Profits Over People

Do you remember a few months ago hearing about the bitter cold snap and all the people in Texas who got screwed by natural gas companies and received bills in the thousands of dollars?

Do you remember feeling sorry for those people and thanking your lucky stars you didn’t live in Texas?

Me, too.

Turns out, though, I’m one of them. :/

A little background:

I live in a small city and our only option for heat is to buy natural gas from the city (as well as water, sewer, and trash). They all come bundled together in my city ‘utility’ bill. Our typical monthly bill for those utilities generally ranges from $150-$215 month, depending mostly on our water usage. In January we used 83 units of natural gas, for which we were charged $58.60.

I live in the Midwest and we experienced the same cold snap back in February that most of the US did. We knew the cold was coming and we watched our consumption, choosing to throw on extra clothes rather than turn up the heat. Our area had rolling blackouts because electricity usage was higher than normal.

I expected our February gas bill to be a bit higher than usual, since we probably had used a bit more than normal for heat. And indeed, in looking at my February bill, we used 94 units, more than the 83 the previous month.

So, if you do some rudimentary math, you would expect my bill to be somewhere around $67 or so for gas.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my bill for gas was instead $961.34.

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Yes, stock photo lady, I too was enraged. Upon calling city hall to inquire why my total bill (again normally between $150-$215) was suddenly $1100.00, I was testily informed that the city had to pay outrageous prices themselves, and they of course had to pass on this cost to consumers.

When I inquired further about exactly what prices were charged and why I wasn’t notified, I was treated to a heavy sigh and the statement that the city had posted the information on their Fakebook page. When I then inquired how people like me (who don’t have Fakebook) were given this information, I was told that newsletters were mailed out.

Now, I never received a newsletter. I was then testily told that it was posted on the city webpage. (Shocker, it wasn’t.) And, as a special kicker, the reason I didn’t receive the newsletter in the mail is because I receive an e-bill from the city (you know, to save the environment and not waste trees). Customers with e-bills received nothing because ‘their e-bill system doesn’t allow for the city to add attachments to the emails.’

Interestingly, my email from the city comes WITH MY BILL AS AN ATTACHMENT.

After recovering from the shock, I did some digging and found out that we were actually lucky. There are some customers in town who received bills ranging from $3,000 to $5,000! It’s completely insane.

Now, I get that the city didn’t want to have customer’s heat shut off during a bitter cold snap and they felt they had to pay the going rate. However, I’m fairly certain if they had asked any of their customers if they wanted to pay 100x the usual rate for natural gas, the answer from everyone would have been a resounding NO.

I saw a great analogy from another resident: If you drive up to the gas pump on Tuesday and gas is $2.50 per gallon, you fill up your car and go on your way. If you pull up on Wednesday needing gas, and the price is suddenly $250.00 per gallon, you find different solutions.

It’s not that we as consumers mind companies making a profit. However, price gouging in the middle of an emergency is just disgusting. My state does have a law that prohibits companies raising prices more than 25% during a state of emergency (which we were in at the time).

The kicker? Even if they take the gas companies to court and prove the companies broke the law, the law contains NO PROVISIONS FOR PENALTIES. So what do the companies have to lose? There are towns smaller than mine that may very well go bankrupt and disappear because of this situation.

And the gas companies? Well, I’m sure they’ve now got money to burn for the next emergency.

Feeling Good

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It’s been a good couple of weeks for me. I’ve been trying to make some pretty big changes in my life, including trying to be more fit and healthy. Of course, that goal also involves losing weight, but I’m trying (and learning) to not make it all about the number on the scale.

I signed up for Noom about a month ago, and it’s going okay. I’m not over the moon about the program, but I have seen results from the effort I’m putting in. My disappointment is that the effort from others, particularly the ‘support coach’ they have assigned me, is pretty lacking. The ‘cohort group’ they put me in doesn’t appear to have been made with any thought other than our date of sign up.

After I voiced my concerns to my coach, she asked how she could help – and then promptly went on vacation for 2 weeks. :/ So it’s been a bit disheartening to not have all the support that was promised when I signed up. However, I am going to see the program through (and not just because they’ve already hit my bank account for the fee). I do genuinely want to make changes in my lifestyle so that I can get where I want to be.

So far I’m exercising more, eating less, and feeling more energetic. Which is good, because I have a lot of plates spinning in the air right now. I have this blog, my Etsy shop, my YouTube channel, as well as my ‘real life’ tasks, like work and taking care of my home and family. I’ve also launched a second YouTube channel for my diamond painting addiction, and I am knee-deep in everything diamond painting whenever I have a spare moment. 😀

The school year is almost over, which means that hopefully I can devote more time to my other projects, including the last batch of miniatures I have left to paint. I’m looking forward to the summer and hopefully a move north sometime in the near future!

Spring Cleaning

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Last week I was on Spring Break and I spent a good chunk of it working on projects – including cleaning/organizing various things. I am generally a neat and tidy person, but we never realize how much junk we’ve collected until we have to clean it. 😛

I cleaned out closets, drawers, and cabinets. I reorganized my craft room/office (again), trying to make room for all the new things I’ve accumulated. I’ve started some new projects related to my diamond painting, as well as working on other tasks, like my shiny new YouTube mandala channel. Learning new things has been fun, albeit frustrating sometimes.

Work has been going well, though I am surely looking forward to my summer break. While I enjoy lesson planning, being the sole person responsible for the lessons all year has been stressful, to say the least. I only have 5 weeks left, though, so the end is near!

I also managed to snag myself an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine, thanks to the fact that I work in a preschool. I go back for the second dose in a few weeks and then half my household will be vaccinated. We’re still waiting for the next ‘phase’ of vaccinations for the rest of the household to be eligible for one.

Sadly, I didn’t get around to painting any of the remaining miniatures I have sitting around. They’ve been on my to-do list for months, but have taken a back seat to other things. Hopefully I will be able to finish them in the next couple of months – and then all my miniatures will be painted! That hasn’t happened in – well, forever. 😀

I also spent some time cleaning up my blog reader list. It seems I somehow managed to follow a lot of blogs that I don’t actually read, and they were just cluttering up my feed. I’ve slimmed it down a good bit, so maybe now I can find some new ones to follow.

A final happy event from my break – we were surprised to discover that we received the promised stimulus money, in a rather larger quantity than we had hoped. So we are going to use some our unexpected windfall to pay down a chunk of those final debts. Our journey to financial freedom is ever closer. 😀

If you got a Spring Break, I hope you enjoyed it. I need to get back to work – those to-do lists don’t finish themselves, unfortunately!

Have You Noomed?

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One of the changes I’m trying to make is to get healthier – trying to eat better, stay active, etc.

I started walking in the mornings with my youngest, and although we took a bit of a hiatus due to the crazy weather, I’ve continued to walk on the treadmill. I’ve managed to continue it for long enough that I now feel worse if I don’t walk. Even if I really don’t want to, I can usually manage to cajole myself onto the treadmill with the assurance that I will feel better afterwards.

However, we all know that just exercise isn’t enough. While I am feeling better, I would also like to shed those pounds that have crept up on me during the last few years. I never had to watch my diet when I was younger, and as I got older and my life got more sedentary, it’s become a never-ending battle.

I love sweets. I crave sweets. And if I force myself to not eat them, I end up bingeing on them because my brain/hormones/body chemicals insist that I need them. So, after reading various things about Noom, I decided to give it a try.

They are offering a free 14-day trial, so I signed up. I gotta say, so far I’m not all that impressed. You get what you pay for, I know, so I didn’t have a lot of expectations for this free trial. However, what I’ve gotten so far hasn’t been much different than what I would get from a free app like MyFitnessPal.

You weigh in every day (which seems a little crazy to me, given that your weight fluctuates so much daily). I used to weigh myself once a week, but fine, I’ll do it every day. Then you log your meals. Again, pretty much the same thing you’d get from other apps. Logging every piece of food you eat is ANNOYING. I’ve decided that’s why they make you do it – because eventually you get so tired of having to log foods, you eat less just so you don’t have to log it. :/

The way they classify foods is strange to me. The system is fairly simple – green, yellow, red foods. Green foods are better, yellow foods are ok, and red foods are to be eaten sparingly. However, lots of foods that I would think to be green or at least yellow, like flavored popcorn, fall into the red category. I’ve done several Atkins-type diets before, but oils and fats, which are preferred for Atkins, are red for Noom. Also, Noom does not tell you outright how many calories you get each day. It wasn’t until I was logging my meals that I noticed the daily calorie allowance.

Noom does give you daily articles to read about the psychology of their program, but so far, there’s been no real help from the app. Oh sure, I can log my weight, my water intake, my daily step count, but there’s been no real interaction with anyone. I thought I would at least get some feedback/help from the ‘Goal Specialist’ they assign to you, but I think it’s just a bot, because there is no real conversation or information from mine. Just platitudes every once in a while with maybe a question thrown in. But when I answer the question, silence.

The ‘community’ they tout doesn’t kick in until you pay – AFTER your free trial ends. Apparently, when I actually pay the fee, I then get assigned a group of people they’ve ‘hand-picked’ to be a support group and some kind of coach (I can’t remember the fancy name off-hand) that will hopefully be an actual person. We’ll see.

So far, it’s not been anything I couldn’t get for free elsewhere. However, I do recognize that I need help with this goal, so I am going to suck it up, pay the fee, and then see how things go.

Have you tried Noom? Did it work for you?

Hectic, But Good

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It’s been a hectic week for me. Work has been crazy because we had Parent-Teacher conferences this week. Which means I have to work several evenings, so my schedule gets thrown out of whack.

But it’s all good, and now it’s over. 😀 I’m still trying to make various changes in my life, including getting healthier and working on other projects. I did farm out my quilt/blanket projects to someone else, which lifted a huge weight off of me. The pieces for those projects have been languishing around my house forever, so getting them on track to be finished feels amazing, even if there is some slight guilt for not doing it myself. :/

Since I am having someone else complete those projects for me, I can focus on other things – like my baby YouTube channel where I draw mandalas real time on screen. Click the link and see what you think – maybe like and subscribe while you’re there? 🙂

There was also some good news this week. After completing our 2020 taxes, we are getting a refund. One that will allow us to finally pay off the last of our remaining credit card debt! Once that is done, our only remaining debt will be our mortgage and one car loan. It feels like it took forever to get here, but I am so excited to finally see that last credit card bill!

That means we can start taking the money that would have been applied to that debt every month and start doing other things with it – like investing and/or saving it. It’s taken years, but it definitely feels like we have rounded a corner with our debt. My oldest graduates college in May, so that is another huge load off of us. I’m extremely proud that there will be no student debt on her shoulders when she graduates.

I posted before about paying yourself first and since the beginning of 2021, I have been doing that. Once we get paid, I immediately take 10-15% of our pay and put it in savings. I get to feel better about watching that savings balance grow, and we are still able to pay all of our bills (including extra on debts). And since that money is gone immediately, we don’t miss it – which means we have been spending more than we should anyway.

It has also been really great to buy things and pay cash for them. A few months ago we were able to purchase a new smartphone for my husband and pay for it in full without having to do a payment plan with our phone provider. And when our dishwasher finally became so loud you couldn’t hear the TV over it, we were able to go to the store and pick out a newer, quieter model. (Confession – it did get put on the store credit card, but we have the cash and will be paying it off in full when I receive the bill – we saved 15% on the price by doing it that way.)

I’m excited about all of the changes in my life so far. I can’t wait to see what is waiting for me next!

Stream Explorer

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A few years ago, my youngest introduced me to DND Beyond. He wanted me to buy a subscription so he could create characters and play. So I did and he did.

He’s also the one who introduced me to Critical Role and got me back into gaming on a regular basis. I used to play regularly when my kids were little, but life happened and I eventually stopped. We played in person for a while, and then the pandemic hit, so we moved online.

During all of this, I was introduced to Twitch – something I’d never heard of before. I had to get a Twitch account to get a DND Beyond account, but I never used Twitch. Fast forward a few years to now, and Twitch has become a regular viewing habit for me.

A few months ago my youngest informed me that Twitch had all kinds of streams. I assumed they were all gamers who streamed there, and indeed I watched many of them, like Critical Role, Roll20 Presents, and others.

Imagine my surprise when I found a whole community of crafters and makers on Twitch, including fellow diamond painters! I’ve watched people knit, crochet, cross-stitch, spin yarn, blacksmith, paint miniatures, tool leather, and more.

It’s been amazing to watch people – you know, just regular people like you and me, who enjoy the same type of hobbies. Or to be introduced to new hobbies I’ve never even heard of before. I have a couple of streamers that I watch on a regular basis and it’s been great to interact with people who are as obsessed with diamond painting as I am. 😀

I don’t think I’m interested in streaming, though I often think it would be nice to not have to stop what I’m making to type in chat. I’m usually diamond painting myself when I watch, and it’s fun to interact with people who are new to the hobby like me, as well as people who have been doing it for years.

I also watch a lot of miniature painting streams, and I’ve learned some tips and tricks I want to try out in my own painting – when I finally get around to finishing up that last batch of minis. 😛 It’s been a blast wandering around Twitch and seeing what new amazing thing I can find to watch. I wonder what I’ll find next?

Burnt Out

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In addition to my many other hobbies (see my previous post), I also play Dungeons and Dragons every week. For the past two years or so, I’ve been the DM for our group. We started out playing in-person and then moved online when the pandemic hit.

For a while, I was also the DM of several play-by-post games on DNDBeyond. One lasted for almost a year, which I am tickled about. I learned a lot, and it was a lot of fun. But eventually it ended, so I am down to just our regular weekly online game.

We use Roll20 and Discord and have played several adventures over the course of the last few years. We started out playing Tomb of Annihilation in-person and then switched to Roll20 when we could no longer meet. It was going well, but then a couple of players had to drop out and the game just kind of fizzled. They had made it almost to the end tomb, but didn’t want to continue on.

So we found another player to round out the group and they decided to play the Icespire Peak adventure. We made our way through that, including all the add-ons. I did have a small respite for one or two sessions while someone else DM’d, but then he returned to college, so he didn’t have the time anymore.

We opted to play Waterdeep: Dragon Heist next, and we are almost done with it. They have located the vault and the keys, so it’s really just the last bit of the dungeon next session and we will likely be done with this adventure.

I’m torn about what to do next. I am severely burnt out being the DM. It would be nice to just show up and play without spending hours of prep before each session. I enjoy it, but I’m ready for someone else to do it for a while. Unfortunately, I don’t see any of my players stepping up to DM if I don’t. So now I’m torn between continuing to DM even when I am burnt out, or likely having the group split up because no one else wants to DM.

Personally, I’d like to try some new games, including the new Burn Bryte space game, as well as Humblewood, a game that uses D&D rules but has a new setting and player races. None of my current players are interested in any of those, however, so I don’t know what to do.

Actually, after thinking and writing about it, perhaps I’m not burnt out from DMing, I’m burnt out from managing players – dealing with issues such as late arrivals, last-minute cancellations and the like. Which is a whole different problem – and one that’s pretty easy to fix. So I’ll continue to DM this adventure to its conclusion, and then after that, I’m going to let my group know that I will be taking a break as DM. Perhaps one of them will surprise me and step up – though I’m not holding my breath. If so, great. If not, then I am free to find another group to play with, whether as a DM or player.

I will say that I have thoroughly enjoyed using Roll20 to play online. Even though I love playing in person with miniatures, the process of drawing maps and such was a huge hassle. It’s so much easier in Roll20 to set things up, even though I’m usually extra lazy and just purchase modules that are already all set up for me. It also makes it a bit easier to find players, since playing online removes a lot of the scheduling stumbling blocks you encounter when playing in person. I may even try playing an asynchronous game in Roll20 if I’m feeling really adventurous.

We’ll see what happens when this current adventure ends. In the meantime, I have lots of other projects to keep me busy. 😛

Gifts and Reflections

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The year is almost over and it feels like a time for reflection.

My first reflection is – this year sucked balls. And not in the good way. :/

My youngest was cheated out of his final year of competing in track and had his graduation repeatedly postponed. My oldest and I were out of work when schools closed. The pandemic has hit hard and everything has changed.

But not every change was bad.

Yes, my youngest missed competing. I think that bothered me more than it did him. His graduation was postponed several times, but it did eventually happen. Though my oldest and I were out of work, we were lucky that my husband is an essential worker and we avoided much of the financial hardship that many others experienced (and may still be experiencing).

Personally, though the reason was terrible, the ability to slow down and spend more time with my family was a gift. We spend so much time rushing here, there, and everywhere that often what is really important gets shoved to the back burner. This year I have spent more time than ever with my children – and it has been wonderful. No games to rush off to, no practices, nothing to distract us from each other. We have always eaten dinner together, but when the whole world slowed down, it seemed like we suddenly had time (and permission) to slow down and just take a breath.

That was another gift for me this year – I have seen how different my life can be when I am not constantly rushing around, worrying about ‘living my best life’ and trying to be ‘successful.’ I was free to just enjoy whatever made me happy – doing jigsaws, painting minis, and spending time with my loved ones. I imagine it’s somewhat how retirement feels – knowing that you can live without having to kill yourself working.

After this year, my views on how I want to live my life have changed. I have wanted to downsize and minimize for years. But now I have seen how much better my life could be if we weren’t spending all of our time working to afford the house we are rarely in, driving cars we have to work to afford, etc. If having less ‘stuff’ means I can relax and focus on things that mean something to me, that’s what I want to do.

It has given me even greater incentive to become debt-free. My husband and I sat down last night and discussed our financial goals for the new year. Paying off our last few debts is top of the list, of course. We also discussed smaller goals – like saving up for things. We both want new phones – his has a broken screen and mine is his hand-me-down from 4 phones ago. I have been putting money aside for just such things and we are able to outright purchase the phone he wants. That felt really good – being able to say, yes, okay, get the thing – and to pay for it in cash, with no payment plan and all the bs that goes along with them.

So I have set some goals for myself, both long and short term. I am not someone who makes New Year’s Resolutions, but I do have specific goals that I want to achieve in the coming year.

Here’s hoping that 2021 is waaaaaaaay better than 2020. 😀

Diamonds and Wolves

As Christmas gets closer, I’ve been working on a diamond painting for my oldest. She loves wolves and dreamcatchers, so when I saw this diamond painting, I knew she would love it. So the purchase was a win-win – she gets a cool gift and I got the experience of making it for her.

This canvas is bigger than the owl I finished, but it didn’t take as long as I had anticipated, given the larger size. I gave the owl to my sister and she is having her husband mount and frame it for her. I’m hoping he’ll do the same for this one, so it will be ready in time for Christmas.

In the meantime, I’m still trying different stores and canvases to see what I like and what I don’t when it comes to diamond painting. For instance, designs with round drills are more plentiful, as are partial canvases (where only parts of the canvas are covered with drills). I prefer the square drills and full canvases. So now I’m trying a new store, Diamond Art Club, to see the difference in canvas quality and drill quality. Also, they use poured glue rather than double sided tape, so we’ll see if I like them better or not.

I did also splurge on a fancy schmancy drill pen that is a definite upgrade from the cheap plastic drill pens that come with most kits. I’m trying to keep myself from buying a whole bunch of accoutrements that I don’t really need. I did purchase the new pen and I did buy some additional storage, because there are always drills left over. My new kit should be here in just a few days, so I’m excited to have something new to work on over the holidays, and while I’m working from home.

I’m hoping to also spend some time finishing up my last batch of minis. I need to rig up a spray area indoors, as it’s now too cold to spray outside. Lots to do!