Money talk: finances as an older single woman

I’ve decided to write more about money this year, so let’s kick this off by setting the stage and outlining some key facts about me.

  • I’m 50 years old.
  • I’m single. I was married, but divorced nine years ago.
  • I have no children, and my only current dependents are a fish and an elderly dog.
  • I’m entirely self-supporting; I don’t receive or pay alimony, or have access to family money.
  • I’m not a financial planner, nor do I work in financial services. I’m not a “money expert.”

In the personal finance and money blogosphere, there aren’t many single women aged 40+ who are writing. I can think of only two: Donna Freedman at Surviving and Thriving, and Funny About Money.

While I don’t consider this a personal finance blog, money — making it and managing it — is something that I’m always trying to learn more about, and I find value reading the personal stories, opinions, and research that is shared via blogs. So, here I am perpetuating that approach with my own personal slant.

My money goals are as follows:

  • Generate enough income to pay for my basic expenses of housing, food, and personal care;
  • Maintain a generous emergency fund;
  • Save enough to support my future self during retirement, or when I’m no longer able to work full-time;
  • Support my animal dependents;
  • Have some extra funds for fun stuff and luxuries like vacations and fancy meals.

Those are just the basics for now. Off the top of my head, I’m planning to write posts about income generation, my savings and strategy, and lifestyle choices that impact my budget. I also occasionally add tweets to the #1GoodMoneyThing topic started by Revanche at A Gai Shan Life.

Are there other topics you think I should explore? Do you know of any other older single women writing about how they handle money (such as saving and investing, budgeting, etc.)? If so, please add to the comments.

Happy New Year!

Advertisements

Friends, family, and feelings

When I started writing this post yesterday it was a recounting of a friendship that is no more. It opened with details about how we became friends, some things we had done together, and then moved into my slowly dawning realization that the friendship was over. For whatever reasons, my former friend ended our relationship this year by ghosting me.

The loss of this friendship has been in my mind a lot lately for various reasons. I feel sad about it, and even shed some tears on Christmas Day. But I had to stop writing to get to an appointment, and when I returned home I had other things to do. Instead of writing, I thought more about the situation as I did my chores, and I’m glad I did.

Because as I reflected more on what I was feeling, I realized my sadness was about more than just losing one friend: it was about feeling rejected and unloved by other people, in general.

It was about how my mother never wants to spend more than two minutes on the phone with me.

It was about not being able to reach my father on the phone so I could wish him Merry Christmas.

It was about realizing that the attractive bartender that I had met a few weeks ago wasn’t interested in me, just being flirty because that was his way of relating.

It was about feeling unattractive and unlovable with my wonky eye and overweight body.

It was about feeling unwanted and unappreciated in my current work group.

It was about dealing with the slow decline of my beloved dog’s health and the fear that I would be losing her — my one constant companion who showers me with unconditional love — soon.

I’m glad that I didn’t finish the first version of this post and that I was able to figure out what was really going on in my head. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to the point where I don’t feel unlovable, but I try to remind myself that isn’t a sweeping generalization.

After all, I was welcomed to a warm and festive family dinner and gathering on Christmas Day with a former neighbor and friend. Last night I attended the annual Boxing Day party thrown by another former neighbor and friend. And tonight I will be visiting with yet another friend and enjoying a delicious meal in her home.

There are people who like me and value me, and I just need to focus on them and not dwell on loss and pain. I’m working on it, and that’s a good thing.

Money talk: bank fees and property taxes

Way back in 2009 I started reading personal finance blogs. I had just gone through a divorce and was anxious about my ability to pay a mortgage and all the bills by myself. It was through the comments of some of those blogs that I first “met” people who I regularly converse with via their blogs and Twitter (like Revanche of A Gai Shan Life and nicoleandmaggie of Grumpy Rumblings.)

I dabbled with writing about my own experiences with money, budgeting, etc, but I never tried to remake this, my personal blog, as a “personal finance” blog. Money — how to manage it, increase my income, and minimize mistakes — has been weighing on my mind a lot lately, though. I’m not sure if I’ll start writing more about money topics yet, but today I want to write about some of the money topics that have been occupying my thoughts.

As noted in my last post, this has been an expensive year for me. I expect some of that money to make its way back to me, but it looks like the bulk of it won’t get into my accounts until January at the earliest. Yesterday I received the additional refund check from the State of California and deposited it in my checking account; dare I hope to receive the federal refund check before end of year? Only time will tell.

Usually I put deposits like this into one of my savings accounts (yes, I have several and I could certainly write about them another time), but I learned the hard way last month that I hadn’t been padding out my checking account enough for unexpected little hits, so I’m trying to rectify that. What happened? Well, due to my habit of keeping a minimum of funds in my checking account and poor planning, I triggered an “excessive transactions fee” in my main savings account. Ugh. That was $10 I really didn’t want to lose.

Here’s how it happened: one of my savings accounts is my “general fund.” I have my paycheck direct deposit go into this account. About once a month I tally up my variable bills — PG&E, and the various cash back credit cards I use — and transfer funds from my “general fund” to my checking account to pay those bills. I also transfer a little bit extra so I can withdraw cash now and then for some things. There is a separate recurring transfer every month from this “general fund” to checking to cover my automated mortgage payment. And I have a recurring transfer from the “general fund” to another savings account that I use to save for annual expenses, like my property taxes and LTC insurance premium. So, if you’re following along, that means that I regularly have at least 3 transfers a month from this “general fund” account.

Occasionally there is an unexpected expense I need to cover, though, like checks I have to write for home repairs. I then have to assess how much extra I have in the checking account and transfer extra funds to cover any checks that haven’t been planned for. I also have this “general fund” account set as the overdraft protection fund for my checking account.

Last month, I had a “perfect storm” of events that tipped me over the withdrawal limit and led to the “excessive transactions fee.” Because my LTC insurance premium (which is set to be withdrawn from my “general fund” account automatically) was due, I had 4 qualifying withdrawals/transfers just to cover my planned bills that month. I also had to transfer some extra money to cover a payment to a tradesman to fix my heater, bringing me up to 5 withdrawals. Then, I ended up writing two more checks to another tradesman when the first one didn’t fix the problem. The padding in my checking account wasn’t enough to cover these additional checks, and I triggered the overdraft process, not just once, but twice by the time I thought to check my account balance. Damn.

Well, next year the LTC insurance payment will be handled a different way, so I won’t repeat that scenario again. And, I’ll put some thought into how to handle my monthly bills in a more efficient manner, too.

I’ll be ending this year with another big payout by pre-paying the second installment of my property taxes. The payment isn’t due until February 1, 2018, but with the new tax law taking effect on January 1, I will no longer be able to deduct the full amount of my property taxes + state income taxes, as they exceed the $10,000 limit. That should give me an even fatter tax refund in 2018, although it doesn’t bode well for tax refunds in 2018 and beyond.

Overall, I’m really glad that my December 29 paycheck is going to be my third paycheck this month, making it an “extra” one that isn’t part of my normal budgeting process. Here’s to hoping 2018 will be a strong financial year for me!

Are there any end of year money moves you’re making? Any other financial things I should consider before 2017 is over?

Rays of sunshine

This has been one doozy of a year. It’s been stressful, expensive, and has triggered my anxiety big time. But, I feel like at this back-end of the year I’m experiencing some good things.

Pets

Hannah dog is recuperating from her health crisis. I had to stop all of the supplements and herbs that had been helping her arthritis pain, and that is apparent. However, she is eating and drinking again and keeping it all down, her potty habits are normal again, and after several trips to the vet for fluid therapy, she no longer shows signs of elevated bilirubin in her urine. She even shows interest in play, and still gets excited when I bring out the leash. I’m relieved and thankful that my online and IRL friends were so supportive to us during a difficult time.

Money

Oh my has this been an expensive year! I had to pay for my first eye surgery out-of-pocket in full, install a system of french drains and a sump pump around my foundation, and pay a lot in vet bills this year. There were also a few more typical home repair expenses/glitches that needed to be addressed, and I bought new tires for my car. My savings account is depleted, and it was hard to watch all that money fly out of it.

But some of that money is starting to wing its way back to me. After submitting the claim for the July eye surgery to the insurance company again, they actually paid for it! The eye surgery center sent the claim, so I will have to talk to them about getting a reimbursement for the money I already paid them. (And I still got to keep the cash rewards from the credit card company!) I’m also submitting the receipts for the post-op medications, since they had initially refused to cover it. I’m hoping to get a check for that before the end of the year.

Also, I will be getting some additional money from the IRS and State of California. Way back in the spring when I was doing a final review of my tax forms, I realized that I had forgotten to include my 2016 property taxes on the forms I sent to my tax preparer. When I contacted him about needing to correct this, he suggested that we file anyway since we were close to the deadline, and then do an amended return later in the year. I tried to get the amended return prepared as early as June, but he wasn’t responding to me. It took a lot of persistent follow-up, but I finally got the amended return a few weeks ago and mailed it off. (Yes, I will be looking for a new tax person to work with; that I had to follow-up at least 6 times via email and phone to get this addressed is unacceptable.)

This month I will get three paychecks instead of two. This happens at least once, and sometimes twice a year because I’m paid every two weeks. Since my budget is based on two paychecks a month, that third one is a welcome “bonus.” I could have used it to replenish my savings account, but instead I decided to use most of it to pay my future self and withheld about 35% to my standard 401(k) as a catch up contribution. I’m making a note to adjust my withholding again in a couple of weeks, because I want that large amount to be a one-time thing. Going forward, I’ll drop that amount to the single digits.

The balance of that paycheck can then be used to pay back savings account, and also to make some charitable contributions. I try to be generous with my contributions, but this year has been tough. Right now I’m mostly giving via auto-billing to a few charities, but not nearly as much as I have in past years.

Relationships

There has been a huge positive development in my relationship with my sister. She had surgery last week, and I was helping her out in various ways. Her husband had to be out-of-town for business during this time, so I stepped in to take her to the surgery center and pick her up. I’ve stopped by the house to help with a few chores, checked on her throughout the days, and run a few errands for her, too. Her recuperation period has led her to a new understanding of what I’ve had to go through with my various surgeries. Yesterday, as I dropped off some groceries at her house she got tearful and thanked me for helping her so much. She said she didn’t think she had been very kind to me after my surgeries and she apologized. Wow. That felt really good. I was gracious in accepting her apology and thanked her for it. There’s still hope for a better relationship here.

 

Staring down the inevitable?

For the past week my beloved dog, Hannah, has been very ill. The onset was sudden. Last Monday she had her acupuncture treatment and all seemed well. Very early Tuesday morning, I was awakened by the sound of her vomiting in the corner of the bedroom. From there, we have had trips to veterinarians nearly every day.

Her usual vet didn’t seem too concerned when I brought Hannah in on Tuesday afternoon. Hannah had been refusing food all day, yet took the small treat the vet gave her. “Let’s wait and see how she is tomorrow,” the vet suggested. That night, when Hannah started shivering, I couldn’t rest easy. I knew there was something going on with her, so I bundled her up and took her to the emergency clinic.

At the animal ER, her exam was unremarkable, but they did offer to take blood and run some tests, and I agreed. The results showed all her liver health values were much too high. Her ALT level, which we’ve been monitoring for about two years now, was over 4,000. (A normal level is under 100, and at her last check the previous week the value was 280). The ER vet told me that Hannah needed an ultrasound, and that I should check in with the regular vet the next day.

As soon as the clinic opened on Wednesday, I called and was connected with the vet right away. She told me that they did not have the correct personnel to do the ultrasound that day, and that it sounded like Hannah needed hospitalization with round the clock observation. I had two options to consider: taking her to UC Davis, or taking her to a pet emergency and acute care center in the opposite direction. The vet recommended the Pet Emergency & Specialty Center of Marin in San Rafael, so that’s where we went.

Traffic was light, so it only took 40 minutes to get to San Rafael from Napa. When we arrived they were ready for us, as my vet had phoned ahead and provided all the necessary information. I had to leave Hannah there so they could run new blood work, do the ultrasound, and give her IV fluids and antibiotics. The vet thought it safest to assume Hannah had an infection, and the hope was that she could be released the next day, on Thanksgiving.

I should have been working that Wednesday and preparing dessert for the Thanksgiving feast I was invited to the next day. But I couldn’t do either of those things. I stopped to talk and cry with a friend on my way back from San Rafael, I texted others, and I asked friends on social media for their good wishes.

Thanksgiving morning I got a call from PESCM that she was doing well. She had eaten some food, and they were going to try giving her antibiotics orally. They thought she could go home later that morning. It seemed fitting that on Thanksgiving — a day set aside for celebrating our blessings and bounty — I got to pick up my precious dog, my boon companion. Hannah was eager to be out of that place, too!

We had a pleasant ride home, and after we got inside the house she headed straight for her water bowl and drank quite a bit of it. I headed for the bathroom, and when I came out I saw that she had not held down much of the water she drank. I called PESCM back to report the problem, and the vet said that her nausea meds had probably worn off. She said that if I brought Hannah back she could get an injection of the nausea med, and they would give me some tablets to give her at home. I decided to wait a few more hours to see if the problem passed, and prepared to go to the Thanksgiving dinner with friends.

In the late afternoon, when Hannah was still refusing to eat or drink anything, I put her back in the car and made the round trip to San Rafael and back. She was given her nausea med via injection, and I also got the tablets to take home and give her orally.

We managed to get through Friday without a trip to the vet, even though it was clear that the nausea med wasn’t helping as long as it was supposed to. The med is supposed to work for 24 hours, but she was showing signs that all was not well after only 14 hours. I needed to give her antibiotics with food, so this was a problem. I gave her the nausea med early a few times so I could get her to keep some fluids and food in her system and give her the antibiotics. Then, first thing Saturday morning when her regular vet was open I called for a same day appointment.

Yesterday the vet we saw (not her regular one) prescribed yet another nausea med for her to take in addition to the other one. She loaded Hannah up with fluids, and told me to bring her back this morning (Sunday) for more fluids and an injection of nausea meds.

Today I’m cautiously optimistic that Hannah is on the mend. She managed to keep water and some food down over night and again this morning. She acted more normally last night by spending the night in her own bed instead of velcroing herself to me all night. (Not that I mind her being close to me; it’s just not her normal routine.) And while she has still been sleeping a lot and generally low energy, she doesn’t seem quite as lethargic as she was.

Throughout this entire experience, I’ve been worried that this is it: the end of our time together. She is nearly 15, which is more than 80 years old in human years. When I start thinking/saying, “I’m not ready to let her go,” I quickly correct myself because this decision shouldn’t be about *my* needs, but instead her comfort and quality of life.

I’m not sure if she will fully recover from this or not. For now, she seems comfortable enough and ready to keep chugging along. So despite how horribly expensive this has been (we’re roughly up to $2,300 in vet bills from the past week alone), I’m not going to give up yet. But I have to get myself comfortable with the fact that she is likely nearing the end of her time.

My toddler brain

I’ve started to think of that part of my mind that stubbornly wants to make life according to my plans and desires as my “toddler brain.” Time and time again I’ve had to push past the “toddler brain” stage, to accept my life as it is and learn to deal with it from a place of reality.

When I went back for another glaucoma surgery in late September I had planned for my recovery stage to progress like the it did for the July procedure. That was not to be. The day after surgery when my bandage was removed I was horrified and shocked to see myself in the mirror. I looked like I had been beaten up. There was a lot of bruising, and my right eye was basically useless. There was only light and blurriness visible from it.

The pressure was non-existent, and that was a problem. There was a leak, which didn’t help the situation, either. The doctor prescribed eye drops that dilated the pupil in an attempt to force the pressure up and told me to return the next day. And the following business day, as well, because the situation required close monitoring.

The doctor also told me that I should plan to be out of work for a month. It’s a testament to my employer that there were no issues starting me on an unplanned medical leave of absence.

For the next few weeks I got very good at managing the public transit schedules between my home in Napa and the doctor’s office in San Francisco. Except for my unplanned drive into San Francisco to escape the wildfires in the area, I minimized my driving as much as possible because my vision was so poor.

It took about two weeks for the leak to heal and the pressure in my eye to elevate enough that the doctor told me I could stop the drops to dilate my pupil. He said it should take two more weeks for the affect to wear off and for my pupil to react normally. After three weeks, we gave up waiting.

So, here I am again at a point where I need to decide if I should have yet another procedure to try to fix my pupil. I’m now using drops to contract the pupil. That makes the vision better, but it’s still not that great.

I have a bunch of questions for the doctor, but I just couldn’t ask them during that visit. I was upset and crying. I told the doctor how I frustrated I was, though. That I had agreed to the surgeries to preserve my vision, but that it seemed worse now than before the surgery. He pointed out that my eye pressure was stabilized within the normal range without the help of any eye drops. I guess that’s supposed to be the mark of success.

The doctor told me that it should be OK for me to get new corrective lenses, so I made an appointment at the optometrist and started that process. The optometrist tried to find something that would work for my right eye, but he noted that with my pupil being distorted from the surgery, it was very challenging to correct. At least I’ll be getting a correction for my left lens, which will help me with my driving.

I started back to work last week. My anxiety meds are helping me deal with this potent combination of anger, grief, disappointment, and frustration, but it’s still been a challenge. That toddler brain starts kicking and screaming, insisting that this isn’t fair, and that somehow it should be made better. I wonder when it will stop.

Smoke and ashes

I’m OK. My house is OK. My dog is OK.

The wildfires that blazed through Napa County didn’t destroy any property within the city limits, although we had horrible air quality for many days. The smoke was so thick in the air at times that it was hard to see houses a block away. Schools closed. People were urged to stay indoors and to don N-97 masks when they absolutely must go out. On local social media sites like Nextdoor.com people provided updates on where one could buy masks and listen to the scanners to get real-time updates on the fire-fighting activity.

Cell towers were knocked out for most major carriers, and coverage was spotty or non-existent. With power out in some parts of the city of Napa, the only way people could get updates was to tune into the local radio station.

I never lost power, but I had no mobile coverage for several days. Since I stayed in the house, I was able to use wi-fi to make calls to worried friends and check on neighbors. Days and nights were punctuated by Nixle text alerts about road closures, mandatory and advisory evacuations, power outages, and the location of emergency shelters.

My car and everything in my yard was covered in ash. My little house is located at a low point, but friends with two-story houses or those at just on slight rises posted photos of the fires burning in the mountains at night.

Neighbors and strangers were helpful and kind to each other. When I asked about getting an N-97 mask on Nextdoor.com, a guy I had never met dropped two off for me for free. People volunteered at the shelters for people and pets. The local hotels offered stripped down prices to local residents who had to evacuate, yet had the means to pay something for a place to stay.

I was lucky to have friends in San Francisco and other areas outside the fire zone. When I found myself coughing even inside my closed up house, I took up a friend on his offer to stay at his house in San Francisco. I quickly packed Hannah dog and some necessities in the car and set off through the burned landscape. I returned home a few days later, after the winds had shifted to blow some smoke out of the valley.

The fires are mostly contained now, and there are signs all over town thanking the first responders. People see fire-fighters at local restaurants and stop to thank them personally. Many times the tab is paid, too. The fair grounds are still full of tents, trailers, and off duty fire trucks from other counties and states.

Schools are starting again on Monday, and the local visitors associations are urging tourists to come back. Locals are getting back to work, if they can.

The landscape will be very different for years to come. A favorite local hiking place only a few minutes from my house will be closed for months.

But so many people are not OK, and I’m grateful that I am.