What Are You Doing for Others? An MLK Day Message

Image result for martin luther king

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'” asked Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957. Is it just me, or does it seems like people’s most persistent and urgent question now is, “What am I doing for myself?”

What am I doing to grow my career?

What am I doing to improve myself and my life?

What am I doing to fulfill my dreams?

While these questions could intersect with King’s foundational query, they often fall short. Statistically, younger generations (i.e., my age & younger) of Americans are demonstrating less generosity and volunteering less than previous generations did at the same age. The ideal of activism often translates into a Facebook posts rather than real-world application.

Personal finance blogs offer many useful tools and advice for improving one’s finances. But why—what’s your why? Is it comfort, security, freedom, flexibility? It’s all still as meaningless as the 9 to 5 we want to escape, if we don’t have a more compelling purpose.

You don’t have to work out that purpose perfectly right away. It doesn’t have to look like a detailed five- or ten-year plan of how you’ll do good in the world. I think it should look like asking MLK’s question of ourselves on a regular basis, though, because we can’t afford to let it go unanswered.

Thankfully, there are many people of all ages who are activists, advocates, volunteers, and philanthropists. But we all know there aren’t enough. Martin Luther King Jr.’s contribution to our society was immeasurable. Yet so much more work remains.

No, you can’t save the world. But you can change the life of one person. Maybe two. Maybe five. Maybe more. The tragedy isn’t that you don’t pull off saving the world. The tragedy is when you don’t even try. It’s not just the people you would’ve helped who miss out; it’s you. You’re missing out on your best possible life, the fulfillment of the most worthwhile dreams.

This past weekend, I was involved with a volunteer appreciation dinner for the adults in our church. We have about 25 people involved in 5 different organizations, serving a range of people in need:

  • Visiting incarcerated youth at detention centers and holding a Bible study.
  • Visiting with and/or mentoring sex-trafficked young women, or those at high risk of being trafficked.
  • Teaching preschool, an after school program, or providing childcare for refugee children.
  • Teaching Bible studies at a nursing home. One group is dedicated entirely to those suffering from dementia.
  • Helping refugees get settled—giving them rides to the SS office or other appointments, helping with paperwork, supplying household items, helping them move, and more.

At the dinner it was beautiful to hear from the volunteers, both about the very valuable, needed work they are doing, and about what they are learning and how they’re growing from it.

I know everyone is busy. We work a lot. We have children in many activities. We have hobbies and side hustles, and television shows to watch and blogs to read. We need to exercise, read, and relax. But what is the goal of all our self-improvement and self-care? At some point we must ask ourselves, for what purpose am I trying to become the best version of myself?

Or, as King put it: “What are you doing for others?”

Jesus also chimed in on this topic: “It is more blessed to give than receive.” (Acts 20:35).

How do you think your life might look different if you asked this question regularly? Have you volunteered? How has it impacted you, and those you helped?

Beyond Rice & Beans: Budget Dinners that Aren’t Boring

Masala Spiced Roast Chicken (recipe below)

Has someone ever told you about an easy, delicious recipe that you have to make? As they describe it, you realize the ingredient list will easily run you $40 for a single meal. Of course you can make easy, delicious food if it involves lots of fancy, expensive ingredients. Almost anyone can do that.

At the other end of the food conversation spectrum are the ubiquitous thrifty suggestions of rice-and-beans or pasta. Both tasty in my opinion, but it gets rather boring. Certainly there has to be something in between.

If you’re looking for good ways to stick to your budget in 2018, your grocery bill is a great place to start. Food is one of most people’s top three expenses, up there with housing and transportation. And of the three, it’s probably the most flexible, the easiest to change without major effort. (Like moving!) I believe with a little planning, effort, and willingness to try new things, most people can reduce their food costs substantially.

If you’re keeping things simple for breakfast and brown-bagging it for lunch, dinner is probably your budget-killer. It’s easy to get sucked into spending a lot on fresh, healthy food. And I’m all for fresh, healthy food. But it doesn’t have to be outrageous. I’ve shared my foundational food principles already in:

20 Frugal Food Hacks

Hospitality Hacks

Say Good-bye to Meatless Mondays (protein price per serving comparison chart)

Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half Parts 1 and 2

Not Your Mom’s Meal Planning—approaches for speed-meal planning and keeping things simple.

Naturally, food preferences and dietary needs/priorities are as varied as is food itself. The ideas below are not the absolute most healthy, least expensive, or quickest options available—but they all strike a great balance with each of these factors. I vary our less expensive meals with more interesting, exotic, sometimes easier, and sometimes more involved dishes. Creating your own list of thrifty, easy, tasty stand-bys can go a long way toward lowering your grocery budget and dinner-time stress. Here re some of my go-to meals:

Juicy Roasted Chicken

Masala Spiced Roast Chicken

Any on-sale bone-in chicken that you cook with a simple, inexpensive sauce or seasoning is a good thrifty dinner option. Grill, bake, or sauté with BBQ, honey mustard, teriyaki, jerk seasoning, lemon butter, balsamic, etc.

A word on side dishes: While proteins are important, sides are also an area to watch spending. Fancy accouterments like cheese, nuts, herbs, and exotic grains, spices, or out-of-season produce add up quickly. We tend to stick with thrifty stand-bys like baked or roasted potatoes (white or sweet) rice, or noodles; steamed vegetables; and simple garden salads.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Lime chicken tacos

Fall-off-the-bone chicken thighs I use any fresh or dried herbs I have on hand.

Mujaddarah Incredibly simple, delicious Middle Eastern dish.

Sweet potato burritos A seemingly strange combination that is so tasty!

Peanut Butter Noodles Knock-off Thai vegetarian dish. I add stir-fry veggies to it and double the sauce. Can be vegan if you sub for water for chicken broth.

Potato soup I use real cheese instead of processed.

Cincinnati style chili I make this with ground turkey instead of beef.

Chicken Taco Soup

White Chicken Chili Use a fresh jalapeno instead of canned.

Masala hard-boiled eggs (egg curry) Way more exotic than breakfast for dinner. Don’t knock it till you try it. Everyone I’ve served this to loves it!

Butter chickpea curry (not authentic; for better recipes see Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking or Vegetarian cookbook)

I have found it worthwhile to “invest” in the pantry items for Indian cooking and a few favorite authentic Chinese and Thai dishes. Buying these items at the Asian grocery (or directly in India!) is by far the least expensive route. Shopping with an international friend knowledge about the cuisine is extremely helpful as they know which brands to buy! The upfront cost of a few spices and sauces pales in comparison with restaurant spending on similar dishes.

I also have go-to recipes for hosting that are a little more impressive than what’s listed above, but still fairly inexpensive. We just hosted two large (13-15) person family dinners over the holidays, and the meat for each cost only $7, respectively! Clearly I didn’t serve prime rib, but people praised the food and ate seconds. Maybe they were just being polite. I’ll let you judge these recipes for themselves:

Turkey

Butter Chicken

Thai curry (Maesri brand curry paste mixed with 1 can full fat coconut milk + water as needed. Add vegetables and protein of your choice; serve with jasmine rice. Many Asian groceries carry it.)

Grilled pork chops with sweet & spicy dry rub. I can’t find the recipe I used but it contains Montreal Steak, brown sugar, and we substitute habanero powder for cayenne!

Grilled chicken tacos with chipotle marinade This is NOT a chipotle copycat recipe but it’s equally delicious in its own right—maybe better. I make the marinade in large batches (3-4x) and freeze it.

And my go-to bread recipes are always a hit:

Crusty White Bread—super easy, can be made ahead, large batch, good for every day or holidays.

Amish Dinner Rolls—a little more involved, good for holidays.

Do you have trouble sticking to your grocery budget, or meal planning? What are you favorite frugal dinners?

He Became Poor

Photo by Neil Brooks

Photo by Neil Brooks

Christmas has me thinking about a man who pretended to be poor. He left the wealthiest kingdom of all time to become a simple tradesman. He left the most powerful social status to become a peasant. He left glory to be scapegoated, and left honor to be humiliated. He released the use of divine power to take the form of a helpless human infant.

You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)

He became poor so we might become rich. This phrase has haunted me this holiday season. What does it mean? The love, joy, and peace that comes from knowing Jesus cannot be surpassed by the best investment portfolio, the nicest house, or the most successful career. We owe our family, friends, health, talents, material provision, and so much more to the Giver of all good gifts. We truly have been made rich in every way by the One who pretended to be poor for our sake. He paid the debt we owed Him, that we could never repay no matter how hard we tried. He paid it at great personal expense–becoming poor, and giving His life.

This is why we write about pretending to be poor and sharing with the truly poor:

“He will make you rich in every way so that you can always give freely. And your giving through us will cause many to give thanks to God.” (2 Corinthians 9:11)

We are far from perfect at giving freely. But we will continually the beat the drum of generosity here and in our own lives because we’re forever astonished by the sacrifice Jesus made for us.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Gifts That Keep on Saving

Still shopping? Me, too. And who wants to gift junk people don’t need? Forget about jelly of the month club. Give gifts that will keep your frugal friends and family members saving all year long.

  1. Rechargeable batteries. Keep powering toys, flashlights, and other gadgets with less cost to you and the environment.
  2. Glass storage containers. Packing lunch and storing home-cooked leftovers is so much easier with the proper containers, and glass ones are healthier and easier for re-heating food.
  3. Cloth napkins. I love cloth napkins, not only for their cost effectiveness, but because they work so much better than cheap paper napkins.
  4. College fund contributions. This is the gift that keeps growing with the child, and adds value throughout his or her life. While toys and clothes begin depreciates as soon as a kid touches them, compounding interest will grow your gift over the next decade or more. And it’s tax deductible if you contribute directly to the fund.
  5. Wool. Barring wool allergies, wool sweaters, socks, or scarves are a great way to help a frugal gift recipient stay warm throughout the winter, ‘cause you know they’re too cheap to turn up the heat. Wearing wool saves us hundreds of dollars a year in heating costs, and of course we buy it at thrift or outlet stores. (But you might not want to give thrift store socks for Christmas. Just sayin’.)
  6. Camping gear. Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings by lowering the entry cost of camping. We save over $1000 a year on vacations by camping, but wouldn’t want to without our tent, camp stove, air mattress, and sleeping bags.
  7. DIY reference materials, such as books on gardening, DIY home repair, cookbooks, backyard chickens, honey bees (our next venture) or any other book supporting a money-saving hobby or endeavor. Here’s my favorite Indian cookbook.  And my favorite bread-baking book: Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day book. These are the types of books that I’d rather own than get from the library since we consult them so often.
  8. A bike. Biking for frugal transportation seems to have made a comeback via the illustrious Mr. Money Mustache. At least, this is what sold Neil, and since then he saw fit to gift me a bike (purchased on Craigslist). You can read about my embarrassingly ungrateful initial response on my personal blog. I’ve repented, and this year my other wish (besides cloth napkins) is a bike hitch so I can haul the kids around in our (also from Craigslist) bike trailer. Helmets are also a good gift for anyone whose brains or beauty you wish to preserve.
  9. For the new parenttemporal lobe thermometer: This thermometer is so quick & to use, my kids like getting their temperature taken. It also seems more sensitive than traditional ones.

    miracle swaddler: This blanket gently helps keep those arms swaddled much longer than other styles.

    white noise: A small, portable white noise machine is ideal for travel, even if it’s just to put your baby down to sleep at a friend or grandparent’s house. It’s also great for hotels and camping.

    rechargeable batteries: Battery-operated toys are bound to enter your house. This set will save you loads in the long run.

    12. For the handy man: (suggestions from Neil)

    drive socket set: I’ve been preaching this to anyone who will listen lately, once you go 1/2″ for automotive work, you won’t go back. If you or a loved one will be doing any work on their car in the near future, I cannot recommend highly enough to get 1/2″ drive sockets. Most people use 3/8″ drive, and it’s nothing but frustration and busted knuckles.

    wire strippers: These auto-stippers are a tool you didn’t know you needed until you use one. They perfectly strip wire of any common size without breaking the conductor. Much better and faster than using scissors or traditional strippers.

    loupe – LED illuminated: These loupes are really fun. Easy to use and show the kids stuff close up. Bugs, carpet, newspaper, wood, all fun when viewed through a loupe.

    wood-splitting ax: This Fiskars Axe is the only way I am able to split my own firewood. I am not a giant lumberjack; I cannot wield a 8-10# maul for a few hours at a time. This thing is light, swift, and well designed. It makes splitting wood fun.

    drill bit set: Get these if you own a 1/4″ drive impact driver. Makes it into a small electric impact gun. Very useful and fast for backing out bolts/ nuts.

    13. For the home chef:

    pressure cooker: I never knew how amazing pressure cookers are until I received an electric one as a gift. It has saved dinner on more than one occasion when I forgot to thaw meat, or got home later than expected. It can cook bone-in frozen chicken pieces in less than half an hour. It also makes meat way more tender than other cooking methods.

    instant pot: I don’t have one of these, but I’ve heard it’s the pot to end all pots. It’s a programmable pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, yogurt maker…you name it, it can do it. It’s priced very reasonably compared to purchasing one or two of these other devices. If I didn’t already own a pressure cooker and slow cooker, this would be on my wish list.

    good knife: A good knife makes cooking sooo much more enjoyable–and safer.

    14. For the kids:

    K’nex, Legos, or Duplos: My son spends countless hours playing with these building toys.

    Narnia book seriesLittle House book series: Classic children’s books make a great gift kids and parents will like.

    Craft supplies or Play-dohReplenish crafty consumables.

    Zoo or children’s museum membership, sports class, Highlights magazine subscription: keep them entertained throughout the year with fun activities or subscriptions.

    15. For the fit (or those aspiring to be): For those skipping the gym membership, my favorite workout videos are Zumba,  Ballet Beautiful, & P90x.

    16. For the whole family:

    Whirlypop: We make all our popcorn in this stovepop popper. It makes excellent kettle corn as well.

    Board games such as the Busytown Game (for younger kids): This game has the whole family work together to win.

    Book sets such as Narnia book seriesLittle House book series

    DVD sets such as Narnia, Harry Potter, or Star Wars

    Museum or zoo memberships.

    17. For the tea drinker: hot pot, Yorkshire English breakfast tea.

    Happy shopping! I hope you find something for everyone on your list.

What other gifts keep on saving? What is the most useful gift you’ve ever received?

 

This post contains affiliate links. 

Personal Finance Isn’t Math

Have you ever seen someone run down the numbers on a personal finance issue and the math is 100% behind their point, but there’s no way you’d ever follow their advice? I know I have. How about a few examples?

Recently, I read an article on why parents should view childcare as an investment, not an expense. From a mathematical perspective, it’s a great point. Sure, childcare might eat a large portion of one parent’s salary for 5-10 years, but that cost will come to an end, and you’ll have 5-10 years more experience and salary growth in your field, plus no resume gap. Those who write off paying for childcare as “not worth it” will significantly reduce their lifetime earnings by stunting their career as well as forgoing income during their time at home.

I applaud the math, but nowhere does this author consider that some families view raising young children as a real job worthy of full-time attention. And that the reduced lifetime earnings are considered no problem compared with the privilege of being able to raise their kids full time. The math is unequivocal: women should return to work after maternity leave. The numbers are something to consider. But so is the personal side of personal finance, which in this example is about our relationship with the little humans we bring into this world.

Take another hot personal finance debate: should you pay off your mortgage early or invest extra income? Mathematically, you’re likely on average to grow your wealth at a rate of 7-8% compounding interest in the stock market. Over 30 years that can mean tens of thousands more in investments, depending on your property value. Meanwhile, paying down debt only saves you around 4% in interest these days.

However, some people prefer the feeling of freedom and flexibility that comes with being debt free. Others find it ethically preferable to repay their debts as soon as they are able to. Notice, emotions, values, and ethics have little to do with math. They have nothing to do with profitability. But these aren’t small factors for many.

Or how about an example I personally can’t comprehend: buying a new car. Everyone knows purchasing a brand new vehicle means major instant depreciation, yet lots of people do it every day. To them the feelings of peace of mind, safety, or convenience that comes with a new car and a warranty outweigh the thousands they’re losing in the transaction.

If we only look at the math, we can easily become a Scrooge. But if we only consider our emotions, we’ll probably end up broke.

So what does it mean that personal finance is not math? It means you need to look at the math, but also at your feelings and values. Most of us tend to make decisions more logically/mathematically or more emotionally/values-based. Know thyself: which one to you tend toward? Temper it by analyzing the other factors at play.

If you tend to choose based on numbers, consider the human side. Who will be affected by your choice? What might be the long-term implications of those effects? What are you feelings and values about the question at hand? What might you regret later?

If you tend to make choices more on feelings, values, or simply what those around you are doing, run the numbers. Do the math. Use online calculators—there are plenty for almost every personal finance question you could ask. Write down your feelings, your pros and cons, and try to analyze the a bit more objectively with the math in view.

As you read personal finance advice, ask yourself: is this argument more based on objective or subjective arguments? Is it more math or emotion/values? What would the other “side” add to the debate? This is important to think about both for those articles we agree with wholeheartedly, and those we disagree with.

If you are ever asked for personal finance advice, consider where the person is coming from. What is their real hang up? Maybe they aren’t asking you to solve a math problem.

I suspect that more of us don’t look at the math enough, but those who are all about the math tend to gain prominent voices in the personal finance community. We’d all be better off if we acknowledged and considered both in our decisions surrounding money. Try to be a voice of both in real life and online discussions about this wily thing we call personal finance that involves math, but isn’t synonymous with it.

Which side do you tend toward? How do you integrate both factors into your financial decisions?

Handling Holiday Stress

It’s December. Here come the articles encouraging us to relax, simplify, and just enjoy the holidays. We all need these reminders to slow down, remember what we’re celebrating, and take joy in the people we love. At the same time, this advice can come off as yet another stressor, leaving us wondering, What’s wrong with me? Why am I not relaxing and enjoying this enough? Why do I feel sad or overwhelmed?

Sip a cocktail, laugh, and don’t worry about observing any of the trappings and traditions of Christmas, one article advised.

My reality as I read it? Chugging coffee, crying tears of exhaustion, and spending every precious free moment prepping for the holidays.

The truth is, holidays involve family, family involves love, and love involves sacrifice. If any food is eaten at your gathering, someone had to prepare it. If any gifts are exchanged, someone had to shop and wrap. If the setting is festive, someone had to clean and decorate.

It’s not that we should center our holidays around living up to others’ expectations or striving for a magazine-spread Christmas. I believe that holiday shopping, cooking, baking, and decorating can all be done in a spirit of joy. But for many people–those with kids, extended family, or those opening their home to people without a home base—it’s just not as simple as sipping a hot toddy and shrugging off tradition.

That doesn’t mean Christmas has to be complicated. In the past few years, we’ve found new ways to simplify. We’ve shaved our Christmas day stops down from four to one or two. We attend fewer Christmas parties. We host a small low-key fireside gathering rather than an epic get together. Our decorations are beloved but minimal. Some years we hang Christmas lights on the house. Other years we don’t. Our shopping list (and pile to put away) has shrunken as we’ve asked our families to do gift exchanges. I’ve whittled my baking list down to two or three favorites. I wear the same few outfits to every party and family function, year after year.

This year we’re even taking a weekend in the busy season to get away as a family and just hang out, hike, and play together.

Every year, I’m excited for the festivities leading up to Christmas. I look forward to buying gifts, putting up the tree, and our little family traditions like visiting a Christmas tree farm, looking at Christmas lights, and ice skating.

And every year, at some point I find myself exhausted, stressed, and feeling too busy. The “slow down and simply” philosophy would have me think I’m doing something wrong if the year’s biggest holiday, the most wonderful time of the year leaves me feeling anything but wonderful.

But then the feeling passes as I take time to reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice as the reason we celebrate. I’m sure it didn’t feel great for him to leave perfect fellowship with His father and become a human baby, subject to all the suffering of this earth.

And then I know it’s not wrong to feel stressed and overwhelmed sometimes in the midst of a joyous but hectic season. It’s okay for sacrifice to feel hard; that’s what makes it sacrifice. After a sacrifice, you know the difficulty was worth it. If it’s not, it’s time to cut that activity or obligation.

So don’t stress about feeling stressed this year. Cut what you need to cut. Talk to someone if you’re truly down. But don’t shy away from the sacrifice that comes with making Christmas a beautiful time for others.

How do you handle holiday stress? What ways have you found to simplify?

Money over Meaning?

What do you believe is most important? Becoming very well off financially, or developing a meaningful philosophy of life?

Come on, now. Be honest. You are reading a personal finance blog.

A similar question has been posed to college freshman via the American Freshman Survey, a survey that has queried 15 million students over the last 50 years. Students are asked to rate life goals with varying degrees of important. In 2016, those rating “becoming very well off financially” as important rose to a high of 82%, compared with 47% rating “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as important.¹

The priorities received equal ratings around 1978, and since then, money has quickly outpaced meaning. GenX and Millennials were similar in their ratings of importance for each of these goals. Since 2008, the percentage of college freshman rating becoming very well off as important is on the rise. Clearly the recession didn’t shift people back toward meaning over money, as some thought it would.

But it isn’t hard to imagine why. Those born after 1995, labeled iGen by lead generational researcher Jean M. Twenge in her book of the same name, came of age in a time of economic uncertainty. Surveys show their attitudes to be less idealistic and entitled when it comes to work, school, and income than Millennials were before them. Instead, they report attitudes that are more pragmatic: they believe they need to earn a high income just to make ends meet. Contrary to common perception, fewer young people today report a goal of becoming entrepreneurs compared with young people of past generations. To a group raised in the height of the safety craze as well as a recession, entrepreneurship may sound too risky.

What to make of all of this? Certainly money and meaning aren’t mutually exclusive, but they can become excluded on a practical level. Though I hadn’t thought of it in exactly those terms, I suppose I started this blog trying with the goal of integrating the two, or at least holding both in the balance.

Placing less value on meaning can lead to some scary trends, such as less volunteering and charitable giving. Indeed, both these social practices are on the decline among Millennials and iGen. Yes, you read that right: despite all the hype about Millennials being more socially active, they only report favorable attitudes toward volunteering and charitable giving. Self-reporting in the American General Social Survey show less engagement than previous generations at the same age.

Concern with money over meaning is also contributing to what former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims calls “the college admissions arms race.” In her book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, she laments the extreme competitiveness surrounding elite college admissions, which is viewed by many as the only path toward a financially stable life.

The problem both Lythcott-Haims and Twenge report, from their vantage point as academic faculty, is that college students are no longer there because they care. Past generations viewed college as a great privilege, an opportunity to learn and explore; now it’s simply a means to end.

Just some whiny college profs? Maybe. But what will it mean for our society if young people, usually the most passionate dreamers, are cynical or indifferent? What will it mean for charities, non-profits, and the people and causes they serve? What will it mean for professions high in meaning and relatively low in salary? I’m thinking teaching, social work, and the arts, to name a few.

Perhaps some will conclude there need not be a distinction between meaning and money. That frugality can be a way of life so all-encompassing it constitutes a controlling value. I’m no philosopher, but I think this goes too far.

Certainly we can value meaning while also making a decent living and handling money prudently. This may look differently for each person, but some principles stand out:

  1. Live on less than you make. Depending on your situation, this may mean you need to make more, or spend less. As a culture (species?) we tend to assume we need more, but a hard look at our spending may reveal otherwise.
  2. Prepare for a lifestyle in congruity with your chosen profession. When enrolled in the college of education, I had no dreams of ever living large. I figured my faith and my library card would get me through life.
  3. Do absolutely everything you can to keep your school debt in proportion with your earning potential. While in high school, use Post Secondary Education Option, AP or dual enrollment courses, and retake those standardized tests at least once for a shot at raising your score. Then apply for scholarships, re-apply each year, get a part-time job, and consider taking some courses at a community college to reduce tuition costs. And please choose a reasonably priced university.
  4. Start giving as soon as you graduate (or even before). Don’t wait till you’re making the big bucks to make regular charitable donations. Start early and small, and increase with each raise so it just feels like a natural part of your financial plan. Regular givers report this is the most fun they have with their money.
  5. Make time for people. Long hours or side hustles can be profitable for a season, but if you don’t have time for family and friends, you may be placing money over meaning in a way that compromises your mental health. If you need to, make relationships a calendar item. Schedule a family night, date nights with your spouse and children, and time with your friends, as well.
  6. If you’re working toward FIRE, what’s your goal? Doing more of what you love? Or more of what makes a difference in the world? Meaning is perhaps never more important than in such a potent position as early retirement.

Do you think it’s naive to value meaning over money? What are some ways you keep both in balance?

¹All research from the following:

Lythcott-Haims, J. (2015) How to Raise an Adult. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Twenge, J.M. (2006) Generation MeNew York, NY: Atria Books.

Twenge, J.M. (2017) iGen. New York, NY: Atria Books.

Shopping Hack: Minimize Impulse Purchases with Subscriptions

Target: we all know it’s a total mom trap. You go in for diapers and milk and are forced to walk by Starbucks, jewelry, purses, women’s clothing, and baby clothing just to get to the diapers. Then you must either pass by the toys or home goods to get to the milk. Your senses are bombarded with trendy, minimalist-chic décor in the season’s latest hues before you emerge with your items, now only to pass the beauty and cosmetics aisles. And somehow when you go back next week for more diapers, they will have new merch to allure you.

The average woman goes in to Target with 4 items on her list and leaves with 17. I just made that up, but I think it’s about right.

What if you didn’t have to go to Target (or Walmart, or wherever you go) nearly as often? Did you know Target will send you that stuff for free? Actually, they’ll take 5% off the price and deliver for free to your doorstep. Okay, not milk. But I get most of my household items through subscriptions to Target and Amazon.

I don’t like subscription services that mindlessly suck money out of my account each months, such as gym memberships, Netflix, Blue Apron, magazines, mystery boxes, and the like. But I do love subscription goods since I have to buy them anyway. And I mind as well avoid the mom trap.

Amazon

Amazon is my favorite when it comes to subscriptions because they offer 5-20% off. 20% of diapers and wipes if you sign up for Amazon Family. 5% off all items in the subscribe and save store. 15% off all items if you subscribe to 5 or more items in a month.

Here is a list of items I am or have subscribed to from Amazon: batteries, tea, coconut oil, toilet paper, paper towels, dish soap, dishwasher soap pods, shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen, freezer bags, diapers, artificial tears, Aquaphor, and even baker’s yeast.

Some items in the Subscribe and Save store are packaged in bulk, requiring you to buy multiples of the same items. Others can be purchased as a single item. They sell name brands, so some items aren’t cheaper than similar off brands. Just price check next time you’re at the store (or online for big box retailers).

You choose the frequency, and you can cancel at any time. You can even do it for a one-time purchase that you want to save 15% on. I just guess the frequency at the beginning, because it’s easily adjusted on a monthly basis before the items ship. Amazon sends a reminder email a few days before shipping, allowing you to skip delivery on items you don’t need anymore. I spend 5 minutes or less per month checking whether I need the scheduled items or not.

Target

Target offers 5% off many household and toiletry items. I’ve subscribed for toothpaste, hairspray, laundry detergent, shampoo, tampons, tissues, tea, and hand soap. Fewer items are packaged in bulk so it’s easier to subscribe to items you won’t go through quickly. And they even offer subscriptions on some of their store brands.

The items do not have to ship together, and there are lots of frequency options. Target also sends an email before an item ships, in time for you to cancel if you don’t need it. You can skip deliveries or modify the frequency at any time before shipping. And the item doesn’t have to meet a minimum spend to receive free shipping.

The Perks

So how do subscriptions minimize my consumption? I’m much less tempted to buy trendy, cute junk if I just don’t go to stores. Just imagine how many fewer impulses you’d make or even think about if you cut the weekly Target run out of your routine. There’s a great benefit to reaching a point where you can just go into a store and buy only what you need. If you’re not there yet, subscriptions are a great way to fast from in-store browsing. And after a while without making an impulse buy, it’s easier to accept that you really don’t need those extras.

Once subscriptions are set up I’m also saving time—as much as a couple hours a week that would be spent running errands, not to mention needlessly perusing clearance racks. Of course, I also love saving 5-20% off normal prices.

What about the environment? Is all that packaging and delivery ruining the earth? Surprisingly, it’s actually more efficient and better for the environment than the traditional retail model.

Although I’ve banned myself from shopping bans,  subscriptions would be a great way to complete a successful ban as they could help limit spending to essentials.

And speaking of packaging, few things excite my kids more than getting a new cardboard box to play with. No joke.

The Drawbacks

The main downside is that you have to plan ahead. Subscription items do not enjoy two-day shipping. Amazon keeps the same date each month when you’ll receive your items. Target’s is a little less organized, but you’re going to wait a few days vs. just going right to the store.

Could this lead to unnecessary online shopping? It could, but let’s face it: if you can’t see it, feel it, try it on, and it’s going to entail some hassle to return unwanted items, I’m a lot less likely to buy it. Also, if you stay in the Subscribe and Save store on Amazon, there’s pretty much only boring household stuff. If online shopping is a greater temptation for you than being in a store, by all means, keep running your errands.

For items that are not available for subscriptions, I love Target’s “pick up in store” feature. Whether it’s an item you want from another store but don’t want to pay shipping costs, or you don’t want to walk through all of Target, it’s great to show up at customer service and pick up an order. It’s the very definition of avoiding impulse buys.

I realize buying one or two items this way might just be inconsiderate. But if you only need two items, what are you doing in a big box store? Go to the drug store or grocery store, where you might pay a dollar or two more, but if you come out without $40 worth of excess junk, you’ll still be way ahead.

Do you use subscriptions for shopping? What other perks or drawbacks do you see?

Inflate Your Usefulness, Not Your Lifestyle

Lifestyle inflation is a popular personal finance metaphor for the phenomenon of expenses endlessly rising to match (or surpass) income. It captures the predicament of the 37% of Americans living in one of the world’s richest countries who claim to be too broke to save. And it describes what those pretending to poor want to avoid. Bloated spending not only causes financial problems, it also makes people less useful. It ties up time and money so that it all has to be spent on lifestyle maintenance, leaving less room for meaningful pursuits like family, friends, and volunteering. Plus, when life is centered on convenience and acquisition, people miss out on the satisfaction of becoming handy, resourceful, and helpful.

But those of us who don’t inflate our lifestyle also face potential danger. Have you ever thought about what you are inflating instead? We need to invest in something we can put stock in, and I don’t mean the stock market. If all you inflate is your bank or retirement account, you’re missing out. Saving and investing are worthy, responsible steps that we preach. But we all know there’s more to life than money. Most people think this “more” is freedom: from the 9 to 5, having to worry about money, or keeping up with the Joneses. Freedom is depicted as early retirement, working for yourself, traveling-hacking, or otherwise finding happiness outside materialism.

These are all appealing replacements to lifestyle inflation. But will they pay the dividends of a joyful and productive life? It’s easy to place false hope in the financial freedom or frugal ecstasy so often promised. A growing body of research documents the correlation between increased wealth and decreased interpersonal skills, emotional health, and happiness:

  • Lonely At The Top, by Thomas Joiner, documents the tragic pattern of men achieving success and wealth, only to find themselves without companionship.
  • In the Boston Globe article “Why It Matters That Our Politicians Are Rich” Britt Peterson reports, “Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble.”
  • Richard Ryan’s report in The Annual Review of Psychology (2001) found that a focus on financial and material goals correlated to a lower sense of well-being and found money is not a reliable predictor of happiness.
  • Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege states the “newly identified at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families.” These privileged kids are more likely to suffer from depression and other emotional ill health.

Yikes! There is a real gravity toward these scary outcomes for the wealthy. Pursuing wealth for different reasons doesn’t make us immune. Let’s heed these warnings and not let the journey to so-called freedom make us slaves to side hustles and financial goals. We want to remain flexible while increasing our financial flexibility, and the key lies in what we’re inflating along the way.

To us pretending to be poor is about inflating our usefulness at the same time we invest for future needs. Our financial journey isn’t just about us, or even our family.  If we get to “retire” early, that’s just icing on the cake, because we’re using our time and money to build a good life NOW. And the good life is not just about geeking out over spreadsheets, net worth, and shopping at ALDI. It’s not just about finding happiness in frugal hacks and free pleasures. The good life is about helping others.

The outcome of inflating your usefulness isn’t to leave yourself destitute, but to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share,  storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed” (1 Timothy 6:18, 19). So how can deflating your lifestyle inflate your usefulness?

  1. Work to live, don’t live to work. A good work ethic is important, but working constantly while ignoring family, friends, faith, and those in need is not a balanced or healthy life. If you’re hustling for the proverbial dangled carrot, maybe it’s time to free yourself from the rat race, not necessarily by retiring early, but by deflating your usefulness so you don’t need that carrot.
  2. Get useful by DIYing. Some people feel excited when they find the next new product that will make their life easier. Don’t get me wrong, I love my microwave and dishwasher. But others seek accomplishment in spending less, and this often results in becoming more useful. For example, I love Indian food, but I don’t love spending money at restaurants. So I’m learning to make Indian food. Neil enjoys riding his bike because it’s free exercise and saves on transportation costs. For both of us these money-saving measures are enjoyable in part because we feel accomplished after a challenge.
  3. Share the usefulness. Now that you have amassed helpful DIY skills, you can help other people. When someone need helps with a broken car or house, you can help. When someone loves Indian food, you can cook. You are saving other people money, perhaps teaching them useful skills, and feeling satisfied by widening your sphere of usefulness. Even if you don’t have amazing skills, simply by making time to help others you will find a world of needs to meet. Volunteering for an after school program, the high school group at church, to help a friend move, or to babysit are all ways we’ve found to be useful. Other ideas include volunteering at a nursing home or hospice center, Habitat for HumanityBig Brothers Big Sisters, English tutoring for refugees, mentoring teens in prison, or taking a short-term missions trip. (I’m going to India this summer!)
  4. It is better to give than to receive. Freeing up money to give to charitable or faith-based causes is hugely rewarding, and, need I mention, helpful! For example, donating to disaster relief in Nepal would expand your usefulness to a global scale. Yes, you have to do a little research to make sure an organization is trustworthy. But there are lots of reputable places and you can check them out on charitywatch.org or ministrywatch.org. Or visit a local food bank, after school program, or homeless shelter and check it out yourself.
  5. Be a good friend. The research on sad, rich Americans should be sobering. Thankfully the antidote is simple and free: have friends. Caring about other people and sharing life together can keep you grounded and balanced throughout your financial journey. You’ll avoid ending up lonely at the top, and you’re bound to be useful if you’re a good friend.

Titus 3:14 describes usefulness well: “Our people must learn to do good by meeting the urgent needs of others; then they will not be unproductive.”

What DIY success are you most proud of? What have you learned from sharing your time or money with others? 

Financial Seasons and the Fallacy of “Extreme Frugality”

When I hear people write or talk about “extreme frugality,” I cringe for a couple of reasons. First, because we’re wealthy compared with over 99% of the world. Secondly, because you can only maintain “extreme” frugality for so long.

For example, we put up to half our income toward a financial goal for 5 years. We cooked all almost all our food at home, drove old cars, and did very little to update our home during this time. We did bare minimum shopping for clothing, and almost everything was purchased secondhand. Gifts for our children were modest and often used. The kids wore mostly hand-me-downs. Some might say we were “extremely” frugal in this time, though I never viewed it this way because we always had everything we needed, purchased what we really wanted, and maintained habits like giving, vacationing, and hosting.

Since meeting that goal and sending our first child off to school, spending has increased in comparison with the previous 5 years. We bought clothes and shoes to replace those that had worn out. We decorated our home (a little). I bought my kids clothing for the first time, since the hand-me-down chain slowed down around school age. We spent on preschool, then soccer. Quite a few items in our home had seen better days, so we replaced them.

There were “luxury” items, too. Neil got invited back to India. We went to see a professional musical. We bought our 6-year-old a birthday gift that was new rather than used for the first time–the amazing Lego Boost. Neil got me a laptop for Christmas.

I’m sure you get the picture. We limited our spending quite a bit for about five years, and then we let up because things were worn out, and we were just ready to loosen the belt a bit.

We all go through financial seasons. There is a time for saving, and a time for spending. Yes, we always need to do both. But there are seasons when one takes precedence over the other, and that’s normal.

Unfortunately, many frugality articles don’t make this seem normal, at least at a glance. When bloggers publish monthly expense reports that highlight extremely low spending, it makes it seem like they will be able to live off that amount forever. They won’t. And you won’t, either.

Maybe you’ll attend–or be in–lots of weddings or have the opportunity to travel. Maybe you or someone in your family will experience health problems. Maybe ants will eat your house. Maybe you’ll need to replace a vehicle sooner than you’d expected. Maybe you’ll need to move. Maybe you’ll have a baby. In other words, maybe life will happen and it will be expensive.

We all pass through different financial seasons in life, and a snapshot like a monthly expense report can’t convey that complexity. You may be in a different season than others, so take expense reports (or real-life spending comparisons) as information, or inspiration, but don’t take them too much to heart. You’re looking at a moment in someone else’s life, a little bit like those cheery Facebook photos that reflect only the happiest, most envy-worthy moments.

I believe in the power of frugality in making financial progress, hence our site name. But I also know that frugality has its limits, and “extreme frugality” is not only an oxymoron by the time it appears on a web page, it’s also not as sustainable as people sometimes sell it as. Live reasonably, work toward your goals, and be generous. Always keep money in perspective: “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5).

What financial seasons have you experienced? Was it hard to go from a saving season to a spending season?