Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Yeah, but how do you pay bills?": A look at finances

You know that moment when you’re on a roller coaster and you get to the top of a hill?  The click, click, click of the gears slows to a stop.  You can see the drop in front of you and you think, “Today, I’m definitely going to die. My harness is not tight enough and I bet I'll fly out of this seat.  I have no idea why I got on this stupid ride in the first place.”  Your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty, and you likely have to pee.

I’ve had this “top-of-the-hill” moment many times in the last several years: joining the Peace Corps, starting graduate school 9 months pregnant, agreeing that my husband should also go to graduate school, and choosing to do international research with my family are among the highlights.  One thing I have always worried about is money: will I have money at all? will it be enough money? what do I do if there’s no money?  So with this post, I would like to share how my family has made things work financially.  When I thought there was no way it could work, we've gotten off of the roller coasters in one piece.

Years 1 & 2:
Income: graduate student stipend and husband’s full time salary

Major Expenses: Monthly Rent = $850-900, Monthly Childcare (1 infant, full time) = $950, Health Insurance for the infant

  •  Employee discount – My husband worked for a company that offers a discounted childcare rate for employees whose income falls below a set threshold. So we were eligible for the discounted rate of $950 (the rate without the discount was about $1200 for infants). 
  • Childcare Subsidy – Based on an application we submitted, we were eligible for a childcare subsidy from the graduate school, $5000 over the academic year 
  • Health Insurance – We added the baby to my husband’s health insurance.  It was a better, and more affordable coverage plan.

 Year 3:
Income: graduate student stipend and husband’s student loans

Major expenses: Monthly Rent = $850-900, Monthly Childcare (1 toddler, full time) = $845, Health Insurance for the toddler ($200 per month) 
  • New daycare – We noticed that employees were able to send their children to this particular daycare.  We asked if there was financial assistance available for families and the owner worked with us on the price (regular tuition: $1030). 
  • Childcare Subsidy – We were still eligible for a $5000 childcare subsidy. 
  • Health Insurance – We added the toddler to my graduate student insurance plan.

 Year 4:
Income: graduate student stipend and husband’s student loans

Major expenses: Monthly Rent = $850-900, Monthly Childcare (1 toddler, full time/1 infant part time) = $845 + $695 = $1540

  • Childcare Subsidy – Because of changes in our family's situation, we were eligible for an $8000 childcare subsidy. 
  • Health Insurance – The cost of adding both children to my policy was about $500 per month. We could not afford this, so we applied for Medicaid which provided health coverage for both children. 
  • Food – We were also eligible for the federal SNAP program (food stamps) which provided funds monthly to be used at grocery stores and at our local Farmer’s Market.

Summer Before the Move
Income: small summer fellowship

Major expenses: Monthly Rent = $850-900, Plane Tickets = $1500, No Childcare (kids are home with us)

  • Student/Personal Loans – A family friend loaned us money for the plane tickets, and a small student loan was helpful for household expenses since my grant funding doesn’t start until August. 
*Image credit:

Thursday, June 19, 2014

"What if you get sick?"...Likelihood: High

In the past couple of weeks, I have focused on medical care and precautions for the kids.  Last month, I had to get medical clearance for myself as a requirement of the grant I received.  That involved going to the doctor and getting a physical and checking to make sure my vaccines were up to date.  As for the kids, I discussed these things with the baby’s pediatrician over the course of the year at his regular check-ups.  However, the toddler’s check-ups are once per year and insurance only covers “sick visits” outside of the annual physical…he hasn’t been sick (thankfully) so I haven’t been able to talk with his pediatrician. The office offers “travel consults” but insurance doesn’t cover them either.  So, I have to get resourceful.  Here is what I know based on a combination of doctor visits and my previous experience living in the country:

All of us are up to date on routine vaccines.  The baby is a year old now, so he’s had all shots at least once.  His pediatrician says he would normally get boosters at 15 and 18 months but he can wait until we get back to get them.  There is a nice clinic in the D.R. where he could get his boosters, but his pediatrician expressed concern about proper storage and potency of the vaccine.  Since they were not urgent, she preferred that we wait.

Typhoid is a food-borne disease that causes fever, diarrhea and vomiting. The typhoid vaccine can be oral (lasts 5 years) or an injection (lasts 1 year) but neither of these is covered by most insurances.  I probably won’t get the vaccine, but the toddler will (it is approved for children over 2).  Typhoid is treated with an antibiotic.  Avoid street food if you’re worried.  Likelihood of getting it: low

¡Este sol caribe pica! (This Caribbean sun burns!)  I’ll probably bathe the children in sunscreen and start an aloe plant farm.    Likelihood of getting it: high

Sounds like bad news.  It comes from food contaminated with E. coli.  My doctor wrote me a prescription for antibiotics for the duration of my trip.  Kids can’t take it so the fix is to hydrate and move to the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast).  Good thing bananas and rice are cheap…Likelihood of getting it: high

Dengue mosquitos bite during the day and malaria mosquitos bite at night.  There are no vaccines for either (there are preventative malaria pills but the kids are too young to take them, and I’m wary of their long-term use).  So, the solution is to try not to get bitten – wear insect repellent, sleep with a mosquito net if your room has open windows or no A/C, avoid areas with standing water.  Prevalence of dengue and malaria vary by region.  For La Romana, likelihood of getting it: dengue: medium, malaria: low

RESOURCES BEFORE WE GO: Concentra (, Passport Health (, and your local Health Department.  Each of these places offer travel consultations and vaccines based on where you will be going.  

RESOURCES WHILE WE'RE AWAY: We will still be able to call Nurse Advice line of our U.S. pediatrician.  Also, since we are living in a city where there is high tourism, many of the clinics and hospitals have doctors that speak English.  Some may accept U.S. health insurance.

            Medical Binder
I’m creating a medical binder which will include health records and information for each of us: shot record, list of allergies, contact phone number of doctors/pediatricians in the D.R. and in the US; copies of insurance cards.  I will also travel with a first aid kit and over the counter meds.

                        *Photo credit:

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Creating a Work Schedule: Finding Order in the Chaos

Carving out enough hours in the week to get my work done is essential to my sanity.  This type of work –  academic scholarship – has the potential to bleed into every aspect of my life.  So, it is important for me to create a work schedule that makes me feel productive while also allowing me to have hours when I am “off work”.  My work schedule has probably looked different each year based on the demands of that academic year, the flexibility of my partner’s work schedule, and availability of childcare.  Here are a few snapshots of my work schedule over the years:

Years 1 & 2: Heavy coursework (both years)/Teaching Assistantship (year 2), husband’s 9am to 5pm job, full time daycare (1st son born in September, two weeks after classes started)

  • I could work 9am to 5pm after my son started daycare at 10 weeks old.  Before that, I worked whenever I could.  Grandparents babysat while I went to class and my husband watched the baby in the evenings when necessary.  I also worked during naps and at night.  Even with full time daycare, I worked many evenings and weekends since some labs/classes/group meetings were at night. 

Year 3: Some coursework/ Teaching Assistantship/Preparing for Proposal Defense, husband starts graduate school, full time daycare, pregnant with second baby

  • I continued the 9am to 5pm schedule.  I worked some nights and weekends depending on various deadlines that arose.  Since my husband was in his first year of grad school, his schedule was more intense than mine with the evening and weekend commitments; so I was on kid/home duty more often this year. If I worked in the evenings, it was from 8pm-no later than midnight when necessary.

Year 4: Some coursework, husband in graduate school, 2 kids in full and part-time daycare

  •  The toddler remained in daycare full time.  However, we couldn’t afford to have both kids in daycare full time on the income of two graduate students. So the baby was in daycare 2 days per week.  For the remaining 3 days, I had him on Wednesdays and Fridays and my husband had him on Mondays. [Side note: I had a Wednesday class during a time when my husband didn’t have class, so we swapped him off during my class time.]
  • I worked 9am-5pm for 3 days per week and pieced together hours on other days/evenings/weekends.  I tried to make weekend work hours overlap with nap times or visits with grandparents to minimize the “mommy guilt”.  I also scheduled meetings on days when I had the baby (and took him with me) so that I could protect my “work days”.

Summer before the move: Papers/Projects/Preparation for trip, husband has graduated and is not working, 2 kids, no daycare

  • We pulled both kids out of daycare for the summer to save money for the move.
  • Now, I work for 5-6 hour chunks each day and my husband is with the kids while I’m working.  I have a morning or afternoon work schedule depending on family activities for the day.  For example, the local museum is free on Wednesday afternoons so I work in the morning on Wednesdays (9am-2pm) and join the family outing in the afternoon. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

It’s official! A Plane Ticket Has My Name On It

"When are you leaving?" "I thought you were supposed to be gone already." "Are you headed there soon?" "Why are you still here?!?! Leave already!"

Well, wonder no more!  We bought plane tickets a few days ago!  Our departure date is August 2nd. We will fly from Charlotte to Miami to La Romana, Dominican Republic.  “But Trenita, according to your post about dry erase boards, your apartment lease ends on July 9th!” (you say) Well, this is true.  However, I will add my husband and kids to my student health insurance during the open enrollment period, and their coverage doesn’t begin until August 1st.  Therefore, we’ve got some time to hang out before we go.  We will be living with my in-laws (who are very wonderful, I might add) for a few weeks until we leave the country.

Each one-way ticket to the DR costs $385.30.  We need three tickets (the baby flies semi-free) so the total cost for three tickets is $1155.90.  The semi-free baby isn’t free for international flights.  We have to pay 10% of the cost of a ticket for him, even though he will be sitting in a lap and not a seat.  I’m not sure why the 10% exists for international flights, but I’m not complaining. It’s only $38.

The cost of checking baggage is something I will complain about.  I flew to the D.R. in March of last year and I don’t remember any baggage fees.  Since April 8th of this year, you pay $25 for the first checked bag and $40 for the second checked bag.  Since we are 3 ticketed passengers, we will have up to 6 checked bags.  That adds up to $195 in baggage fees.  Some child items don’t count (like strollers or car seats), but others do (like the “Pack and Play” – it’s like a traveling crib). We could have chosen to fly into Santo Domingo (first bag is free for this city) or upgrade to business class for $100 per ticket (each ticketed person gets 3 free bags). BUT, Santo Domingo is 2 hours from La Romana (you couldn’t pay me to add one more step to this trip!) and I don’t think I can keep up with 9 bags anyway.

I think we’ll have plenty of space…famous last words…I feel a blog post about packing anxiety coming on! 

* Photo credit: