Archive for April, 2013

The frugal angel and budget-breaking devil

There’s no other way to say it.

Budgeting – and being so frugal you spend less than what you budgeted – is a really adult thing to do.

And when your salary is in the ballpark of mine, budgeting is also a really necessary thing to do.

Other than writing down the average cost of four tanks of gas and four trips to the grocery store each month, budgeting is an exercise in telling yourself “No.”

Should I get that pack of six cushy dishcloths? I mean, I only have one back at the apartment, and these are on sale! (Says the budget-breaking devil on the left shoulder.)

No, the one old dishcloth you have is enough because don’t wash dishes very often as it is (can anyone say dishwasher?) and you make sure to throw the darn thing in the laundry every single week. (Says the budget guardian angel, whose name is definitely not as cool as Clarence, and who definitely doesn’t yet have his wings.)

Should I let my friend talk me into splitting the $32 pitcher of beer or the $24 bottle of wine? The expensive beer is a hefeweisen, I love those! And if I buy the expensive wine, maybe it won’t give me such a hangover …

No, the $20 pitcher is also a wheat beer, it just doesn’t sound so foreign and German and cool. And the $10 bottle of wine will do just fine, you’re only drinking a glass or two of it anyway.

The battle between the budget-breaking devil and the budget guardian angel keeps waging all month, and most of the time, it sounds the same. Anything extravagant, expensive or the least bit unnecessary is considered, maybe even dreamt about, but denied.

And then it’s the 30th of the month, and the numbers are looking good, and the pressure’s on … And then, what’s this orange thing on my windshield? And why am I the only car parked on this block?

Dangit. Street cleaning. Dangit.

That’ll be $50, says the city of Chicago, and we have photographic evidence to prove you were forgetful and left your car here during the street cleaning hours that were posted with an obnoxious orange sign.

Should I really pay this? I ask myself, waiting for my dueling budget influences to weigh in. But the battle’s different this time.

In the interest of saving money, the budget guardian angel tries to get me to ignore the ticket. You won’t get another one, they’ll never bother to boot your car for one lame street cleaning ticket, and you park in a different spot every day, so no one will even notice, blah, blah, blah.

And on the other shoulder, the high-rolling, budget-breaking devil is advising me, as always, to just spend the money already. Just pay up. You made a mistake, you were too sleep-deprived to remember you wouldn’t be moving your car before street sweeping hours began, and you’ll make sure that doesn’t happen again. Just pay this one little ticket, wipe your record clean, and move on – no worries.

I did the bad thing, budget-wise, and paid up. Something about the budget guardian angel’s advice on this one just didn’t sit right with the paranoid part of me, the part that worries one ticket can somehow lead to another, or worse, to getting towed.

I told you the budget guardian angel doesn’t yet have his wings. And advice like that is the reason why.

Budgeting isn’t always a battle of good vs evil, want vs need. It’s not always that simple. Sometimes what you really need is expensive, and for no good reason. And whenever you’d like to talk yourself out of a major expense, or even a relatively minor one, those are the times you’re better off paying up.

It’s a paradox, alright. But twenty-something life is all about contradictions. We’re young in the career world, but when we do things like make a budget – or better yet, come in under budget – we know we’ve certainly reached at least some kind of adulthood. And both our budget influences can agree on that.


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You know you’ve reached adulthood when … You’re a Career Day speaker

A certain phase of the school year rolls around each spring.

Those standardized tests are finally over with and teachers might be, whether they admit it or not, a little tired of teaching. Students are, as they often complain, counting down so excitedly for summer that it can’t possibly come soon enough.

So where do us twenty-somethings and non-teachers fit in?

Sometimes, we’re Career Day speakers.

Career Day is one of the lovely events that saves antsy students and from the usual cycle of classes and homework. Kids’ attention spans and school hours limit Career Days to only so many speakers, so when you’re one of them, you know you’ve officially reached adulthood. You’ve made it. Your job is for real.

The same goes for getting invited back to your alma mater – your college alma mater, that is – to speak about “how I got my first job.”

You may be tempted to find the one or two friends you still have on campus and get college-drunk, but something – probably the free pizza the career advisor will be buying you and the other alums after the event – reminds you you’re not on campus to drink.

You’re there to be the one giving advice instead of receiving it for once. That, in itself, is super-adult.

Now, what on earth do you say?

You might have a job worthy of Career Day, but that doesn’t mean that job – or your life, or your finances, or your mindset as an adult – feels worthy of the designation.

So do you talk about that? That paradox of adult actions and non-adult thoughts?

At Career Day for fifth graders, obviously not. They wouldn’t really grasp the concept, anyway.

At a job seminar for college students majoring in the same field you did, probably not either. It’ll be relevant to their life soon enough, but the task of finding a job is so overwhelming that any advice about life after landing that job will probably go in one ear and right out the other.

Soon enough, college seniors will soon join the ranks of us twenty-somethings who are busy doing very adult things like renting apartments, buying cars, holding down jobs and gaining new responsibilities – but not feeling instantly changed or “grown up” as people.

It’s a paradox, but I’d say the paradox is, in itself, the answer. We’re adults in many of our actions and responsibilities, but that doesn’t always mean we’ll feel like adults. The glorious thing is, at this age, that’s quite OK.

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Changing the world, one twenty-something at a time

“Don’t write only about booze and boys,” one friend advised me when I started writing this column.

Tackle the bigger issues, too, was her advice.

How can we learn to treat each other better? What should we be trying to accomplish in our twenties? And can twenty-somethings change the world?

I’ve puzzled over that last one – not because I don’t know the answer, but because I didn’t know how to explain it, didn’t have a story about it. Of course twenty-somethings can change the world … but how?

Enter Matt Bogusz, a 26-year-old who was elected a week ago today as mayor of Des Plaines.

That’s right, he’s in his twenties, and in less than a month, he’ll be leading a city of 59,000 people with a budget of $125 million.

Immediately, my paper ran headlines marveling over his youth. We watched readers by the thousands click on stories about Bogusz’s win, likely shocked that someone half the age of most suburban mayors would even want to lead his hometown, much less actually win election.

Just as quickly, I sensed the kind of unfortunate ageism newspapers have no choice but to perpetuate. By definition, we write about things that are out of the ordinary, strange, unusual – news. And there’s no denying it – a 26-year-old mayor is uncommon. Still, that value judgment can be frustrating when something as arbitrary as someone’s age makes them more newsworthy than they otherwise would be.

We didn’t write stories highlighting the fact the newly elected mayor of Lombard is 51 (see, I told you lots of mayors are practically double Bogusz’s age), and in a good number of our election-night stories, we didn’t even mention the new mayor’s age.

While I’ve obviously got a gripe about the abnormal amount of attention being paid to Bogusz’s age, I also see it as an opportunity for him, and an example of how twenty-somethings can, in fact, change the world.

Starting his term, Bogusz may encounter many who see only a number – 26 – and discount his leadership abilities, his intelligence or his political savvy.

But through his actions, he can change those perceptions. Through his actions, he can change Des Plaines. And through his actions, he can change the world.

If Bogusz proves he can manage a city council and build consensus, handle community problems and keep building a positive image for Des Plaines, he’ll change a lot of things at once – not least among them, people’s minds.

This guy is soon to be a mayor. Most of us twenty-somethings don’t find ourselves in that exact situation. But that doesn’t leave us with any less ability to change everything from our own negative thought patterns to the lack of bike lanes on our neighborhood streets to the suffering of natural disaster survivors across the globe.

As twenty-somethings, and any time really, these are only a few of the things we can change: Our jobs; our habits, our bodies. Our clothes, our cars, our cares. Our grudges. Our physical locations. Our preconceived notions. And most importantly our minds.

If we can change all of that (and more), there’s no doubt we can change the world.

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A time to determine what’s within us

In our twenties, a lot is expected of us.

We’re supposed to be hip, happy and employed; independent, responsible, and pretty much every other positive attribute, too, so I’ll let you fill in the ________.

I would fill it in with “adaptable.”

For our jobs, we’re supposed to be dependable, hardworking and flexible, willing to change our schedules at any time, as if our personal lives don’t matter.

After all, a lot of us don’t have kids, so we couldn’t possibly have anything important to do after work, could we? Our time doesn’t really matter – or at least that’s the unfortunate impression some of our bosses give us a little too often.

It can get depressing, demeaning.

But it’s all part of our age bracket and something we have to overcome.

Triumphing over workplace adversity is part of what’s expected of us twenty-somethings, so we can’t let the overwhelming demands of our jobs get us down.

Not for long, at least.

Times like these – when our work assignments shift with the wind and we’re expected to adjust just as quickly, handling the extra things as well as our real work – call for all the determination and willpower that helped us get through college and to our twenties in the first place.

So it’s time to dig in and call on all the good attributes we actually want to have – not the ones our bosses, parents, co-workers, friends or boyfriend/girlfriend/partners try to impose upon us.

When people in power give us an unreasonable amount of work, how do we want to handle it? Do we want to be resilient, enthusiastic and optimistic, doing the tasks to the best of our ability and trusting it will be enough? Or do we want to be angry and stuck in our own bad mood, where eventually the situation will become worse in our heads than it is in reality?

It’s up to us – not our bosses, parents or anyone else – just us.

Within the stress of the unrealistic expectations we’re forced to deal with during this phase of our lives, the silver lining is the fact our responses are truly up to us. Realizing we determine our reactions proves we are responsible, resilient, active, fun-loving, healthy, happy – everything we want to be.

Not because others require it of us, but because it really is within us.

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A new apartment and a gas scare that wasn’t

I learned at least these two facts from moving into an apartment in the city a year ago this week. 1) Not every beeping alarm means you need to panic. 2) Carbon monoxide detectors make two distinct sounds – one that means “Get out! There’s deadly stuff in the air!” and another that means, “So, my battery’s dead. You should fix that.”

How I learned these things might just be more interesting than the facts themselves. It happened in the story of a slightly excitable twenty-something enduring a hazardous gas scare that wasn’t.

So it’s a year ago and I’m excited to live in Chicago for the first time. I brought the big items with my parents the day before, and I’m about to enter my new apartment alone and officially move in.

The keys work and everything’s good, but soon I’m noticing an occasional beep. Moments later, the worrying sets in, and moving clothes into the bedroom falls to the wayside in favor of figuring out what the heck is beeping.

When the carbon monoxide detector becomes the obvious culprit, I … well … panic a bit and start worrying there might be deadly gas in the apartment, however unlikely that seems.

I quickly scan for the brand of the detector and leave the building, laptop in tow, planning to do some research on the device right away.

It should be noted, my laptop is from 2006. It’s still chugging along nicely, but it’s like a person and needs 10 to 20 minutes to wake up before being expected to do anything productive. I didn’t think waiting 10 to 20 minutes was a good plan when the possible presence of a deadly gas was in question.

As I ran through my phone’s address book in my head, I purposely avoided my parents. I’d just moved out of their care/watch/home an hour ago, so I wasn’t going to run right back to them with what seemed like a mini-crisis.

My sister, though, stood out as the perfect person to call. A college nursing student with no classes on Mondays or Tuesdays, I knew if she was awake, she’d be by a computer and able to Google the stupid beeping alarm thingy way quicker than I could.

Amy picking up was the best luck I could have had. She read online that detectors usually beep not only when something’s horribly wrong, but also when their batteries are dead or dying. (Apparently this is widely known, but I must have missed that page in the common sense handbook.)

With Amy on the phone and her boyfriend poised to dial 911 if I stopped talking for any length of time, I gained the confidence to go back into the apartment/deadly gas zone to scope it out some more.

Unplugging the annoyingly beeping device, I read on the back a description of its alarm sound patterns. The “panic” alarm would sound four times in a row, every five seconds, if carbon monoxide actually was in the air.

That wasn’t what I was hearing. Phew!

The dead battery alarm, however, would beep once every 25 to 30 seconds. Loudly. Occasionally, not quite sporadic and not quite perfectly timed, but certainly headache-inducing. Ugh.

Surviving the deadly gas scare that wasn’t probably took less than a half hour. When it was over, I took a few deep breaths, continued unpacking and waited for delivery of my bed – pretty standard move-in activities.

In hindsight, I can offer this much advice to anyone moving into a new apartment: 1) Be prepared to be confused by everything, from the CO2 detector, toaster-oven, furnace filter and vacuum bag to the laundry machine, coffee maker and mailbox key. 2) Try your best not to panic. And then live apartment life to the fullest.

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