The Pandemic “Diet”: The Privilege of Food Storage and Life Outside Food Deserts

Grocery shopping is not what it used to be. I go in looking like a bank robber and come out with paid for merchandise. I avoid talking to strangers whereas I used to recommend things to people ALL THE TIME. I zip through the store, making as few unnecessary trips back down an aisle if I can help it, a far cry from my pre-pandemic meandering on the hunt for something new. Now, I’ll even toy with the idea, Do I really need it? Whatever ‘it’ is. Other times, I realize (mid aisle) that I was clearly walking down the wrong way when I notice taped arrows running the opposite direction from where my shopping cart was headed. As a foodie, I despise grocery shopping right now. Every time I go now I feel caught off guard by a new trend: an excess of emptied shelves, lines to receive a disinfected cart, sneeze shields, lost access to freely pack up bulk goods.

On June 19th it was mandated we wear face coverings in various establishments, with some exceptions like when out dining. Still, I see people of various ages strolling through grocery stores and places like Target without any sort of mask. It was reported Monday we have 2,196 new cases in Arizona with 3 additional deaths, and the grim totals aren’t great as KTAR News reports an overall total of 54,586 COVID-19 cases and 1,342 deaths. Our community has been incredibly slow to adopt more stringent matters to keep down the number COVID-19 cases with this recent change coming into effect on June 20th, compared to my family–as low risk persons–having our own commuter masks to wear regularly since May 9th. I know we were still slow in adopting the practice of wearing a mask in public, but we have made consistent efforts to practice social distancing. Some of this has been easier on us due to our work allowing for remote shifts, but just as important has been our ability to properly store and prep food.

In one of my last graduate classes, I had the opportunity to look at food assistance programs. Back in 2012, my family needed the support of SNAP after I sustained a long period of unemployment that drained our savings and as a recent collegiate graduate, I was ineligible for unemployment assistance. For my assignment, I focused on Arizona’s Restaurant Meals Program and (at the time) the piloting of EBT online purchases with companies like Amazon. I was curious at how the system can ease difficulties for those with a lack of transportation or mobility concerns, difficulty with food prep and storage, and those impacted by the presence of food deserts. Currently, 19 states now participate in the EBT online purchasing pilot (as of May 20, 2020) which I imagine has helped tremendously during the pandemic to reduce the risk for certain vulnerable populations.

The other side of the situation that I wanted to also reinforce was what it means to have proper food storage and prep resources. This issue, in some of the academic materials I reviewed, makes such a consequential difference in a person’s ability to consume a healthy diet. While these factors are not the only contributors, their significance should not be treated lightly. Perishable foods are costly and even when someone relies on a food pantry or food assistance programs, engages in food rescue, or utilizes a food co-op addressing proper food handling includes access to clean water, cold storage appliance(s) for some ingredients and leftovers, and typically some sort of cooking appliance (oven, microwave, or stove top). Food prep requires utensils, cutting boards, dinnerware, etc.

All of these things take up space and for many, space is yet another source of inequality in our societies.  I delayed this conversation about pandemic food purchasing because I felt it was more important to initially adapt to the situation at hand in March and April. As I waited, it was not hard to come across other conversations about pandemic spending both in the news and on people’s social media accounts. My original plan was to share my thoughts after Memorial Day, presenting a timely capture of spending. With the loss of George Floyd on the heels of other Black Americans lost to police brutality, I knew I had to sit back on this topic. The timing wasn’t right and while it make not be perfect, I do feel it is a better time to write.

My pandemic life started mid March. As a homeowner, I started the wave of changes differently than I would have in our starter home and quite differently than if we had faced this reality as apartment dwellers. Our current kitchen is approximately 135 square feet. Our starter home kitchen technically was larger due to being an eat-in kitchen, but our home upgrade came with numerous opportunities to live better. Our traditional garage arrangement now over the old tandem two car garage meant we had space–again that magic word–to purchase a second fridge and it is parked next to a chest freezer. (The fridge was initially purchased to house packages of chicken for Gregor; he was eating 3 and a half or so pounds of chicken a day.) And if we look even further back into our family history, our apartment kitchen was the least suited to allowing us to purchase an additional week or two of groceries to get by during the pandemic. The kitchen was probably between 50 and 75 square feet.

My May purchases (included below) do not encompass our entire eating or drinking habits for the month. Like months previous, we still purchased some restaurant meals  during busy weekday nights and/or as weekend indulgences. Starting in March, we started to adopt different grocery shopping habits, mostly out of necessity. Our meat consumption dramatically changed as meat was harder to come by and has less frequently been on sale. Since chicken for Gregor then became more expensive, we pulled back on our meat consumption to keep the budget more in check. Before and after the month, we had extra pantry and frozen food on hand and had bought some specialty items like the iberico sausages and the margarita ingredients for Memorial Day weekend. I also made a separate trip to Total Wine and More but since I did not keep the receipt, I did not feel it would be appropriate to just toss a number out there without providing context on the type of alcoholic purchases made.

To also reinforce my point about the privilege of middle class America, we are nowhere near hurting when it comes to cooking appliances, cookware, serve ware, or food storage containers. Our kitchen has an 1100 watt microwave, an oven, a gas cooktop, an InstaPot, a Belgian waffle iron, a four slot toaster, and a sous vide. Our collection of cookware reflects the fact we enjoy cooking. We have a beautiful enameled cast iron Dutch oven, a cast iron skillet, multiple pans and pots, and two sets of measuring cups and spoons. Cooling racks, muffin tins, roasting pans, a donut pan, baking sheets, and a jelly roll pan we use as a baking sheet can also be found tucked behind cabinet doors, plus we have various sizes of cake pans and cutting boards. Our silverware collection could accommodate approximately 16-20 dinner guests but we have half that in our array of cereal bowls, dinner bowls, dinner and side plates. The collection of drink ware is a bit of an embarrassing excess. Tall mason jars, short mason jars, coffee mugs, wine glasses, beer glasses, and plastic cups for life on-the-go. You would think more than three people live in this house.

But that’s why we need to have these conversations. Life during a pandemic varies dramatically. I do not feel guilt for my privilege but it is something I should acknowledge and remember when I complain about rising grocery costs, increased dishwashing, and the lack of items on store shelves. A big concern has been how much it will cost to keep my family fed, but that’s nothing when we consider the fact food insecurity is a rising concern for many.

Lastly, I want to reiterate how wildly different this shared month of grocery shopping is from what we purchased in March and April. The list, with the exclusion of items bought in anticipation of June only put us about $48 more than what I normally want the grocery store budget to be for any given month. I cannot say the same for March when we spent twice our normal budget.

May’s Purchases

Fresh/ Shelf Stable Produce

  • (1) bag organic gala apples (3lbs.)
  • (1) bag organic baby carrots (1lb.)
  • (1) large veggie platter with dip
  • (2) heads organic cauliflower
  • (2) containers organic strawberries (1 lb.)
  • (1) bag lemons (1.2 lbs.)
  • (2) organic leeks
  • (4) fruit cup packs, Del Monte 100% juice (4 cups per pack)
  • (2) green onions
  • (1) Sea Tangle Kelp Noodles (12 oz.)

Frozen Produce

  • (2) bags Ore-Ida Tator Tots (28 oz each)
  • (2) bags broccoli (likely 12 oz. bags)
  • (2) bags peas (likely 12 oz. bags)

Coffee

(1) bag, Stumpton whole bean (12 oz.)

Eggs/Dairy/Butter

  • (2) dozen eggs
  • (1) butterkase cheese (1/2 lb.)
  • (1) package Meyenberg goat milk butter (8 oz.)
  • (1) Chobani Flip yogurt, Peach
  • (7) Chobani yogurts
  • (1) Sargento colby jack sliced cheese
  • (1) 1/2 gallon oat milk
  • (1) Organic Valley low fat milk (1 quart)
  • (1) 4 oz. Organic Valley shredded Parmesan (4 oz.)
  • (1) wedge Parmesan (8 oz.)
  • (2) Montchevre goat cheese (4 oz.)
    • plain
    • honey

Prepared Meals/Meat/Meat Alternatives

  • (2) Against the Grain nut free pesto pizza (24 oz.)
  • (2) Against the Grain uncured pepperoni pizza (24 oz.)
  • (1) Teton Waters Ranch grass fed beef sausage (4 links)
  • (1) Fermin Iberico chourizo (7 oz.)
  • (1) Fermin Iberico salami (7 oz.)
  • (1) Columbus dry coppa
  • (1) Columbus prosciutto
  • (2) packages sliced bacon
  • (1) Organic Prairie ground chicken (12 oz.)
  • (2) 14 oz. Wildwood organic extra firm tofu
  • (2) packs Beyond Meat Beyond Burger patties (2 patties per container)

Bread/Pasta Products

  • (1) loaf Dave’s Killer bread, oats n’ blues
  • (1) Rudi’s sourdough bread loaf
  • (2) packages brioche slider rolls

Pantry/Spice Cabinet

  • (1) jar pickled garlic (12 oz.)
  • (1) jar minced ginger
  • (1) Saffron Road Lemongrass Basil simmer sauce packet (7 oz.)
  • (1) Frontera skiller sauce packet (8 oz.)
  • (1) Arrowhead Mills unbleached all-purpose flour (5 lb. bag)
  • (1) Natural Grocer’s Almond Flour (1 lb. bag)
  • (1) Ian’s Gluten Free breadcrumbs (7 oz.)
  • (1) Aleia’s Gluten Free Italian breadcrumbs (13 oz.)
  • (1) bottle organic dijon mustard
  • (1) St. Dalfour’s black raspberry fruit spread (10 oz.)

Desserts/Snacks

  • (1) Bluebell vanilla ice cream (1/2 gallon)
  • (2) Kroger Deluxe lime sherbert (1.5 quart)
  • (1) pint Dolcezza gelato, Mascarpone & Berries
  • (1) pint Dolcezza gelato, Stracciatella
  • (3) York Peppermint Patties
  • (1) package Oreos, original flavor
  • (1) package Oreos, tiramisu
  • (3) Alt Eco chocolate truffles
  • (1) large bag Lay’s Potato Chips
  • (2) large bags Mission tortilla chips

Beverages

  • (2) Pop & Bottle almond lattes (11 fl. oz)
  • (3) Ginger/Regular Sprite (2 Liters)
  • (2) Monster energy drink
  • (2) Califa Farms Ginger Limeade (48 fl. bottle)
  • (2) Rise Brewing Co. Nitro Cold Brew Coffee Oat Milk Mocha (7 fl. oz.)
  • (6) C2O flavored coconut waters (17.5 fl. oz)
  • (1) Smart Water, 1 Liter each (6 pack)
  • (1) single bottle Voss water
  • (1) 20 oz. Diet Pepsi
  • (3) 8 pack, 12 fl. oz. AHA Sparkling Water (apple + ginger)
  • (4) 8 pack, 12 fl. oz. AHA Sparkling Water (black cherry + coffee)
  • (4) 8 pack, 12 fl. oz. AHA Sparkling Water (citrus + green tea)
  • (3) 12 packs, Diet Sodas (root beer, Dr. Pepper, regular)
  • (4) 2 liters, Kroger seltzer waters
  • (4pk.) Izze Sparkling Juice

Alcoholic/Drink Ingredient

  • (2) Santa Cruz lime juice (16 oz.)
  • (1) container margarita salt
  • (1) organic tequila (750 ml.) ($17.99)
  • (1) Sam Adams Sam ’76 (6 pack)
  • (1) Blue Moon Light Sky (6 pack)
  • (1) Four Peaks green tea lager (6 pack)
  • (1) Absolut vodka soda raspberry and lemongrass (4 pack)  (NOT EVER BUYING AGAIN…so gross!)

Other

  • (2) bagged ice (20lbs. each)
  • (1) bag Solo cups ($6.49)

Gregor’s Dinners

  • (21) whole chickens, mostly free range as they were the easiest to find on a regular basis

Items Bought In Preparation for June (With Some Items Still Frozen and Available for Consumption in July)

  • (1) Lean Beef Brisket ($57.19, still frozen)
  • (1) Pork Shoulder, Picnic ($16.49, still frozen)
  • (1) Pork Shoulder, Picnic ($15.11, still frozen)
  • (2) Foster’s Fryer chickens ($18.20 total, still frozen)
  • (4) packages Foster’s Chicken Thighs (still frozen)
  • (2) packages Foster’s Drumsticks (still frozen)

 

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Pantry (1st Week of June 2020)
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Pantry (1st Week of June 2020)

 

NOTE:

The inconsistent ability to regularly obtain chicken has led to a significant change in our purchasing habits. Gregor started a raw chicken diet back in December and at roughly $8 per whole chicken, it is no longer sustainable to keep him on this healthier alternative to his past kibble diet.

We did find a pretty good quality kibble that is $3 cheaper per day over his raw diet. We dealt with a few days of a hunger strike, but he finally relented and is back to eating every day.

 

Storytelling Through Music

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Happy Sunday, everyone.

In nearly the month that has past since I last wrote, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to deal with some restrictions in my life and why I must also reflect on how the restrictions themselves are a temporary experience while the overall situation–the risk of COVID-19 infection–brings with it the possibility of permanent losses. Given my past experience serving in two different phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom and my job in the Marine Corps, I’ve felt more equipped than others for our present reality. When I look at the scope of death involved, I know I must moderate how much information I consume just like anyone should moderately consume high fat, high calorie foods. I know it’s bad for me to know too much. I am an empathetic person and it’s difficult knowing I cannot do much for others to keep them safe other than to stay home.

I also underestimated how much our home “confinement” would cause me to think about my way of life. I felt weird not shaking hands with people I met, like the day I met one of my neighbors for the first time. The Marine that I am, I felt like I was doing a disservice to the foundation of our newfound relationship to not have a proper handshake as part of our meeting. I also feel weird watching how much I cut back on interacting with people at the grocery store. Instead, I watch them with odd curiosity and sometimes, frustration. While I might normally chat with a mom as she apologizes for her small child cutting me off in front of some merchandise, I work on keeping a respectable distance for my safety and theirs. Or this past grocery shopping endeavor, I felt like criticizing two women–clearly friends–who were blocking the aisle with their carts and bodies as they chatted within a more intimate personal distance than the 6 feet we are requested to keep at this time. It would have been one thing if they accidentally broached the distance guidelines as I’ve watched it happen over and over again as shoppers do a little tango to get out of each other’s way, but I was pretty agitated they were blatantly disregarding the current social practice to visit with each other and more so, cutting off everyone else’s access to the grocery items with their lingering presence.

When these little frustrations start to creep in–or I feel I need to be more productive–I notice I seek out listening to music. Normally, I try to make good use of my work from home time and listen to several podcasts during the week. There are several that have helped me think more critically about my money habits and how to design our home so it serves us better without it also potentially being a regret later when it comes time to sell. Right now though, I don’t feel like I can listen to some of these podcasts with as much attentiveness as I’d like so instead, I focus on music.

In fact, I found it amusing today that the movie we watched, Trolls World Tour, brought up some of the same things I’ve been thinking about how music is often about expressing ourselves and where we come from. The idea is nothing new to me, but I did enjoy seeing it discussed in the movie. With our daughter close to turning ten years old, I do feel it is important for her to understand music is as faceted as other aspects of our society and differs greatly across societies.

Much of what I grew up listening to would not resonate with her, but that type of music brings me back to specific points of my childhood and my relationship with my siblings, parents, and friends. I also don’t feel l have anything that speaks to me about my first college experience, but so much that brings me back to certain parts of my Marine Corps career and my life the last few years. I’ve grown up more than I expected because I failed at numerous things and been rejected in a variety of personal connections. These things have taught me to find the people who make up my tribe and to accept what has felt as flaws at times are not flaws at all.

I am at a better place now with the uncertainty surrounding us because I think more about what I listen to during my day to feel empowered and educated. The music I am sharing today I intentionally split into female artists and male artists vocals. This decision was centered around attempting to view how women are accepted both in their work and their viewpoints. The sound was equally as important. There are times when I feel like listening to women who have gone through some of the same things as me gives me the courage to share my own voice on those matters.

I know you can upload audio to WordPress, but I don’t know the legal implications of sharing others’ music. Please don’t be disappointed that for this reason, I’ve taken the simple approach to provide an image of my playlists instead. I figure anyone who is interested can replicate it on whatever site they use to listen to music. 

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The male vocals, specific lyrics, and song titles are no less important. They are just important different reasons. Some of the songs have been favorites for a bit due to the energy being perfect for my workout routines or I want something to get me through what feels like a long workday. As well, like their female counterparts, men are in a position now in society to talk differently about their respective experiences and reflection on social issues. The latter issue I feel is best represented by the tone of their voices.

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As we continue to fight the fight from our homes or in our workspaces, I hope you find some music that resonates with you and if you’d like, feel free to share what you’re listening to during these days. I enjoy listening to the messages and voices of the storytellers.

~Cheryl

We Are All In This Crisis Together

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This snapshot shows a touch of the news last night.
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For the first time in my life, my fellow Americans and I are being asked to serve others by avoiding close contact. As “easy” as it sounds, many are ignoring this message.

Waking up and going to bed with the news right now is anything but pleasant. As a war veteran, I am not offended that many are comparing the current pandemic to a war. There are a lot of areas where the comparison is warranted and I wanted to discuss these today. We can only prepare so much for either situation as resources are always finite quantities and attitudes and preparation capabilities for either event vary greatly, resulting in disparities for different sides in their abilities to weather the situation.

For example, if we were faced with this crisis when we moved in our current home in January, the situation would have been monumentally more stressful. For those who interact with me both locally and via Instagram@she_wears_dogtags, I’ve previously shared how we were without a fridge the first week after our move. The new GE Cafe line fridge we purchased never worked. It was installed and never cooled down as a fridge should for proper food storage. During our week without a fridge, we were reliant on a chest freezer and pantry storage. We could not cook a large quantity of food because we were limited in our freezer storage and knew we would have to allow additional thaw time when pulling items from the chest freezer. The reality is though there are many people across the globe that do not have access to longterm food storage. Some are in this situation due to lack of housing and in other parts of the world smaller residences means one cannot accommodate full size appliances and pantry storage that are a frequent part of Western style living.

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Holiday Celebration 2004 at Camp Blue Diamond, Iraq (Photo Credit: Sgt. Nathan Estes)
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My Current Fridge Situation because a lot of the food we picked up recently is stored in the freezers, canned, or dry goods. The amount of alcohol in stock is a bit more than normal.

I think it is important to do a little compare/contrast between my first deployment and now to bring home the idea of the strain people are feeling currently.

I never feared going hungry on deployment and many people are worried now that there will not be enough food to cover their own needs. The purchasing power of the military equated to sufficient food for our service members and civilian contractors plus the Iraqis and third country nationals employed on base. We had breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight rations available to us. I may not have always had what I wanted available to me, but our chow hall had a diversity of protein sources, starches, fruits, and vegetables to hold us over. I could also shop at the PX trailer, picking up M&M’s, cookies, trail mix, and personal hygiene products.

People in the United States will be struggling, not only due to job loss or reduced hours, but also because this is what a number of stores look like right now.

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I have never seen the aisles empty like this, even preceding Thanksgiving or Christmas family gatherings.
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Oddly enough, even the feminine hygiene aisle was pretty ransacked. People are freaking out, leaving the most vulnerable in a worse off position.
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This was Target shortly before 4 p.m. today. The few shoppers who passed us in the aisles were respectful of each other, both in regard to selecting items from the shelves and maintaining personal distance.
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I wish practices like this started sooner in the crisis, but I feel with the lessons learned, better business practices will prevail in future situations.

I wanted to stick up for my generation for the moment though. I think it will take time–and we might never know–the true breakdown by ages of who decided to purchase in excess of their needs due to panic. Some might not want to reveal they hoarded all the toilet paper they could, while there are those coming to light who (horrifically) over purchased with the goal of profiteering off of others’ panic and/or true needs.

What I am hearing those are there are plenty of voices screaming that millennials are taking all the stuff on the shelves. Seriously?! There is not just one generation alone contributing to the mess we are seeing right now. It still blows my mind that in people’s frustrations, they are pointed fingers as this one age group without considering how each generation has a broad range of income diversity that leaves some with greater or less privilege to tend to their own needs in a crisis.

I also want to say my grocery shopping last Friday was pretty much a nightmare situation. I cannot remember when exactly we moved Gregor, our dog, from a kibble diet to a raw food diet, but there are times we grocery shop separately for his food and sometimes it is part of our regular grocery shopping trip. Knowing that raw food for him costs more, I have taken small steps here and there to reign in our weekly grocery shopping trips. From what we’ve learned from the news, I knew I had the responsibility to shop for roughly two weeks’ worth of groceries but the day before, my husband had a hard time finding meat on the shelves for Gregor. We had some things in our chest freezer, but my grocery shopping trip at Sprouts meant also keeping an eye out for chickens for Gregor. He eats approximately 3 and 1/2 lbs. of raw chicken and organs on a daily basis; his diet is balanced out with pork, fish, and sometimes eggs.

In sharing my grocery receipt–since Sprouts does not permit photography in its stores–please do not judge me. I want to highlight this is only approximately 2 weeks of groceries for us (and as I’m realizing a little bit more for snack bars!) and not even a full week of chicken for Gregor in case we can’t find anymore before our last grocery haul for him runs out. It cost us $345.04 for our area, so we’ll be more expensive than some parts of the country and significantly less expensive than other high cost areas. The bulk bins we normally shop for rice were nearly empty, but I still grabbed a few packages of less expensive pasta and I made sure to ask another customer if he needed a bag of rice before I grabbed the last two bags of jasmine rice I could find. Most of the bigger packages of cheaper chicken and beef were gone. It’s been roughly 5 years since I’ve purchased Cornish hens because they are $5.99 each, but I wanted to ensure we had a variety of protein and grabbed 3. I did not pick up any fresh fruit or vegetables, opting instead for frozen and canned items. Regarding cleaning products, I did not need much. I picked up some new sponges, a bag of laundry pods, and dish soap. I discovered that choice was a good decision when I saw the the decimated cleaning aisle at Target today. We still could not meet all our needs shopping in-person. Our situation required buying toilet paper online and after our box arrived, I learned the company, Reel, is now sold out like many other retailers.

It is still weird to see toilet paper completely gone from the shelves. I could find toilet paper  with few concerns on my 2004 deployment in our port-a-johns and shower trailers although a wonderful woman named Alice from Operation Sand Flea mailed out a package of Charmin for me, because it was something I asked for.

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Stepping a slight step away from the topic of food, when preparing for our meals on deployment, we also regularly practiced hand washing. Our service members would clear their weapons into weapons barrels, walking up in a relatively orderly line to hand washing stations and dispose of paper hand towels properly after washing our hands. I never imagined how often I’d hear the news inform people to wash their hands, but I’m loving the memes coming out left and right. We could all use a little extra humor in our lives right now.Screen Shot 2020-03-21 at 7.16.32 AM

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On the next compare/contrast, let’s talk about workspaces.

My work from home situation is not relatively new as it is for numerous Americans. I’ve worked from home most days for almost two years. In our old house, my desk was set up in our spare bedroom. In our current home, one desk is set up in our spare bedroom and this desk at the top of our staircase. I don’t mind that the arrangement is not fancy, although over time, I plan on spreading our remaining collection of books, collectibles, and photo albums into other more permanent spaces in our home. It’s just not a priority right now. As a sign of the times we are in right now, on the lower left of the bookcase is a small stack of books borrowed from the public library. Our local library is shutdown to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, so there has not been a need to renew my books currently.

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I recently finished this book and the author’s journey of subsisting on multiple forms of government assistance is something some Americans are also finding themselves in during this crisis.

Again, I am repeating things people who have followed my journey for years know about me. I am not saying these things to undermine how people feel in their current strife whether it’s temporarily having to switch toilet paper brands, paying more for groceries, or finding a tiny closet to work from home. I am writing because I want to add to the conversation.

I was prepared to work in an austere war environments and yet, I never expected something as odd and equally devastating as COVID-19 to upend our way of life in the States. This situation is putting a lot of strain on medical personnel who will and are facing traumatic situations like they have never known. Businesses are constrained in their operational capacities and many individuals are finding themselves at risk for job loss, severe illness, and perhaps, premature death. This is one area where our military members and veterans have an advantage because we can reassure others we will stand by each other and also perhaps feel additional stress because it brings up difficult parts of their past. For me, I got used to being in a persistently dangerous environment and I knew my time in Iraq was stressful for my family back in the States. Now, the situation is reversed, minus the combat zone.

I am not unique in the fact I have family members who are considered more vulnerable to COVID-19. Some are older and some have underlying health conditions. I will be sitting on the sidelines of this situation much like they were all years ago when I served in Iraq. They waited for news from me that I was in good health and in relatively good spirits and now I do the same every day. Not surprisingly, we are again mostly communicating over social media and over the phone. Instead of Myspace and using an AT&T phone center, I now touch base over Facebook, Instagram, text messages, and probably a day here soon, video chat using FaceTime. Social distancing does not mean isolation in the truest sense of the world. My family is not alone in this battle and I want to remind you, neither are you.

 

 

 

 

 

Leaping Into a New Year of Money Decisions

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It’s almost my birthday and I was good at Target today by not purchasing a full size cake!!!

Leap year presents us with an extra day to “enjoy” a myriad of opportunities. For me, it also tosses an extra day in right before my birthday. I am ready for my 35th year to close. It (has almost) ended on a high note, better than it started. Those closest to me know I was extremely nervous to enter my 35th year. My mom died in the same month she would have turned 35 and as the years crept closer to this milestone year, I felt my dread increasing.

It turned out I had less to fear than I imagined. My health continued to stay high. Although my mother and her mother both passed away from lung cancer, my body remains untouched by that disease. I also made the decision years ago to never take up tobacco products, so I have taken a monumental step in my overall health habits to reduce the likelihood this disease will take root in my body.

I don’t wish to make this blog entry a downer. I am happy to be turning 36 years old tomorrow. This past year has taught me each year–regardless of how I feel about the particular age I am turning–there will be some lows and there will be some highs. The amount of extra work I piled on last year exacerbated some of the things that caused me stress, but I persevered to make the year something to be proud of, knowing that not everyone has the chance to grow old. When we put our home on the market and it greeted shortly thereafter with three offers, I felt the year had a silver lining.

Our finances needed a strong push in the right direction.

When the proceeds hit our bank account, I felt in spite of our many money mistakes, the roots of some strategic decisions paid off big. The home sale allowed us to pay off two debts and fully fund our emergency fund.

January provided a great start to the next leg of our financial journey. Again, our roles in society as military veterans provided a leverage opportunity. My husband’s VA home loan was tapped to move into our second home when we decided against closing early on our first home. If we had closed early, we could have used my VA home loan eligibility again and would have avoided the VA funding fee. It is ok though that not all things line up to maximize our benefits. That’s just life. We didn’t feel comfortable with all the actions necessary in addition to the short timeframe to make use of my VA home loan again, this time with the funding fee removed.

Our ability to finally have a true emergency fund–not just the basic $1,000 Dave Ramsey Baby Step 1 amount–feels like a greater victory than either of the two graduate degrees I’ve completed. This sort of brings me to what I realized when listening to Michelle Jackson’s podcast episode, How to Change YOUR Role in YOUR Story. I felt like a failure in many regards because my transformation story after separating from the Marine Corps in 2007 was littered with things going awry, especially our finances.

One of the most important things I have to share with you on the matter is that had I stayed in, I would have retired in 2023. Seriously, 2023!!! That’s only three years away. It’s insane to think I am nearing the traditional military retirement age. There’s something even more important to mention. If we look solely at my work based income, it took me until nearly/just after 2017 to surpass what I made in the Marine Corps. 

Talk about something else that really made me feel like a money failure.

But Michelle is right. How we talk about ourselves has a great impact on our lived experiences.

I know I am not a money failure. I would be a money failure if I never tried to improve my situation. The truth is that I have tried to improve our financial situation well before I left the Marine Corps.

Here’s just a small snippet of things:

-While on terminal leave, I job hunted.

-While pregnant, I purchased numerous things secondhand.

-While drowning in debt, I listened to the advice of good friends and attended Financial Peace University (this is how I was introduced to Dave Ramsey).

-While broke after being let go from a job, I emptied out my retirement savings from said job to support our family because the state of Arizona was so far behind on unemployment compensation I could not qualify.

-While working my first job in higher education, I started using the remainder of my VA education benefits and finished the last bit of entitlement at my second institution of higher learning. This included a few day of the Chapter 30 Montgomery GI Bill and 12 months of the Chapter 33 Post-9/11 GI Bill.

For a long time now, I’ve needed to give myself grace for not “succeeding” with Dave Ramsey’s 7 Baby Step process. I was tired of the process feeling like a crash diet. Some big life events came and went and I felt like the person always showing up to birthday party having to decline a piece of cake because it didn’t fit into “the plan.”

Turning 36 is a reminder that I am not beholden to any process or way of being. I am reassembling the baby steps Dave Ramsey preaches with some of the knowledge gained by the financial independence community. Taking care of our family is more important than expediting our debt repayments, so this is why I made sure to fully fund the emergency fund than to pay off my remaining portion of student loans. The same goes for why I will set aside money this year for a vacation. I do not think it is a terrible thing to occasionally prioritize a vacation over making additional debt payments. Whenever I do die, no one will care that I (let’s say) paid off my student loans in five years but they would care about the vacation we shared together.

Without throwing any numbers out there, with our discretionary money this year, here are our top priorities:

  1. Save for a Hawaii vacation and attend a vow renewal.
    1. Reduce cost by grocery shopping more while on vacation.
    2. Coordinate with friends for recommendations.
    3. Also look at reducing monthly dining out to carve out additional savings.
  2. Make additional debt payments.
    1. My highest student loan is 6.8% and the lowest is 4.5%.
    2. The amount of payments I intend to make given our current income should pay off about 64% of the first of the four loans.
  3. Set aside additional retirement contributions.
  4. Move emergency fund over to a high yield savings account.

These options are our notion of having the best combination of Dave Ramsey/financial independence/how we know we live now because we never know what truly lies ahead.

What I do know from all the turmoil I’ve felt in various financial situations is I should work more to become confident in my financial decisions and sharing my story. I recently applied for ChooseFi’s FI Households Documentary series for this particular reason and I hope I can encourage others, regardless of where you currently are in your journey, to share some portion of your progress with at least one other person today.

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Walking Towards FIRE: Selling Our First Home

Today’s entry is another discussion on my walk towards FIRE. While the term is usually reserved for “Financial Independence, Retire Early” my journey will be “Retire Eventually” like others who aren’t as keen on retiring early. Given that I’ll only be 36 in March, it’s hard to imagine spending my days either not working and focusing solely on leisure activities or working hard as an entrepreneur. The latter doesn’t strike my fancy and given the stability my family has here in the Phoenix valley, I can’t go trot the globe on my own. That would be too awkward.

My family’s next adventure is a pretty great one, although it is locally focused. With just a little over three and a half years under us, we sold our first home. This is the next step for us in walking towards FIRE. Some might find it amusing, but when we purchased the home, it was bought solely in my name. We didn’t think it was much of a big deal but in the state of Arizona if you try to purchase a home without your spouse, the spouse has to sign documentation agreeing to this decision. For us this route was necessary in order to qualify for the home. My husband’s mounting student loan debt would have count against us and this avenue helped us reduce our overall monthly expenses. By moving from renting to holding a mortgage, we easily saved $300 a month on home expenses.

I must take a moment though to mention our choice to use a VA home loan is something that Dave Ramsey (the creator of Financial Peace University) is opposed to and while I can understand his viewpoint, the volatility of housing markets also provides a solid reason for us to use a VA home loan. This option allowed us to purchase a home without a downpayment, allowing us to move sooner on a home purchase in an area that is still plagued by rising rent costs.

That is not to say there wasn’t any money we had to bring to the table to close. It was just over $3,000 of closing costs for us in 2016 and we were able to build up that portion of funds based on our combined use of VA education benefits, which shows yet again how much our decision to serve has had some positive snowball effects we weren’t expecting to see when we both separated.

I am not a financial advisor so I am not providing any advice on how one should enter the housing market for home ownership or investment purposes, but it was a calculated risk we took. If the housing market had taken another dip like it did between 2008 to 2011, we were comfortable staying in this location based on other community attributes. 

We downsized from a rental that was approximately 1,500 square feet with a good size yard to the home shown below that comes in under 1,300 square feet with a patio approximately 11′ by 17′. It was a no frills property; the prior owner did not do anything to change up the builder grade finishes. While I would have liked to undo more of the vanilla qualities of the home, I am happy with the things we accomplished (other than my poor quality interior paint job). I am most happy that I advocated for two things for this property, the removal of a heinously oversized tree and painting the home in a dramatic color scheme, specifically fighting the HOA on my choice to paint the brick.

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MLS Photo from 2011 although we purchased this home in 2016. By then, the tree on the left had grown quite a bit.
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Since the tree was planted in the front yard, it was the responsibility of the HOA to maintain. The tree eventually posed a risk to our property and the neighbors’ home, so I requested the HOA pay for its removal and eventually the HOA tended to the matter.

For people who don’t live in HOA neighborhoods, a homeowners association acts like a quasi-government. Since we paid $80 a month for community maintenance, I am not sorry the HOA was on the hook to remove the tree. We were not the only home and people impacted by the unsightly tree. It became the roost for the bulk of the pigeons living in the neighborhood and the sidewalk was constantly littered with bird poop and tree debris.

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The landscaping crew hired by the HOA did not clean the sidewalk each week to deal with the pigeon waste, so on some occasions we were dealing with it directly and the water cost was ridiculous.
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Post-tree removal 2019

I won’t say we were excited about the HOA’s demand letter to paint our home last year, but I was excited we didn’t have another neighbor with the same adventurous spirit we do when it comes to paint colors. We eyeballed these colors awhile ago and kept hoping no one would beat us to the combination. The job costs us $2,000 but it was money well spent, and I only wish we had time to get my poorly done interior paint job/the poor paint job by the builder tended to before the home went on the market last year. The interior problems did not dissuade the next home owner, but I wish it was something we could have done for the next family.

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I am happy to share this journey with you all because I recognize owning a home is still, for many, part of the American dream and when it comes to financial success, one opportunity for financial diversification. On a personal level, it is quite meaningful for me. After being unemployed in 2012 and again in 2013 I started to feel like home ownership would take an extremely long time to accomplish. In spite of our setbacks, our first dabble into real estate went well.

I couldn’t do a perfect “before” and “after” as I didn’t properly photograph all spaces before/shortly after moving into this place and making our mark on it, but here are some transformations.

I believe we paid approximately $400-$500 for the island. We had a coupon for American Furniture Warehouse, but current retail shows it selling for $688. The island was sold with the property along with the Samsung fridge we brought with us to the property.

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In 2017, the yard underwent a little makeover with wood panels from IKEA and the addition of artificial turf to replace some of the gravel. In 2019, the space was further enhanced with a fresh coat of paint.

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We went with components from IKEA’s ALGOT storage to make the laundry space more functional. This storage system was also added to our hallway closet and the master bedroom closet.

The master bedroom has not seen much a transformation other than the improvement to the closet. We learned this year, after getting the home ready to show, the space looked better with the curtains taken down. We originally added blackout curtains to improve our sleep as the master is an east facing room, but the home doesn’t have a lot of square footage and an easy way to improve its feel was to remove items on the walls.

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And just some fun things I’ve learned about myself along the way…

I suck at painting. I love the deep color, but I struggled with different types of painters tape trying to get it to adhere to the textured walls and baseboards. Another mistake I learned along the way is to buy all the paint you need together. I forgot the type of sheen I needed and so our office has two different sheens. This past year, I also learned the original sheen was no longer available for the paint. Thankfully, we still had a small sample of it and used it to clean up the areas where Gregor dented some of the walls, both from his body and from running into the gate that subsequently scrapped a significant portion of lower wall facing the bottom of the staircase. Pet parenthood is a fun experience….sometimes.

And in case you didn’t notice it, the home originally did not have a peep hole. We had a good laugh at ourselves for not noticing it when we originally purchased the home.

Upstairs Hall 2016

So, here’s to saying goodbye to our first big project and one of our biggest financial risks that paid off.

We are truly blessed and I’m excited for what the next chapter holds.

The End of a Decade

Tonight is both one of my favorite and least favorite nights of the year. For years, I loved what New Year’s Eve represented. I loved ending a year, reflecting on everything that transpired while also brainstorming resolutions to make the next year even better. For the longest time, I also loved the fireworks. It was fun seeing large scale fireworks displays on television and the ball drop in Times Square. I still loved the idea of fireworks after Iraq, but after dealing with mortar attacks, the displays are enjoyable now from a distance.

The past few days we’ve started to have a trickle of fireworks in our surrounding area again and I’m trying to keep my anxiety under control with these unexpected bursts of energy and sound. Rather than fret excessively about it, I am trying to remember in a few days the chaos of holiday festivities will abate as people start to focus on their resolutions to lose weight, eat better, and so forth as they remind themselves they have 365 days to be better versions of the persons they are today. I will not set resolutions for the year ahead because I know it’s more important for me to focus in the present and I just don’t do that when I start hoarding goals and get frustrated when they take longer to accomplish than expected. (I guess that objective is sort of a resolution in a way, isn’t it? )

I am fortunate to have an unexpected day off from work today, so I do want to thank you for taking the time to drop in today as we close out the year.

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2019 has been a brutal year for our nation based on the significant amount of violence we’ve encountered that have taken our students in their education settings and community members as they shop, celebrate their faith, and go about doing mundane tasks and leisure activities like shopping and social activities. The high volume of violence impacted my year as it did many others. I was disgusted by the assailants who have not taken other courses of actions to rectify the issues in their lives and instead used their frustration, anger, or resentment to cut short the lives of innocent bystanders and leave others with wounds they will carry for the rest of their lives. I never expected violence to be such an “everyday” sort of experience after leaving Iraq the first time back in 2005.

It is for this reason, I wanted to write as a means of gratitude. I often forget to show appreciation for the days I’ve been given. I know better than most the value of my days, but I get caught up in seeing the wealth of opportunities around me and wonder why certain experiences are out of my reach and/or taken me longer than my counterparts. Too often I expect life to be like an algebraic equation where one side of the equation matches the other in the fact  x amount of effort=equal amount of reward. It’s just not true and I must make a reminder to not be critical of my capabilities for what does not transpire.

For those that have stuck around a bit, you know 2019 was chock full of some monumental achievements like completing my second graduate program of study, but I wanted to trace back the decade to show how far I’ve truly come and hopefully inspire others (and me!) to enjoy the beauty of the next ten years that lay before us.

2009: Adopting a New Name, Mom

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2010: Learning to Love a Brand New Person

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2011: Taking a Risk

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2012: Starting Over Somewhere New (Arizona)

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2013: Experiencing a Stay Cation for the First Time

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2014: Stepping Up and Out of My Comfort Zone

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2015: Stepping Back into History

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2016: The Year We All Graduated School Together and Found Our First Home

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2017: The Year My Parents Paid Us a Surprise Visit at Disneyland

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2018: Finding My Tribe

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2019: The Year of Reconnecting and Celebrating All of Life’s Moments

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Sometimes it is too easy to see the ways each year has brought some sort of trauma into my life, but as I look back over these photos, I can see how much hope and support I’ve also had along the way.

I don’t know where the trajectory of this blog will go as we enter the next decade, but I want to thank not only those who have been with me since the start, but everyone who has taken the time to follow my journey. When I started sharing my thoughts back in 2014, I know I was quite dismayed about the portrayal of female veterans and the attention we receive (and don’t) for our military service. My thoughts were often shared without much curating, and even now, on a busy day, I write with abandon, which I understand results in some grammatical and typographical errors. On the days I’ve written from a negative perspective, I hope others see my vulnerability and desire to figure out life. On the days I’ve written from a positive perspective, I hope others see inspiration comes from many different facets of life, but that my joy is not ever meant to make another feel bad for missing out on certain milestones or taking longer to accomplish certain objectives.

Turning 35 this year and ending the decade on a high note by completing my graduate studies; seeing both my husband’s family and my own plus dear friends of ours; and being in the process of selling our first home remind me that living is a slow journey. We are forever transforming and while it does not appear as such on a daily basis, a quick glance at the physical evidence demonstrated in our photographs and memories serves proof of our evolution.

As we end 2019, I wish you all the best tonight and for the 365 ahead. Feel free to set or not set resolutions. Remember to grant yourself grace when you make mistakes. Don’t sell yourself short when you encounter obstacles in your path. And most of all, have fun.

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And if you want to talk about New Year’s Eve plans, feel free to tell you what you’re up to today on Instagram. I’m enjoying the evening in the comfort of our home with lots of goodies from Trader Joe’s and some bourbon mixed with sparkling blush cider and maybe a glass of Pacific Coast Pink to toast to the end of 2019.

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In case you were wondering about the cider and bourbon, I found a drink online for a cider sour, but opted to simplify drinks for tonight.
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I enjoyed last year’s appetizer New Year’s choices, so it seemed logical to repeat again.

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See you all again in 2020.

~Cheryl

 

Making Money Moves Less Scary

Becoming Financially Independent

Trick or treat, everyone!!!

I’m super excited to drop in today. October is my favorite month of the year and who doesn’t love Halloween?! My treat today was 2 hours off from work, so I’m spending it here catching up. Trust me, writing (for fun) is a treat for me, so I’m happy to be here sharing my thoughts.

Years ago, I promised I would finish my talk on using VA education benefits and although I dropped that ball for far too long, I am picking it up today and expanding on the topic of money talks. For some time now, I’ve listened to a number of finance podcasts. A lot of people have at some point talked about Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University, but the people I am most attracted to talk about the program as a starting point with the eventual goal of financial independence.

With these ideas in mind, today’s blog most is influenced by a variety of media that are pretty accessible. Something I’ve enjoyed reading from time to time is the Money Diaries series by Refinery29. I also love listening to michelleismoneyhungry and howtomoney.

So, what does the final tally of my 48 months of VA education benefits look like?

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This funding helped me to turn around being unemployed and broke.

I graduated with two undergraduate degrees in 2012 and went through applying to 89 jobs before landing my first post-college position. Our lives in 2012 were pretty much as close to bottom as one can go. We had to move in with my in-laws and ended 2012 with $500 in the bank account. At that point, I was willing to take any job and that first post-college job sucked. My future boss in calling me in for a second “interview” told me veterans had not been successful in the position. To this day, she is still the top person who has made me feel being a veteran is a bad thing. The upside is her bad example of leadership had taught me how to crush it (again) in the workplace. I do believe there are individual veterans who set a bad example, but there are plenty of civilians in the same boat.

In speaking on those matters, it is important to discuss what I walked away from when I left the Marine Corps. It was the most serious job I’ve ever held and it has some of the biggest disparities between the best parts and worst parts of the job. As someone with only a high school education, I was doing fairly well for my income needs. The flip side was I had to deal with the aspect of losing my Marines, and later, the risk of losing my husband as he stayed in. I think when I was presented with the opportunity to stay in, my reenlistment bonus was on the low end, perhaps $5-$7 thousand and would have been taxed since I was stateside at the time. It was a good amount, but it was not enticing for the risk. I had to decide to leave behind a world where some basic needs like housing, food, medical, and dental were easier to manage and mostly or completely covered financially for the freedom associated with civilian life.

To give more transparency on this situation, I am providing details from a few of my Leave and Earning Statements from the Marine Corps and will also provide the comparison of my past employment with Arizona State University. For those that don’t understand the language, BAH is basic allowance for housing and BAS is basic allowance for subsistence (food).

In January 2004, I was still attending my Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) school. I lived in the barracks room provided for me with two other women in my unit. We shared a rather simple room with a bathroom and had a common room shared with multiple other barracks rooms. I went to a chow hall (think college cafeteria for the closest comparison) for the bulk of my meals, except for the times I chose to grab food from the shoppette (We were training at an Army base.) or to go out for meals. The Marine Corps footed the bill for medical and dental bills, but at this time, I think the most I ever went to medical might have been for a cold.

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As a young person with the bulk of my living expenses covered, no family to support, and no car, my only real bills were student loans and a cell phone. (I completed a year of college at Florida Southern College before becoming a Marine.) I’m pretty certain I blew all of my discretionary money on food…By the way, the MGIB is the money I set aside to earn my Chapter 30 Montgomery GI Bill benefits and I was a pretty lazy young person by not contributing to Thrift Savings Plan. I’m not sure what I thought about retirement goals at the time.

As someone who has gained financially from serving overseas, let me tell you deployment life has an upside. My second deployment was monumentally safer than the first and having married prior to deploying, we also started receiving a housing allowance to support living off base. (At the time, my husband established our household with a one-bedroom apartment I wouldn’t see until I came off of deployment.) I haven’t found an LES from my first deployment, but if I find one lying around, we can do a comparison later on. At the time, my husband and I had relatively few large expenses and as dual income earners with no kids, life was pretty great.

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SGLI, for those not in the know, is Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance. If I had died on deployment or anytime during my service after the higher rate was implemented, my husband would have received $400,000 from my life insurance. By comparison, during my first deployment, coverage was $250,000 and the funds would have gone to my parents as my primary beneficiaries.

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Money is a big reason why staying in is enticing for service members. It was also a reason why my husband and I had a hard time in our conversations over whether I should reenlist or not. While I do think the military overall has become a more equal place for men and women, I didn’t feel that way when I served and I did not want to deal with the reality my husband and I might be on back-to-back deployment cycles. Towards the end of my Marine Corps career, my 7 month deployment overlapped with a yearlong deployment for him and as a result, we missed out on seeing each other for most of the first 16 months of our marriage. That experience, and a few others, provided the necessary knowledge that money isn’t anything, but it is something to be leveraged.

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It did not take long to figure out we had to fend for ourselves. When I was not kept on in my first post-undergrad position, I had to empty out the retirement contributions I made over those six months because Arizona was so far behind with respect to its unemployment office I had to wait for three months before even being considered. (Luckily for me, I was hired by Arizona State University just in time.)

My next career move was quite a humbling one financially. If I had stayed behind in public health, my yearly gross income would have been approximately $48,900. Switching to higher education meant starting at $32,500. When I left in 2017, I was making $33,924.80 or $16.31 an hour. The position has since been reclassified, resulting in more pay for my peers. At the point I decided to leave ASU, I needed to easily increase my take home pay and one of the best things immediately available to me was picking a position that did not pay into Arizona State Retirement because I was contributing 11.6% a paycheck. As beneficial as it is to contribute so much to retirement, I was the only income earner and I felt comfortable taking a temporary reduction in retirement contributions to benefit our longterm goals.

Thankfully, the power I gained through using VA education benefits provided the cushion I needed so I could move on without dipping into retirement funds two years ago. For anyone, I would recommend avoid pulling your retirement contributions if you can because you get taxed on it pretty badly and I don’t remember what penalties were in place. The biggest downside for me when I left ASU was that I lost out on the employer match for their contributions because I was not fully vested.

From one of my last months with ASU, here’s how things broke down:

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When I left the Marine Corps, I never imagined I would make less in 2017 than I did in 2007. This is why I want to show how beneficial VA education benefits are to making a successful transition and I want to encourage those who have benefits to use them wisely. When the money is used up, it’s used up. You’ll end up with a completed goal or wish you had. The only caveat I make with the rudimentary list I created below (Sorry, my Excel skills leave something to be desired.) is that I did not work a full year with ASU in 2017. Instead, I wanted to show what my year would have looked like had I stayed. As a reminder, I am showing the total income not the take home income for the year.

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I have made substantial progress from having almost nothing in 2012 to where I am today. My Chapter 33 benefits paid for $17,874.50 of my MA in Social and Cultural Pedagogy program with ASU’s employee benefit covering $4,548. My portion (the fees for the Fall 2015 term when I used the employee benefit) were $236. To pay only $236 directly for a $22,658.50 graduate program is pretty amazing.

To also move on to a second graduate program which costs $20,964.49 and to “hack” it the same way allowed me to accomplish something I never thought possible. The VA paid $1,418.34 towards my MPA program, my employee tuition benefit covers $18,540, and I am paying the remaining $1,006.15.

Lastly, my benefits greatly reduced my need for student loans, but I do have some to tackle after my program ends in November. We’ll talk about those a bit later down the road.

See you all next month.

~Cheryl

P.S. If there are any math errors (or glaringly obvious typos), please be kind in pointing those out. I stayed up late yesterday to complete a paper. Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Navigating the Notice of Disagreement Process with the Dept. of Veterans Affairs

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It’s time to check in again.

This purpose of today’s blog entry is to help others considering the Notice of Disagreement (NOD) process with the Department of Veterans Affairs. I understand I am not formally employed to help others with this process, so there are some caveats to my guidance. Please keep this information in mind as you consider your options on how to proceed with this process.

Like other veterans, my disability claims process with the VA has not been an easy.

Also like other veterans, I’ve tried using the assistance from DAV (Disabled American Veterans) to build my case, and found–in both instances I’ve worked with DAV–their coordination did not offer any anything I could not do through my own efforts. This latter reality is why in submitting my NOD, I did not reach back to DAV to help me assemble the personal narrative I provided to have the VA.

The best thing to help me navigate this process with the VA was using the research skills I developed during my first graduate program. I went back to the VA’s own publications to see how staff members are informed about their jobs so I could understand how to make my case that the issues I’ve dealt with stem from the circumstances of my first tour in Iraq. Different types of publications are available at va.gov. Since my concern is about an entitlement to pay for my medical care routine I looked at Compensation & Pension Materials.

It is important to recognize when using a website as a tool, there are always moving parts so anything I share might not be the correct hyperlink moving forward. Instead, searching by general terms is likely to be useful to get the most direct route to the information you seek. 

I submitted my Notice of Disagreement back in November 2017, and the website now seems to package information differently from what I could recall from memory. What’s pretty great about what I found now is a section specific to the Adjudication Procedures manual available for review by year at VA Changes By Date. I think this data is important for anyone to peruse because it can be a substantial wait between when a claim is submitted and when the claims examinations occur.

In my case, particularly, the Notice of Disagreement was received by the VA on Nov. 15, 2017 and I received a letter dated August 1, 2018 informing me about the VA’s modernization efforts. The VA rolled out the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP) and the letter was an invitation to voluntarily opt-in.

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Retrieved from va.gov

 

In theory, it sounded good but tidbits from the letter made me hesitant to pull my NOD from the queue it was in to the new one for RAMP such as the following information, verbatim from the letter:

“The new law does not take effect until February 2019 at the earliest.” 

And from the Fact Sheet provided with the letter was this not so little detail on “What It Means to Opt-In”:

“[Y]ou will have the ability to appeal to the Board if you determine that further review of VA’s decision is necessary. However, the Board will not process your appeal under the new streamlined process until no earlier than October 2018.”

Since it sounded like I could end up with a longer wait time by opting in to RAMP, I waited out the queue I started with, much like one might decide to stay in the checkout line one started with at the grocery store. It is what it is, and since there is no VA equivalent to the Domino’s Pizza Tracker (shown below for those who have never ordered Domino’s Pizza in the last few years or live in nations without Domino’s) I was largely in the dark about how things progressed.

It is important to note with a vets.gov account, you can “track” your claim but it is not robust in the fact you can see when your “order” was made and who made your “order” and things of that nature like you would with the Domino’s Pizza tracker.

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Here’s what my account showed recently:

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I am sharing this image to show the VA is taking steps to improve the process for veterans. This reality is good for all stakeholders involved, but it was truly a long wait.

  • NOD was received by the VA on November 15, 2017
  • Two claims examinations were set up June 13, 2019
    • Here’s a really important step. I was not stuck with a new claims examination appointment with the VA. I was contacted by a company called QTC Medical Services, Inc.
      • The goal was originally to set up my two claims appointments for the same day, which I could not manage with my work schedule.
  • First claims appointment: June 21, 2019
  • Second claims appointment: June 25, 2019
    • Here’s another important change to the process. I was reimbursed travel expenses and this was made evident to me prior to my appointments.
    • The rate of reimbursement  was 41.5 per mile.
      • My first appointment was only 9 miles from my home, but my second was 40 miles away.
    • I was given a questionnaire specific to each claims examination to complete beforehand and brought that documentation with me to my appointment, plus a copy of medical records that only became available to me after I mailed in my Notice of Disagreement.
  • After my appointments, I waited.

The tracker I reviewed for my appeal did not provide any updates regarding when the claims examiners submitted their feedback for the decision review officer. Some days I would log into the website to see if anything changed, but each day it didn’t I grew more nervous this wait would feel like forever. The little bit of hope that this step in the process would be different came from the little “disclaimer” of sorts listed in the image at the top of this post and shared again for greater emphasis:

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Not going to lie, I marked my calendar. I waited out July and I waited out August. I took the VA at face value. Considering that my documentation sat around from November 15,2017 to June 13th, 2019 and during that time I dreaded the VA lost my paperwork, I didn’t know to believe what was posted on the website.

I checked my vets.gov account probably every other day looking for follow up. I started to worry the 10-26 months listed as the average processing time posted to my vets.gov account meant it took the decision review officer 10-26 months to make his or her decision on top of the time the paperwork had already been sitting in a national queue. And then one day, it happened. I opened my account during a quick break and found this little–although not helpful–blurb.

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I was then stuck waiting on snail mail.

Why the VA doesn’t also include a copy of the letter to the vets.gov account is beyond me, but at least now I had something to go on. I wasn’t going to spend almost two years waiting for more feedback. It was either September 19th or 20th I believe when the letter finally arrived.

The Statement of Case was 21 pages, the bulk of it being the laws, regulations, and rating schedule provisions. To avoid clogging up this blog entry, you can go to Title 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Pensions, Bonuses and Veterans’ Relief.  

Finally on page 19 of this packet was some information on what the VA found to be service connected and what was still denied followed by the VA’s reasons and bases for those decisions. The particulars of their decision are not as relevant as what I am about to say.

The decision I made to stopped seeking medical care while I was in the Marine Corps because it continued to be substandard in diagnosing my chest pains and the fact the first civilian doctor I saw in 2007 only put in notes about my visits without diagnosing their origin play a role in the VA not backdating my claim back to 2007 when I originally informed them of the problem. 

I am fortunate, though, unlike many people that I found a medical provider who built up my trust again in the medical community. I met her in 2012, but it wasn’t until 2015 when we started going over my chest pains and over time, she learned more of my background and presented options to me to manage the reality of my situation.

From what I’ve learned both in dealing with the VA and understanding now how much easier things are when you have transparency and the ear of a helpful nurse practitioner is you are important. There is nothing more important than attending to your health. Your job doesn’t matter and your other responsibilities don’t matter if your health is not attended to and you ignore the signs and symptoms that something is wrong.

I know I should have complained more when I was at BAS (battalion aid station) and asked for a second opinion. Or I could have received other opinions after my EKG’s and chest x-rays demonstrated it was not my heart or lungs. We could have continued exploring for the cause and found a solution years earlier than we did.

The other feedback I have for anyone exploring the Notice of Disagreement process with the VA is to not expect the final result to be the solution to your problem(s). 

The below listed compensation tables, copied directly from the VA’s website, show the significant variance in what the VA can pay for disability benefits for those found to have  a service-connected issue.

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Individuals can have conditions that get worse or improve over time, so it should not come as a shock the VA can reevaluate someone’s disability rating.

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I know this entry is a bit longer than most, but I think transparency is key. The process for the Notice of Disagreement must serve veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs tasked with administrating the program, and the taxpayers that share in the burden. There is a significant amount of accountability needed with these benefits, just as any other program administration so I found it useful to scour the VA’s website for some data to show the scope of disability ratings, how they’ve changed over a few years, and what sort of breakdown there is by body system.

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Just bear in mind as these numbers could give a false sense that an excessive number of people are leaving the military ‘broken’, the Department of Defense is the single largest employer in the United States and according to what I found at Governing in 2017 that meant 1.3 million active duty personnel and 800,000 from our reserve components. The numbers reflected here, instead, represent multiple eras of military service which should not be forgotten.

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Get Out of (School) Debt Free Card: The Downside to “Taking Care of our ‘Disabled’ Veterans”

I am taking an unpopular stance on the recent memorandum regarding discharging federal student debt for permanently and totally disabled veterans, but hear me out. Like a number of other socially and politically motivated moves, there is in this case a lot of talk on the surface that does not get to the nuances of the situation. My view is informed partially by my work in higher education and my experience as a student who has used the Post-9/11 GI Bill at the 100% level and still made the decision at times to take out student loans without choosing to take on the maximum debt available to me.

To start with, there is no such thing as a perfect policy. It does not matter if we have a Republican president or a Democratic president. It does not matter the distribution of party influence throughout the different levels of our government. There is no policy that can serve the needs of people perfectly because there are rules in place to ensure a standard process for efficiency and ideally, to prevent abuse.  Additionally, some people will be served at the expense of others who are excluded from the benefit. That’s just how it goes.

Before I proceed further, you can read the memorandum here.

I want to be transparent our society has not always given great deference to our nation’s veterans. Vietnam veterans know this all too well. There will be some merit to updating the student loan forgiveness policy currently in place, but I do not buy into this effort as something to honor our veterans.

Our society often offers incentives to veterans as a means to cure its own problems. 

The incentives are then wrapped in language to appear that veterans are the primary recipients but there are a diverse amount of groups that are also served when veterans (and/or their families) receive benefits. The people who support such measures can help encourage their likelihood of being re-elected. Organizations can use forms of collaboration to cut costs. Different groups can use such measures to be viewed as more “veteran friendly” in comparison to similar public or private competitors. Even the history of VA education benefits started with a mission to help address the reality of unemployed veterans. Since our society has always had something to gain from the “feel good” nature of veteran programs and services, namely the economic output of veterans like other consumers, we should look critically at what is accomplished and also what we don’t intend to happen, but could happen with policy implementation.

Again, I want to reiterate there will be those in need who are properly served by updates to the Total and Permanent Disability Discharge, but the situation is ripe for possible abuse and must also be viewed in light of VA benefits to defray the cost of education.

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This information from the Federal Student Aid’s website indicates eligible veterans have disabilities that are “100% disabling or that [veterans] are totally disabled based on an individual unemployability rating, that includes the effective date of the VA’s determination.”

A veteran can be 100% disabled for VA purposes but that does not mean he or she is unemployable, which is a significant quality I think this memorandum misses entirely.

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It is not necessarily fair to provide the same benefit of student loan forgiveness to a veteran with a 100% disability rating that is employable when there are those 100% totally and permanently disabled veterans for whom work is not possible.

It is this distinction that irks me. And I’ll express my views a bit more to explain why this issue is something I think was grossly overlooked and may have been back when disabled veterans were included as an eligible group. (Perhaps, the website will be updated with more clear language but I think the 100% disabled veteran and the 100% totally and permanently disabled veteran will be treated the same moving forward as well.)

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The above charts provide evidence our 100% disabled veterans receive an ample tax-free benefit designed to help them deal with their service-connected disability. Again, a disability (and disability rating) does not necessarily preclude veterans from being employable.

If I were to look at a family like mine with three family members, a veteran with his or her spouse and child receives $3,352.41 on a monthly basis. This family receives $40,228.92 annually, tax-free, and there is the possibility the family receives other forms of support, either earned by the veteran’s service (like a VA work study position), a civilian job occupied by the veteran, or by the spouse.

Many veterans are eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill and if they are eligible at the 100% level, their education benefits provide a significant incentive to not accrue student loans or to practice responsible borrowing.

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Using Arizona State University as my example, having completed my Master’s there, let’s look at a few simple situations:

Spring 2019 (undergrad resident student, campus) $5,411

Fall 2019 (undergrad resident student, college fee 1–the cheapest programs) $5,669

 

The cost of this academic year is $11,080 covered completed by the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  If we look at the Federal Aid max, a first year independent undergraduate can receive $9,500 in federal loans. Why take out the maximum federal loan when said student can take on work of some kind? 

When I looked at the Federal Student Aid website, between four years of an undergraduate program, a student can take on $45,000. It might be easy to say that loan amount is needed for housing and other expenses, but again, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has other payments attached to it.

The basic allowance for housing varies across the nation for resident training but the Department of Defense rate, which started for student entering programs after 1/1/2018, is $1,680 for a full month of attendance at Arizona State University. If I recall correctly, there are between 113-115 days each for the spring and fall terms. The $1,680 BAH is divided by a 30 day month for $56 a day. If the term is 113 days, the student receives $6,328 and if the other term is 115 days, the student receives $6,440.

Plus the student receives a book stipend of up to $1,000 for 24 credits in the academic year.

Here’s a nice way to look at our 100% disabled (but completely employable) veteran:

$40,228.92 disability compensation

$12,768 basic allowance for housing

$1,000 annual book stipend

Total tax-free money cleared by student: $53,996.92

The rest of the money is paid to the school, but the $11,080 tuition and fees payment demonstrates the student does not need a student loan to pay for direct educational expenses unless the cost of books and supplies exceeds the book stipend, which it could. If anything, the student could have indirect educational expenses but he or she should modestly accept student loan debt instead of using the total and permanent discharge as a “get out of school debt” card because it is simply available. Other options are part-time or full-time work to pay for expenses not covered by VA educational benefits.

The VA also has another program called Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment. One of the tracks available helps pay for higher education which is what I am familiar with in my work. Like the Post-9/11 GI Bill, it pays tuition and fees to the school, the cost of books, and a subsistence allowance like the Post-9/11 BAH. Counselors sometimes pay for parking passes and consumable items, like paper and pens. It’s been a little while since I’ve dealt with this particular benefit on a daily basis, but the expectation is students must still provide valid support for incidentals.

Students can have either the traditional subsistence allowance for VocRehab which for a veteran and two dependents is $923.60 a month, falling back on my example of a family of three persons, or the alternative Post-9/11 rate for veterans who also earned the Post-9/11 GI Bill, paid at the same rate of the zip code of the school. In this situation the $1,680 monthly rate.  I am not sure what percentage of VocRehab recipients in higher education are at the 100% disability rating, but I wanted to share this information for awareness purposes that our nation is already doing a commendable job setting veterans up for success without them having to seek the maximum student loan each year to fund their education.

I know I am barely grazing the surface of the issue, but I wanted to express why the matter of student loan forgiveness is not the same for a 100% disabled veteran with employability prospects as it is for the 100% permanently and totally disabled, unemployable veteran.

The first group can easily abuse the system set up to assist the disadvantaged and take out the maximum student loan amount each year, enjoying some $45,000 of fun money (from my example) with zero consequences unless a distinction is made moving forward that it is the 100% disabled, unemployable veteran community who should benefit from this collaboration and not both groups of 100% disabled veterans.

UPDATE (August 24, 2019, 5:42 p.m.)

I meant to include this snapshot earlier when I was looking for some info on VocRehab to share. SCDs stands for service connected disabilities. The jump in disability ratings is a bit staggering for the 60-100% disability rating scale and it does shows the burden on the VA to attend to this influx in disabilities increased significantly. I pulled the information from the VA’s website. It just took a little Googling here and there to scout for VocRehab information that might be relevant for today’s conversation.

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What is ‘Home’?

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I’m on Day 2 of my Staycation so it’s exciting to drop in for today’s June entry. I know I don’t relax well; I have a difficult relationship with leisure time. As much as I crave it, I also have my heart and brain tugging at me to make great use of my time. I am one of those people who has to learn to be ok with slowing down which is not something I’ve done much of as I’ve juggled full-time work and school. Funny story, but I’ve noticed that once I became eligible to work, I juggled more than one commitment.

My pattern of activity has differed over the years. I started working part-time in high school, holding down that job for two years. I also partially committed to sports, completing two seasons of track and one season of cross county. I only made it through one semester of college before picking up a student worker position. During my Marine Corps career, I occasionally picked up college classes, paying for them with DoD tuition assistance. A return to college after separating from the Marine Corps also meant a return to part-time work. I did not find a decent paying position when we moved to Wyoming so I committed solely to my undergraduate studies until we decided to have our daughter and then I juggled parenthood and collegiate studies until my May 2012 graduation. The short “break” in excess commitments ended in 2014 when I returned to school as a graduate student while working full-time. I graduated May 2016 but I picked up another graduate program October 2017, again while working full-time.

Big sigh here. I am my own worst enemy about overcommitting myself to projects.

It’s a big part of why I’ve taken a break from my memoir writing and my blog writing. I’ve needed to rest to see how far I’ve come in my journey and to reflect on the right things, instead of the things that have been difficult. I want to present you all with my best self and to do so means slowing down. I have to be ok with not getting the draft of my memoir finished this year (or realizing I am still capable of getting it done once my degree program is finished). It’s not a paid project, yet, so I should not beat myself up for taking my time with what is to be my longest writing endeavor.

Getting back on track with today’s lesson, I am here to talk about developing a sense of home. I’ve been blessed to live in many different areas, some domestic and some places overseas. In each instance, I had a family arrangement composed of biological and non-biological relations which also includes friends. When I was overseas, I remained connected to my domestic group using snail mail, e-mails, and MySpace. 2007 was the last time I was overseas, but I still use technology to keep in touch with my domestic group, favoring Instagram and Facebook, and my overseas connections. (I’m pretty certain I also stopped using MySpace in late 2007 and started Facebook some time in 2008; I’m pretty late to using Instagram, only creating an account in 2016!).

With my journeys, I’ve developed an eclectic home with my husband and daughter. It is part California and Rhode Island. Ocean blues dominate in many different areas: furniture, clothing, and towels, for example. The touches are not nautical themed, but we do have some ocean artwork in our residence. My coastal life and regional upbringing are more present in my food preferences. Meals at home have included shrimp, scallops, clams and oysters, a variety of fish, langoustine, Mexican chorizo and Gaspar’s chourico.  It’s hard to think of a pasta I don’t enjoy; I can, instead, list my preferences for you. A love of travel also influences our decor, food choices, and down the road, our tile choices for our dream home. I’ve shared a few things below I’ve found through Instagram and love.

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I know this entry is quite different from many that focus on my time in the Marine Corps and my service in Iraq. Today is the anniversary of my mother’s death and I wanted to reflect on the adult I’ve become because I moved away from home, the place she grew up. Rhode Island is beautiful in many ways, but there’s always this part of me that felt it wasn’t where I was meant to stay. It is, though, a place I return to and I appreciate it greatly when I am there.

My home is different from the home she created for our family. Her home was eclectic, too, in a different way. While these family photos show our family members front and center, please also pay attention to the decor style. Each of us come into our own by our upbringing, resources, and societal influences during our life course. My mother was someone who was not only a care taker of her children, but someone with a green thumb she did not pass along. The array of indoor plants she kept is not something I’ve mastered in my own life. We can barely manage cut flowers and I’ve only recently nurtured my daughter’s $7.99 orchid from Trader Joe’s, mostly because that thing only needs 2 Tablespoons of water once a week. My mother’s home reflected a country influence with an interesting love of Chinese white and blue ceramics and black lacquer screens. She liked floral print fabric place mats and could sew curtains for our home.

When we lived in our Chula Vista, California townhome with its patio (probably the same size of slightly smaller than my current one), our home was filled with some trending home decor items of the 1980’s and 1990’s. We had woven wood bowls similar to these and oversized wooden utensils for wall decor. She had these macrame style owls on our walls and our childhood birthday parties lacked the overdone party themes present in today’s childhood parties to make them Instagram worthy. She was not a person who lived being photographed so it’s hard to find photos of her and also photos of our past homes to show off her design choices.

She was a simple woman in her preferences and style. She loved to read. Aside from V.C. Andrews novels and true crime books, she would regularly pick up gossip magazines. She dressed pretty casually for the most part but also had some dress clothes, particularly for going out with her girlfriends. I never adopted her love of going out dancing with friends, but she helped to build my love of reading. Her book collection was not off limits to us and she is also the reason I had quite a love affair for Pier 1 Imports for many years.

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Our dining room in our Chula Vista townhome.
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Our last Christmas together. My mother was dealing with Stage 4 lung cancer.
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The floral print tile in the background of these photo is one of my mom’s last design choices in our Rhode Island home.
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My late mother in our Imperial Beach, CA home (possibly 1996). 
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My sisters and I in our Imperial Beach, California rental home.

It’s fun to think of what her thoughts would be on my adult home that is so vastly different and also similar to her own and the plans for which are more global than local in inspiration. We both have been drawn to blue in our homes, with a wedge wood blue once dominating her kitchen cabinets whereas we’ve chosen Behr’s Dawn Gray (a dramatic dark blue in natural light that appears gray at other times) for different parts of our current home. Our family garage in our Imperial Beach home served as her exercise/home office and our home is littered in different areas with weight plates and other exercise equipment. I’ve replaced her Tony Robbins cassette tapes with a series of self-improvement and writing reference books. In lieu of her Asian inspired home decor and wooden wall art, my family’s first home features various wooden furniture and someday our forever home will feature geometric Middle East inspired tile. I am not as fond of floral prints and plant maintenance but I am not opposed to some cacti and succulents for greenery in our outdoor space. These low maintenance plants are well-suited to my poor nurturing skills and the needs of our local environment.

And to end on a real light note, I am not sure what my mom would think of my vegan and vegetarian food choices. As a mother of four, she had more practical choices to make with her limited food budget. I think she would have been hesitant to try things like tofu, jackfruit, almond coconut milk, and vegan cheeses. While I am not happy when we have food waste, I also recognize it’s good for my family to try new things like these items so I test out food recipes–even vegan and vegetarian options to encourage more fruit and vegetable consumption in my household–more than I think I ever saw my mother do during my upbringing. (Side note: We aren’t strong fans of vegan cheese but we do like the vegan ice cream options we’ve had in the past.) I know in making these comparisons, too, there will never be a complete “apples to apples” comparison with my mother’s choices as so much as changed in society from 1984 when I was born to 2000 when she passed and where things are now in 2019. It’s still fun though to think of what these stories mean for our family. As I’ve learned, our sense of ‘home’ is uniquely created and something we continue to develop over our lifetimes which impact not only us but the people we bring into this space.