College Visits

college-visits

Photo cred: Aleksandr Kozlovskii | unsplash.com

My oldest wasn’t interested in college so we were spared.

Her younger brother (by 11 months) will visit his first college this weekend. He has to go alone because I’m caring for Mark who suffered a serious injury at work that left him temporarily disabled. Mark can’t even get into a car.

Luke plans to play tennis in college and the coach is hosting his visit (though he’ll be staying with someone on the team). Don’t even go there. I figure he’ll be in a position to drink and hope he’ll be smart.

I visited 2 colleges when I was a senior in high school and attended the second. I wanted to play basketball so my choices were limited to small, D3. I didn’t have the resources to go far away. I also didn’t have the resources to apply to or visit a lot of campuses. It was fine. I was content with my choice and loved my college experience. I qualified for a lot of grants and aid and only borrowed $12,000 for my degree.

I know it’s standard for kids to visit 10, 20 sometimes 50 different schools. I don’t know how that happens logistically. How is that even helpful? I think it confuses the matter and gives kids the impression that every aspect of a college experience should be perfect.

Luke knows it’s not realistic to go more than a couple of hours away. We can’t afford to fly him back and forth from school. He also knows that we don’t plan to give him a tour of the U.S. in search of the perfect set-up. He has a few priorities in addition to our limitations.

Money will be the biggest factor. His eligibility for assistance is a big mystery. Likely we’ll have to disappoint him if the numbers don’t add up. I refuse to let him borrow more than $15,000-$20,000 total for an undergraduate degree (I prefer no debt) and no matter what FAFSA says, we’ll decide how much we can afford to contribute-if any. I try to prepare him for the reality of that but I don’t think he gets it.

I’m also trying to convince Luke to be strategic about college. I learned that NCAA Junior colleges award twice as many full scholarships as D1 and D2. Luke will likely grow, mature emotionally and improve his skills in the next few years. Plus he would have the option of going farther away if we have to pay for less school. This might put him in a position to be able to use his college fund to pay for the remaining two years at a 4 year college where, because of the limited  number of scholarships, he’s not likely to get as much help.

Just about everyone I talk to (my age and younger) regrets borrowing as much as they did for their four year degree and wishes they would have gone to community college for the first two years. If Luke can play tennis in a truly competitive situation, I don’t think he’ll regret it.

I’m guessing there’s less competition for JUCO tennis scholarships. Since tennis is an elitist sport, Luke’s peers are looking at top academic and tennis programs. I read that many junior college coaches don’t allocate their recruiting budget simply because they don’t have the resources to recruit and scout and aren’t approached by suitable athletes.

So, the question will be whether Luke will consider my advice about how to navigate this college thing. My main goal is coming out on the other end of it with little or no debt. We’ll see.

Dear High School Guidance Counselor….

school yard

original image credit: Francisco Galarza via unsplash.com

I know it’s your job to “guide” students. I get the impression that you believe it’s your job to direct them toward college-no matter the expense or their interest in going.

I understand you met with a group of Juniors the other day during their English class. You had them enter their email addresses on a site that asked them a litany of questions to help them decide what to study in college.

Is it true that you told the kids who don’t plan to go to college to reconsider? Did you also tell them not to answer something stupid (your word) like “be a nanny” on questions about their plans after high school?

I won’t take that remark personally even though my daughter has told you on several occassions that she plans to nanny when she graduates in order earn money to pursue other goals. You probably weren’t interested enough to learn that she’s a gifted, conscientious and engaged child-care provider who loves to be with kids of all ages. She tells them stories, plans projects and crafts, invents games, fixes meals and reads with them. In short, she’s happy when she’s with her younger cousins or small clients. I think hers is an excellent plan that will provide a lot of flexibility. Before you go there, no, she doesn’t want to be a teacher. She doesn’t want to watch 25-30 kids at a time, just a few.

My daughter has a keen understanding of her interests, skills, gifts, strengths and weaknesses. She’s lucky that she doesn’t need a computer program for that. My guess is that lots of kids know these things about themselves but when they try to communicate them to you, you don’t really listen to them. Instead, you dismiss their ideas and try to pigeon-hole them into a pre-defined, acceptable major or career.

Being a nanny isn’t “stupid”. High-quality child care is a valuable service. Responsible and experienced providers are in demand and can earn a lucrative income and unique experiences all without the burden of debt. Many full-time nannies can earn more than their college-educated peers and enjoy benefits like free housing, meals, transportation (including discretionary access to a car), all-expense-paid vacations and paid vacation time.

My daughter and I have spent a lot of time discussing how she can develop her interests and skills to create a career, multiple streams of income and a lifestyle that she chooses.  Regardless of whether someone else regards it as successful, acceptable or adequate.

The job you decided to mock is irrelevant. My point is, it’s unprofessional and narrow-minded to dismiss certain occupations or paths to a fulfilling life. Your job is to support students and help them find every resource available to pursue an idea, a vocation, a career or a dream even if it doesn’t align with your idea of a respectable profession. Steering a diverse group of students down one, narrow path doesn’t serve them, even if it does serve your ego.

Did you know that 40% of students drop out of college without a degree? Do you think maybe they were steered toward college as the only option by people like you?  Yes, I’m suggesting you’re partially to blame. Do you ever advise students who are unsure about their future to work for a few years or go to community college?

Did you know that some of your students borrow as much as $80,000 for an undergraduate degree?  The average student debt for a college education is $37,000. Do you think that’s advisable? I don’t.

One more thing. Quit sharing my kids’ email addresses with colleges and military recruiters. Even kids who are interested in college don’t want to be spammed by them. My kids know where to enlist if they decide to go that route.

I was tempted to email you about this recent presentation but decided against it because my children are insulated from your narrow views and I realize I will not change your mind or your tactics. They know they have my support and encouragement to pursue any path or no path and work until they figure something out. Some will likely go to college but probably not with much assistance from you.

Yours truly.

Why I Regret Starting a 529 Plan for My Kids

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Let’s be clear: I don’t regret saving for the kids’ future. I regret limiting that fund for college.

Like many young parents, Mark and I were anxious to start saving for college. A 529 plan was the no-brainer option at the time. The fund grows tax-free and as long as the money is used for a “qualified education expense”, the interest is never taxed. There can also be state tax deductions for contributions.

So, here’s why I regret saving in a 529: There are so many valuable and practical ways to learn outside of college that can’t be funded by a 529 without paying taxes and penalties on the interest.

Nineteen years ago (the year Hannah was born), college appeared to be the only and best way to have a career and wasn’t nearly as expensive. In 1996, 52% of Bachelor’s degree recipients carried student loans averaging $12,000 (which is the same amount I graduated from college with in 1990). Today, at least 71% of college graduates have student loans averaging $37,000.

In contrast to the 1990s, high school students can begin to teach themselves skills that add value to a fast-paced, global economy. College is required for some professions (academia, law, medicine) but isn’t for many others.

Apprenticeship programs, gap years, online certification programs, fellowships, world travel and small business opportunities are all valuable and practical alternatives to college that can’t be paid for with 529 funds without penalty.

 They’re one form of university welfare. The other forms are private loans, grants and government-subsidized loans. Students aren’t really the beneficiaries of these forms of assistance when a degree doesn’t guarantee a job or skills that employers say are lacking in most college graduates. (Don’t believe me, read this book about the skills gap).

Hannah graduated from high school and has no plans to attend college. Instead, she’s participating in a program that matches highly motivated young people with a small business or startup willing to train them.

Praxis charges tuition but boasts a net-zero cost because the total payment is less than the guaranteed pay the participant receives from the business partner during the apprenticeship. In addition to skills training, Praxis offers one-on-one mentorship, weekly group discussions and guidance on personal and professional development projects. Every participant has a tangible body of work to show potential employers at the conclusion of the program. The Praxis model has been so effective that business partners now commit to a full-time offer with a minimum salary of $40,000 for participants. No college will guarantee that.

By the time her classmates graduate, Hannah will likely have saved as much or more than they have borrowed in the same time period. She’ll be earning as much or more and she’ll likely be living on her own. Compared to other 18-34-year-olds, who, for the first time ever, are living with parents more than any other living arrangement.

So, what to do with all that money we saved for college? We could transfer the 529 to one of Hannah’s siblings.  We put that money aside for Hannah, though, and frankly, I’d rather see it go to photo equipment (Hannah’s business), studio space, even a car, than an over-priced college.

Even though she’ll pay taxes (at her rate) and a 10% penalty on the interest, we’ve decided to use the money in Hannah’s 529 plan to pay the tuition for Praxis. The interest and penalty combined don’t compare to the interest that most students will end up paying for the lifetime of the loans they’re taking.

I’m not so put-off by the taxes owed because if we had it in any other type of fund, we would have been paying taxes on the interest all along. The penalty stings a little since she’s using the money for a program that has a guaranteed ROI and is tens of thousands less than college would have been.

Hopefully, 529 rules will expand with growing opportunities in our rapidly-changing world that make more sense than college. Any changes will likely come too slowly to help my children.

I’m not sure what will happen when the college bubble finally pops. Likely, even those who opt out will be stuck holding the bag. University Provosts everywhere will continue to receive their bloated salaries or maybe they’ll run for the hills taking their golden parachutes with them.

Rethink opening that 529. There are other ways to save in a high-growth fund for a minor. You can still use that money for college but you’ll have other options.

Opting Out of the Awful School Pictures

 

school-pictures

4th grade me with my Dorothy Hammill haircut

I’ve had it. I used to feel guilty that my kids didn’t have school pictures since they were homeschooled.

This year, I’m opting out.

I’ve purchased a “package” for each of the kids for each of the years that they have been in school. I never display them. I rarely share them. They sit in the cellophane window envelope in a drawer somewhere.

To be perfectly honest, none of them are any good. Not one school picture actually looks like the kid in it. Bad smile, pasty face, awkward angle. They are just bad.

The photo packages are too expensive and they’re purposely designed to NOT include the sizes you might want.

I thought Mark would be offended that I didn’t want to buy them this year but then forgot that he’s a boy and doesn’t care about stuff like that. I knew Kate wouldn’t care. The only year she let me buy photos, she wouldn’t let me see them. She wasn’t interested in doubling down on her humiliation by getting the “retake”.

 

 

 

 

 

First Day of High School

apple-first-day-of-school

My youngest is a freshman. No more junior high!

Last year, 4 of the kids headed out the door to school. This year only 2. Hannah graduated and Luke is finishing up his high school career online.

I have to admit, I felt a certain measure of comfort when they were in the same building together. Also, they kept each other accountable and had each other’s backs-most of the time.

Mark (off work due to injury) got to enjoy the after-school debriefing on the first day, made slightly more interesting when Hannah’s post directly or indirectly provided the content for the “First-Day-of-School-Let’s-Make-This-The-Best-Year-Ever” assembly.

There were the usual schedule mistakes. The disappointment of getting this teacher or that teacher. Satisfaction with others. Gossip about personnel changes. Hannah and Luke generally rubbing it in that they don’t have to deal with it anymore. But it was fun to sit around and get caught up together. Mark enjoyed it, too.

So, only 35 more weeks to go. The school year is too long in my opinion. Thirteen years of compulsory education (legally, it’s fewer in PA but most people adhere to the K-12 prescription) is too many and the school day should be 4 hours instead of 7.5. But, we’ll get through it.

 

 

In Sickness & In Health

wedding

So, Mark and I are celebrating our 23rd anniversary today. Just shy of 3 weeks after his physical catastrophe.

I’m not an overly emotional or sentimental person but I clearly remember my voice cracking only once during our vows…”in sickness and in health”. In an instant, I was overwhelmed by the thought of him being sick and vulnerable.

He’s had some minor surgeries (that dual hernia operation just before our 10th anniversary wasn’t too fun) but nothing as challenging as this.

The thing is, as challenging as this is physically, emotionally and probably financially, I know it isn’t even close to the worst that can happen to a couple. Not even close.

So I’m thankful that we work well together because just about everything he does, we do together. I’m thankful that we enjoy each other’s company (as long as he doesn’t try to tell jokes). I’m thankful that we trust each other to get through this. And yes, I’m thankful that we love and trust each other and even on our worst days, there still isn’t anyone I would rather spend time with (no offense to my children, who come second in that category).

I don’t feel all that much different than that day 23 years ago. Marrying Mark felt like the rightest, most natural thing. Helping him do just about everything feels just as right and natural (though, I have to keep reminding him the kids can fetch the this or the that when they’re here).

Happy Anniversary. Oh and Happy Birthday to Luke who was our 5th anniversary gift!

Crisis Mode

hospital-room

I WISH Mark’s room had a desk like that!

Mark blew out both knees last week. He’s a full-time tennis teaching pro. Yes, that’s his real job.

Truth be told, I can’t believe something like this hasn’t happened before this. He really wasn’t doing anything nutty or risky. He’s pretty conservative because his joints have always ached. He dislocated both shoulders before he graduated from college. Plus, teaching on a hard surface 8-10 hours a day for 30 years might lead to some wear-and-tear.

Here’s how I react to crisis:

My brain goes into hyper-efficiency lock-down. Do the bare minimum. Prune the unimportant, take care of only what’s necessary. The kids are at an age where they’re pretty self-sufficient and can help each other get where they need to go. I also have lots of family and good friends around who can help. (S/O to my brother John who took care of details at home when it happened).

The other thing my brain does which makes me hopeful and positive is to think about how much worse things could have been. In a weird, backwards way, it helps me be grateful even in what seems like a catastrophe.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

  1. Mark had just returned from taking Luke to a tournament in Boston. He easily could have been walking fast or running for a flight and this could have happened. I can’t imagine how traumatized Luke would have been on top of managing this type of crisis long distance.
  2. I’m glad it happened at work because…worker’s comp.
  3. I’m grateful I don’t have the stress of managing a job outside the house on top of this.
  4. I’m grateful I didn’t get the car crash call or the heart-attack-on-the-court call.
  5. My mom can care for my aunt at her house while we get our bearings again. That means Mark has a hospital bed and a bathroom on the first floor because he won’t be able to bear weight on either leg for a while. My brain hasn’t quite caught up to that concept but we’ll deal with it.
  6. Mark ran up to our cabin by himself the weekend before this happened to take care of some things. It’s remote and even if he remembers to take his phone with him, reception is sketchy. The nearest neighbor is not visible through the woods. Shudder.
  7. Most surgeons haven’t seen a bilateral rupture of this type but it is repairable and they’re confident that he will be better than he ever was.

So, that’s how my brain works. You might think it’s pathetic denial but I’m sticking with it. It has given me a better outlook on what’s ahead.

Creativity in an Uncreative Career

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Photo Credit: Volkan Olmez | Unsplash.com

I recently had a chat with a young neighbor (22) who just finished up a year-long internship toward her certification as a Registered Dietician. She still has to take an exam to be official.

When I heard that she moved to Memphis for an internship in a VA hospital (apparently, they’re hard to find), I remember being impressed that she was willing to get out of her comfort zone by moving away from the safety net of her family and a city that she loves. Now that it’s over, she told me the best part about the internship was realizing that she doesn’t want to be in a hospital setting. I see that as a win and extremely valuable.

What surprised me is that her supervisors and co-workers continued to steer her into a hospital setting even though she was sure she didn’t like it. “Gotta pay your dues.” “Maybe you can eventually get into an admin position.” “Anything else takes years of experience to qualify.”

In other words, the conventional, “safe” path is so narrow….even for an RD. From what my friend was saying, it looks something like this:

  1. Hospital planning gross institutional meals for sick people. (Did you want Sprite with that meatloaf?)
  2. Some other institutional situation when you get burned out from the first job.

Look around, people, we’re living in a society suffering from an epidemic of obesity, unhealth, and non-nutrition. It doesn’t take much creativity to apply an interest in health and nutrition, a passion for food and cooking (this young woman started her own cooking blog in high school) and a B.S. in Nutrition and Dietetics to a non-hospital setting.

Luckily my friend is creative and looked beyond the barriers that her colleagues were putting in front of her. During her last week in Memphis, she reached out to an entrepreneur in Birmingham who prepares and delivers ready-made meals (including Paleo, gluten-free and dairy-free) for clients ranging from families to young professionals to seniors. The subscription options include hot dinners, microwave-ready lunches, weekly breakfasts, snacks and drinks.

Business is booming in Birmingham and the owner wants my friend’s help to expand into Nashville. She’s moving to Birmingham next week to start. Although the job doesn’t require a degree, it won’t hurt when creating new menus for health-conscious customers with specific nutritional needs. Whether the business is something she’ll be passionate about a year from now, she’ll get a first-hand look at running a high-energy business in an unfamiliar city (cities). It’s what I call 3-D learning in real time. Plus she’ll have an outlet for her creative side.

I so admire this young person’s courage in creating a unique opportunity for herself that rejects narrow-minded conventions. Good Luck to her and I’ll keep you posted on other cool things that young people are doing to take life and work into their own hands.

My Theory About Why So Few People Truly Understand Caregiving

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photo credit: Todd Diemer | Unsplash.com

When I took on the responsibility of caring for my elderly aunt, the only thing I knew was that I really had no idea what to expect.

Although my closest family and friends worried for my well-being, they have been so supportive and really make it possible.

I have thought a lot about why the impact of caregiving on families is so underestimated and misunderstood. A 2009 report estimated that family caregivers save the U.S. health care system more than 450 BILLION dollars per year.

It should be a priority to study and support family care situations. At the very least we could try to educate people about how best to prepare to care for a loved one.

Frankly, I don’t have the energy to advocate for policies and services to support caregivers even though family caregivers save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars of year. I think the reason it’s not a higher priority is that you can’t relate to it if you haven’t done it.

It’s impossible to paint an accurate picture of caregiving without compromising the dignity or privacy of the person being cared for. There are some private support channels online where people feel safe to open up and discuss the ugly details. I think these are important resources for caregivers but I learned very quickly that I didn’t want to spend what little free time I had swimming in the soup of other caregivers’ situations.

I have contributed to a different kind of caregiver support site that tries to keep the focus on promoting the happiness and health of the caregiver. If you’re a caregiver, check it out. Elizabeth is positive and offers excellent strategies and practical solutions for making your well-being a priority. [Sorry for the digression. Back to my point].

When anyone other than my closest friends or family members ask how my aunt is, I have little choice but to say “fine”. I have no desire to get into the challenges of our days to outsiders and unsupportive people because I feel like I’m betraying my aunt or complaining. To describe the graphic details of her personal care or her declining cognition would compromise her dignity and I’m just not willing to do that. It’s hard and she’s sweet so that’s that.

I wish I could prepare people for the monumental task of caring for an elderly loved one. I may write about some unexpected challenges that have little to do with her personal care so as not to compromise her privacy. Maybe some day, I’ll have the energy to advocate for policy initiatives to support the millions of people who are caring for their elderly family members but not today.

 

 

 

Curing Heartburn Naturally

30-day-heartburn-solution-craig-fear

Kate has suffered from chronic, sometimes unbearable, heartburn for nearly 3 years. I’m guessing the sudden onset was hormonal and chemical. As my most adventurous eater, it’s been depressing for both of us.

I talked to her pediatrician about trying to alleviate symptoms with food. When I mentioned avoiding gluten as an experiment, she dismissed that with a speech about gluten-free being a popular fad and how gluten-free only helps people with Chron’s disease or IBS. And anyway, even a trace of gluten in the manufacturing process could trigger symptoms in the truly allergic. In short, the doc discouraged us from trying this. She rattled off the typical list of trigger foods (spicy, tomotoes, carbonated beverages-Kate doesn’t drink those, etc.) and suggested that Kate avoid those. Since Kate was down to eating eggs, potatoes and antacids and still was experiencing symptoms, the pediatrician agreed to order some tests.

Kate was scoped (no evidence of damage or distress), poked, prescribed Nexium, Zantac supplemented with Gaviscon and Tums and tried to manage as best she could for the next 2 years.

A friend told me that her teenage daughter noticed improvement in her heartburn symptoms after going gluten-free so it sparked my interest in that route again.

I turned to Amazon and found “The 30 Day Heartburn Solution” by Craig Fear. The reviews were encouraging. (I’ve never seen a book on Amazon with no 1 or 2 star reviews). Most reviews are from long-time heartburn and acid reflux sufferers who were pain-free after implementing the plan laid out in the book. Craig Fear wrote the book after curing his own chronic heartburn.

Fear designed an incremental plan to stop acid reflux through nutrition, basically avoiding the typical Western diet. It’s well-researched and explains why antacids (prescribed and OTC) contribute to the problem and are problematic long-term. The book is well-organized and thorough and lists all the foods you can eat under the plan. Approved foods include meats, dairy (if tolerated), eggs, nuts and seeds, vegetables and fruit and berries less frequently.

Kate noticed significant improvement just a couple of days into the plan. The first 2 weeks of the plan calls for eliminating all grains. Her willingness to try new foods in order to keep from feeling like a starved rabbit helped her get through the first couple of weeks.

After two weeks of grain-free, you can reintroduce non-gluten grains (corn, rice, oats, etc.). During this stage, you’re also encouraged to eat cultured and fermented foods to restore the natural acidity and health of the digestive system.

Cultured foods without added sugar are hard to find (sugar can be inflammatory and throw off the ph balance of the gut). Fermented foods in the grocery store (sauerkraut and pickled things) are packaged under high heat (which kills most of the beneficial bacteria). I found a simple recipe for sauerkraut that’s delicious and plan to try some other fermented vegetables. The cultured foods are a little trickier but we’ll track some down.

It’s hard to tell whether sticking to the plan 100% for a while would completely cure Kate (restore her digestive tract to allow her to enjoy any food any time~or even problematic foods occassionally without suffering). At her age, I feel like she’s old enough to decide whether to eat a certain food and suffer the consequences. Even when she eats a food that triggers symptoms, they are milder and short-lived.

One thing I learned is that we automatically blamed foods like spaghetti, pizza and tacos on the tomatoes or spice for Kate’s heartburn after eating them. There’s as good a chance that the culprit was the noodles or flour tortilla in those cases. Since some form of grain (usually gluten) is a part of nearly every meal, and in our mind, those foods are bland when served plain, I never considered that they were causing the problem.

One unexpected benefit that I noticed after Kate was on the plan for a couple of months was a decrease in the severity of PMS symptoms. When I pointed it out, she thought so too.

I highly recommend “The 30 Day Heartburn Solution” if you or someone you know suffers from chronic heartburn or acid reflux disease. It’s worth a try.

 

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