Friday, July 31, 2015

What is Fiction Friday?

So, you may have noticed that Fiction Friday posts are initial chapters or prologue chapters for various stories. None of these are completed manuscripts (although some do have more chapters or writing available). Over the next two weeks, I will be taking votes, and the manuscript with the most votes will be the one I focus on over the next few months. I will try to post a new chapter or part of a chapter every week until it is finished!

When I actually finish, I will then go back and clean up any major editing errors and I may even decide to self-publish the completed manuscript. Wouldn't that be exciting? So, if you want to participate in this "fan fiction" adventure, vote now!

Take the Poll!

View the Results!

If you need to go back to see what you've missed on previous Fiction Fridays, you can either click the "writing" link at the top of the page and scroll down, or click the links below to go directly to the chapters.


Breaking Dawn


A Midnight Engagement

Fiction Friday - A Midnight Engagement - Chapter One

April 7th, 1878
Bedfordshire, England

            Angie rested in the drawing room, her lessons over for the day, bored beyond imagination. At nearly 14 years old, she was too old for the playroom, and her over-protective father thought to protect her from the brisk wind and light rain outside. Her half-brothers were grown and long gone. She had already read all of the books in her father’s extensive library. She was too young to be part of “society” and too rambunctious to sit quietly and sew like most girls.
            Her foot tapped anxiously as she waited for something exciting to happen. She heard a quick rap on their front door. A caller had arrived! Her personal maid, Lottie, ran in to the room, her hair escaping wildly from under her small white cap.
            “He’s a fine one miss; I declare this is your lucky day.” Lottie was only a year and a half older than Angie, and the two had been close friends for years. Lottie was the cook’s daughter and they had grown up as playmates. “Tall, handsome, blond wavy hair…”
            They both silenced quickly and rushed towards the large opening to the foyer as they heard the massive door squeak open. The pressed themselves on either side of the open doorway to stay out of sight, winking at each other.
            “Welcome, Marc Andrew von Sheinburg, youngest son of the Count of Limburg.” The butler said, reading the proffered calling card. “Do you have business with the Duke today?”
            “Yes,” Marc replied, with a nod and a brief smile. “He asked me to stop by at about half past three o-clock, but I confess I may be a bit early. I’m not sure of the custom in your society.”
            Angie glanced at the mantle clock above the fireplace, it was hardly three o-clock. This particular businessman must be a stickler for punctuality.
            The butler nodded his head back in congenial agreement. “His Grace is not yet returned from a prior business engagement, but it should not be a long wait. May I take your coat? If you will, kindly follow me to the library.”
            Angie gave Lottie a strange look as the voices echoed down the hall. “Business,” She whispered disgustedly. Then she brightened, she could hide in the study before her father arrived home: a tiny room next to the library, her father never went into, but only used for storage. “Do you still have the key to the study?”
            Lottie nodded, and pulled a long silver key from her apron. “I had to clean it today, some of the boxes had fallen over, and you know how your father hates to go into that room. What will you do?”
            “I suppose I’ll just listen and see if I can catch a glimpse of him. You said he was handsome, right?”
            “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I thought he might be calling for you, with your birthday coming up soon. But I’m not sure about eavesdropping on your father’s business.” A tiny wrinkle formed between Lottie’s eyebrows.
            “My father never keeps any business ventures from me, so what can it hurt?” Angie knew her father never kept anything from her. He gave in to her smallest amount of pestering. Even though she was a daughter and not a son, she was the daughter of his favored third wife. The marriage he made for love and not land, money, or politics. She had only to flutter the long black eyelashes she inherited from her mother, and anything she wanted, her father gave her.
            “Alright, but make sure they don’t catch you.” Lottie knew she had no control over what the Duke’s daughter did, but she did worry she would be blamed if something went awry.
            “I must hurry, before my father gets home.” Angie gathered her childish gowns, lifting the hem above her knees, and nearly flew up the stairs, almost too quickly, as the butler was still at the end of the long hall, headed towards the servants’ stairs.
            She slipped into the study unnoticed and went towards the private locked entry door leading to the library. She thought of opening the door a crack, but figured her father would notice. Instead, she bent down and peered through the large keyhole. A perfect view, but the gentleman caller had his back turned to her. She could only see the wavy dark blond hair, brushing just past his collar. His shoulders were wide and muscular, and he rested an arm casually along the back of the settee.
            She watched him as he gazed around the room, taking in the vast collection of books, art, sculpture, and nearly a dozen tiny model ships encased in glass. She remembered working with her father on the tiny ships, using tweezers and paste to make fantastic creations in a tiny world. Her father had spent hours teaching her the art form, when she knew how busy he was with his business ventures. After she had seen one in London, she didn’t let him rest until he learned the practice and taught it to her.
            Marc picked up the model from the table next to him, and turned the wick higher on the gas lamp to view the ship more clearly. It was such a dreary day outside, even with the curtains open and the lamps turned on, the library was dreadfully dark. With the odd lighting, she could only make out his shadowed profile but saw him smile as he looked at the ship. This was one of her own creations, with a tiny person clinging to the rigging, and a tiny woman passenger standing at the bow of the ship. She felt oddly proud and excited as he admired her work, and she settled down on an overturned trunk to watch her first crush.
            As her father conducted his business over the few hours, she learned more about the mysterious caller. Reviewing his interactions with Lottie later, she sighed at every new fact.
            “Lottie, you would not believe how sweet he was. He was so pleasant and polite even though his background is so different. His German accent is so mysterious. His name even sounds different when he says it. He had to spell it for Daddy on their business agreement. Can you believe that?”
            Lottie sighed in a different way, “I’m not sure I should encourage this crush of yours. He’s so much older than you. I thought he was younger with his blond hair and thin build, but you said he was 21 years old already, he’s not liable to wait for you to get old enough.”
            Angie suddenly had a terribly wonderful idea, “Didn’t you tell me a story the other day about how Betsy Sadler finally caught a man? What exactly did she do? Do you think it would work?”
            “No, no, Angie, you can’t do that! Your father would kill me, and likely you too! And he would definitely kill Marc.”
            “I did hear Daddy offer that he could stay in the cottage house just over the manor wall, so he wouldn’t have to go all the way back to town. I think this could work.”
            Lottie buried her head in her hands as Angie ran about the room, preparing for a midnight rendezvous, which in her childish daydreams she didn’t entirely think through. Lottie was sure she made a good argument against Angie’s plan, and went about the rest of her daily duties with only a few moments of fear and worry over what might happen that night.
            An hour past her bedtime, Angie crept out through her window onto the small balcony. She climbed down a rope she had borrowed from her father’s study. She crept through the wet grass and climbed a tree near the manor wall to help her scale the nearly 8-foot height. She dropped carefully into the mud on the other side, and spied an open window near the cottage guest room. Lifting it as carefully and silently as possible, she entered the guest room. Not certain where to “lie in wait” since the room was empty, she innocently snuggled under the covers and fell asleep.
            The Duke checked on his daughter shortly before midnight. He often retired late due to the busy social schedule he kept most of the year. He peeked in on his sleeping daughter before bed, just to see the angelic beauty in her sleeping form. Only that night, his daughter was not in her bed. Within a half hour, the whole house was in uproar. Every servant was awakened and scouring the house and grounds.
            When Lottie finally convinced her mother to “mention” something about the cottage house, the Duke and nearly a dozen servants crowded through the muddy lanes and banged on the door at an inappropriate hour.
            Meanwhile, Marc had completed his business correspondence and finally decided to retire to bed. Wearing only his nightshirt, he was startled to realize that someone else occupied the bedchamber. When he heard the banging on the front door, he immediately pulled on a dressing gown and went to see what was happening. As he answered the door, the entire party was shocked to see Angie in her white nightgown, staring at everyone from inside the bedroom door.
            The Duke quickly dismissed the servants and pulled Marc into a nearby room, shutting the door. Lottie and the cook huddled Angie close, whispering about what she was thinking and what happened, but she asked them to be quiet as she tried to determine what her fate might be. In the end, it was not what she had hoped.


            “I swear that nothing happened, I had no idea she was in the house, much less my room. I didn’t even know who she was!” Marc insisted.
            “Nevertheless, she is my daughter. Her muddy footprints on the sheets are evidence she was in your bed, and my servants are not likely to ignore the facts, despite their loyalty to me. She needs some protection from this for her future.” The Duke sighed, resignedly. “She’s my daughter. I can tell that she’s unharmed physically or you would be facing a more serious consequence right now. But I can’t ignore what her irresponsibility has done. You must marry her.”
            “I can’t marry a child, this is preposterous, she’s not even out of the schoolroom yet!”
            “Can we find a compromise, to protect my daughter’s future and everyone’s reputation? I know you are a man of your word from our business dealings. My daughter is headstrong, spoiled, and impulsive. I can see now that something must be done, for her future, if nothing else. What if I send her to a finishing school? We will formalize betrothal paperwork before sending her off to school. In four or five years, when she is fully of age, she can decide whether she wants to marry you, or she can break the engagement.”
            Marc knew that he was on his own in a foreign country. He was facing a powerful, if slightly insane father and a terrifyingly forthright young child. Faced with no other choice, he admitted defeat. “It’s true that I don’t currently have any marriage prospects. I agree to your terms, with one caveat, she must attend a religious school. I can’t imagine what her education has been up until now.”
            “If you weren’t going to India on our mutual business venture, I would wonder at your own education.”

An awkward laugh and handshake later sealed the gentlemen’s agreement for the night. By noon the next day, the paperwork was complete and Marc was on his way to India.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

First Week of Homeschool - Schedule

Next week, I'm looking at "officially" starting our first week of homeschool (although my oldest is telling me that I have to wait until after his birthday, because he can't go to school when he's still only 4). I thought I would post our "light" schedule for August and then what our estimated schedule will be for September. I plan on keeping August as a gentle introduction to "school". The first week, I will only do the 2-year old Hubbard's Cupboard curriculum with James (two days a week) and continue with storytime, gardening, and reading lots of great books. I'm sure Daniel will want to join in this as well. Then, I will add in some fun "school" activities that I know they both like (playing with Cuisenaire rods and Clifford Science Kits).

The second week, we will start adding in a few things at a time. I will try to do 2 days of our Kindergarten curriculum as shown in the schedule.

I'm planning on waiting until September to start the most difficult part of our homeschool routine, no screen time before the work is done!

My current plans for the 2-year old are to let him participate as much or as little as he wishes, and have "alternate" activities available for him to work on in the same room, such as beading, coloring, stickers, puzzles, and other fun toys.

Here are pictures of our schedule and some of our curriculum!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Investing Personalities

Because I have some financial background in investments and financial planning, people will occasionally come up to me with investment or budgeting related questions. The biggest problem is getting people to follow through on my advice. Every individual person has their own investing or budgeting personality. Finding out your own personality and investing to supplement it, will help your retirement accounts in the long run. Here, I will list a few of the "investing personalities" (without the ubiquitous questionnaire) and how to supplement rather than support them. Next week, I will post a few "budgeting personalities".

  1. Day trader. You may not call yourself a day trader, but you at least check your stocks everyday. You want to know whether your balance is going up or down and what the stock market in Japan is doing on a particular day. The problem is, if you are checking all of your retirement accounts and all of your stock portfolio (which if you want it to be diversified you need 100-200 individual stocks or 5-6 index funds) this will end up being a full-time job. The solution? Put 80% of your retirement accounts in low cost funds of your research and choosing that you would be comfortable holding for 5+ years or until retirement. Set a reminder to look at those accounts every 6 months to rebalance, and IGNORE them until then. Keep around 10% in cash for when you find that "awesome deal" and invest the other 10% in today's "awesome deal". That 20% is not going to make or break your diversification and you won't feel as compelled to sell or buy all of your retirement fund on a hunch. You will also only have to keep up with 2-5 individual stocks or funds and still maintain a diversified portfolio as well as the "fun" of timing the stock market.
  2. Set it and forget it, for years. There are some people who really don't want to look at their retirement accounts at all. They don't want to know how much they have in their account, they don't want to invest it actively. Maybe they are even getting to the point of no longer being sure of their ability to invest.  The problem is, even if you set up the perfect portfolio initially, every portfolio does need to be rebalanced, and if you are still contributing, you may have a lot of cash in the account without auto-investment. For this investor, you should look into the "automatic" options your brokerage may offer. Most employer sponsored plans offer some type of auto-investing, auto-rebalancing, or even paid investment management. Consider all options and expenses carefully. If you have a non-employer sponsored account such as an IRA or Roth IRA, you could also consider an online brokerage with similar investing options, such as Betterment. They will help you set goals, rebalance, or even auto-invest for you. Depending on your total account balance, Betterment can provide goal setting, automatic portfolio rebalancing, automated deposits, a customized portfolio, and more for between 0.15 and 0.35% in annual fees. Sign up here for Betterment!
  3. Perfectionist. You spend hours setting up the perfect retirement portfolio, only to never actually invest in it. Or, you spend hours rebalancing every week, but you never complete the trade. The problem here is that you miss out on possible returns by never actually making those changes or investments. This one doesn't have an easy fix. You can try an automatic or active management firm, so you don't have to do it yourself. However, if you're a perfectionist, you probably won't trust them. Another option is to set yourself a time limit to work on your investments. Set your clock for one hour every six months to rebalance, or two hours to make your initial brokerage and trade decisions, and then ensure that you complete all your investments by the end of that time period.
  4. You don't want to spend hours of your time, because you don't have a lot to invest. If you're just starting out, the best option for you may be a target date account. These accounts do have slightly higher fees (in general) than doing it yourself, and you can't control the investments, but if you don't want to rebalance or set up your own portfolio of index funds, this could be an easy and affordable way to do it. Your target date fund choices are probably limited on what is offered by your specific brokerage or retirement plan. I suggest considering your own risk tolerance before investing and making an investment choice based on that rather than the "retirement date". Also, keep in mind that these funds do change over time, so if you are very close to retirement, but won't be taking any distributions, consider a retirement date 5-15 years further out in the future.
This obviously doesn't cover all of the possible investment strategies, but the biggest problem is coming up with the money to invest. My generation is the first one that has never expected pensions to pay for our retirement, and yet we aren't doing much saving right now either. Here's hoping this post will help with that!

Save big, so you can retire as well as you live now.

Links in this post are my referral links. I may receive benefits if you sign up under this link!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Healthcare Reform or Tax Reform

One of the greatest examples of political failing is, I believe, the Healthcare Reform Act. First, it's hard to imagine that a document so incredibly large actually did so very little. Second, it's hard to believe that no one has tackled the issue of tax reform yet. Third, everyone is now frustrated that their insurance premiums and out-of-pocket cost are going up so quickly.

Rather than beat a dead horse, however. I have a solution to both. Reform the outdated and over-complicated income tax system. Reduce the loopholes and smooth the graduated tax system. If we got rid of the Earned Income Tax Credit, then the "Penalty to work" would be greatly reduced. Here's my quick solution (obviously some actuaries somewhere would need to do some calculations to see how much money would be "saved", but I think it's a pretty good solution without going to a flat tax system).

First, get rid of all the "married" "head of household" and "individual" statuses for a tax return. That will solve the joint problem of people getting married or not getting married due to marriage benefits (or marriage penalty) for middle class 2 income families. Each adult person (21 and older) in the United States, regardless of income, will be required to file a tax return (but it will be so easy, they won't mind). There are no standard deductions or personal exemptions. There are very few loopholes, and almost everyone will pay something. There are very few questions - What is your total earned income from all sources? How many children (under age 22) live with you full-time ($5,000 deduction)? How much do you donate to tax deductible charities (deduction of up to 20% of initial income, limited to $100,000 annual deduction for high income earners)? Health insurance, retirement, home expenses, and education expenses will no longer be tax deductible.

If you are an adult, you must show at least 40 hours per year of community service or pay a minimum of $100 in Federal taxes, regardless of deductions (there will be an exemption for people who are totally disabled, but the definition of totally disabled will be difficult to meet).

The tax brackets would need a bit of adjusting, and I would add a 5% tax bracket and take the top two brackets.

I'm thinking something like this:

After deduction income of
$0-$10,000 = 5% tax bracket. $100 minimum applies, which will be waived with 40 hours per year of community service.
$10,000-$60,000 = $500 + 10% of amount over $10,000.
$60,000 - $100,000 = $5,500 + 20% of amount over $60,000
$100,000 and up = $8,000 + 30% of amount over $100,000

Here's the thing, since healthcare expenses, retirement, and home expenses are no longer deductible, there will be a few other changes and adjustments with this new system. First, I would expect that along with this bill, an actual healthcare reform system is put in place to provide free healthcare for all Americans (there should be significantly more tax revenue with this system). Second, I would propose increasing the minimum wage for everyone 21 and older to $10 an hour (teens and college kids can still keep the minimum wage at $7.50). Second, I would ensure that a national maternity insurance program be put in place and charged directly to all employers regardless of how many women they employ. This insurance would cover all women who have been working at any job during 10 our of the 12 months prior to giving birth. They would receive 50% of their income for 12 months or 75% of their income for 9 months. Third, I would reform the Social Security system, there would be a gradual transition to a combination self-directed (if desired) system and an increased pension based system. Fourth, the public education system would provide optional child care between 8am and 6 pm for all children 2 years and older. This program would be free for any parent with kids living with them full-time with income between $20,000-$40,000 per year before deductions.

So here are a couple of examples so you can see how it would work out for an "average" family.

Single person, no kids, $40,000 per year. Taxes paid, $3,500 unless they choose to donate to charity.

Single parent, low income family with 3 kids. $20,000 per year income ($10 per hour). After deductions for their children, they only have $5,000 of "taxable income". At 5% they would pay $250 in Federal taxes.

Two-income earner family with 2 kids. There are a few "choices" here to make (who to say the kids "live with" since each adult has to fill out their own tax form). Generally, the highest income earner will want to include both kids. So let's say Parent A makes $50,000 and claims both kids, Parent B makes $35,000. Parent A would pay $3,500 in Federal taxes, Parent B would pay $3,000 in Federal taxes. Total of $6,500 per year in Federal taxes.

High-income earner. $200,000 one-income (two parent) family with 2 kids. Parent A makes all the income and would pay $38,000 in Federal income tax. Parent B would also have to pay $100 despite not having any income, unless they choose to volunteer at least 40 hours per year.

Here's the thing, most people will probably pay more under this tax system because of the reduced deductions and loopholes. The extra money would go towards the reforms that are actually needed, paying for health care, supporting childcare, and providing national jobs for people who can't find private sector jobs (there should be plenty of child-care jobs, construction jobs, healthcare jobs, etc.).

Because employers are no longer paying so much for health insurance, retirement accounts, etcetera, they are likely to pay their employees significantly more, thereby lessening the tax burden, AND increasing the tax base without raising prices.

Also, because families are not paying so much for healthcare and childcare, even low income families would be better taken care of than when the government has been paying them.

I think it's a win, win, win situation. The real problem is that the only thing politicans hear is the speeches from the many lobbyists who want to add more loopholes or more spending to the Federal budget to meet their own needs. That makes it hard for them to think about the plight of the average American, the massive National Debt, or even how to fix the many broken systems currently in place (welfare, Social Security, employment, schools).

Again, I'm no actuary, but wouldn't it be great if someone in the government ran the numbers to see if something like this could actually work, instead of complaining about what they "can't" do because of partisan politics?