Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Healthy 2018, Part 1: The Budget

New Year's Resolutions have never been my thing. Part of it is that I get annoyed with the surge in people at the gym. And the other part... do people actually stick to them? I'm generally not a fan of certain failure.

When 2018 rolled around, though, I had a desire to make some tweaks in my life. So I borrowed a key agile principle - no multitasking - and figured I'd use that to start to make some changes. The idea was to just pick one change at a time and focus on it until I felt like it was ingrained as a habit before moving on to something else.

Habit #1 - budgeting - started a few days before actually toasting in 2018. My sister spent a few days raving about her new budgeting tool (YNAB - pronounced "why nab" - which stands for "you need a budget") and I finally got so intrigued that I signed up for a free trial.

Let's talk about budgeting.

Before YNAB, I actually felt pretty confident with my budget and with finances. I used Mint to track my expenses, spent less than 50% on essential expenses, put away more than 15% of my salary for retirement (including employer match) could come up with $2,000 in an emergency and my only debt was one outstanding student loan with interest under 5%. (All of which are general benchmarks for budgeting and not just random facts about my situation.)

But here's the thing... even with Mint, my money just kind of leaked out. Mint doesn't force you to be hands on with your budget, so if you're not on top of categorizing everything, you don't get the information you need from your budget. And so after a few months, while I kind of had a budget, it wasn't really providing me with the information I needed and definitely didn't bring any accountability. So yeah, everything was fine and I didn't have credit card debt, but was my money really doing what I wanted it to do?

Enter YNAB.

YNAB uses a unique approach that I found absolutely revolutionary. They have four rules, and the idea is that you only budget the money you actually have. You start to put this money away for the expenses that don't come up all the time. When you go over budget, you're not just punished with a budget bar turning red, you have to find the money to cover that overspending from another category. And over time, you're supposed to get to a point where you're a month ahead of your spending.

I could probably rave and educate about YNAB for blog post upon blog post, but they've got tons of educational materials and stories and even free classes on their website, so I'll stop.

What I've learned about budgeting, money, financial health and health in general in the first two months of 2018:

  • There are certain truths that apply whether we like them or not. If I spend more money than I earn, I go into debt or deplete my savings. If I consume more calories than I burn, my weight goes up. We may dislike the feel that we're restricting ourselves, but there's just no way around those basic truths.
  • Intentionality is important. Before I had to sit down and actually say what every dollar in my bank accounts was going to do, I had assigned 3-5 jobs for every dollar. Actually creating a budget, I had to prioritize and decide what was most important. Some things just had to go away... a clothing subscription service didn't make the cut. Travel did. Extra debt payments did. Eating out with friends on occasion stayed, BUT ordering in went way down. Suddenly the motivation to meal plan and grocery shop went up when I had to make my dining out money last a few more days... and if I didn't, it had to come from somewhere else.
Now that I'm feeling like the budgeting habit is ingrained, I'm going to take a quick break on new habits in March to start a new job and do some travel. But coming in April... Whole 30 for a diet reset.

Quick note: this is definitely not a paid advertisement or review for YNAB; however, I do have a referral code that will get us both a month of YNAB for free if you sign up after the free 34-day trial. Click here.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

"If you would just be content..."

"...then God would send you someone."*

This is, by far, the most frustrating thing that people have ever said to me, to anyone else, or even to themselves.

I can only assume that it comes from Psalm 37:4 - "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart." But if you interpret this verse as "be content in Jesus and he will give you all the things you want today", you miss a key interpretation of the verse. What happens when you delight yourself in the Lord? HE becomes the desire of your heart. This verse is by no means an indication that God is a genie waiting to grant your wishes if you can get over the test of delighting in him.

That said... Marriage is a good thing and it's an appropriate thing to desire. God is a relational being; he created us to be relational beings. Marriage is a picture of God's relationship to us. There is nothing shameful at all about wanting marriage.

There is definitely a potential and a tendency to desire marriage for the wrong reasons, and perhaps this is what people mean when they say that you need to be content in Jesus. The challenge is this overlooks the fact that God's blessings are not dependent on us, but are an overflow of his grace in our lives. I've heard stories of people who found someone when they knew they were struggling, and I know single women who are at least as "content" as married women I know.

The tricky thing about contentment is that we live in the tension of the "already but not yet." We are at once in perfect standing with God because of the debt Jesus paid on our behalf and being transformed and renewed while we continue to live as fallen people in a fallen world. Contentment is available... but we are in a place where we are not yet what we will be.

The most contentment that I have experienced is something that the Germans call "Sehnsucht" - it is, paradoxically, "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction." (CS Lewis, Surprised by Joy) There is a contentment that comes from knowing there is a certainty to the hope that I have in Christ. This comes with an intense yearning because I do not experience any of it perfectly today. I've experienced it on the drive to work on a beautiful fall day, where I want to bask in the foliage and know that it will all fade within a month's time. I've experienced it when I've been confronted with the sin in my life and it grieves me.

Given the reality of where we are, being here on earth, being in good standing but still not yet experiencing a perfect relationship, it is natural for us to look to the "tangible" things as the final answer to our contentment. "If I could just meet a nice man..." "If I could just get a good job..." "If I could just pay off my student loans..." We have all tricked ourselves that contentment lies just around the next hurdle.

It doesn't.

And when I find myself experiencing the desires and the longings that are inherent in singleness (and in being human), I see them as a gift. They remind me that all is not yet as it should be. The best is yet to come.

*Matt Chandler has an amazing bit on this

Monday, February 15, 2016

Blog Pivot: And now for my thoughts on singleness and entitlement

Oh Valentine's Day... I gave up hating it years ago. That said, I was a little dubious when I was asked to speak at my church's college ministry Valentine's Day relationship-themed lunch... about singleness.* Here's what I shared**:

Does anyone else remember growing up in the youth group purity culture? I can't even count how many youth conferences I attended where I learned such pertinent truths as "condoms are only 86% effective and HIV is significantly smaller and can pass through every day of the month!"

I probably could have been the purity poster child, if my hair were a little blonder and a lot less frizzy. I attended all the lectures. I read all the books. I signed the pledge cards. I had the ring. I kissed dating goodbye. (Note: the link is not a book recommendation.) I was intimately acquainted with the life of Christy Miller and all her friends, and figured I had my own Todd Spencer waiting for me. I figured that I would hold off dating until I was ready to get married, which I planned should happen at the age of 24.

24 came and went.

30 came and went.

Nearly a full decade has passed since my scheduled age of marriage, and my Todd Spencer is nowhere to be found.

And so I got frustrated. Hadn't I done everything right? Didn't they teach me that the reward for purity and "honoring my future husband" was that I would have a future husband?

It wasn't all that long ago that I was listening to a Tim Keller sermon on the drive to work when I was figuratively hit in the gut. He was talking about how our righteous deeds, done with the motivation of trying to earn God's blessing, are actually sinful because they are motivated by pride and self-righteousness.


This is actually good news. What does it mean that we are saved by grace? It means we can stop stressing over trying to get everything right, and rest in the work of salvation that he accomplished on the cross. It means that we don't need to pay off a debt that we can never repay before we get blessings that we do not deserve.

So where does that leave me in my singleness? One thing that I have learned in the ups and downs in life is that God really does give us what is best for us in every circumstance. I look back with fondness on some of the most difficult journeys I've gone through because I can see how I grew in them.

I am not single because God is punishing me for my self-righteousness. I am not single because I made the silly mistake to kiss dating goodbye in high school. I am single because this is precisely what is best for me right now. I am single because this is how God can be most glorified in me right now.


*Fortunately, I got over that. And as I was preparing what I was going to say and joking with my friends that I could write a book about my expertise in singleness, I started to think "maybe I should..." and then I thought "well, maybe just a blog..." and then thought "or maybe just use my existing dormant blog so I don't have to go through all the work of choosing colors and images and templates."

**Disclaimer: I do joke about being an expert at singleness, but I just want to emphasize that I by no means have things figured out. I do not live in rainbow-sunshine-unicorn land where I feel constantly #blessed because I am so content with being single. I live in the real world where we all experience longing, and sometimes that longing expresses itself as "well maybe if I weren't single". So don't read my blog if you want the secret to always having a smile on your face. I really just want to start a dialog rooted in grace and how the gospel transforms us in our singleness. Non-single people welcome to join in.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Ready, Set, Goal!

When I was in junior high, I was entirely convinced that the first two months of gym class were designed explicitly for personal torture.  The unit: the 2 km run.  When talking to my classmates from that era of my life, we can all reminisce about how completely horrible those months were.  I think there was a maximum time allotted to complete the distance, and I used to come in just shy of that time by planning my walking breaks accordingly.
Fast forward to today, when I completed my first half marathon.  If you would have told my junior high self that she would one day not only run a full 2 km, but essentially do it more than 10 times in a row, I'm not sure how she would have responded.  The even crazier part?  I ENJOY running now, especially at this time of the year when it's a comfortable 11C (in the 50s for all you Yanks) and the leaves are out in full.
There was a transition between my running-loathing junior high self and my current running-loving self, and that's what I really want to talk about.  When I started to focus on really getting into good physical shape, I picked up running because you can throw your runners (sneakers for you Yanks or trainers for you Brits) into a suitcase and run everywhere.  While I've only really been training since September, it was around three years ago that I first started dabbling in running.  At that time, I threw "run a half marathon" on my bucket list as a crazy, I-don't-know-if-I-can-achieve-this-but-wouldn't-it-be-cool-if-I-did stretch goal.  For context, I think at that time I was doing walk/run intervals with the weight being much more heavy on the walking.
My accomplishments in running (if I'm allowed to call them that!) have been leading me to ponder what I've learned about goal setting and personal development.

  1. Set SMART goals. Running is really conducive to setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Timely.  My first running goal was to run 5km in 30 minutes.  I can point to the specific run on my Runkeeper app where I achieved this.  With personal development and business goals, it can be more challenging to make goals SMART, but finding a way to do this will help significantly in actually achieving them!  It also prevents you from slacking off when you're almost there.
  2. Have a plan. If you were paying attention, you may have noticed that I actually started running a little about three years ago, but didn't really start training until last September.  I would say that between three years ago and last September, I made relatively little progress - I had gone from a run/walk of 2 or 3 km to a very slow 5 km run.  Since September, I've quadrupled my total running distance and made a significant dent in my pace.  The difference between these two periods?  A plan.  I'll be honest, if left to my own devices, my accomplishments would have been minuscule.  But I felt my goal was too important to leave to chance and enlisted the help of my sister, who happens to know how to build workout plans from her undergraduate education.  When your goals are tied to an organization, the plan is even more important as those involved will want to know how they can contribute.
  3. Keep at it. Tooting my own horn again, I'm going to tell you that I've run through deep, slippery snow (and been sprayed on by a snow clearing truck), pouring rain, and nearly-sweltering sun.  There were days that I was really tempted to skip my distance runs, but I did it anyway.  (Unless I was sick, which happened once, and my trainer excused me. ;-))  It can be easy to give up along the way, but every amount of progress that we make is really the culmination of a whole lot of little decisions to just keep on going.
  4. Celebrate the victories along the way. I've set a number of mini-goals on my journey to the half-marathon.  I remember excitedly texting my sister the first time I ran 5km in under 30 minutes.  My first 10km run was in Central Park.  I don't "reward" myself for each accomplishment (aside: studies have shown that adding a reward to an accomplishment can actually cheapen the accomplishment), but I share it and I revel in it.  When you're setting goals and achieving them, people want to be happy for you!
  5. Set a new goal once you're done. Life is boring if you coast.  I'm toying with figuring out what comes next.  I'm definitely eyeing a faster time for the BAA Half in October, or maybe my first (and likely only) marathon at Disney World in January.  Anyway, regardless of what I decide, it's important that I don't just stop here.  If we aren't improving, we're falling behind.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

What I Learned About Business Consulting from Style for Hire

This past weekend feels like a hazy, ethereal experience. By way of quick background, my daily attire consisted entirely of jeans and a hoodie prior to the advent of the TLC show What Not to Wear. I didn't buy my first pair of heels until the age of 24. While I don't consider myself anything close to a fashionista, I no longer wear hoodies outside of the house (or the walk to the gym).

A few weeks ago, a post appeared on Twitter announcing that Style for Hire was looking for some volunteers to participate in their upcoming stylist training workshop. As a volunteer, you would bring your wardrobe into the conference and be subject to a wardrobe makeover. Not thinking there was any chance I would actually be selected, I sent in my info. Not only was I able to take part in the workshop, but my sister who had booked a last minute flight to come see me was also able to join.

Without going into all of the amazing details, I will share a few of the highlights from the weekend:

  • Digging into a Sylvia Weinstock cake at the end of the workshop on Sunday. (it was from a wedding at the hotel; in my defense, I didn't realize that it was a $20,000 cake when I stuck my hand in to grab a piece)
  • Walking out of the hotel and waving to a big crowd of paparazzi and autograph seekers, only to discover that while in the hotel, I'd been two feet away from the actor who plays Thor in The Avengers.
  • Seeing my sister positively light up from the experience.
  • The last one will take some background: The training convention was both about training and selecting stylists for the Style for Hire network. As part of the evaluation process, the stylists had to go through my wardrobe, put together an outfit, and present it to me (in front of Stacy London of What Not to Wear fame). After a particularly awkward presentation which involved a loose, flowy top and some boot cut jeans (during which I definitely began to reconsider the purchase of the aforementioned top), the wannabe stylist turned to me as an aside and asked "would you actually wear this?" "Well, I actually tend to wear that top with skinny jeans," was my reply. Stacy apparently overhead and said, "did you say you wear this with skinny jeans?" She then proceeded to explain to all the stylists why the top would work for me with skinny jeans. So, even without two days of style training, I got it right!
Anyway, though I went in with the attitude of "I have no idea what to expect, but what's the worst that could happen?" I was exceedingly delighted with the experience and actually learned a lot that I can apply to my work as a consultant. So, here are some of the takeaways:

  1. Know your client and their needs: One of the best stylists that put together an outfit for me could not only mirror back everything I'd told her about my needs in an outfit, she also incorporated it into her recommendation. The outfit she'd put together was for a date, and she remembered to give me flats because the guy is only moderately taller than me. Another one remembered me saying I won't wear anything less than a full suit to an interview and put that together. By contrast, another stylist put together a great outfit, but had forgotten that I said I wouldn't wear heels while shopping in Boston because of the uneven sidewalks. Unfortunately for her, Stacy turned to me and asked "would you actually wear this for shopping on the weekend?" and I had to say "no."* In consulting, there are so many frameworks and precedents that it can be easy to put together a client recommendation based on what I think is best for me, but if I don't take the time to ask them the right questions and then thoughtfully incorporate them, they won't be as happy with the solution.
  2. Be sensitive to where your client is at: One of the more exciting things about this weekend was seeing my sister's transformation. While she will be the first to admit that her closet needs an update, it's still something that can be hard to hear from someone else. While the fabulous Lisa Dontzin was demonstrating a closet audit today, she worked some amazing magic in reading Becky's responses to her suggestions. In doing this, she was able to get Becky to start with some small changes and slowly work up to cleaning out a few items from her closet. I've been in client meetings where we've come in with guns blazing ready to make suggestions without really considering what the responses would be, then ended up dealing with some of the emotional side effects. (yes, corporations can be emotional... Or, rather, executives at corporations) In subsequent meetings with that client, we were significantly more careful with how we worded the headlines of our slide decks and presented our recommendations. I suspect that as I grow as a consultant, I'll be able to know the hot button issues without even having the client tell me what they are, just as a good stylist can intuitively sense a reaction.
  3. Challenge the stereotypes: I have to be honest that the thought of coming into a room full of stylists was more than a little intimidating for me, especially as I had left all my "good clothes" in my closet for the stylists to play with and had shown up in jeans and a way-too-big cardigan. I had made a pre-judgment on the fashion industry and was prepared for, as the waiver form stated, "stylists with no tact." As it turns out, these stylists are some of the sweetest people I've ever met! I think that, thanks to Office Space, consultants probably have a similar type of reputation in the corporate world. I do have a mug that says "Consulting: if you can't be part of the solution, there's good money to be made in prolonging the problem." So when interacting with clients, including their admins and data managers, be genuine, be kind and be courteous.
  4. Surprise and Delight: The final part of the workshop that I participated in consisted mainly of experienced stylists. One of the phrases that I heard continually as they discussed how they handle various client situations was "surprise and delight". We have a similar phrase in consulting: under-promise and over-deliver. It is so important to appropriately manage expectations, but still find ways to work in bonuses!
 In closure, I just want to give a big shout-out to Style for Hire!  My weekend was amazing.  Back in September, I'd considered hiring a stylist, but wasn't certain whether it would be worthwhile.  After seeing the complete magic that the stylists worked on my wardrobe (like putting together a dozen new outfits from clothes I already own!), I'm definitely going to get a stylist.

*Confession time: I actually decided to wear a pair of heels to go shopping yesterday and I confess that I enjoyed the fact that I looked totally fabulous.  I also did not sprain an ankle.  That said, the bottoms of the heels of my new Cole Haan pumps have been overly beat up, so I'm not likely going to start wearing heels all the time.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: A Fond Farewell

For as long as I've been blogging, I've written a New Year's/year-end post to sum up the year and look forward to the year ahead.

  • Travel: This year, I've hiked along the Great Wall of China, ridden Icelandic horses, driven through the Scottish highlands, visited friends in the UK, taken a "self-portrait" with the Penny Lane street sign in Liverpool, eaten soup dumplings in Shanghai, driven a snowmobile on a glacier in Iceland, earned a certificate for mastering the "perfect pour" at the Guinness factory in Dublin and watched musicals in London. Oh, I will certainly miss all of the long breaks that come with the student lifestyle! On the plus side, I have fairly ample vacation time at work and, oh yeah, an income.
  • Graduation: In May, I fulfilled a long-term goal of graduating with my MBA. I can't even begin to sum up how much the decision to move to Charlottesville and pursue this degree has changed my life. I now have friends across the globe, opportunities that just weren't there for me three years ago, and a job which I love and at which I am challenged.
  • Move to Boston: In the back of my mind, I dreamed of living in Boston ever since I visited on my MBA school tour over three years ago. I remember telling my sisters how excited I was about going to Boston Pops concerts if I ever did get to the city. While I was job searching, I wanted to be as flexible as possible, but really, really wanted to live in a "walkable" city. Since moving to Boston in August, I've felt incredibly blessed. I ditched my car less than a week into life here and have not regretted it even for an instant. I got a Zipcar membership, but have only used it once. Also, in December, I made it out to my first Boston Pops concert!
  • Physical Health: Not being one for New Year's Resolutions, I waited about three weeks into January to take my first visit to the North Grounds Gym. Not being one to do anything halfway, at that time I got back on the Weight Watchers train, started running and hired a personal trainer. Nearly a year later, I'm proud to report that I've dropped two to three sizes (depending on whether you go by numbers or letters) and can run a full 9.5 km (could probably do more, but I'm slowly building up my endurance).
  • Faith: If anything is really responsible for the joy I'm experiencing right now, it's renewed relationship with God. I've had my ups and downs in this area all throughout my life, but after struggling during my first year at Darden, I found an AMAZING small group at my church in Charlottesville, and they encouraged me tremendously. I've really been focusing on getting involved with a church here in Boston and making sure that I make time for my relationship with God... But most importantly, if I've learned anything in 2011, it's that ultimately there is nothing on this earth that really satisfies us. What matters most is that I'm falling in love with the God with whom I will spend eternity.
While 2011 certainly had it's fair share of challenges, heartbreaks and disappointments, the overwhelming theme of the year was hope, joy and adventure. And the best part is that it isn't joy from life events or external blessings, but a deep, abiding joy that comes from feeling like I finally have my priorities straight and am deepening my relationship with my amazing God.

Some things I am looking forward to in 2012:
  • Now that I'm in a stable routine for the foreseeable future (no more switching between work, school, internships), I'm planning on finally getting down to the goal weight I set nearly three years ago
  • Running a half marathon
  • Getting settled and established in my job - it's been a steep learning curve so far!
  • Getting to know new people here in Boston
  • Serving at my new church

Monday, November 21, 2011

Church Shopping

There are all sorts of analogies which can be applied to the process of finding a new church congregation to be a part of when moving to a new city. Given my past experiences with moving to a new city, I wasn't expecting the process to be so laborious that it would need an analogy, but alas, the Boston church hunt was not as easy as the Charlottesville church hunt (first one I went to was amazing AND I found the best small group ever) or the Edmonton church hunt (some 20 years ago... again, the first church our family went to was having a picnic and that was enough to garner our loyalty...).

Anyway, the most fitting analogy that I can find regarding finding a church is one on dating. As with dating, the first thing you do is find some sort of superficial characteristic by which you can judge whether a church is worth a visit. In my case, a whole variety of characteristics appealed: young adults group, church plant by my favourite pastor Tim Keller, recommendation from a friend, good music. Some churches lost my interest after a first visit (we didn't make it past the first date). Others I tried out small groups or attended multiple Sundays. After a few weeks, not feeling particularly well on a Sunday morning, I got frustrated and simply gave up altogether. I won't say that I attended "Pillow Pentecostal" or "Bedside Baptist" because I think that's a cop out, but I also didn't drag myself across town to find a church.

With some churches, it wasn't that there was anything wrong with them, it was just that they didn't quite fit right. I didn't see the connection, and while I didn't see it at the time, it was because God was directing me to the place I have ended up.

Anyway, I came across Mosaic in a completely unsuspecting way. There was a T ad that caught my eye every morning. I didn't think anything of it until I was doing a search on Google for something completely unrelated to church, and an ad popped up there. Following the ad brought me to the webpage, at which point I discovered that two of my favourite superficial church characteristics were met: it was a ten-minute walk away and the services were at 10:45 a.m. (A Goldilocks time: not too early, not too late)

Still debating Saturday night over which church to go to, I slept in on Sunday morning and my timing to get to Mosaic was perfect. I went to the first service and... well, it was fine.

Mosaic may never have made it to a second date, except that I just had a feeling... and being lazy, the default is always to attend the closest church with the most convenient time.

Something amazing happened the second Sunday I attended Mosaic. In case you are not familiar with how church works (and have somehow made it this far), community happens something like this: at some point in the sermon, someone at the front tells everyone to stand up and greet their neighbour (at my Cville church, we were supposed to give them a "high five, handshake or hug"). Everyone stands up, has a brief conversation with their neighbour, and promptly sits down and forgets the person sitting beside, in front or behind them. At the end of the service, if you came alone and don't know anyone, you duck out without being noticed, and if you want to find "community" in a church, you join a small group or volunteer.

There was no mid-service greeting time at Mosaic. Instead, as I was ready to make my I-don't-know-if-this-is-where-I-want-to-attend bolt out of the door, someone came up to me and said "hello." Completely unprompted by the pastor! Say whaaaaaaaaaaaaaa...? After talking to her, as I was leaving, the pastor shook my hand at the door, had a lengthy conversation with me, and told me we should go for coffee.

I'd be lying if I said I was sold right there. That very afternoon I saw another T ad for a church only a five minute walk away. I considered trying THAT one out, but when I went to the Mosaic community group on Wednesday night and everyone was so WELCOMING, I decided against trying something new. In the dating analogy, I was seeing Mosaic almost exclusively.

Anyway, this past Friday, Mosaic and I had the equivalent of the "DTR" (define the relationship talk). It was a "family meeting" and we talked about membership classes. Membership classes are pretty much the equivalent of church marriage, except until death do us part, it's until a move to a new city do us part. While part of me feels some commitment phobia, I also feel excited about what God is doing in and through Mosaic, and I desperately want to be in on the ground floor.

But, more importantly, Mosaic is a place where I've found community. When I said someone greeted me after the service however many Sundays ago, I was underemphasizing the quality of the community. This is a church where people hang out on their own volition, everyone looks out for one another, people stay after church to eat together (I'm cooking this Sunday - lasagna, if you're interested and live in Boston!) and everyone genuinely cares. I can't even begin to tell you all the amazing experiences I've had over the past few weeks, but I'm so happy and excited.

I know that, just like falling in love, I'm in the honeymoon stage. There will be bumps along the way. But commitment means getting the good and the bad and it means holding on and fighting for great community when obstacles come up. In the meantime, I'm just going to soak in the blessings and spend my days grinning widely.

PS I don't actually know anything about dating or falling in love, so hopefully my analogy is accurate.