How much we spend on debt and health

Currently, for my husband and I combined, we spend $1,200 each month on health costs and debt. For health costs, this includes prescriptions, doctor’s visits, and a minimum of tests. For debts, this includes credit card, student loan, non-loan overdue university bills, bank fees (many of which we wouldn’t get hit with or would be lower if we had more money), and back taxes (from when we didn’t manage to pay enough estimated self-employment tax during that period when Husband worked full weeks and unpaid overtime but was only a “consultant” – just so that his employer wouldn’t have to provide him with benefits). And the monthly costs may increase soon since we’ll no longer be able to defer payment on my school loans, probably to about $1,400.  We are 24 and 29.  I’ve read that people in my generation have higher levels of debt in their 20’s than most previous generations.

With regards to credit card debt, I think I definitely fell victim to some predatory lending, and now I’ve got a debt with a really high interest rate and high over limit and missed payment fees too. I think I should have known better than that, but it’s too late now to ruminate. Now that things have calmed down, I’m going to see if I can get the rate down or transfer the balance to a card with a lower rate.

And now, I arm you with knowledge from Co-op America’s Real Money about predatory lending:

Predatory lending: Predatory lending is a fast-growing practice in which financial institutions use high fees, exorbitant costs, and other unscrupulous lending practices to take advantage of targeted groups—often the elderly, students, and low-income people. In the case of credit cards, banks may market cards to these groups that “contain hidden transfer charges, exorbitant late fees, and exploding interest rates,” according to the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL).

It’s not just target groups that suffer from such practices. A Woodstock Institute report states that “the intricate web of penalties and fees implemented by the credit card industry may be one of the key factors for the high level of indebtedness among Americans. In January 2005, the average US household had seven credit cards and carried a balance of $14,000, the highest level of debt ever.”

I feel a little better knowing I have less than average credit card debt…

The Science Behind Spore

I love to play computer games, and for years now I’ve been eagerly anticipating Spore, the next big game by Will Wright, the creator of The Sims. Recently, new videos about the game were released, including a great video on the science behind Spore. It includes evolutionary science beginning with single celled organisms and growing into creatures that you design; sociology as species grow from small tribal groups to large societies; and astronomy, planetary and space science as your beings explore the universe beyond their planet. I think it would be a great game to encourage kids to play to show how science can be fun!

Settling in to the summer

The last few weeks have seen an interesting hodgepodge of demands on my time, but I think I’ve managed to secure enough babysitting hours to stabilize the financial situation a little bit until we get our next cash influx, which should be a few weeks away now. Financially we’re in what Husband is calling a “famine cycle,” but I think I’ve succeeded in keeping it from getting as bad as it has been in the past. I pulled in all the cash from any savings account we had, enough to bring our bank account in the black again, and now I can put enough cash from babysitting into the account to keep from bank fees and bounced payments when some of our unavoidable bills are processed. This feels a little better, although it’s still really stressful as a significant portion of our bills are going unpaid, and thus our debt is just growing further.

I found a new occasional baby sitting gig, watching a 2 month old. I’m happy to be around a baby again, as the toddlers at my other gig are now 20 months and 3 1/4 yrs old. And so far, the baby seems to be a pretty easy baby, although I haven’t spent too much time with him yet. His parents are both musicians, and I’m going to be helping out while his momma gets some practice time in. So I get to listen to some great classical piano while I’m working, too! It’s pretty soothing. So far the baby and I seem to interact well – he likes my smile and my laugh.

So this is what my weekly schedule is shaping up to look like: 5-10 hours with the 2 month old, 10-15 hours with the toddlers, unknown number of hours in the lab (I’m a “part-time staff associate” for the summer), and 10-20 hours on the startup company. I’ve been taking time off from lab work the past few weeks to focus on helping to get the business pitch ready for our next attempts to secure funding, but I begin lab stuff again this week. We have some new summer undergrads who I will be meeting on Thursday and begin training on Friday. I’m looking forward to new potential mentees!

As for my mental and physical health, I’m struggling, but fighting hard. I’ve been a revolving door of various infections, viruses, and other stress-related sickness. I feel the pull of the bed, with the comfy covers and the promise of sleep and dreams, but I’m managing somewhat to get myself to do work. Last week I felt myself wanting to sleep an awful lot, but on Thursday I fought hard against the desire to stay in bed, and it was a good step. I went out and ran some errands in the neighborhood and then went to Starbucks and did some work there, and by the time I returned home I felt somewhat rejuvenated. When I get stressed out too much, I try to meditate and relax. When I feel like sleeping but know that I’ve had enough sleep, I try to get out and just do little things to get myself going. It’s these small skills that I’ve been cultivating to fight depression, and I’m definitely getting better at it. These struggles with depression and anxiety haven’t been easy, but I am definitely able to see progress in my ability to deal with everything and to fight my way out of the depressed state. I know that I’m dealing with everything that’s going on now in a much, much stronger way than I would have even two years ago, and for that I’m proud.

A scene from my marriage

I’m in the kitchen, mixing up some buttercream frosting (I have to admit, I was adding it to the gingerbread cookies Jenny sent, because I have such a sweet-tooth I thought “mmmmm more sugar!”). I’m trying to open the bottle of vanilla extract, which is stuck. I grasp the cap hard, and try to turn it, applying torque through my hands. What I end up doing is grating my hand against the ridges in the cap, which hurts. Finally, I give up, and go find Husband. Where is he?

“Husband, I need your help!” I call. I find him in the bathroom, struggling to get the plastic seal off of a new bottle of contact lens fluid. We look at each other, exchange an amused expression, and trade bottles.

Seconds later, we both have what we needed and couldn’t do ourselves.

Cat Wisdom Wednesday: Einstein on God

Last week, I read about a letter containing Einstein’s thoughts on religion that was auctioned for $400,000. I haven’t been able to find the full text of the letter, but this article seemed to provide a good amount of information about what was in it.

From all that I can read, I agree with Einstein’s more nuanced views on religion and God.

So the new Cat Wisdom will be a quotation from the letter itself:

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.

Thanks to Jenny F. Scientist

I am currently soothing myself with some delicious lemon ginger tea that Jenny F. Scientist so kindly sent as part of a feel better package. It was incredibly sweet of her, and I am touched! I wanted to share you with her thoughtful gift.

IMG_1679A gift, with a nice handwritten note.

IMG_1680
Mmmm, fresh teas! And a delicious organic blueberry and walnut chocolate bar…must find a place to get more of those! (And of course, labeled with lab tape. ;-D)

Cookies

Homemade cookies! I love cookies!

Thanks Jenny! It really did help brighten up my weekend to come home on Saturday and find the package!

Check out these women in science posters

Check out this poster project site.  You can see thumbnails of the posters and even order some or all of the set for your office or school corridors, so that future students will have visual evidence that you care about and support women in science!

And if you happen to be in the NYC area, you can come and attend the opening celebration and panel for the “Women in Science Poster Project.”  I’m going to try to go!

What: Opening celebration and panel of an exhibition of the poster project.  The panelists will tell personal stories about becoming a scientist and visualizing science.

Where: Columbia Teacher’s College Offit Gallery in the Gottesman Libraries at Columbia University.

When: The opening starts at 6PM on Wednesday June 4th, with a panel discussion to follow at 7:15PM.

On failing the quals … again!

I failed the quals again, on my second try, and now I must leave the program. I learned this on Friday, May 2nd, (it started with an ominous e-mail late Thursday night, leaving me unable to sleep or relax or frankly function well at all until I met with the committee chair on Friday) and was sort of reeling from the information for a while. I originally began this post the weekend after that, but I was busy dealing with the actual life decisions and the immediate need for fun and relaxation, and I forgot to come back to it until now.

I’m still pretty shocked and fairly pissed at the faculty of my department. The other person who had failed the first time and been encouraged to stay and take it again also failed this time around too; I ran into him on my way home from meeting with the committee chair and he was on his way to meet with him. Perhaps I had misinterpreted, but I had thought when they asked me to stay and try again that I just needed to show a good faith effort to do better this time around. After all, I had to stick around for an entire year in order to take the exam again, including a semester after receiving my Master’s degree. And for that year they funded me on a departmental NSF grant. They had invested in me and they had been the only ones to educate me (I stayed at the same school as I did my undergrad). They had accepted me into the graduate program even after my struggles with depression throughout my undergrad years, and they had encouraged me to stay and try again when I failed the first time. I really thought that I’d be fine as long as I studied hard. And I did study hard – but I still failed.

So, you may be wondering, what happened?

Things I don’t know:

  • Whether they deemed my performance better or worse than last time (i.e. what they were looking for). I took a different approach to studying this time around. I started studying before anyone else who took the exam this year, and it was my second time taking it so I had a better idea of what the experience would be like (but apparently no better of an idea of what they were looking for me to do). After I failed the first time, I was left with very little feedback. I asked to see my exam, but it wasn’t allowed. While he offered me some details about which subjects I had performed better and worse on, I had no idea if I had actually gotten things wrong, if they were unhappy with the place(s?) where I had to write “This is what I would do if I had the equation to start,” or if it was just that I hadn’t finished enough of it. This time, I felt more prepared and knew more material going into the exam, but there were still gaps in my knowledge. I felt (and still feel) like it was somewhat of a crapshoot, and all I could do was hope they’d either keep it to the most essential topics or that I’d be lucky enough to have recently reviewed the more obscure topics.
  • Whether I got things wrong on the exam or merely didn’t finish enough of it. This time, I’ve been somewhat unable to think about and exam my exam performance too much. It’s just too painful. So I didn’t ask any questions when I met with the committee chair.
  • What kind of departmental politics are going on and how they may have impacted the faculty’s decision to fail myself and my peer. Earlier this year, the faculty considered getting rid of the qualifying exam. Apparently some of the faculty think that we should still have it, but that it should be extremely strict, with no room for “Well he did better than last time” or “She’s a great researcher.” Those faculty think that in the past they had sometimes been too lenient. They cite departments at other schools (Princeton and MIT) where 1/3rd or more of the class is cut after the quals. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the faculty advocate completely getting rid of the quals. Some of these arguments and views may have been formed after last year, when 11 people took the exam and 3 of us failed. One person was taking it for the second time and passed, but I heard their performance was only marginally better. Of the three of us that failed, 2 of us were encouraged to stay and try again and the third was just told to leave. Later, there were complaints of politics playing a role in who got to stay and who didn’t, and I think this may have led to the viewpoints that it should be stricter. Meanwhile other professors saw that those of us that had failed were excellent researchers and had of course passed (and done fairly well in, I’m sure) the courses on which the exam was based. My understanding is that it is still possible they will get rid of the exam next year, or at least change its format.

Things I know:

  • I struggle with this exam format. I’ve written about this before. It was a closed book exam, 4 hours long. There were 6 questions, giving us about 45 minutes per question. Most of the questions were very detailed, and I just couldn’t work through them fast enough. I left some serious chunks undone because I ran out of time. Also, my subject uses math heavily, and while I’m good at and enjoy math, I’ve never been good at memorizing equations (or memorizing anything). For most of my undergraduate education (at the same institution with many of the same professors who wrote the qualifying exam), exams were open book. That worked for me because I’m very good at using the available tools and information to solve problems, but I don’t see the point in memorizing anything that isn’t used so often that I memorize it without trying. This time around, I had written out about 100 flashcards of equations I thought I needed to memorize to be prepared. While many of the questions on the exam were fairly central to their subject matter, about three of the six were what I’d consider to be detailed specific cases which ended up requiring the use of equations that hadn’t even made it into my flashcard pack. One of the questions began with and required an equation for a special case that I had not memorized, and I was left completely crippled on that question.
  • I succumbed to the pressure during the exam. I had been studying for months, and I knew this was my last chance at the exam, and there was a lot of pressure. As I was working through the exam and finding it challenging, I began to get increasingly flustered to the point where I did shed some tears and I considered handing it in unfinished and walking away. I was distracted by how upset I was and unable to focus on trying to solve the problems in front of me.
  • I’m a great researcher. I’m organized and self-driven. Because I began researching in my advisor’s lab as an undergrad, I’d made significant progress on my projects and we had thought I might be able do the degree in a shorter time than average. As a member of a small lab group, I’d managed as many as 4 projects at once, while most of my peers were only in charge of one. I’d voluntarily taken on managing and mentoring the undergrads in my lab. And I’m first author on a paper with my advisor that was published in the main journal for the subject area last fall. Many of my peers were struggling to come up with a project and to write their thesis proposal, and I already have a draft from a year ago when I used a class project to write it. And my first poster drew compliments not only on the science but on the easy organization of information and appealing visuals.
  • Some of the faculty are sad to see me go. I know this because they’ve either told me directly or they’ve told my advisor.
  • I contributed significantly to the department. I’m the founding president of the department’s graduate student association; in fact I was the ONLY grad student to even respond when the committee chair was looking for students to get a GSA started, and I went and recruited others to work with me. I’ve interacted directly with the graduate committee chair and the department chair, and I’ve often contributed my ideas and insights when they were looking for feedback or evaluation. Also, whenever prospective students visited I gave them tours and made them feel welcome.
  • There are lots of places I can go from here. The graduate committee chair who gave me the news reminded me that I could still apply to other programs and that it wouldn’t go on my record or anything so it will just look like I just left with my MS degree. If I ever want to, I can return to grad school in the future, and I will be better able to choose a department that fits me.
  • I am looking forward to trying out other directions. I wrote about this before the exam in my post on my career path, but I am excited about exploring other research areas (perhaps some women in science research?), popular science writing, teaching and tutoring, or maybe research or project management in industry. I’m also considering working full-time for Husband’s company in the fall, doing a combination of marketing, project management, financial management, and online community building.

Overall, this was a pretty bad experience, but certainly one that I’ve learned from. Some days I am happy and excited about exploring other opportunities. Other days I get a bit down from the shock and emotions of it all. Always, I have my husband, family, and friends supporting me, and for that I am both happy and thankful.

Science Fairs and socio-economics

I’ve been loosely following Science Woman’s live blogging of the International Science & Engineering Fair, and in particular I’ve enjoyed the discussion in the comments section of this post. I’m particularly interested in the socio-economic status of the students who compete in the fair, and recently Podblack Cat discussed that in her post “Girls Got What? Competitions, Science Careers And Benefits.”  She asks:

Of course, the selection is made without knowledge of the backgrounds, but how many of them came from enriched environments? How do we factor in mentoring by grad students / faculty or even parental support?

Her post is interesting and informative, so go check it out.  And be sure to check out the posts and discussion on Science Woman‘s blog, too!

Health Insurance for the Self-Employed

As I mentioned previously, among other things, failing the quals and being kicked out of the program has left me suddenly without health insurance after the end of this month.  For the summer, I have work lined up, but it is without benefits.  After that, I hope to be able to work for Husband’s company, which would make us both self-employed.  (For stability, I’ll get a real job if we don’t have a solid amount of funds in the company account).  After I found on e-health insurance that a medical plan with prescription (and maternal) coverage for Husband and I combined would run $700 a month,  Sara from Yellow Ibis shared with me this great NYTimes article on finding health insurance for the self-employed.

From the article I found this great resource, healthinsuranceinfo.net, which is hosted by the Georgetown health policy institute.  From there, you can get a free state-specific consumer guide on getting and keeping health insurance.  I haven’t completely delved through my state’s guide yet, but I’m glad I found this great resource!