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Monthly Archives: October 2011

You Have To Arrive Early…

So, when economic times are hard, we all know things become tougher for many families. However, when lots of people who aren’t accustomed to having to ask for help or assistance suddenly drop down a few rungs on the figurative class ladder, they find themselves turning to these organizations for the first time.

Case in point: The Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army is a wonderful organization, and as anyone who’s ever been outside a store during Christmas-time and seen the volunteers with their red tins and bells may already know, they offer assistance to families in need during the holiday season. They call it their “Christmas Angels” program in most places, and they will help provide gifts (toys and sometimes clothes) for your little ones under twelve years of age, as well as a Christmas food basket that’s custom sized to the size of your family, which includes all adults and children in the household.

What you may not know is that the sign-up period for this program begins in October, and ends in the beginning of November, long before Thanksgiving, before most people are typically thinking or worrying about Christmas yet. So by the time many people realize they may need some help, it’s already too late to apply.

Then there’s the issue of those who do know. The people who take advantage of the services these charities offer every year. The “lower class” that the press loves to demonize. You know, the people so far below the poverty line that they can’t afford gifts for their children for Christmas. Many are the working poor, and many are on social services, like me. We’re all people on a tight budget to get by month to month, with little wiggle room for other expenses. Now, granted, these charities offer these programs exactly for people like this, like us, in these situations, but if you’re not a regular beneficiary of these types of services, have never used them in the past, and aren’t used to the procedures, you might be a little overwhelmed and surprised by the process.

The key lesson to be learned? (Not to mention my number one piece of advice.) You have to arrive early.

And by early, I don’t mean during the early part of the business hours, or even five or ten minutes before opening. I mean early, like door-busters or Black Friday early.

Because I currently live in an area with a large percentage of the population on fairly low to extremely low income, I knew well enough that there would be a high demand for these services. I also had the foresight to call well enough in advance inquiring about the program to find out when the signups were, even though I didn’t expect them to be as early as October. Still, I knew. I found out ahead of time.

In my town, the first day of the sign-ups was yesterday, from 1:00pm-3:45pm. I showed up at 12-noon. I had wanted to be early, but I do have infant twin boys that are still breastfeeding, so even when someone else is keeping an eye on the kids, I have to feed them first before I leave, and can only be gone a limited amount of time before I have to be back and feed them again. (I do pump and store, but they refuse to take a bottle.) This obviously limits exactly how long I can stand in line, and how early I can show up. I assumed one hour would probably be early enough to get a good spot, and hoped that after the Salvation Army offices opened, it wouldn’t take that long.

Even at noon – an hour early – there was already a decent sized line. Still, it didn’t look like it was so extensive that it couldn’t be handled within  3 hours and 45 minutes. I assumed everyone would be served and taken care of, we’d just have to wait our turn. Hopefully the office was used to this, and efficient, and would take care of everyone quickly. Many, many more people showed up and arrived after me. The line grew.

I had brought all the documents I assumed they might require, such as proof of residence, proof of income, identification, etc. They hadn’t told me over the phone exactly what to bring, so I just grabbed it all, to be on the safe side.

I waited. I talked to the people around me. I waited some more.

At 1 o’clock they opened the doors and employees started coming down the line, asking people how many children were in the household and handing out numbers. When they arrived to the person in front of me they gave her the last number and informed us (i.e. myself, and everyone else behind me) that they could only handle paperwork for 40 people that day, and that we would all have to come back the next day if we wanted to try again.

I was the 41st person in line.

It was incredibly frustrating to be so close, and yet still denied. I had just wasted over an hour with nothing to show for it. However, I now had an idea about how many people to expect the next day. I knew, that at the very least, all those behind me would probably be coming back the next day, based on all those who were turned away. In addition I assumed there would be people who would show up later that same day (who weren’t waiting in line ahead of time) who would also be turned away once they arrived, as well as people who might prefer the morning hours of the second day versus the afternoon hours offered the first day. Add to this all the people who might not know about the first day of signups, who would find out from friends and family as word of mouth spread, and I figured day two would be much worse.

In total, there are only six sign up days for the Christmas Angels/Baskets program in my area. Two this week (yesterday and today), two next week on Wednesday and Friday, and two the week after on Monday and Wednesday. Then they’re done. That’s it. After November 9th, if you haven’t signed up, you can’t participate. Now this might seem sufficient time for people to sign up for a service, until you take into account that they’re limiting the amount of people that can sign up each of those days, which means there’s a limited number of total spots.

Day one they only allowed 40 people. They had three hours and forty-five minutes to help those 40 that received numbers and process the paperwork, but Day 2 had much shorter hours (from 9am-11am), so before I left, I had the foresight to ask. “How many people will you be taking tomorrow?”

The answer: probably no more than 30.

So I asked for a list of all the information I needed (so I could make sure I had everything I needed ahead of time) and I went home and planned my battle attack.

I had to be there early. I absolutely had to get one of those 30 spots. I couldn’t risk waiting until next week, when even more people would probably be showing up.

And today I’m proud to announce that even though it was very, very cold this morning, and the twins were at home nestled all snug in their bed sleeping in after an extra-early morning feeding (with their Uncle Andrew watching them, prepared to feed them baby food if they woke before I got back), I was in line – holding a number 18 in my hand. I wasn’t first, but it was good enough.

They only took 30 people today.

I felt badly for the people behind me. I didn’t feel too bad, however, about speaking up to the women who tried to cut in front of their friends in the line and push everyone else who had been waiting back a spot.

And now? Well, my kids are signed up, but I still feel badly for the people who may show up on the remaining four signup days. I feel bad because they may not have found out early enough when the signups were, or thought since there were multiple days, they could pick the one most convenient for them. Like me, they may not find out until they’re there that there are a limited amount of spaces each day, and waiting until a later date might mean they can’t signup at all.

And even if they do know, they better arrive early.

 
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Posted by on October 27, 2011 in Charities, Family, Holidays

 

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Self-Imposed Spending Filters

Something that happens rather quickly when one is on an extremely tight budget, is you start viewing all potential purchases through what I like to call a spending filter.

A spending filter is when you look at what you’re considering buying, and then compare it with all the other items you could be buying instead for the same amount of money, or a portion thereof, and weigh which items have the highest priority. If you can think of another item that is needed more, has a higher priority, or is more practical, for that same amount (or less) than you don’t make the purchase.

This is a self-imposed habit, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it does make shopping, even for basic necessities rather a chore. It’s also a valuable lesson in priorities, and for a mother, it’s often simple equates to a “the kids come first” mentality, whereby items I need are almost always postponed or foregone altogether in favor of buying something my children need. In fact, their wants often precede my needs as well, as trying to maintain the happiness of a child when in a difficult situation often seems like a top priority in and of itself. I tell myself, “My kids deserve this.” And they do. It’s just a matter of finding a way to fit it in, which usually means cutting something else out.

So my priorities basically look like this:

1) Family necessities: Things we all need, general household expenses (rent, utilities, food, toilet paper, etc).
2) Children necessities: Things the twins or my daughter absolutely cannot go without (diapers, wipes, feminine products, etc).
3) Children high-priority non-necessities*: Things the kids need, but will usually not cause an emergency if it has to wait a few days (clothing, shoes).
4) Children regular-priority non-necessities: Things the kids could use, or items that are needed but with more notice, a longer lead time, or are less urgent or have more flexible timings for purchase (i.e. “I need Item Z for school by next week” or “I’m running low on Item Y and need more before X date” in the case of my teenage daughter – or – baby gear items, like: highchairs, a crib, the next stage car seats, etc. in the case of the boys – items I know they need, but usually can plan for in advance, or make due some other way in the meantime).
5) Children’s wants/non-necessities: Any and all other items that my kids want, or I want to get for them, that they can live without and don’t absolutely need but as a parent I would like for them to have, because it will make them happy or enriches them in some way (toys, books, entertainment, etc).
6) My needs: Only if absolutely necessary (i.e. over the counter medicines like Ibuprofen, replacing an item – like if my nursing bra breaks, or my shoes wear out – unplanned expenses, etc).
7) My wants: Not really on the list to be honest. By the time we reach this priority level the money is spent.

* The only reason the items listed in point three are not considered necessities and grouped with point two is due to the fact that they have these items already for the most part, but when we reach this point on the list it is either to get new items in place of things outgrown, add something that is missing but needed now (that may not have been needed before, due to weather or other circumstances), or get something that is otherwise worn out and/or unusable any longer and is in need of replacement.

So, I realize that all sounds rather complicated, so let me give you a real world example of my spending filters in action.

I go to the store to buy something we need and have to have, like diapers, and while shopping I see something I could use, like a pair of pants (since I only have two pairs that fit) that are relatively inexpensive. Immediately in my head I think of all the other things that I can buy for the same amount of money as that pair of pants.

“I could get another box of diapers for that price, or two value boxes of wipes, or that could pay for a third of the price for the second highchair they need. Alternatively, I could buy four new outfits for the boys, or a pair of toys, or three books for my daughter, or pay for her to go to the movies. It’s also a bottle of ibuprofen, some dish-soap, and a large pack of toilet paper…”

This can go on for quite some time. In the end, this  means the pants go back on the shelf. Now, it does not always mean I seek out and purchase the other items I realized might be a better buy. Quite often the money isn’t even spent at all other than on the specific things I came to get in the first place. But this mental exercise helps me see the value of things, and avoid frivolous and non essential purchases.

I never just pick up coffee or a burger and fries, because I don’t see a quick snack, I see shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, or baby powder and wipes, or a ticket for my daughter to go to a school dance.

So in the end, all that money that might have been nickeled-and-dimed away gets set aside for necessities, or saved up to purchase the larger items I need for my kids that I can’t usually afford out of what is left from any one check by itself.

When I went to the fair a couple of weeks ago, it was only because my mother and her boyfriend decided they wanted to take me and the kids as a treat, because in my head I couldn’t justify the expense. I didn’t see fair tickets, corn dogs, and carnival rides, I saw baby clothes, new shoes for my daughter, and/or (possibly) money set aside for Halloween costumes for the kids.

Just because we’re on a very limited income, does not mean I don’t believe my kids shouldn’t still get to celebrate holidays like any other child would be able to – and my teenage daughter, especially, is very excited about dressing up for Halloween. A desire that trumps her whim to go to the fair, though – thanks to my mom – we did not have to choose between the two this time. I’m happy to announce that we did, in fact, buy her costume, and it was the one she wanted. I would not have been able to do this if I didn’t have this filters in my head that prioritize my spending, and limit me from using money on other items.

We may not have a lot of extra things these days, but we have the basics; and my kids are cared for. I’m even able to get them the items they want a lot of the time as well, it just requires a little planning and budgeting, but when your children don’t ask for much, or often, you find a way to make it happen – even if that means you’ll continue to only own two pairs of pants (that fit) for the foreseeable future. It’s well worth it.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2011 in Budgeting, Family, Money

 

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