Saturday, July 30, 2011

Living with a Food Allergy

Growing up, I never had allergies.  Maybe a little ragweed reaction in the summertime, a sniffly nose during harvest, but no foods to stay away from and no pills to take.  

But 2008 arrived and that all changed.  It only took me a year to figure out that I had developed an oat intolerance.

Oh yes, this gut-friendly grain wreaks absolutely havoc on my digestive system.  

The crazy thing, granola bars and oats in pancakes were a STAPLE growing up as a kid, so it's not like I didn't eat a million of these things over my life.

It all started on a trip to Louisiana and an awful stomach ache on the way home.  It was like there was a ton of gas trapped in my system and it was building and not going anywhere.  There was so much pressure I could barely eat anything beyond a granola bar - ironic that I was eating the very thing that was putting me in so much pain. 

The problem continued sporadically, but another trip to New Orleans the following year revealed even more issues.  I kept thinking, "what kind of water do they have in this state?!?"

But it didn't go away upon returning.  At the time, I was teaching on overload and thought maybe stress was getting to me - developing a "nervous" stomach was my body's way of telling me things were out of balance. 

I spent much of a year looking like this (source)
It then occurred to me that something I might be ingesting was doing the damage.  I have several friends who were lactose-intolerant and I had just learned about gluten sensitivities.  Without insurance, I decided to do my own detective work.  I set up two-week schedules and eliminated suspect foods - first dairy, then wheat. 

Dairy didn't reveal anything and cutting out wheat was only partially successful.  I think it dawned on me after taking one bite of oatmeal and being in pain that oats, not wheat, could be the culprit. 

Two weeks after avoiding oats, I was discomfort-free until I ate one forkful of apple crisp with an oatmeal topping.  Back to square one but food irritant confirmed.

Since then, it's been pretty easy to avoid oats.  You read labels - the end.  I've found I need to stay clear of:
  • Any version of oats, including whole, rolled, flour, fiber, and bran
  • "Multigrain" is highly suspect
  • Cereals can be disastrous (I'm looking at you Cheerios)
  • Any product by Kashi (which I loved) is a no go
  • Bread products need to be scrutinized, increasingly tortillas and flat bread
  • Recent oat infiltrations - pasta, tortilla chips, and bread crumbs
I honestly feel very lucky that this problem isn't more severe.  I cannot imagine eliminating dairy, or gluten, or both.  I know two people who have corn allergies - can you imagine?! <shudders>

And to be clear, despite that I used it in the title, my oat issue isn't an allergy but an intolerance.  An allergy would mean I'd get hives or would swell up when eating them, but that's not the case and I can use oat lotion/soap without problems.  This is purely a digestive issue, though people understand "allergy" better than "intolerance."

The most wretched thing about oats is how long my system is messed up after eating them.  There is the initial GI tract complications for several days, but the lasting problem is severe dehydration.  It takes weeks to correct and in the meantime, I make poor food choices when all I'm craving is salt.  

I've done some research and an oat intolerance doesn't seem to be a common issue.  There's not much information out there on why it occurs or what changes in the body when oats enter.  All I know is that my reaction to oats is very similar to those who can't eat gluten - I just have an easier time avoiding it.

Do you have a food sensitivity - what is the cost of living with one?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How Osama bin Laden Saved My Finances

Kapow!  Kablam!  Splat!


Those are the sounds of our debt being slashed, cut down, and eliminated.

And I have Osama bin Laden to thank for it. 

Let me explain.
The original reason Mike was called up on orders is because base security was raised after the bin Laden incident – just a precautionary move. The base couldn’t staff this required manning solely with area Guard members, hence a phone call to Mike.

So Mike has been on full orders for the military the last two months, all because we finally caught International Terrorist Numero Uno. 

That’s a full-time job that just landed in his lap. Which translates to a windfall in monthly income. All of a sudden, we had a surplus of several thousand dollars.
We resolved from the get-go to take that money and B-E AGGRESSIVE with our debt. No crazy purchases or shopping sprees here.
So far, we’ve paid off these accounts IN FULL:

·        KAPOW!  Leftover personal loan from February - $500     

·        BAM!  Credit union credit card - $400                           

·        KABLOOIE!  Bank credit card - $850

·        THAWP!  Firestone account - $1300

It makes me giddy to know we have eliminated 4 monthly payments - over $3,000 of debt that’s gone.  That’s huge!  That frees up around $200 in payments each month.   

We’re also taking out sizable chunks of our Furniture Row account. Even though there’s no interest and the monthly payment is $45, it’s still another obligation. We now have the balance under $1000 thanks to a recent $400 payment.

One of my other goals with our surplus was to close some of these accounts once they were paid off – you know, remove the temptation. I learned, however, that closing a credit line can actually HURT your credit score.
Believe it or not, your credit score can take a ding if you close out your oldest lines of credit. For example, I have a card leftover from a bank we’re no longer with. I thought because it's orphaned and has a high interest rate (14%+), that it would be good to cut it up.

Wrong!  Because that account has been open for over 8 years, it’s actually my oldest line of credit. I don’t fully understand the logic of it all, but it would be detrimental to close it. So it’s been designated the “god-forbid-we-have-a-$2,000-emergency” or “Jennie’s-traveling-for-work” card and is safely residing in the lock box.

We also added Mike to our credit union card. Without trying to embarrass the poor guy, I have a credit score 100 points higher than his, mostly because all of our bills are in my name. So we’re trying to bump his up by getting his name on a few more well-managed accounts.

This is the same reason we’re not closing out the Firestone card, as it’s solely in his name. It’s also very good for emergency repairs, which we all know how disastrous those can be on a budget.

As successful as this round of debt slashing has been, we only eliminated 40% of our credit card debt.  Mike has a card with 4 grand on it that needs some serious attention. That’s not comfortable at all to have hanging over our heads, but we knew this would be the year we cleaned up our credit card act. 

At some point in the future, we’d like to be as “off grid” as possible with credit cards. We learned some hard lessons in our early days and still  worry about our dependence on them when our income situation gets fouled up. But it’s an ongoing process to live  responsibly within your means.

There’s no one way of driving down debt. The best advice I can give is to just tackle it with as much force as you can muster, even if that’s $25. Make peace with your debt and own it before it owns you.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Netflix Drama

By now you've undoubtably heard or been affected by the Netflix plan hike. In essense, they separated their streaming and DVDs into two plans and raised prices for both.

Here's the email I got earlier this week:

We are separating unlimited DVDs by mail and unlimited streaming into two separate plans to better reflect the costs of each. Now our members have a choice: a streaming only plan, a DVD only plan, or both.

Your current $14.99 a month membership for unlimited streaming and unlimited DVDs will be split into 2 distinct plans:

Plan 1: Unlimited Streaming (no DVDs) for $7.99 a month
Plan 2: Unlimited DVDs, 2 out at-a-time (no streaming) for $11.99 a month

Your price for getting both of these plans will be $19.98 a month ($7.99 + $11.99). You don't need to do anything to continue your memberships for both unlimited streaming and unlimited DVDs.

These prices will start for charges on or after September 1, 2011.

You can easily change or cancel your unlimited streaming plan, unlimited DVD plan, or both, by going to the Plan Change page in Your Account.

We realize you have many choices for home entertainment, and we thank you for your business. As always, if you have questions, please feel free to call us at 1-888-357-1516.

–The Netflix Team

There are a lot of people utterly rankled by this price increase.  I have a couple theories on why this is:
  • In this economy, people are holding litte luxuries even nearer and dearer to their hearts than in previous years. A $5 increase on something that's already "an extra" is too great a hit for some.  And it feels personal, no less, because we've cut and cut and cut - where does it end?
  • There is mounting frustration that our goodies and services are continuing to increase, but our salaries have become stagnant. Everything is getting more expensive, except we don't have room to meet those increases.
  • Not everyone has great mail or download capabilities. There are some who can barely get 1 DVD a week or streaming is a joke.  With already limited service, a price jump is laughable.

For me personally, I'm going to eat the increase.  It doesn't bother me. 

But here's the thing - we don't have cable at all.  I mean, we physically have a TV, but no plan whatsoever.  So our entertainment budget is pretty low each month - maybe $40 between Netflix, the ocassional Redbox, and whenever we make it to the theater.  And that's probably a high estimate.

I used to be a devout Family Video customer. I love walking into a video store and browsing covers. You can find the best stuff that way.  But we started to have more and more disk problems with them and their prices weren't super great for new releases. Now I have to go 20 minutes out of my way to get to a store, so that's kind of pointless.

Redbox is a nice deal for new movies and I like the price - $1 a day is great. We have one at our HyVee, which is not only 7 minutes away but along my work route. But you only have access to new releases and they rotate them out after a couple of months. I've also found that the dispenser will have a photo of a movie but it sometimes won't be available, which is very irksome when that's the only one you want.

I enjoy Netflix because of the variety they offer.  I get exposed to movies that I wouldn't before, particularly those that are hard to track down, foreign, independent, and documentaries.  It's also invaluable to me while teaching film courses (as I am right now).

If you're among those who can't stomach the increase and are mulling over dropping Netflix, here are some alternatives to consider.

Have you used any of these?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A "Princess Bride"-themed Wedding

If you're in the Midwest right now, you know Mother Nature has set the temperature to BROIL the last few days.  I hope all of you have been hunkered down indoors with your air conditioning.

I, on the hand, gleefully spent this weekend being part of a wedding.  The humidity was ridiculous, there were serious concerns about the dogs overheating, the groomsman may have gotten a bloody nose after the ceremony, and the DJ was moved indoors, but a bucketload of cupcakes seemed to pacify everyone :)

Despite the heat, I think this is the cutest wedding I've ever attended.  The couple's dogs are named Wesley and Buttercup from the "Princess Bride" and used parts of the movie for the wedding, such as their entrance music.  We even rode out on white hobby horses like in the end.

They used a lot of personal touches and did somewhat of a "shabby chic" decorating scheme.  All very low cost but completely personal.

What follows here is a photoblog of us not melting the entire time.

The reception hall
Mason jars - easy to find and easy on the pocketbook

Several guests conspired to bring these cute guys home but they were foiled by the bride
Myself, the bride, and her sister.

Pearls borrowed from grandma, hair clip found at Hobby Lobby for $2
Instead of bouquets, we had pomanders.  These were made by someone and used heirloom buttons - so cool!!!

The groomsmen - their boutonnieres were also made of the same paper flowers
Wesley the Ring Bearer

Buttercup the Flower Girl
Possibly the cutest cake topper ever amid a sea of cupcakes

One of six flavors from a local bakery - this is lemon with raspberry icing

The humidity at this point majorly interfered with breathing, despite the smile here.

Congrats and have fun on your honeymoon!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Time for Car Shopping!

The car saga continues.

What started at the end of May as a month without a car stretched into Mike being on orders through July.

Now we've learned he'll be out there until September.


Just last weekend, I went and got a rental car.  I'm now back into my summer teaching schedule and not only can I not bike home to arrive to class on time, but I also have one class an hour away.  

We knew by July 4th we were going to have to figure out the car situation.  We didn't know that because orders keep getting extended, that our plans to actually purchase a second car were going to be greatly accelerated.

Yes, that's right, we're now in the market for a car.

I had so been hoping to make one car work, but as long as the two of us are in different cities, it's just undoable. 

I had also been planning to not buy a second car until we could do so in full, no loans, all in one chunk.  Or at least had a really awesome downpayment. 

<shakes head>  Busted.

So we're off to do the next best thing: buy a used car.  No lemons please, but a real previously owned vehicle.

Here's the budget lowdown:
Price range - $4-8,000
Year - circa '05/06
Brand - Honda, Volkswagen, maybe Chevy
Type - compact, 4 doors, mpg in the high 20s, air conditioning
Downpayment - $0 (I know, I know, not ideal in the least...)

I don't want another patch car.  I want to be smart with our money and get something that isn't going to nickel and dime us to death with repairs and that will last for a good number of years.

Since Mike has the truck, this will be "my" car.  The one I take to work when I can't bike, the one we use to go grocery and Walmart shopping, the one we take to go on trips. 

It will also be the first time I've actually bought a car from a dealer. 

Yep, that's right, 27 and never really bought a car.  I had a family one during high school (a station wagon, no less, which I loved), nothing for the first 3 years of college, and then Mike's car when he was overseas.  After that was a Cadillac we purchased together through a family friend that had repair after repair.  The only vehicle I technically bought was this yellow 83 Silverado that we named Gertie for $600.

Gertie and I epically did not get along.  She was the bane of my existence but was all smooth sailing for Mike.  She had her loyalties, harumf.  Should have named her Christine (that's a Stephen King reference, if you missed it).  As an older vehicle though, she had mounting problems and wasn't good for highway travel.

At any rate, we have a proven track record with older used cars eating more money than they're worth within the first year.  Hence I find it reasonable to want to get more bang for my buck.

Yesterday, I stopped by our credit union (Veridian) and talked with a loan officer about what we could do with them.  A combination of varying credit scores and Mike's unusual salary led us to a preapproved loan for the top of our price range, 8K:

Period: 5 years
Interest: 6.49% (includes payment protection, which is optional)
Car year: 2005-2006
Monthly payment: $180

I think that's a decent starting point.  $8,000 is the absolutely max and I certainly don't want to go that high if we can find other options.  The monthly payment is of more concern to me than the interest rate and $180 was also the top of what I would want to pay.

Our next step is to start researching dealers in the area and know what's on the lot.  I have no idea what Cedar Rapids has to offer for used cars so I've got a little work ahead of me.

Mike will be coming home in a week or so for a short break before heading up to the flood front.  At that time, we'll return the rental car and add a permanent second!

What's your advice for car shopping? 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Lowering Our Utility Bill by 20%

Back in April, I wrote about our utility bill and peak hours.

Since then, we've lowered our energy usage by over 20%.

Here's what our electricity consumption has been:

May - 693 kwh / 28 days = 24.750 kwh per day
June - 681 kwh / 32 days = 21.281 kwh per day
July - 539 kwh / 30 days = 17.967 kwh per day

How'd we do it?  One simple trick.

We only ran the laundry machines and dish washer on the weekends or after 8pm during the week.


Seriously, that's it.  It's all about the peak hours, man.  Ours run from 7am-8pm, so it doesn't make sense to pay more to do laundry doing those hours when you can do it for cheaper in the evening or on weekends.

Now, this isn't a hard and fast rule.  A handful of loads totally sneak in during the day once in a while, but we still lowered our energy use by a respectable amount.

I'll be interested to see how the next few months go.  With Mike not at home all day and I only run the air for a short period at night on miserably hot days, our kilowatts should continue to fall.

The savings to our actual utility bill, however, are not so straight forward.

Read Date Total Usage
Days Billing
Average Cost
per Day
Average Use
per Day
06/11 539 $87.95 30 $2.93 17.97
05/11 681 $106.94 32 $3.34 21.28
04/11 693 $89.05 28 $3.18 24.75

What happened here is that we voluntarily changed our utility rate to be higher

You've probably picked up on our whole "Go Green" thing.  Well, Alliant (our energy company) just started a renewable energy program called Second Nature.  

You can select to have 20, 50, or 100% of your power come from renewable energy sources.  The catch is that you have to pay a slightly higher rate because harvesting clean energy is more costly (at this point in time).

I was super excited about this opportunity.  For commercial buildings, these are called Renewable Energy Credits and help a business to offset their carbon footprint.  Now it's available to the residential market.

We selected the 100% option.  As renters, we don't have the opportunity to install geothermal or throw up solar panels.  This is the easiest way for us to support clean energy.

The price tag?

A whopping $0.02 cents extra per kilowatt.

Before, we were averaging about 12.7 cents per kilowatt.  Now, it's about 15.7 cents per kilowatt.

That's why you see a jump from the April to May bills, as May was the first month with the new rate structure.

What this means is that from here on out, we'll be paying $20 extra a month to have clean energy.  

End result - we lowered our energy consumption by 20% only to raise our bill by 20%.

To some, this may seem odd to deliberately lower your usage just so you can afford to increase your bill.  But to us, it's all about the kind of impact you can make with a meager dollar.  $20, in this case.   

Would you ever volunteer to raise your energy bill to support renewable energy?