Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Another Family Weekend

This was one of those odd weekends where finances seemed to crop up in lots of little issues-- nothing major, just a lot of weird little random things!
Originally, I was going to get a ride from my aunt and uncle up to visit my sister and her family, as it was my niece's birthday. I was a little lax about communicating with my uncle, and by the time I spoke to him, to confirm what I thought were our plans, it turned out that he was not leaving from NYC, and that since I had to work for most of the day on Friday, getting a ride from him would mean trying to meet up with him somewhere completely out of the way. This started to sound like a total pain in the butt and not that big a savings of money, so I ended up deciding to just skip the ride and take the train, at a cost of about $120. But my consolation was that I could get a ride home with him instead. It didn't seem ideal, as I wanted to spend more time with my niece and nephew, and my uncle was planning to leave earlier so he could stop off at Foxwoods on the way back to do a little gambling. His words to me: "Yeah, come on down with us, I'll buy you lunch and you can take the money you would have spent on the train and play the slots!"
I didn't intend to play $120 worth of slot machines, but the idea of going to a casino was not entirely unappealing to me. On principle, I am opposed to gambling because it is just such a financially stupid thing to do, and when I've been to casinos in Atlantic City, it's always depressed me to see people sit there with their debit cards plugged into slot machines, often looking like they are desperate for a win because they are really poor-- in other words, exactly the kind of person who can't afford to gamble. But there is something oddly fun about slot machines. On one of those trips to A.C., which was for a trade show, I had about $5 in my pocket and I told myself, what the heck, since I'm here... I'll play it and see how it goes. I got a bunch of quarters, lost a few, then won a few. As soon as I'd won back the $5, I stuck in in my pocket and told myself I would continue to play only with my winnings, so I could be sure of at least breaking even. By the time I had to leave, I was up by $50 and went home happy. I returned the next year thinking I was Ms. Lucky and tried the same approach. But this time, after the initial $5 was gone, I said, hey, wait a second, I was supposed to win! So I played another $5. Then another $10. Then a $20... and of course in the end, I basically lost the $50 I had won the year before and went home feeling disgusted with myself. I hadn't been back to a casino since, so I thought it would be interesting to go to Foxwoods, if for no other reason than that I was sure it would give me some great material to blog about! In the end, it didn't happen, because my uncle cancelled his trip entirely. Cost to me: another $120 train ticket (and untold riches in slot machine winnings).
My trip also involved a subway ride in Boston, which ended up being a source of great confusion. For a long time, it seemed, a subway token was $1.25. Then I think it went up to $1.35. Then at some point, all the stations started getting these ticket machines that sell "Charlie Cards," which just cracks me up because of course they are really "Chahlie Cahds" and I just wonder who came up with that idea. Anyway, at first I thought it was still $1.35 and that I just had to put that much on the paper ticket. When that was rejected by the turnstile, I went back, read the sign more closely, and thought I had to get a $1.70 card, so I dredged up some more coins, but then the card was rejected again. Finally, upon reading the sign again, it turns out that the fare is $2.00 if you're using a Charlie Ticket but only $1.70 if you're using a Charlie Card. Or something like that. Anyway, I didn't think it was made very clear. But I suppose I was just annoyed at being made to feel like a dope, needing 3 tries to get through the turnstile of a transit system that I used to think I knew quite well.
Meanwhile, as I mentioned, it was my niece's birthday. I found a $15 present, a set of hollow blocks that form the various rooms of a dollhouse, and she absolutely loved it, much more than other more expensive presents I've given her in the past. I also gave her a check for $50, to which she was completely oblivious, given that she's a toddler. But her mom was glad to see it. It's funny trying to figure out gifts for kids. At a certain age, they're too little to know whether you've given them anything at all. But they're so cute, you want to shower them with gifts anyway. And if you're the fairy godmother, as I am, you feel you're expected to be very generous. Then later the kids are old enough that you want to give them something that they think is fun, rather than something they look cute in, or just need. Then there is the question of giving them money-- at this point, I hope my sister and her husband actually put the money away for the kids, but who knows, perhaps it just gets spent on day to day needs. I often wonder if I should set aside a separate stash of money for the kids and just give it to them when they need it for college. Or even open one of those educational savings plan accounts for them. It's not like I'll ever have an enormous amount to give them, but I don't want them to be spoiled. I don't want them to think they'll always get handouts. Should I just hang onto most of the money and leave it to them later, when they're old enough to appreciate it, and I'm dead? It's just weird to try to think what will be best for them 15 or 20 years down the road. For reasons that I need to write more about, I worry about how much their parents will be able to save for them, and if it comes down to it, I want to help out if they get to that point in life where a little financial aid will enable them to have a better (self-sufficient) future.
So the fun part of the weekend was playing with my niece and nephew-- pretending to deliver mail with their toy mail trucks, watching my niece draw a picture of the whole family, including a blob that was supposed to be me, and having my nephew hug me so enthusiastically that at one point I thought he'd broken my nose and/or one of his teeth. Just picture the MasterCard commercial: "Plastic Surgery: Thousands of dollars. Lifelong disfigurement: cost impossible to quantify. Knowing your nephew flung himself at you in a paroxysm of adoration: priceless." And the funny thing was that most of the time I was romping around with the kids, my sister and her husband took advantage of the opportunity to hide in the other room and do their tax return online. At one point my sister came out to say "mortgage points are deductible, aren't they?" But they'd paid points on refinancing, or getting a home equity loan, or something like that, so I wasn't sure how that worked... and when I got home I tried to check and saw that points have to be paid in cash, rather that being included in the loan, to be deductible, so I bet that's what got them.
But after refreshing myself with the charms of youth, it was back to the trials of age. My parents are still trying to cohabitate because they can't afford to do otherwise. My mother doesn't seem to have run up any more debt. But I keep being reminded how much I really have to deal with talking to my father about his finances and making a will, etc. He has a lot of health problems, and his latest treatment for one of his conditions is some kind of intravenous drug that suppresses his immune system. Over the weekend, he quickly went from having a touch of a cold to feeling quite a bit worse, so I spent 4 1/2 hours with him at a local emergency room Sunday night. He had bronchitis and a touch of pneumonia. Luckily he responded very quickly to the antibiotics they gave him, and he is a good patient when it comes to being aware of his condition, going to doctors and taking the needed medicines, but it still reminded me how easily things can go wrong.
Just being in the hospital waiting room was an experience in itself. I've been fortunate enough to be very healthy all my life, and haven't had to go to a hospital myself since I was in high school, and even then it was just for a sprained finger from playing basketball. Other than that, I've visited people in hospitals, or accompanied people who were going in for tests or surgery, but never the emergency room. This weekend I was just in a suburban hospital where things were fairly quiet and none of the patients seemed to be there for drug overdoses or stab wounds or any of the horror-story kinds of things you hear about in NYC emergency rooms. But there was a guy waiting there who kept asking other people how long they'd been waiting and theorizing that people with insurance didn't have to wait as long. I kept wondering what he was there for, and how much it would cost him. Meanwhile, my father kept making rather dismissive remarks about this hospital, saying that it just wasn't up to the standards of Beth Israel in Boston, where he sees some top notch specialists for his other conditions, because he still has a health plan that allows him to see any doctor he wants. If he didn't, I wonder if he'd still be alive at this point, as he's had some close calls.

So that was my weekend, in terms of random thoughts relating to money. Actual expenses:
$245 travel
$12.50 dinner on train
$65 gifts for niece
$3.50 card for niece
$0.75 candy bar in hospital waiting room
$5.43 coffee and snack at train station


Anonymous said...

Have you considered starting a 529 college savings plan with yourself as the owner and the children as the receipient. This would be untouchable to the parents and if the kids decided not to go they could not blow the money on a new car.

Anonymous said...

How come you didn't take the $20 Chinatown bus to Boston? Very popular choice.

Chance said...

Hear, hear for the chinatown bus! The best bargain around. what a great story of how things just pile up -- sounds like you had some great family time though.

mapgirl said...

I'm not a fan of the Chinatown bus. Often there is no restroom on the bus and they don't stop to let you pee.

I;m glad you had such a good time with your family. It's good you are considering what to do about your father's health and future. Don't procrastinate on this one. I can't tell you what a scare it was to have to consider what my dad really wanted as far as resuscitation went or how my mom would carry on the family business in the event he passed away. It's tough conversation. I wish you luck & support when it happens.

Madame X said...

I used to take the Peter Pan and Greyhound buses when I was less able to afford the train, and I grew to hate them, so I have always resisted the Chinatown bus. Also it seems like the really cheap fares are only available at weird hours. And Mapgirl, yikes, now that I know they don't always have bathrooms, I am definitely never risking it!!!

Anonymous said...

Maybe things have changed but when I took the Fungwah (Boston-NYC) bus a few years ago, I remember it having a bathroom, comfy seats, and the driver gave us a fifteen minute rest stop break. However, the Fungwah bus has been in the news several times recently for road accidents so I probably wouldn't recommend riding on it at this time until they get their act together.

mapgirl said...

I think it depends on the bus line you pick whether or not there is going to be a bathroom. Research that one carefully, or try a pair of French '76's. (The link may not be safe for work though depending on your sensibilities.)

Anonymous said...

So do they call it a Charlie Card as an allusion to Boston Charlie, who in the kids' song "may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston... he's a man who'll never return"?