just kind of figure it out as we go along. 


And if all else fails, just put a hat on.
STUFF

We have a "To Repair" box in the laundry room and a "To Donate" box in a closet.

OUTERWEAR 

Each child has one sweatshirt, one light jacket, and one heavy coat. We live in Houston, so this is sufficient. No doubt colder climates would need more. 

CLOTHES

My ideal child's closet: 4 pairs of shorts, 4 pairs of pants, 4 short-sleeve shirts, 4 long-sleeve shirts, 4 pairs of pajamas, 4 pairs of socks, 4 pairs of underwear. 

I store extra clothes in labeled boxes. Anything that doesn't fit in the box is given away. 



PAJAMAS

We fold pajama shirts into their matching pajama pants, so the kids can easily find a matched set. This is kind of silly. Really, kids could just wear whatever they want to bed.


A stack of PJs. We store kids' clothes on shelves, just because we have more shelving than dressers. It's also easier to keep a pulse on clothing issues with open shelving.

BABY PAJAMAS

This is not a thing. The baby wears any combination of cotton shirts, onesies, and pants, and only gets an outfit change when he spits up or leaks a diaper (approx. every 12-18 hours). 

TOYS

We rotate toys and play stations. Whatever is in a room will end up all over the floor, so I try to limit the chaos. Current toys are...

Toddler Play Room (living room): Duplo Blocks, Kitchen + Kitchen Food, a Plastic Nativity Set, and a couple of cars.

Kinder Play Room (dining room): Wooden Train Tracks, Matchbox Cars, and a Train Table 

Patio: 2 Bounce Balls, 2 Tennis Balls, 2 Ride-Along Cars, 2 Lacrosse Sticks, 2 Baseball Bats, Plastic Slide

Craft Cabinet: Play-Do, Paper, Crayons, Markers, Pencils, Paint, Scissors, Glue, Stickers, Puzzles. (If it doesn't fit neatly in the craft cabinet, I give it away. Once kids are done with a craft at the table, all the pieces go back in the box, and the box goes back in the cabinet.)




Toy Closet (front entry coat closet): Lego, Nerf guns, Marble Runway, Stuffed Animals, Baby Toys. I'm the only one allowed in the Toy Closet.




BEDDING

Each bed has a fitted sheet, one blanket, one pillow, and one stuffed animal. The kids can trade for a different stuffed animal from the Stuffed Animal Box, but they only get one at a time. (I don't even like one stuffed animal on the bed, because all I can imagine is the dust, allergens, snot, and germs that they absorb and leech all over the house. I also like to keep laundry to a minimum when kids pee or throw up all over whatever is in their bed.) 

POTTY TRAINING

Potty training kids have this set-up next to their bed, because going to the actual bathroom is too scary at night:



MUD ROOM

We don't have a dedicated mud room, but there's a shelf in our laundry room, en route to the garage that holds all the kids' shoes and socks. This prevents that 20-minute scattering throughout the house that happens when everyone needs to put their shoes on five minutes before we leave. 



TUPPERWARE

I have two types of Tupperware. When I run out of Tupperware, we have an empty-the-fridge dinner.



BOOKS

We cycle kids' books like we cycle toys. There's a large box in the toy closet for books we're not currently reading. We also regularly pull out books to donate to their teachers and school. 



GROCERY SHOPPING

We mostly shop at Aldi, because the prices are really unbeatable. And there's an Aldi a mile down the sidewalk from us, and the walk wears out the kids for nap time. 

I only buy boneless meat at $2 or less per pound, because I can't handle the time or energy of removing bones. (But I tell myself it's because bones could be dangerous to the babies.) When someone's selling ground turkey for $1 a pound, I fill our freezer. Turkey's like tofu. You can pretty much flavor it to taste like anything.

Sometimes I'll go to Kroger if I'm shopping with *just* one or two kids and feeling classy. The fuel rewards are a good deal.

COOKING

We rotate through several basic meals, cooking with whatever meat is on sale or stocked in the freezer -- tacos, pasta, grilled sandwiches, enchiladas, taco salad, sliders -- and always willing to sub PB&J, cheese & crackers, or eggs & toast. I'll make a large cut of meat in the crock pot at the beginning of the week, and then use it for different meals throughout the week. For me, cooking is more a chore than a hobby, so I'm okay cutting corners here. 

KITCHEN TABLE 

The 3 kids who are 2 and younger sit in a row of booster seats with trays, next to the 4-person table. It's easy to serve baby-friendly food in one area of the kitchen and limit the mess. For me, it's easier to wash a tray in the sink with soapy water than to scrub a table where the baby sat and mashed beans into the woodgrain. 



PIT STOPS

We ride with our own potty chair. We use disposable diaper doublers (cheaper than diapers) to keep pee from splashing out en route to the next trash/gas stop. The potty chair doubles as a step stool for the back row carseats.



I hesitate to share any kind of "Best Practices," because when it comes to home and families, everyone's different, and everyone's homes will reflect whatever style of life and love they live. But if any of our systems can help others, then we're happy to share!


Friday, November 25, 2016

Watching Slums Burn: Why Privatization Can't Fix Our Fire Departments (Or Our Schools)

Our new town has a serious problem with the fire department. 

It's poorly managed, morale is dangerously low, and the most important needs -- training and equipment -- are consistently under-funded. In reviewing last year's budget, an obscene amount of public funding is wasted on an elite firefighter sports league, which even included a new athletic complex (ironically, closed to the public). 

One councilman likes to point out that the new bird-watching trail in The Woodlands received more public support, campaigning, and funding than a much-needed upgrade to the city's original Fire Station #1 built over 100 years ago, and still serving our downtown neighborhood. 

Rather than replace the fire chief and a few captains, and rather than support our firefighters by paying a solid livelihood, several community special interest groups successfully pushed legislation that diverts public funds toward private fire safety initiatives.

Below are four case studies from the new program: 

1. The most interesting story to come out concerns the 24-acre estate of an oil exec just inside city limits. He applied for (and received!) public funding to set up his own personal fire safety system. 

To his credit, it's a very innovative and already successful automated advanced warning system. The nearby fire chief (whose station had its budget cut to help fund these private grants) said the estate's fire safety system would be an ideal addition to any home, but homeowners would need a significant amount of personal capital, in addition to the fire safety subsidy.

2. In an unsurprising outcome of this new program, the gated community a few blocks to our north hired private firefighters and built their own station by combining neighborhood HOA funds with a private grant from the newly established public fire safety fund. 

Within the first two months of establishing their own department, the community lost a house to fire, because it was delinquent on HOA fees, and therefore not eligible for coverage by the private station. 

In a calamity of unfortunate events, the nearby city department responded in plenty of time, but a hose malfunctioned, and firefighters could only pull the family to safety, as the house burned. An investigation is pending, since the defective hose failed inspection two months ago, but has yet to receive approval or funding for replacement.

In an irate statement to the press, the city fire chief blamed private fire safety initiatives for siphoning funds away from basic supplies and staffing needs for his public stations. 

The neighborhood HOA president is stepping back from candid remarks made to a local news crew covering the fire: 

"While it is unfortunate to lose a house in our neighborhood, we are thankful everyone is safe. I really believe this fire is a blessing in disguise for this family. I mean, now they are free from those HOA fees that they couldn't afford anyway! And it's probably for the best that they just move to a neighborhood that's, um, more affordable for them. They'll still have the public fire station any time they need it! I mean, the public station didn't help them this time, with that hose problem and all, but um, I'm sure they'll be fine! It's just so important for people to understand their financial responsibilities when they move to a neighborhood like this, even with a publicly-funded private fire station. It's such a special neighborhood, and everyone just cares for everyone else in such a special way."

Needless to say, plenty of YouTube tribute videos are already satirizing her comments over a slideshow of burning infernos, with much social media criticism for the pillaging of public safety funds for private neighborhood safety programs.

3. A volunteer fire department formed in one of our middle class neighborhoods. They used a grant from the public safety fund to daisy-chain hoses and splice into nearly every spigot on the block. While the fire chief has openly condemned their methodology as outdated and ineffective, this neighborhood's response time and success rate far exceeds the public fire stations.
Unfortunately, neighbors with disabilities can't participate, since the co-op system depends on a base of participants with the physical and mental capacity to actually fight fires. 

Also, any family with two working parents isn't allowed to participate in this style of public-funded fire protection, because someone must be home at all times and available to fight fires as they occur.

4. Finally, there's a very devout Christian community on the far east side of town. The city built a special fire station to service this area, but since it was a government building, the firefighters couldn't put up religious articles or host Bible studies on site, so with a grant from the new public fire safety fund, the community built a secondary "Christian" fire department nearby. It actually serves as a very popular community center as well, in addition to their neighborhood church.

With necessary budget cuts to the public program, to allow for the funding of these private fire safety programs, the original fire station servicing this area needed to close. It wouldn't have been a big deal, but some livestock were just killed in a barn fire last weekend, because the Christian fire department is closed on Sundays.

By Kpahor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Just to clarify, I fully support letting people in our town take whatever personal measures they feel are necessary for fire safety, whether it's a private, co-op, or religious solution. 

I just can't understand why we're funding their private endeavors that are incapable of serving the safety needs of everyone in the community, instead of investing in the personnel and infrastructure we already have to fairly distribute fire safety services to everyone. 

Alright, I'm not talking about fire departments. I'm talking about schools, and the popularization of a national voucher program allocating public funds for private or homeschool education. 

An education voucher system diverts money from fixing a good and necessary program into an inherently unequal distribution of special interests. It ignores -- and worse, dismisses -- the needs of the most vulnerable:  children of extreme poverty (who can now get a voucher to a more exclusive school but still can't afford the transportation across town, uniforms, supplies, lunch, or after-school care), and those with physical and mental disabilities who are regularly turned away from private school options. 

As a final thought, the voucher system does to education what Obamacare did to healthcare: provide government subsidies to private companies in an attempt to provide basic services for everyone. Prices skyrocketed, services fell, and while the elderly and poor could fall into safety nets of Medicaid and Medicare, and the rich could get by as the rich always gets by, the middle class loses. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

In Defense of Therapy Dogs, Peaceful Protests, and Millennials In General

Here we go again with overly dramatic protesters who can't seem to let things go and somehow twist everything into a personal attack against themselves. We've raised a hyper-sensitive generation who can't even handle one of the most basic tenets of our republic. A legitimately-elected new president has sent young people whimpering into safe rooms, clamoring for support groups, and wandering city streets en masse in protest. My God, they're so fragile! 

You know who I go to when I've had a bad day? Millennial friends. You talk about people who get people. 

Far from being the self-centered dysfunction of their generational stereotype, millennials are adaptable, sympathetic, and driven for a good cause. They volunteer, they give, they collaborate, they prioritize people over productivity (and usually accomplish both). 

Most of these "ridiculous" millennials aren't protesting the legitimacy of the election. They recognize President-Elect Donald Trump is our new, duly-elected commander-in-chief. 

But we raised this empathetic, young generation to identify with the fear and insecurity of others. With the anti-bullying movement of the nineties, we taught these children to befriend an outcast on the playground, to stand up for the weird kid in the neighborhood, and include everyone when they play games. 

And now we're shocked that they grew into young adults with the same ideals? 

Many of my friends and family voted for Trump, and among these good people, I cannot name a single one who actually represents ideals of misogyny, racism, or homophobia. 

However, there were plenty of crisis moments throughout Donald Trump's campaign for president when Muslims, women, immigrants of Mexican and South American descent, and those who identify as LGBTQ, all had legitimate reason to fear a Trump presidency. 

And while I do not condone any of the violence that has accompanied a small number of the mostly-peaceful protests across America, I applaud millennials for reaching out to those who feel marginalized, and standing with them in solidarity. 

Yes, maybe we're cultivating a "soft" culture in a young generation that doesn't have the wherewithal to "suck it up and move on," who want to cuddle with therapy dogs, who crave group support, and who need to process feelings instead of feigning strength.

To me, this is both hopeful and wonderful. 

Our participation-trophy culture of helicopter moms softening every blow, and anti-bullying propaganda from Pre-K has produced the most empathetic, peaceful, generous people, and they fill me with hope for the future of our country. 


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

President-Elect Trump: He Was Not My Candidate. He Is Now My President.

He was not my candidate. He is now my president. 

And even though my heart isn't in it, and my mind is exploding, he has my support. I would expect the same from Mr. Trump's followers, if we were addressing, instead, a Madame President in two months.

I strongly disagreed with President-Elect Trump on much of what he said, regarding both policy and people. 

While some of his policies were appealing, I questioned their motivation and feasibility. 

Now we see if the promises can be accomplished:

- He will clear out unnecessary bureaucracy and cronyism in our government.

- He will replace Obamacare with "something better."

- He will bring jobs back to our heartland.

- He will ensure religious freedom. [For all: not just Christians.]

- He will work to make abortion illegal.* 

- He will secure our borders to make us a safer nation.** 

I hope our country grows stronger under President Trump. I hope our country does not become strong on the backs of the weak. I fear for those who are immigrants, Muslim, LGBTQ, single mothers, and especially, children in poverty. 

*To those who joyfully await the legislative end of abortion in our country: please, I beg of you, do not walk away once we flood our nation with babies in poverty and disability. Yes, they deserve to live. But they deserve to live in loving homes with quality healthcare. Every child deserves this. Please support legislation that protects children once they're born.

**I understand national security. I do not understand punitive deportation for those who are here peacefully with hope for a better life. I don't believe the Bible supports blanket deportation either. 

Deuteronomy 10:18-19 – “For the Lord your God...loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Let's move on, united. 


By Max Goldberg from USA - Trump CAUCUS, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47178138




Sunday, October 9, 2016

Non-Partisan Catholic Voting Guide

Our parish priest gave a homily this morning citing "Five Non-Negotiables" for voting Catholics. 

He was referencing a pamphlet released in 2004, a voting guide put together by a well-meaning U.S. non-profit organization (Priests For Life). 

To clarify, this pamphlet is a synthesis of select Catholic beliefs; it is not a comprehensive catch-all to browse before entering the voting booth. While the five highlighted issues are legitimate Church teaching, and important issues at that, this pamphlet is not an exhaustive list of what we believe or how we should vote.

Neither the Vatican nor the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has issued statements recommending solely these five issues as non-negotiable. 

The USCCB has issued this 42-page document regarding conscientious voting as a Catholic: Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility. Below is a comprehensive list of issues Catholic citizens should consider with a well-formed conscience: 




These additional five sections are highlighted at the end of the document: 


There is certainly no fault if one's conscience directs them to vote according to one particular issue held by a particular party. In a similar vein, it is an act of good prudence to consider whether a candidate is likely to follow the position they've taken publicly on issues. We do not need to take candidates at face value. Consider their history, their words, their actions, how our democracy works, and the histories of our political parties. We can be both wise and sincere with our votes.

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

Finally, four people voting for four different candidates can all be voting in good conscience in accordance with our Catholic faith. We cannot willingly vote for evil. But we can vote for the candidate we believe will do the most good in accordance with a well-formed Catholic conscience (as outlined in the USCCB document above), with immunity to the evil that we did not will that might also be done on their watch.

There is plenty of time before November 8th to read through the USCCB's "voting guide," before placing your vote in good conscience for the candidate you think best to lead us forward on these issues.

Register to vote, find voting locations here

 
By Uoaei1 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Having Kids Or Working Out?

Just realized my casual, offensive comments to others about their intense workout commitments are the same casual, offensive comments that I get about how many kids I have!
Why would you do that? It looks exhausting.
Glad it’s you and not me. I’d be miserable.
Where do you get the money to do all that? 
But why would you want to do that every, single day? 
Well, sure it’s a natural thing our bodies do, but you know you don’t have to, right? 
Don't you want a break? 
But if you like doing it, then why do you not like doing it sometimes? Are you sure you like it?
Where do you get the motivation to do that? 
I'm sure it's rewarding in its own way, but is it really worth it? 
Some people do the same thing you're doing, just not as much. You know you don't have to do it this much, right? 
Wouldn't you rather be doing anything else? 
I think you're wasting your time. 
I guess it will be rewarding in like, 20 years.



Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Confessions of a Failed Home-School Mom

I'm an organized, scheduled, ambitious person. Or, I was, before trying to home-school my kids.

I can't name one thing that ultimately brought me down. It was just everything. If parenthood is the equivalent of ten different simultaneous full-time jobs, then home-schooling parenthood is like running a company while running a marathon while stopping to wipe the nose of every person in the crowd. 

I spent ten years doing admin and office management work before doing this full-time stay-at-home-mom thing, and it was glorious. In the office, I was a coffee-driven superhero bringing order to the world around me. 

Once I became a stay-at-home mom, everything I thought I knew about time management and collaborative success went out the window with three babies and the bath water. Except there wasn't actually any bath water, because with three babies, it's really just wet wipes and baby powder over and over and over. You know it.

My children hated homeschooling. I loved the idea of homeschooling, but in practice, it was like saving a puppy from a burning building, only to have it gather every dog in the neighborhood and run back in. It was making cookies while cleaning the septic tank, and accidentally licking your fingers. It was sitting next to a five-year-old on a six-hour flight who just learned the theme song to "Barney." It was adding caramel sauce to the wash cycle to help get out the ketchup stains. It was feeding ducks and watching turtles and hiking trails and stopping by church, on a good day. It was also muttered curses, crying in the closet, and endless to-do lists, on a good day. (Rarely was it reading, writing, tracing, memorizing, or phonics -- even on a good day.)

Home-schooling should be incorporated into both the summer and winter Olympics, because it takes resolve and skill like no other, and it never ends. (Actually, a lot of those Olympians home-school, so I guess it's represented alright.)

But for me, for this season, I will drag my weary soul onto the glistening island oasis of our neighborhood public school, feel the sun on my face, and thank God Almighty that He has made a better way.

What started as a bid for free babysitting in the midst of a three-month move with one-year-old twins in the third trimester of pregnancy has become a joy for my kids, and a new hope for me.

I wanted my kids in sports, but didn't want the evening games and club fees: PE! 

I wanted my kids to draw and paint and create, but I hate messes in my kitchen: Art Class! 

I wanted my kids to learn typing and technology, but their mysteriously sticky fingers on my Mac make me cringe: Computer Class! 

I wanted to check out books and attend story time at the library, but quietude is not a thing with a chorus of three babies: A School Library!

I wanted my kids to love reading and writing, and to feel kind of okay and functional at math: They love it all!

We might go back to home-schooling, someday, if we discern that it's the best route to our kids' academic, social, and moral success. 

But for now, the best education we can give our kids is at our local public school with amazing, caring professionals who did more in two months at the end of the school year than I did in the eight months preceding. (And it's not one of those "private public schools" made up of white, upper-class kids whose families can afford the real estate. This is a Title I neighborhood school that's just doing really great stuff with their students.)

And so, I will take your 40 hours of free babysitting a week, by the most amazing "babysitter" I've ever met -- music, art, sports, technology, all the basics, and hot lunch. 

And I will pay attention to my babies at home, so they aren't in speech therapy as two-year-olds, because no one has talked to them in two years. (Or we'll just do our best to recover from this purely hypothetical situation.)

And I will have special one-on-one time with my "big" kids in the evenings and on the weekends, and it will not be Mom raising her voice with empty threats and lowering it with expletives. Or well, hopefully, at least not most of the time.

Thank you, Public School.

NBD. It's just THEIR FUTURE we're talking about here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Book Review: The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning (In Observance of NFP Awareness Week. What? That's a Thing? Yeah.)

Because the sedan was big enough for one more baby, but not two. 

Because the minivan was big enough for three babies in two years, but not a fourth.

Because our four-year-old can eat a banana, two oranges, a PB&J sandwich, two cups of water, a handful of goldfish, and a scoop of raisins, and STILL be hungry. And our grocery budget is supposed to cover 7 people, not 1 preschooler.

Because our bedtime routine has gotten entirely out of hand. And if I start the clock at 4:15 with bath time, it puts everyone finally in bed, lights out, doors closed, calm, at 10 o'clock, on a good day. In time to nurse the baby again.

Because there are only so many minutes in an hour that one can spend cyclically changing dirty diapers without going absolutely insane.* 

There are lots of good reasons to delay having a baby. 

For people trying out the Natural Family Planning method, might I recommend a humorous, easy read along the way: 



I read this book while breastfeeding twins, and refereeing two preschoolers from the couch. And I've never felt more understood in my fears and frustrations. 

Just real quick, I need to pause and clear up a misconception: twin breastfeeding -- despite the twinsiverse lactivist propaganda -- is nothing like this:


Picture Source
It's this:


Picture Source
Okay, back on course.

Thankfully, unlike most bloggers-turned-authors, Simcha Fisher's first book is just as entertaining and insightful as her blog -- even when talking about the very personal and often annoying topic of NFP. 

(Yes, I can call it annoying. I have five kids, and the oldest is six.**)

A more accurate title might be, Sometimes NFP Sucks, But It Really Can Actually Be Good For Relationships, No Really, or as Simcha's written before, The Worst Possible Method, Except For All The Others.

She clears up some inaccuracies that don't get covered in a lot of Catholic marriage prep classes: how to not hate your spouse, how NFP can ruin your marriage, and that it's okay to laugh about sex. 

She even makes fun of the idea that NFP is all roses and romance and honeymoon, as it's often marketed by well-meaning advocates. 

I spent several years telling people that NFP is awesome and everyone should do it, and if you're not doing it, you're missing out. But really, that's a decision for each couple to discern on their own. 

For our family, it's the best choice, and it's been a good thing for our relationship. 

If you're thinking about jumping on the NFP bandwagon, I recommend downloading a copy of Simcha's book for a realistic and humorous primer. 


*Also, physical health, finances, and one's own conscientious determination. 


**By the way, if you like taking pregnancy tests as much as I do, you're going to want to know about Amazon's giant box of super-cheap test strips


Friday, July 22, 2016

Donald Trump And The American Dream

Donald Trump is a man of tenacity, self-confidence, and zero tact. And maybe that's just what our country needs. 

Wally and I feel like a lot of Americans, I think. Trampled by big government, our paychecks slipping away in inconsistent and indecipherable taxes, our $2 box of cereal is suddenly $3.28, and we're all but selling our souls for family health care. 

We're not sure what's wrong with the world, and for a long time, we've felt like it's something wrong with us. 

We're college educated. We've got a mortgage on a modest home. We work hard. We live in a budget.  We drive pretty dependable cars, even if they're getting up in miles. Why aren't we going anywhere? Why is it every time we seem to get ahead, we get pushed back again? 

We want the picket fence. We want a pension plan. We want to know that the money we save today is going to grow into something for our retirement. Will our children inherit anything from all our hard work? 

Mr. Trump promises to bring back the American Dream. He says, "Let's make America great again," and I want to believe him. 

One article says that he's a good candidate because he's a successful businessman. My immediate reaction was that's what we need at the helm of this country. 

By Darron Birgenheier from Reno, NV, USA (Donald Trump in Reno, Nevada) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
WHAT'S MORE AMERICAN THAN SUCCESSFULLY MAKING MILLIONS OF DOLLARS?

But why is Donald Trump a successful businessman? Is it because he invests in his employees, supports worthy charities, and builds up what is good in our nation? 

From what I've read -- and please, feel free to share otherwise, if you've found otherwise -- Donald Trump's towering wealth has been sustained on the sacrifices of his hardworking employees; he fulfills virtually zero of his highly-publicized charitable pledges; and his lasting legacy in the American business landscape? Casinos

Again, please, post otherwise, and if I'm wrong, I will delete this article from the internet and issue a public apology in its place. 

But it sure seems that Donald Trump is just like every other mega-million CEO out there, collecting profits by any means, skirting healthcare provision for his employee's families, skimping 401(k) contributions, retaining powerhouse litigators, and simply leaving contracted workers unpaid. 

Maybe that's just the way things are, the only way to make a buck in this country. And we shouldn't hold it against him that he's simply doing what it takes to be successful. (Though when the average CEO makes 300 times that of the average worker, I wonder whether a truly successful CEO couldn't build a strong business model that includes quality compensation for employees.)

I'm not convinced that Donald Trump really understands how we're fighting to stay afloat, and how to get us out of the exhaustion of treading water for too long, when his own millions are made from using other working middle-class citizens as a means to his own profitable end. 

Does he not realize that the same tactics used to secure his personal wealth are what have held us under for so long? 

We treat the role of president as a sacred trust that surely no one would demean as simply a bid to grow self-serving ambitions. And then we recall those who have abused this trust, and realize this hallowed position does not come with immunity from the human vices of its presider.

My concern is that Donald Trump has been driven to pursue personal wealth and power for so long, without pause to share his accrual with charities or his hardest working employees along the way, a new title over a great nation cannot change his true ambitions. How can he suddenly look out for the interests of forgotten middle-class Americans, when his track record indicates that he's yet to show interest in the first place? 

Maybe Donald Trump could be one heck of a president. Maybe we do need to change things up, and see what's the worst that could happen with a firecracker personality who wants America's ego to be as big as his own. (Although Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of his 1987 bestseller The Art of the Deal, has been quoted saying, "I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization."

Regardless of whether Schwartz is offering hyperbole or foresight, it's irreconcilable to pretend that Donald Trump has a history of concerning himself with middle class concerns, or that the honor of a title as prestigious as President Of The United States could make that any more likely to occur. 


Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Is There Such A Thing As Affordable, Accessible Health Care? Maybe.

We replaced our family's Aetna health insurance plan with a Healthcare Sharing Ministry [HSM]* four years ago. 

For our family, we chose Samaritan Ministries International [SMI] as the most affordable option with the most accessible care. We pay $495 a month, and a medical need over $300 is covered 100%.

HSM's definitely aren't for everyone, but if you're curious how SMI works for our family of seven, here you go:**

Overview

HSM's are basically self-insured insurance plans run as co-ops. Each member gives a standard monthly amount, which is distributed among all of the other members with health care needs that month. There is a central office that processes medical needs and distributes all members' contributions for the coming month.

Samaritan Ministries International has been following this system since 1994, and all health care needs within the guidelines of their program have been covered in full.

SMI has its own language, without using traditional insurance terms of "premium" (the monthly cost of a plan), "deductible" (the amount paid by an individual before insurance helps), "co-insurance" (the amount paid by an individual after deductible is met), or "co-pay" (cost for an office visit). Nonetheless, I'll use these terms as I describe how an HSM works for us.

Membership

To support a healthy community, members sign a commitment to practice healthy living according to the organization's guidelines, which are based on biblical principles. Members also sign a faith commitment that they are practicing Christians who desire to help other Christians with their medical needs. 

Not all HSM's are Christianity-based. I provide some links below for other options. 

Premiums

Our family pays $495 a month as a "premium." In SMI, this is called a "share." Each month we send $495 to another member of SMI to help cover their health care need. 

Below are monthly share ("premium") amounts: 

One person: $220
Two person family: $440
Three or more person family: $495
Widowed or divorced with children: $305  

Deductibles

If a member has a health care need that's over $300, it's covered 100%. (Most private health insurance plans have annual deductibles from $1,000 - $12,000 per person. My husband's employer-sponsored plan has a deductible of $5,000 per person. This would add up quickly in a family of seven with multiple medical needs in a given year.)

With SMI, the $300 deductible per healthcare need includes maternity. To re-phrase: having a baby costs an SMI family $300 out-of-pocket. Same thing for a kidney stone, appendectomy, ER visit, heart attack, or any covered medical need.

A family's annual maximum out-of-pocket is $900, for medical needs covered by SMI.

Networks

There is no such thing as "In-Network" or "Out-of-Network" for SMI members. You choose your healthcare providers, and the medical need is covered, if it's over $300. 

(This is such a relief for us, because on a prior plan, our son's pediatric ENT was in-network, but not the pediatric ophthalmologist. My ob-gyn was in-network, but not the lab. For many people, a hospital might be covered in-network, but the ER doctors at the hospital are out-of-network.)

Co-Insurance

There is no co-insurance. Once the $300 deductible is met per medical need, or the maximum annual limit of $900 per family, the medical need is covered 100%. 

(My husband's employer-sponsored plan has an 80/20 co-insurance plan, which means insurance covers 80% of medical bills, once an individual has reached their deductible. The family is still responsible for 20% of the bill, up to their annual maximum out-of-pocket. I think the maximum annual family out-of-pocket on our employer-sponsored plan was $12,000.) 

Co-Pays

Members of HSM's present as self-pay patients for medical providers. Most medical providers have a self-pay rate that's a significant discount, since they don't have to deal with insurance paperwork. 

Our pediatrician used to charge us $80 for a sick visit. CVS Minute Clinics are $89 - $99 a visit. Walgreens sick visits are $89 - $129. Walmart Care Clinics are $59 a visit. 

I think a co-pay on my husband's insurance would be $70 a visit, so it's not that much more to just self-pay.

Prescriptions

Prescriptions are only covered as part of a medical need for 6 weeks after the need.

For long-term prescriptions, such as asthma inhalers, we use a discount card, among which there are many free programs to choose. Most pharmacies have several discount cards by the register. I have them run these options until we figure out which one gives us the best price on a given prescription. 

I've also gone to pharmaceuticals' websites to print coupons.

Wellness Care

SMI does not cover wellness care. (Private health insurance covers wellness care 100%. This would be nice, but as it turns out, it's better for our finances to just pay out-of-pocket for wellness care.)

We use the county health clinic for wellness visits and vaccinations, which cost $5 per visit. Many doctors' offices offer self-pay discounts, or a sliding scale based on income.

Premium Increases

There are no arbitrary or unexpected monthly premium increases. If members' health care needs surpass the available shares in three consecutive months, then all of the members vote on whether to increase monthly shares. Seriously, you vote on premium increases. Nobody likes an increase in medical costs, but the transparency with SMI is refreshing.


When we joined in 2012, a family of three or more members paid $355 each month. We voted on a share increase to $370, and then in 2014, we voted for another share increase to $405 each month. Two years later, the premium is now $495 per month for a family.

Pre-Existing Conditions

This gets complicated, but for the most part, pre-existing conditions are not covered. This sucks. (Traditional health insurance is required to cover pre-existing conditions.) 

Also not covered: dental and vision. (Usually private health insurance requires additional plan purchases to cover these.)

Billing and Paperwork

Since members are self-pay patients, ALL of the medical bills come directly to you. It can be overwhelming. 

Once a medical need is over $300, bills are submitted to SMI. SMI partners with a third party agency that advocates on members' behalf to negotiate lower bills with medical providers, if a discount hasn't already been given. From the central processing office, your medical need is shared with SMI members. 

And then you literally receive checks and "Get Well" cards in the mail throughout the month, as members send their monthly shares to support your medical need. You use this money to reimburse or pay medical providers.

Being a member of SMI is definitely paperwork heavy when there's a medical need. We have to stay very organized, with diligent communication with our healthcare providers.  
CMF Curo is an add-on program to Samaritan Ministries that takes care of all the paperwork and billing. It's an appealing structure, but not in our budget for something we can cover ourselves with just a little more work. 

Does It Work? 

Yes. Here's a link to how it covered an ER visit three years ago: The Kidney Stone Story. This link provides more detail on the billing and discount process for self-pay patients.

I wish I had written up my son's adenoidectomy experience, because that occurred just after the government subsidies became available for health insurance on the exchange, and many people were realizing that the exchange plans were sub-par. Several billing specialists noted that it was easier for us to schedule surgery, and the surgery itself was less expensive with self-pay discounts, than for patients who had purchased a high-deductible insurance plan.

Compared to health insurance premiums, our monthly shares are very low. And we can budget the money saved on premiums, deductibles, and co-insurance for wellness care and medical needs under $300.
 

 Why Do People Join?

Over 60,000 families participate in our HSM, most of whom joined for one of the following reasons: 

1. They're disillusioned or strongly disagree with how health care is run in the United States. 

   This can be a philosophical disagreement with the insurance system in general, or with the accessibility and affordability of health care.


2. Employer-sponsored health insurance plans are not available to everyone. 

   Many companies keep employees at 29 hours a week to avoid mandated benefits coverage. Many small businesses or self-employed individuals can't access group plans from the insurance companies.

3. Exchange health insurance plans are not available to everyone.  

   If an employer offers health insurance to employees, the employees are not eligible for plans on the government exchange, even if the exchange would offer better or more affordable coverage.

4. Premiums for employer and exchange plans are too high. 

   Even accounting for employer stipends and government subsidies, premiums quickly reach more than families can budget each month.

5. Deductibles for employer and exchange plans are too high. 

   For the employer-sponsored plan available to our family, at a premium we could afford, the individual deductible is $5,000 per year. This might be in our budget, if only one of us had a health crisis any given year. But there are seven of us, and I don't want to play those odds.

6. Out-Of-Network medical providers cause financial and administrative stress. 

   The in-network and out-of-network games of insurance companies means your preferred caregiver might cost three times as much, even with health insurance. Or, as recent news stories have covered -- even if a hospital is in someone's network, ER doctors are often contracted to the hospital, and inevitably, out-of-network. This turns into very expensive emergency care. 

Other Options 

There are several other HSM's, besides SMI. I would encourage anyone who's thinking about transitioning to look into all of them: Christian Care Ministry (Medi-Share), Christian Healthcare Ministries, Liberty HealthShare, Altrua HealthShare, Solidarity Healthshare, and the Samaritan Ministries add-on program, CMF Curo.

Referral Program

Samaritan Ministries gives members a one-time $180 credit on their monthly share, if a new member lists them as a referral to join. When friends list our family as a referral, we split the credit with them, so we each get $90. This helps off-set the $200 new membership fee. (Splitting the referral credit isn't an official SMI option; we just drop a thank you note and a check in the mail to you, once the credit shows up on our account. In the application paperwork, there's a line to write a member referral name.)

In Conclusion 

Transitioning to an HSM is scary. Our national health care system runs on private health insurance, for better or worse. 

We actually spent our first several months on SMI paying for both SMI and private health insurance, because we couldn't wrap our minds around the jump we were about to take. 

The deciding factor for us was the loss of our private health insurance, when I changed to part-time work after our second child was born. 

Now that we have the option of private employer-sponsored health insurance again, we've decided it's still best for our budget to remain with SMI.

Please don't hesitate to reach out to me with any questions. You can comment below, and I'll respond, or email me directly at charlene.bader@gmail.com .


*HSM's qualify as an exemption from the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, which requires everyone to carry private health insurance. HSM's fulfill this mandate.

**Disclaimer: Please, friends, look up and verify all of this information. It's very accessible on the Samaritan Ministries International website. I'm sharing how this HSM has worked for our family, but I also haven't slept in years, so readers are responsible for verifying any of this info.