Living in a Tiffany Jewel Box

To paraphrase my depression-era-born, Bronx-raised grandmother, she would love to live in a Tiffany jewel box.  As in that sleek, simple, rectangular, teal-colored cardboard box that often accompanies fine jewels from the Tiffany company.

My mother and I have pondered this question for years.  Why a jewel box?  Why one from Tiffany of all places?  We have a few theories:

  1. My grandmother loves the color teal.  Tiffany’s signature color is, well, close to teal.
  2. My grandmother takes care of her beloved possessions but doesn’t love cleaning; it’s more a habit or a discipline than a pleasure.  Tiffany’s jewel boxes are very neat and simple, and thus very easy to clean.
  3. There’s something about opening a Tiffany jewel box that’s light and airy and pleasant, even when the box contains some luminous, expensive, glittery jewel and its setting or padding.

In contrast:

  1. What color is a house when it’s overstuffed with stuff?  It seems like a house full of shadows; of drab shades of grey.  Bonus points if you can actually see the colors of the baseboards, the floor and/or the walls!
  2.  Is cleaning proportional to the amount of stuff you have?  Whole-heartedly, YES.  It seems to take far longer to dust a table full of stuff than it does to dust an empty table.  The same goes for a window covered in dressings or making a bed covered in pillows and covers.  I won’t even touch cluttered shelves.
  3. How does a place feel when it is cluttered with stuff?  Does it feel light and airy?  Of course not, it feels heavy and under stress with the burden of so many possessions!

Plus, notice how we haven’t even talked about money or value yet?  Tiffany is a very famous jeweler that can charge A LOT for its brand name, let alone charge for the raw value of its splendidly-cut precious gems and jewelry.  But the idea of living in a jewel box sans jewel(s) sounds incredibly…simple…and…easy…and…inexpensive.  It’s not complicated to craft a jewel box.  It’s not expensive or time-consuming to build or maintain a simple box.

And you just don’t use the word “cheap” around Tiffany.  They’re much classier than that!

So a Tiffany jewel box is, by itself, something simple yet elegant and purposeful.  It sounds like something deliciously easy to live in.

I think my grandmother was an accidental minimalist before minimalism was even a thing.  A lady like her that was born to little in one of the toughest modern decades has no problem continuing to live frugally.  My grandmother treasures the little she possesses; she may not have the most elegant furniture or the largest flat-screen TV or the most expensive works of art.

But she’s happy with her stuff.  Because she enjoys her possessions, my grandmother takes care of her possessions too, ensuring she can go decades without having to replace even a vacuum cleaner.  And it’s a true statement about her vacuum cleaner;  it’s one of those shiny steel Hoover-brand beasts from the late 1950s, purchased around the time she and my grandfather got married.  I swear the vacuum cleaner is older than my parents!

As for me, my accidental minimalist habits comes from a very rare and harsh way of living: on a warship, another kind of steel beast often exposed to tough and stark living conditions.  “Living like you live on a warship” sounds like a miserable and depriving lifestyle because in many ways it is a miserable and depriving lifestyle.  Living in a Tiffany jewel box sounds like a much more pleasant, and possibly even glamourous, way to live, and yet it’s somehow just as simple of a life to live.

When it comes to where I want to call home, my goal is to live in something sleek and clean and light and airy.  My goal is to live in my own version of a Tiffany jewel box.

So now I ask you to cast your eyes around your home and take stock of how you live.  Now ask yourself the question: how can you turn your abode into your Tiffany jewel box?

Experiencing Labors of Love

 

As my husband and I eagerly await the arrival of our first child, I find myself thinking a lot about how to instill good values in my kid.  How can I teach my child to have a healthy relationship with stuff?  How can I ensure they understand what I mean when I talk about things that “bring joy” versus things that are a “waste of money”?  How can I get my child to understand what money is really worth in terms of their time and even their happiness?

For starters, Dad and I wrote a book about raising money-savvy families, which will be published soon.

But then again, books aren’t all-encompassing.

One piece of (indirect) advice came from an unexpected source: Dolly Parton’s famous autobiographical song “Coat of Many Colors.”  The song is better heard in her words (above) than explained by me.

What I find so smart about the song is the way Dolly describes her mother’s labor of love through Dolly’s childhood eyes.  Here was a little girl who felt the weather getting cold and didn’t know how to sew and saw a box of rags as…a box of rags.  But Dolly’s mother shared the experience of making Dolly’s coat; Dolly got to watch her mother sew the rags together, day by day.  Dolly got to hear about how wonderful a coat “of many colors” is through all the stories her mother told her as she sewed and sewed and sewed.  And after days and hours of quality time with her mother and watching the rags turn into a coat, Dolly got to wear the coat that she now saw as more than just a box of rags and even just a coat.  Because Dolly experienced the making of the coat, the coat was worth that much more to Dolly, even though Dolly didn’t make the coat herself.

What also catches my attention in the song is the contrast between what the kids around Dolly see the coat as and what Dolly tells them the coat is. Those other kids weren’t with Dolly and her mother as the coat was made; how could those kids appreciate the time and love and skill put into the coat like Dolly could?  Even if the kids did listen to Dolly, would a simple explanation help them grasp what labor it takes to make a coat?  Now the listener hears Dolly’s pride through the other kid’s eyes as Dolly retells all the stories her mother told.

Now apply that to “today’s kids.”  Today’s kids don’t watch their parents go through their working hours earning the money for a coat.  Kids aren’t around to see a coat being made and packaged and shipped and unloaded and racked in a store, waiting for customers.  Kids don’t know how much time and effort it takes to learn how to drive, to travel to a store, and to witness the simple intricacies of clothes shopping like sizing and checking out and paying, often because kids haven’t experienced those events themselves.  From the kids’ perspectives, their parents used “adult superpowers” to get a coat, and then parents warned kids to “take care of it.”

Say a kid loses a coat.  They forgot it at school or it fell out of their bag while at the park or something.  Why is it such a big deal to lose a coat in the first place?  Why not just have the parents use their “adult superpowers” again to replace the missing one? Why not just simply ask Mom and Dad for a new coat?  Sure, Mom and Dad will groan and say something angrily and shake their finger and maybe even punish the child for the loss, but once that part is over, a new coat will–in the kid’s eyes–materialize anyway.   Today’s kids didn’t experience the labor of love that Dolly did, and therefore today’s kids–like the kids around Dolly– won’t value a coat the way Dolly valued her coat of many colors.

So am I suggesting we should sew our kids’ clothes from boxes of rags?  Of course not!  What I’m suggesting is we should give kids the quality time and experience of what it takes to have material possessions.  Dolly experienced how long it takes to sew a coat; let your kids see what it means to work for money by having them work for money themselves, like through extra jobs around the house.  Help your kids understand “what you do all day” by talking them (and if you can, walking them) through what Mom and Dad actually do all day.  Talk about where clothes come from and how clothes are made; if you can’t go in person, find a YouTube video of a clothing factory; you can even hit the rewind button as often as needed for kids to see.  Help kids understand why clothes cost more in a store like Target than in a thrift shop.  Heck, you could even teach your kids how to sew so that they understand the labor and have a valuable skill.  At the very least, take kids to the store with you so that they understand what to look for in a coat, and so they get to choose “their” coat and instill some personal value in it.

As simple as buying a coat is, showing kids the ins and outs of where things come from and how things are made will help kids raise their awareness of what “stuff” really costs.  And by raising their awareness through experience, kids will learn to truly value things.

 

 

Struggling Without Electricity

There’s a blog title I never thought I’d write: struggling without electricity.  My family lives in north-central California, in a military/middle-class neighborhood; the last thing we’d expect to struggle with is reliable electricity.  And yet, in the five-ish months we’ve lived there, we’ve already dealt with four power outages, the longest stretching out for 7 hours.

The big reason electricity is so unreliable in California is because of the risk of overhead powerlines sparking massive, destructive wildfires.  The local issue first reached international news in 2018, when the city of Paradise, California burned to the ground thanks to a spark from a power line igniting nearby brush.  Now in 2019, California’s electric companies are cautious during strong winds, and frequently implement blackouts for up to 72 hours at a time to prevent a simple problem: tree branches and other windswept debris hitting overhead powerlines and causing fires.

There are three issues with that method.  One, think of all the appliances in your house that constantly require electricity.  I’m thankful we don’t rely on medical equipment, and we’re pretty conservative when we buy groceries!  I can’t imagine owning another fridge full of products that require constant chilling or relying on a sleep apnea machine…

The second issue is that there’s no “wildfire season” in California.  Power-sparked wildfires could start at any time during the year, simply from strong winds and a dry week.  In fact, the fire that burned Paradise, CA happened in early November, when the rest of the U.S. had experienced freezing rain or even snow.

And the third issue is that strong winds aren’t the only reason we lose electricity.  We still lose electricity for one or two hours due to a broken line or a faulty connection.  I haven’t experienced an earthquake in California yet (and hope not to, but that’s not in my control!), but if it’s anything like the earthquake I experience in Hawaii, power will be lost.

Our longest blackout actually had to do with an accident.  In a bid to protect electrical lines, a tree trimming company was hired to clear out some high branches over a power line.  The crane used for trimming accidentally knocked into and almost felled an electrical pole, causing an instant blackout to the neighborhood.  Of course, this happened at 6pm on a weekday evening, when the sun was setting and families were preparing for dinner.  It took hours to replace and re-connect the new electrical pole.

So what’s the real struggle here?  We lose a fridge full of food, say, once every few months?  We have to bathe in cold water for a bit?  We have to rely on spotty cell connectivity for a few hours?  Go without running laundry machines or a dishwasher or a vacuum or a TV?  Or even *gasp* break out some scented candles and a board game?  In CA, the temperatures rarely go below freezing, and our town rarely sees days over 85 degrees Fahrenheit, so heating and cooling are superfluous, even luxurious.  When stepping back, it’s clearly a “first world problem.”

But in a first world country with plenty of technological potentials, why haven’t we adapted?  California can produce reliable solar power; heck our house even has solar panels on it!  But for some reason, the system requires a grid-tie (feeding for miles all the way back into the main system instead of a few feet to the house) because that’s a more “reliable” power system.  Our stove and oven run on gas, yet we rely far more heavily on our microwave.  Sure, we could go out and buy gas-powered generators and other similar machinery, but we’re only going to live in sunny CA for two, maybe three, years at most.  Buying an at-least $2,000 fixed generator isn’t worth it.

So while my American self is angry at the lack of reliability in a very rich country, and my engineering-trained brain is frustrated by the lack of technology use, it might be a good thing to live through short power outages of 8 hours or less.  It might teach us Americans to alter our habits so that we see electricity as a privilege instead of a for-granted resource.  It might force us to actually take the time and money to upgrade our system with solar technology and underground power lines.  We may learn to break out a book or a board game every once in a while or think twice before we buy another or rely on another powered appliance.

And if we pay more attention to the way(s) we use electricity, we may actually save a lot more money in the long run.

 

 

Buying Things That Bring YOU Joy

One of the hardest morals to teach children is: buy things that bring YOU joy, not because thing(s) are popular and it seems like everyone around you has it.

Said another way, many people spend their money on things that are popular for a spell but add little long-term value to their life.  Fidget spinners, collectible card games, expensive trucks not actually used for hauling things, and stylish electronics (apple watches, anyone?) are some examples that quickly come to my mind.

But of all the popular things I’ve bought, I’ve most regretted buying a place mat back when I was in fourth grade.

A. place. mat.

WHY?!

I bought this place mat at an annual harvest festival and dance hosted by a local Buddhist temple.  Although I’m not Buddhist or Asian, I grew up in a predominantly-Asian state with a culture that was welcoming to all.  It was natural for me to consume a scoop of white rice served in my daily public school lunches.  I didn’t own a kimono, but neither did most of the community, so most of my classmates and I went to the popular festival wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  We didn’t know the traditional dances, but we enjoyed eating delicious food and shopping the colorful wares sold at the temple during the festival.

My parents don’t like noisy, crowded events like this festival, so they never went.  Since I still wanted to go anyway, I was expected–as always–to save up my own money and find my own way to the event. 

The festival was only a couple of miles uphill from my street, so it wasn’t hard to get to by bike.  But in my young mind, riding in an air-conditioned car beats an uphill bike ride in tropical weather.  One year, the next door neighbors (a family with three kids, including one my age) had an extra seat in the new family van, so they invited me to ride with them to the festival that year.  I happily accepted.

Most of that evening went the way I wanted. I ate delicious fried noodles, accepted a couple of andagi from the gigantic batch the neighbors bought, and I enjoyed people watching both on and off the dance floor.  The girl my age had met up with two of her friends (my classmates) at the event, and announced to me and her family that the three girls were going to look at the colorful wares sold inside the temple.  I tagged along with them as the fourth girl in the group.

In the temple, one of the girls–the most popular girl in our grade at school–found a place mat design that she loved and really, really, really wanted to buy.  But she couldn’t afford the single place mat with the money she had left after who knows what she already bought.  The place mats were cheaper when sold in a set of four, and there were four of us girls shopping together.  So yes, I bought a place mat because it was the popular thing to do in that moment.

And regrettably, I only enjoyed it for that moment.

So how could I have avoided this mistake?

Option #1: walk away.  So easy to say, and yet so hard to do. I failed at doing this over and over and over again.  I didn’t walk away from buying a place mat.

Option #2: make an excuse.  I could’ve told the girls that I wanted to buy something else instead.  If I tried this method, I likely would’ve walked away with a place mat anyway.  Peer pressure is much stronger than individual desire, after all.

Option #3: “purchase” something else.  Also known as saving money for the things you and I really want to have.

The three options aren’t mutually exclusive; in fact, I should’ve chosen all three options.  I should’ve walked away from the situation because my excuse was to buy something else I actually wanted.

When I was in the middle of deciding on a place mat I didn’t actually want, I noticed a much nicer silk print hanging on the wall, in a design I loved, for a price I could afford.  With 20/20 hind sight, I should’ve told the other girls that I wanted the hanging silk print instead, and backed up my words by actually buying that print.

While I unfortunately bought a place mat, I see that it was a fortunate way to learn a moral.  Place mats are a lot cheaper than apple watches and trucks.  While I did waste my money on a place mat, I listened to my heart and paid attention to my emotions after I bought the place mat, and recognized how much I regretted buying that place mat.

So you can tell your kids that they can always take Option #3.  But lets be honest, kids don’t listen to their parents the first time.  Or the second time.  Or the few hundred times after that. 

How do you help your kids learn this lesson?  By discussing their purchases with them again and again, and turning it into an ongoing conversation, not just a question or an event.

Let’s say your kid went with you to the mall and bought a toy with their own money.  An hour after they made the purchase, ask them if they’re enjoying it.  A day after they made the purchase, ask them if they’re enjoying it.  A week after they got the toy, ask them if they’re enjoying it.  If a kid bought something that truly brings them joy, they’ll take the time to show you how joyful it is, whether that’s by telling you in so many words, or acting like they didn’t hear you because they’re engrossed in their purchase. If a kid bought something that wasn’t that joyful,  you’ll soon realize that the kid has either literally moved on by playing with something else, or expressing desire for something else. 

Every time your kid answers your question, turn it into a longer conversation (not a lecture) about why or why not they’re enjoying their purchase.  Help your kid recognize how (un)important that purchase really was.  Take the conversation further by asking them how they would decide on purchase in the future, based on the conclusions they just made in your conversation.

Another way to turn a purchase into a conversation is by playing a game of “remember when.”  Remember when furbies were popular?  How about Beyblades?  When was the last time you thought about or played with either?  Let your kids realize that it’s been so long that those things don’t matter anymore.  Let them realize that something they once thought was “REALLY COOL” is now “REALLY LAME.”

This way, if your kid bought a stupid place mat, they’ll remember the event, and use the “lesson learned” in future purchases. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stop Eating Money

“We knew it was time to teach you about money when you stopped trying to eat money.”       — Mom and Dad

As soon as a child recognizes that money is not food, you can begin shaping their mind about what money is, and what money can be: an incredibly powerful tool that can lead to many good things in life.

One of the BEST things in life is one of the most basic things in life: FOOD!  Kids need to know how they can obtain food, and one of the main means to obtain food is to use money.

You may ask, “so when will a kid stop eating money?  I’m not exactly eager to give my kid a penny and see if she wants to pop it in her mouth!”

Touche.  It takes a bit of bravery to trust a toddler with small coins that are choking hazards.  Every kid is different, too.  Trust your parental instinct about your kid’s ability to keep your money out of their mouths.  But if you think maybe, just maybe, your kid won’t try to eat your money, it’s time to give it a shot.

Under your direct supervision, let your child simply play with a coin or two.  Let them gaze at the shiny metallic colors, finger the little pictures on the sides of the coins, even try to squish the coin in their palm tight enough so that the little images dent their skin.  Let them color on the coins with crayons or washable markers, and trace the coins on paper.  An older sibling or family friend could show them how to roll the coins across a smooth surface, or spin the coins with the flick of a finger.   Answer all of the creative and weird questions they may ask about the coins.  Indulge in the strange backstories and fantasies they devise about the coins.

And that’s ultimately the key concept with money: if  you give your child a positive experience with money, they’ll continue to use money in positive ways for positive reasons.

Now, I don’t mean you should spoil the kids by buying them nice things.  What I mean is that when a child handles money—even if it’s just for a moment’s entertainment—they find money fun to play with, and fun to think about.  Money shouldn’t be something that gets them in trouble when they touch it.  Money should be something that they feel comfortable around, something that they feel confident with, something that they’re interested in learning about.

When I proved to my parents that I wouldn’t eat coins, they gave me a small present: a play set of plastic coins shaped like American money.  The coins came in a small plastic cash register.  I loved sorting the coins by color, and then by size.  My parents made sure that I “clean up my coins” by putting them back in the little cash register drawer when I was done.

When I decided to play with my coins, my parents would closely supervise me.  They would watch what I did with them, and maybe throw a suggestion or two my way.  Why don’t I try sorting the coins by color?  How about by size?  Why not put the piles in order from smallest coins to largest coin?  Why not make little stacks out of my piles?  There were endless hours of toddler entertainment right there!

The next thing my parents did was very sneaky.  With 20/20 hindsight, it was downright ninja parenting.

When my parents saw I had finished sorting piles, they would ask me how many coins I had in each pile.  When I looked up at them with confused eyes, they would sit down next to me and teach me how to count.  They would touch each coin with a finger, and say three little words: One…two…three!  One…two…three!  Over and over and over again.

And when I could count to three without a mistake, my parent taught me to count to five.  When I could count to five, my parents taught me how to count to ten…soon, I could count all of my coins.  It’s a little funny how fake little coins magically turned into an incredibly cheap educational tool.  And I thought I was still playing and having fun!

Over time I slowly learned more and more about my coins.  When my parents saw that I recognized the different coin sizes, they started to teach me what each coin meant.  The brown ones were pennies.  Each penny is one.  I can count my pennies: one, two, three…the baby grey ones—the itty, bitty grey ones–were dimes.  Each dime is ten.  Ten, twenty, thirty…

With almost no effort, I could now count, name colors, and recognize coins.

Whoa.

Dollar bills are a different story.  Dollar bills are too easy to crumple, too flimsy to withstand the destructive nature of the average toddler, and I just wasn’t ready to handle such fancy paper.  But my parents took every opportunity to show me what to do with dollars.  When the family ate out at McDonald’s, they would take me with them to the cash register, lifted me up to the counter or their shoulders so that I could see, and would say, “look!  See all that yummy food they’re making in the kitchen?  See how I give the nice lady my dollar, and she gives me these yummy chicken nuggets?  It’s really cool, huh?!  Would you like some chicken nuggets, too?”  I learned that if I gave the nice lady this special green money—this “doll-er”—I would get some tasty food in return.  Another positive memory, and another lesson about money, was formed.

This method leads to a cheap yet major reward for kids and parents alike: kids learning how to order their own food.  I don’t mean a toddler screaming “I want nuggets!” to mommy or daddy.  I mean coaching the kid to actually go get their own nuggets from a cashier.  Under your supervision at first, of course, but eventually on their own.

(And when I was old enough to drive, this meant fetching the family groceries myself, too, but we’ll come back to this concept later).

In my case, I loved ice cream, especially the plain vanilla soft serve at McDonald’s.  By then, I was a tall 4-year-old, just able to see over the McDonald’s counter, and able to hold onto money without dropping it.  One parent—usually Mom—would take me to a table near the register (and away from the distractions of the McDonald’s playground), teach me to say, “may I have an ice cream cone, please?” and give me the exact change.  Mom would watch me from the table as I scampered right up to the register, held out my handful of coins to the cashier, and said in my big little kid voice, “may I have a cone, please?”  If the cashier didn’t understand my words, they would glance at Mom.  Mom would then say to me, “Hey Big Girl, I think you mean you want an ice cream cone, please.”  The cashier got the drift and started pressing buttons while I shouted out my sentence once more.  About a minute later, I happily returned to Mom, licking my ice cream cone.

But McDonald’s ice cream is just what worked for ME.  What about being able to buy food from the movie theater concession stand?  Or get food at a baseball game?  Or buy a drink from the local kid-run lemonade stand?  Pick the tradition that your family enjoys, and see if your kid can develop social and financial skills via a simple transaction.

And in the end, kids learn one very important thing: stop eating money, so that you can buy better food!

(Stormin’), You Should Write a (Blog)

Welcome to ChildFIRE, a blog about raising money-smart kids!

ChildFIRE is two things.

First, this is a blog about raising children in a world of Financial Independence and Retiring Early (FIRE) by someone who was one of those kids.

Second, ChildFIRE is a pun on the fact that the nicknames I’ve earned in my life—like Hurricane Kid and Stormin’—are all related to natural disasters.  This is partly because my mother–who is a meteorologist and specialized in disaster preparation–found that I was like raising a baby storm.  But this is also because I unexpectedly put out a lot of energy and enthusiasm with little to no warning; if I want to do something, I do it!

“Nords, you should write A BOOK.”  –Everybody who talks with my dad.

I’m not the first money writer in my family.   My dad has written a lot on the subject of FIRE, and it was suggested that HE write ANOTHER book about money, this time about kid FIRE instead of FIRE via the military.  When dad told me the tale, I asked if I could write about this idea instead.  He smiled as he figuratively passed the torch to me.