My Baby Registry Recommendations

Once most of your friends are married, you can breathe a sigh of relief. That expensive season of weddings, bridal showers, and bachelorette parties has passed.

But wait—baby showers are may be just around the corner.

Luckily, celebrating your friends’ new baby is often less pricey than their nuptials. And of course, who doesn’t love buying tiny, adorable clothing? It’s a fun event to shop for, but what are the items new parents need most? (Hint: it isn’t onesies!) And when it’s your turn to pop out a little, where are the best places to register?

What New Parents Need

There are hundreds of lists already out there on what to register for, from minimalists/natural parenting lists that even eliminate the crib, to the Babies ‘R’ Us recommendations which would have you register for nearly everything in the entire store. Sure, all baby really needs is you, but some baby gear will make your life a whole lot easier.

I’m not going to rehash the list, except to say I do recommend a crib! I will share some of my favorite less-obvious baby products, as well as listing a few that I didn’t find all that helpful, at least for us.

Thermometer—this is one of the best gifts I received. Our first night at home was grueling. Baby was fussy, we finally realized he had a heat rash, and couldn’t get an accurate read with the cheapo thermometer that came with the mostly useless baby grooming kit we registered for. (I’m still using the nail clippers, though.) My friend overnighted me this thermometer and it’s been such a trusty parenting tool. Plus my kids actually enjoy getting their temperature taken with it!

Rechargeable batteries—an endless number of other gadgets operate on batteries, and while it’s wise to pick out items with electric options, sometimes you just can’t. Enter rechargeable batteries, the least expected but invaluable baby shower gift.

Travel white noise machine—we are not homebodies and definitely took our kids out and about a lot. White noise helped them sleep on the road and while we host at home.

Light-blocking curtains—I really believe these made such a difference in our babies abilities to sleep, and I’m not the only young mom to say so. Sure, taping cardboard over the window works too, but I like to be able to let in sunlight when it’s not sleepy time.

Stroller frame—if you have a smaller car or just don’t want your stoller dominating your entire trunk, consider getting a stroller frame that fits the car seat. It doesn’t have an actual seat, and you’ll need a different stroller when the baby outgrows the car seat, but by then they’re ready for a jogging stroller or umbrella stroller anyway.

Jogging stroller—if you want to do any off-sidewalking, I highly recommend a jogging stroller. Most regular strollers have smaller wheels that don’t do well on grass. I’m not acquainted with the fancier, more expensive strollers, but the standard brands don’t do well off pavement. Even bumps in the sidewalk can be a lot for many strollers to take. We’ve used our jogging stroller for hiking, camping, walking, and, of course, jogging.

Ergo carrier—the nice thing about the Ergo carrier is that it allows you to wear the baby from a very young age up through toddlerhood. It transitions from front to back (and can be worn on the side as well, though I’ve never tried it).

Bath tub with sling—this is far from a necessity but we loved ours so much and the babies seemed to love it, too. It’s a small plastic tub with a mesh sling that clips on for infants. It made bathing their slippery little selves so much easier. And when they’re able to sit up, it was a nice shape for them to keep bathing in without the sling, until they were steady enough for the big tub.

Pack n play—we used ours a ton. Didn’t get the fancy model with the changer attachment, though. It still seems too low.

Swaddle Me blankets—we loved these. I thought my daughter was going to go off to college still sleeping in these. I also liked the Miracle Swaddle.

Baby book—you’ll definitely want to document the first year.

The new product I’m going to get for baby #3: a rock ‘n’ play. I’m planning to borrow one of these because they look absolutely awesome! Babies seem to find them cozy, they fold down small, and are super easy to transport from room to room or for travel. I didn’t know they existed when I had my first.

I’ve included affiliate links to the products we liked, or similar, but of course, if you can find some of these used you’ll save a ton. I’d recommend getting a new car seat, pack n play, and stroller if you plan to have multiple kids, as it seems like the normal-priced baby items are only designed to go last for 2-3 kids.

Don’t Register For:

Clothing—you’ll get it anyway. Especially onesies.

Blankets—ditto.

Toys—ditto.

Bowls that claim they won’t spill—they will spill. Toddlers are geniuses at spilling things.

What to Expect the First Year—there are one million copies of this in the universe already. Get a used one. Or just talk to another mom. You won’t have time to read, anyway.

Personal preference

I found I did not get a ton of use out of my swing, Bumpo seat, or doorway jumper. Didn’t need a video monitor. Didn’t need a Scandinavian snot sucker. Sophie the Giraffe is not magical. Wouldn’t get a diaper pail that doesn’t use regular trash bags. Or anything really gimmicky or trendy unless you are trying solutions for a specific problem.

I loved registering on Amazon. There are so many options, which can be overwhelming, but also means you can get what you really want. The reviews and ratings are also very helpful. I liked that I could register for non-baby items like curtains, a lamp, a hamper, a nightstand, and books. If I wanted to see something in-person, I’d check it out at a retail store first.

What was the most useful baby item in your opinion? What was not that worthwhile? 

Do Grown-ups Need an Allowance?

Remember the magic of childhood allowance? You could buy toys or candy, or watch it amass if your piggie bank with Scrooge-like glee. And no bills to pay with it!

What if grown-ups could have the same guilt-free, responsibility-free spending experience? If you’re married with joint finances, that might be just what you need to relieve marital money tension.

Call it what you like: blow money, fun money, spending money, allowance, discretionary funds, or the old-fashioned pin money. It’s the idea that you have some that’s designated as yours, that you can do with as you like. You can spend on Starbucks or shoes or Taco Bell or tools, or whatever else you want, without having to ask or answer for it.

If you’re single, it always makes sense to budget for the types of things this “fun money” might cover in marriage: treating yourself, going out, and other “fun” purchases. But you probably have way more autonomy is choosing how much and how to spend then someone who has joined finances for life. (Skip to tips below about determining the amount.)

While Dave Ramsey and other PF gurus make blanket prescriptions about spouse allowances, I think it depends on you, your spouse, and your marriage. If you’re married, you might need an allowance if:

  1. You have different financial personalities. We all have a natural bent toward saver or spender. This may be influenced by your upbringing or life experiences as well as temperament. Were you the kid who spent every dime that came your way, or did you (like me) hoard it in your piggie bank, and are still rolling the coins? (True story).

Opposites tend to attract, so it’s pretty likely you married someone with a different financial personality from you. And you’ll see it, among other ways, when one of you makes a purchase the other doesn’t understand or agree with. “Why do you need another _____?” You fill in the blank. Or maybe someone’s coffee habit or smoking habit or gym membership or hobby adds up more than the other feels is reasonable. Even with like financial personalities, our individual tastes are often incomprehensible to our spouse and therefore feel like unjustified spending.

I don’t know how the stars aligned for me to marry a fellow saver, but a huge part of the reason we actually don’t practice the spouse allowance is that we’re just both pretty tight with money. We generally trust each other to make good choices and respect the other’s decisions even if we wouldn’t have made them ourselves.

If you’re both spenders, you might not feel the need to institute an allowance, but it could be a wise idea for your finances. If neither of you minds the other’s spending, great! But if you’re both frittering away money needlessly without accountability, you might want to reign it in by setting a limit ahead of time.

  1. You fight about spending regularly. I don’t suppose there are many couples out there who have never argued about money. In fact, the first argument of our dating relationship centered on who should pay for gas (we were both trying to pay). But for many, it’s more than the occasional tiff; it’s an ongoing tension that can affect the overall health of the marriage. If this is the case for you, please try giving each other an allowance! It won’t solve everything, but if you feel like your purchase of new sheets turned into World War III, budgeting for spending money could really help.
  2. You think marriage should be fair. Though we might not realize it, a lot of us come to marriage under the illusion that everything should be equal, 50/50, fair. Here’s a sample conversation:

“The bank statement says you spent $50 on Starbucks last month. I think you should try to cut back.”

“Oh yeah? Well, you must’ve spent at least that much going out with your friends. Do you have to cut back, too?”

If you keep accounts like this and use it to justify your spending, whether to yourself or your spouse, it might be time to try an allowance.

Trying an allowance will not solve disagreements between how much to spend on major purchases, or setting your overall financial goals. It won’t turn a spender into a thrifty person, though they could learn some things about their spending habits and triggers from it. And it certainly won’t solve the underlying causes of marital tension. But it can be very effective in giving each spouse the freedom to do some autonomous spending while working together toward bigger goals.

How much is enough?

That is a question only you and your spouse can answer. First, decide what types of purchases should be covered by allowance versus the regular budget. For example, you should have a certain amount budgeted for clothes that covers everyone’s needs. But if you want something above and beyond that, you can use your allowance, perhaps saving up several weeks’ worth.

Next, consider looking at your last couple months of spending via bank statements or your tracking software. How much of those purchases fall under the categories you decided should be covered by allowance? (Or how much went above and beyond what was budgeted for those categories?) Are you comfortable with spending that much, or would you like to cut back a little?

Look at your first month or two of allowance as a trial. You can always tweak the amount—and what allowance needs to cover—as you go. Regroup after the first month or two and have a conversation about how it’s going, whether it’s helping, and if you both feel satisfied with the amount you first set.

What if your spouse won’t agree to it? If it’s a matter of the other person not wanting to restrict spending, you can always institute an allowance for yourself that you promise not to go over. One person budgeting and saving is better than no one doing it. If your spouse doesn’t want anyone to have an allowance, see if you can have an honest conversation about why. Is there fear or other feelings surrounding money? Have you overspent or broken trust in this area? This can be tough—feel it out, and remember, the health of your relationship is more important than you getting what you want.

Just remember, a grown-up allowance is something you should both agree to and should serve your marriage and overarching financial goals.

Do you have an allowance? How has it helped your marriage and/or finances?

Why You’re Failing at Frugality

I received these napkins as a gift 9 years ago.

“I’ve tried to be better with money but it just doesn’t work. I was shopping at ALDI, but then I bought some strawberries that were moldy. So I’ve started using coupons. We replaced our weekend night out with take-out so we don’t have to pay a tip. I had to get a car payment because I can’t break down on my way to work. But now I’m saving on gas because the car gets better mileage. Plus I get fuel discounts from my grocery card. And I can’t get out of debt because I don’t want to wipe out my savings. If only I made more money, then I could follow all the financial advice I hear.”

Sound familiar? We’ve probably all heard or made some of these statements. If to err is human, so is to make irrational excuses. Don’t worry, I’ve erred and excused with the best of them. We nursed our student loans for a couple years (and went to Europe, and bought a house) before deciding to decimate them. I withdrew funds from my retirement account after leaving my first real job at age 21. (Doh!) We all make mistakes, and we all have different priorities. But I hear a lot of people who are completely mystified about their financial frustrations because they genuinely believe they are pretty frugal.

So how is it that some people cut coupons, shop sales, eat Meatless Mondays, even give up cable (!) , but just can’t seem to get ahead financially? Chances are, they’re only pretending to be frugal, which is a world apart from pretending to be poor.  In a materialistic culture that masterfully markets the financial fallacy that we save money by spending money, it’s almost impossible to resist the pitfalls of faux frugality. The point here is not to feel guilty, but to wake up and get clarity about our financial decisions so we can take charge. I can’t sit back and let comrades Pretend to Be Frugal, when they should instead Pretend to Be Poor. Let’s explore the difference.

Pretending to be Frugal Pretending to be Poor
Finding less expensive ways to inflate lifestyle Finding ways to deflate lifestyle
Views spending as a way to “save” Views spending as something to minimize; actually puts “saved” money into savings
Seeking luxury, comfort, and convenience at a discount Minimizing luxury while increasing usefulness
Views spending as a game to get “more for my money” via coupons, sales, “freebies,” tax write-offs, etc.  Challenges oneself to increase savings and generosity by reducing expenses
Focuses on small savings areas instead of big ones Ruthlessly prioritizes savings on the big three (car, house, food); continually finds new small ways to save
Lacks consistency in frugal practices Has a detailed plan and focuses on results
Lacks goals and purpose of frugality Focused on financial goals & bigger purpose of frugality—understands why
Makes excuses for lack of savings, blames lack of income Tracks own progress toward goals
Fights with spouse/SO over spending. Competes for resources with spouse A frugal team, work together to find new ways of saving
Stuck in survival mode Generous

So are you frugal or just pretending? Are you simply finding cheaper ways to inflate your lifestyle, or taking concrete steps to deflate your lifestyle? In other words, are you looking for discounts on luxuries, or continually searching for the bottom boundary of how little you can be content with? You are either pushing the upper limits of your budget with excuses to spend, or challenging yourself to spend less and less.

Faux frugality views spending as a way to save. Do your “thrifty” habits belie spendthrift problems? We’ve all been tempted to spend extra to get a “free” gift, “free” shipping, or a tax write-off. But spending $50 to save $10 doesn’t mean you saved $10. It means you spent $50. On a larger scale, someone might upgrade a vehicle to “save” on fuel costs. But many times the cost of that upgrade can’t be recovered by the gas savings in a reasonable amount of time. People even buy houses because the mortgage payment looks cheaper than rent, and fail to consider the hidden costs of home ownership.

Those who Pretend to Be Frugal see spending as a game that consumers can win. If people who Pretend to Be Poor see spending as a game at all, it’s how little they can spend. Not how much crap can I accumulate while shelling out hard-earned cash. Instead, they want to spend in order to secure real needs and carefully chosen wants for as little as possible. I’m thrilled to optimize spending, but I’m not optimizing my money if I’m indulging in discounted luxuries that I don’t truly value. Materialism is a losing game, and I’m out.

Another big distinction between faux and true frugality is a willingness to tackle the big expense areas. The top three cost of living categories are housing, transportation, and food. If you can get these under control you are well on your way to financial progress. Often people stop at smaller areas like clothing or cell phone plans. I believe no budget line is safe from frugalizing. And people often need to start with something smaller and more manageable. But if you’re unwilling to delve into the deepest savings potential, you’re only playing at frugality, and it won’t get you anywhere. You can shop exclusively at ALDI and Goodwill, but if you’re unwilling to get rid of your car payment, slash your $300/month dining budget, pay off your student loans, or stop paying outrageous interest on credit card debt, you will not get ahead financially.

The Faux Frugals also lack consistency in key frugal practices. For example, they may shop at a discount grocery once in a while when it’s convenient, but mostly end up over-spending in unplanned trips to the Big Store. Until you are truly committed to the bigger picture of why you’d Pretend to Be Poor, you’ll lack the motivation to plan ahead and build frugal habits into your routine. Whether it’s hanging laundry to dry, packing a lunch, saving up for purchases, or paying off debt, consistency is key. You can’t practice frugality only when you feel like it; you’ll never see a difference. It’s those who give up too soon who say, “I tried being frugal, it didn’t really help.” The problem wasn’t the advice, but the lack of perseverance.

And this brings us to the issue of motivation. Pretending to Be Frugal has many possible motives. If you find yourself constantly comparing spending to friends, fighting with your spouse about money, or making financial decisions out of guilt, you probably haven’t latched onto lasting motivation. Understanding why you want tosave money is going to get you a lot further than just knowing how to save money.

Why the heck would I wash poopy cloth diapers or go camping for vacation with two tots in tow? What keeps us going is our purpose. Pretending to Be Poor is not about being a miser. There’s nothing actually impoverished about our lifestyle. But we are essentially pretending to have less money than we do, so we can have the flexibility to take opportunities that come our way (like my trip to India), prioritize people, and practice generousity . Authentic frugality increases your usefulness as you learn new skills, get creative, help others, strengthen your relationships, and enjoy it all as a fun adventure.

So stop playing at being frugal. Unless you make a ton of money, if you want to make progress financially, you have to go all-in. That doesn’t mean tackling your entire budget at once. But you have to be willing to challenge any area of spending, one at a time, big and small. You have to quit the materialistic game of spending to “save.” You’ll need to give up some preferences and be consistent. And you must get your reasons in order to secure lasting motivation.

Consider Proverbs 14:23: All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.

What other differences do you see between faux & real frugality? What motivates your frugality?

Tips and Tricks for Thrifty Road Trips

Road trips can be a great way to save money as compared with flying, especially if you don’t earn a lot of travel rewards or have a large family. And a perk of car over planes is that they make it easier to take along camping gear. This saves big time on lodging once we reach our destination.

Nothing Parties Like a Rental

One of the less-obvious tips I’d offer is to consider renting a vehicle in certain circumstances. We drive older vehicles, which allows us to keep our transportation costs quite low compared to the average. (Neil has spent $8000 on vehicle purchases in his 18 years of driving. My total isn’t much higher.)

We really don’t want to wear out our older cars by putting 1000+ miles on them in one week. Nor do we find it rational to purchase newer vehicles primarily for the purpose of having a reliable car for our occasional road trips. Rather than  pay $250-450 per month on a car payment, it makes so much more sense to spend $200-300 for a rental once or twice a year, while preserving our older, paid-for cars. Even counting fuel costs, this comes in way below the cost of flying our family.

For shorter trips we’re happy to take our own car. For long hauls, we opt for rentals. We check prices and make reservations ahead of time. We’ve also found ways to save by using rental car coupons or rewards accumulated from work travel.

As an added perk, rental cars add a feeling of luxury to our trips because we are accustomed to cars that have far fewer features. Plus it feels pretty luxurious not to have to vacuum the car and do an oil change as soon as we get back from a long trip.

We always rent an SUV because mini-vans are often twice the price without offering substantially more space.

Of course, if you have a reliable, newer vehicle that you don’t mind putting miles on, it may be more economical to drive what you already have. Driving your own vehicle comes at some cost of wear, tear, and maintenance, so weight the options carefully.

Pass the Snacks!

Packing food and limiting restaurant stops is perhaps the most obvious road trip tip. I’ll just add that I used to spend way too much precious, last-minute time before vacation assembling all manner of breakfasts and lunches, in additional to a plethora of other snacks. Only to have soggy sandwiches the next day that sometimes no one would even eat. I’ve streamlined my food-packing task by simply packing the raw ingredients for a variety of sandwiches—ham, cheese, peanut butter, honey, and bread—and making them “to order” on the road. I pack extra paper plates, napkins, and plastic cutlery as well.

For breakfast, hard-boiled eggs, bagels with cream cheese, yogurt cups, or dry cereal seem to please everyone without requiring me to cook much.

For snacks I usually pack some combination of nuts, fruit, carrots, granola bars, crackers or chips, and candy. Because some junk food is requisite on road trips, right?

We bring coffee and tea for the morning. In the afternoon I’ve done everything from drinking old, lukewarm coffee from home, to skipping coffee altogether. Please, do not do this. I’ve repented and now require fresh, hot coffee in the afternoon, especially if I’m driving. It can be from anywhere, it just has to happen. I bring Neil a tea bag and just get him hot water, because who wants to pay $2 for bad tea?

It may be worth stopping at a grocery store for food before you head home. We’ve also been known to take PBJ supplies with us from our hotel breakfast.

Are We There Yet?

We’ve never gone for the travel DVD players they sell for kids, although last year we got an iPad for the Lego Boost. But for the majority of the trip we try to occupy our kids the good old-fashioned way: Benadryl. Just kidding! We bring along plenty of music, coloring, magazines, and small toys, and also pray they will fall asleep.

We also use a lot of audio books, which we download ahead of time using library apps like Hoopla and Libby. Hoopla also offers tons of music. Neil and I each have an account with each app, meaning we can download a total of 17 titles per month each between those two apps.

For children’s audio books, I find either age-appropriate chapter books or audio collections of picture book series. Boxcar Children, the Little House series, Olivia, Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, Dr. Suess, the Hobbit, Magic Treehouse, Henry Huggins and the Mouse on the Motorcycle series have all been favorites. Depending on your kid, they may also enjoy some adult non-fiction.

Having something new for the kids—a magazine, library book, graphic novel, or dollar-store toy—can be a lifesaver during long trips. And of course, we’re not above using Benadryl modern technology. We now download the allowed number of TV shows from apps like PBS kids and Amazon Prime before a trip. It’s reassuring to have this in your back pocket for that last, melt-down leg of the journey.

Odds and Ends

How long you’re on the road will impact your road trip costs. When we had babies, we stopped halfway at a hotel. We used hotel points and opted for places with free breakfast, but still needed to spend more on food the longer we were on the road. While I would NOT recommend driving too far with little people just to save money, I will say that leaving at 3 am has allowed us to get there in one day and we do spend a bit less money this way. Again, this has only been viable since our kids are a bit older and I’m not stopping to nurse and change diapers.

If you do need to stop, look into credit card rewards ahead of time. Or Priceline it. If you need to stop on short notice, I recommend the hotel coupon books available at travel centers and many gas stations. They’re with the tourist info and usually offer better deals than available for walk-ins.

Sometimes tolls can really add up. That may be unavoidable, but it’s worth checking whether there are alternative routes that will get you there in a similar time frame.

Gas prices can also vary greatly. Consider getting an app like GasBuddy or Gas Guru to point your toward good prices along the way.

That’s my two cents on saving on road trips. What are your best tips and tricks?

When Frugal Doesn’t Fly

I was born frugal. That’s not to say I’ve never wasted money, but the frugal force is strong with me. As a kid I would eat all the stale, half-portions of cereal left in the bottom of the box that no one else wanted, because I didn’t want food to go to waste. I would pick out each color of crayon from our craft box before school started, because why buy a new box when you already have lots of crayons? (My mom got me new ones anyway.) I read grocery ads from a young age because I just needed to know how much things cost.

I was born frugal, and I’ve had to un-learn cheap. Stingy. Miserly. Because I definitely can be. In college I ate an incredibly frugal diet that only cost about $10 per week—and in retrospect must have been vitamin-deprived. Just this week I felt seriously conflicted over whether to let my kids get ice cream at the school art show. First of all, what does ice cream have to do with art? This is a money trap! And secondly, we have ice cream at home! But when all your friends are eating ice cream together in the gym at a once-a-year event and we can afford it, why I am so conflicted over spending $6?

Of course, I don’t want my kids to feel entitled to every treat we pass by, but they hear no plenty so it wasn’t really about that. It was about the fact that I’d never fall for the school art show ice cream trap as a super-frugal kid. So why do I have to fall for it as an adult?

Because I’ve learned something about when frugality doesn’t fly.

Frugal doesn’t fly when it comes to generosity. I don’t give money to pan-handlers, but I do believe that generosity is the antidote to frugality gone wrong, not to mention it helps others and is a joy to the giver. We plan our generosity ahead of time so we can always afford it, and also so we don’t have to think too hard about every single opportunity that comes our way. We can feel free to say yes or no as we feel led to the requests that we encounter throughout the year, knowing we’ve already prioritized giving to the causes most dear to us.

Frugal doesn’t fly when it comes to friendship. That doesn’t mean we’re picking up the tab every time we go out. But it also doesn’t mean I’m skipping friends’ birthday dinners just because I don’t prefer to spend at restaurants. We go out about once a week with other people. Because that’s what people do. Often we pre-game by eating dinner at home, and just order a drink, side, or appetizer to share. And if it’s someone’s birthday or other special occasion, make sure the birthday person isn’t paying!

Frugal doesn’t fly when it comes to gifts. I’m not an extravagant gift-giver and probably never will be, but I do like giving my kids and husband something they’ll really like for Christmas and birthdays. I also try to be moderately generous for weddings, showers, and kids’ birthday parties (it doesn’t take much too please kids, though). If I can use a coupon or gift card or shop a sale, I will.

Frugal doesn’t fly when it comes to hospitality. Again, I’ll never be the person spending $100+ on dinner parties. I don’t believe in “entertaining” where the focus is on my beautiful home and gourmet spread. But I’ll happily spend enough to make sure guests feel comfortable and cared for. That means we spend more on a food, period. And it allows us to invite people for dinner, playgroup, a prayer breakfast, or evening hang-out. I’ve learned recipes and snacks that please a crowd without being expensive or complicated.

Frugal doesn’t fly when it comes to quality time. As mentioned above, we spend money on our dates and on our marriage in general. This includes the occasional getaway, occasionally buying an attractive outfit, and spending on restaurants and babysitters.

We also aim to take our kids on weekly dates, which usually entails buying some kind of treat like an ice cream cone or French fries. Often we do super-frugal stuff like going to the park or the library or riding bikes. Once the boys went on a canoe trip that was not cheap, but formed a special memory. For a special date I took my daughter to a high school production of Beauty and the Beast. We don’t want to spoil them, but we definitely want to spend quality time alone with each kid on a regular basis, especially since we spend several nights a week away from them with our ministry. And as our family grows it’ll be even more important.

Frugal doesn’t fly when it comes to deciding whether take a family trip or go on a church retreat. We just say yes to these because we highly value them, but again, we still find ways to make it less expensive. We camp, we earn some free hotel stays, we try to avoid tourist traps, and we pack snacks for the road.

Frugal doesn’t fly when quality is a better value. There’s a danger here of thinking you need the best everything. But as we DIY an upgrade for our main bathroom, for example, we won’t be using the cheapest possible materials. We’re willing to spend a little more to maintain our home properly and to furnish it with pieces that will last. And I cannot wear cheaply made shoes.

Perhaps this all sounds very frugal or rather spendy to you. It’s all relative. But to my extremely frugal, borderline naturally stingy self, I wouldn’t spend on any of it. I wouldn’t spend any money on restaurants, and would sit home reading a book while my friends went out. I wouldn’t travel; it’d always be a staycation. I wouldn’t buy extra snacks and drinks to have people over; I wouldn’t even buy meat or treats for my own family! And I certainly wouldn’t buy ice cream at the school art show.

But I’ve learned there are times when “frugal” i.e. stingy doesn’t fly. We all know there is a difference between frugal and cheap, but where we draw the line is somewhat personal. I’d say if it has to do with other people or your deepest values, it’s worth your money. Not all your money, and not spending to the point or debt, but it’s worth what you can afford while also meeting other goals.

Where do you draw the line between frugal and cheap? What areas would you say frugal doesn’t fly?

Extreme vs. Classic Frugality

Gandhi: my idea of extreme frugality.

Low-expense living is trending under the guise of “extreme frugality.” But I call BS on this terminology.

I have no desire to pass judgment on others’ spending since everyone’s situation and values are different. Not many conversations are less pleasant than the who’s-more-frugal pissing match. And the media is probably more to blame for this misnomer than the families it features, who are just trying to live reasonably.

But when did eating at home become classified as “extreme frugality?” Is a year-long clothes-buying ban, perhaps following ten years of over-shopping, actually extreme? Does hanging clothes to dry make you a frugal rockstar?

Again, I’m NOT saying people with a certain habits or possessions aren’t frugal enough. My beef isn’t with anyone’s lifestyle, but with attaching the term extreme to what is nothing more than simple, reasonable, classic thrift. Yes, resisting lifestyle inflation is counter-cultural. But as some of the richest people on earth, can we all agree that most of us are not leading extremely frugal lives?

“Extreme” is Actually Classic

We prefer to view our lifestyle as nothing more than classic frugality–with plenty of luxuries in the mix. Let’s consult historical context to clarify terms. In recent history, we find the advent of modern personal finance/early retirement blogs beginning with Early Retirement Extreme and then Mr. Money Mustache. (For some reason, my 2008 “How to Be Cheap” blog series didn’t make it as big.) MMM has made it very clear that, while his family of three lives on only $25,000 per year, they are not claiming to practice extreme frugality. Their lifestyle is just “slightly less ridiculous than average,” to use his self-description. Laurie at the Frugal Farmer also wrote about this topic in her post When Frugality Was Normal.

Rewind a bit further, and we find ourselves practicing the same money-saving habits our grandparents did, while living in a larger home and owning more cars. For example, Neil’s grandparents grew old in the same small bungalow where they raised five children while owning one car. You’d better believe they hung clothes to dry, cooked from scratch, and bought only what they needed. They didn’t need to employ gimmicks to control their spending. Their whole 95 years on this planet have been a shopping ban.

If we want to talk about extremes, let’s talk about people like Mother Theresa or GandhiDo you think Gandhi was making cash envelopes for “Rice” and “Dhotis”? When he died he owned about ten possessions, including his iconic spectacles. Now that’s extreme.

I’m all for shopping bans or cash envelopes. I just can’t get on board with calling them extreme. To me, extreme frugality means something more like living out of a van, or one-bedroom apartment with multiple kids, dumpster diving for food, and keeping your heat at 50 degrees.

Classic frugality means something more like:

I’m not trying to debate about who does which frugal practice. I’m just saying, this type of frugality is what we’re into, and we don’t view at as extreme. It’s simply reasonable. After all, owning a car or two, living in a multiple-room home, and eating three full meals a day makes us quite spendy by global measures.

“Classic” Is More Motivating

The only “extreme” we’re surrounded by is extreme over-consumption. So I suppose our thrift is a marked difference compared to the insanity of going out to lunch every day, building brand-new 4,000 sq. ft homes, and leasing cars for $500/month. But just because a sizable segment of our population has gone completely crazy with their spending, doesn’t mean we’re living an equally far-out alternative. We’re just enjoying a more lavish version of past generations’ simplicity, and keeping that in perspective is intriguing, contentment-building, and motivating, all at once.

Surely viewing a slightly deflated lifestyle as “extreme” suggests it’s formidable or unreasonable to maintain. If we could embrace simple living as just a thrifty throwback to normal, we may find it much more manageable. And I’m all for sensible views that will fuel our financial flexibility over the long haul.

If our site title seems to suggest we think we’re doing something extreme, allow me to clarify: it’s all relative. We see “pretending to be poor” not as literal, or meant to demean those who are truly struggling to get by. Rather, it’s the only viable alternative we see to be pretending to rich. Either you’ll live on more than you make, or less. And only living on less will allow us to invest both in our future, and in the lives of those in need. We are very much “Just Pretending“and that keeps us going way more than if we thought we were doing something difficult and extreme.

Do you agree with this distinction between classic and extreme frugality? Can you see any other drawbacks to using this misnomer?

If You Give a Wife a Lampshade…

Well, friends, I moved out of the dorm. In December we traded in our metal bed frame, childhood dressers, shadeless lamps, and the plastic drawers I was using as a nightstand for real, matching furniture. Pretty fancy!

How did it happen? I suggested to Neil that bedroom lamps would make a good Christmas present. All of ours were broken and had been for at least two years. We didn’t mind and really didn’t even notice, until we did. “How about $20 lamps instead of $9 ones?” I suggested after explaining why they do not sell replacement lamp shades for the $9 lamps. For the record, I bought the $9 lamps and they lasted many years but they tip over too easily for my clumsy self.

The next day, we were looking at bedroom sets. Neil had taken my suggestion to its logical (?) conclusion and decided it was time to think about buying “real” bedroom furniture. Now, it’s still all PTBP around here, so he was interested in a Craigslist find at a thrift store. After a little comparison shopping at a local discount furniture warehouse, we went to see the Craigslist set and it was without a doubt a great value. Real wood, manufactured one year ago, and came with a nice quality, one-year-old, professionally sanitized mattress. Delivery? $15. We’ll take it?

The day after we got bunkbeds for the kids. Neil had been looking on Craigslist for a real wood set, and even though I was still in my first trimester, we figured we’d better pull the trigger when a good one became available. Plus it’s given the kids plenty of time to adjust to sharing a room.

A couple weeks later we replaced all the broken lamps.

Next up is the dining room table. We’re not in a rush or even actively looking, but ours has seen better days.

As much as possible, we try to purchase real wood furniture. And of course, we buy used. Between Craigslist, garage sales, thrift stores, and Facebook buy-sell-trade pages, there are plenty of avenues for getting decent used furniture.

The older we get the less we enjoy the “college dorm” vibe we readily accepted as part of our early marriage vow to keep living like college students as long as possible. Of course, that ship sailed when we bought a house in the suburbs. But our approach to furnishing it has remained very college-like until recently. Neil surprised me with matching (Craigslist) couches while I was out of the country a couple years ago. And now everyone is sleeping in a real wood bed instead of a bare metal frame (not that there’s anything wrong with that). We really are getting fancy.

Is buying real furniture lifestyle inflation? On the one hand, it was a big purchase and a serious step up in our bedroom milieu. On the other hand, it doesn’t change our monthly expenses as I’d sleep on a mattress on the floor before financing furniture (of course, I’m still young enough to do this).

The bottom line is that our definition of what’s a reasonable way to live is changing as our finances mature. Ten years ago when we still had student debt, it would have been ridiculous to spend much on furniture when we could get hand-me-downs. Now, it feels appropriate to designate some spending to our daily environment, and almost stingy not to. We also want our house to feel like a home to our kids. That in no way requires fancy matching bedroom sets for everyone, or Pinterest-worthy décor, but lamp shades seemed like a good idea.

And if you give a wife a lampshade….

How has your lifestyle changed as your finances have improved? Do you think there is some appropriate “lifestyle inflation”?

 

 

 

Why Financial Flexibility is the Next Best Thing to Financial Independence

I’ve been quiet on the blog because I’ve been uninspired, feeling like I have very little to say about money that I haven’t already said. And I’ve been preoccupied with lots of other things that, to be honest, have made personal finance seem like a trite and irrelevant topic. Of course, I can only say that because we’ve achieved a good measure of financial flexibility. And so I guess that means personal finance is very relevant—what a blessing and privilege not to be worrying about money in the midst of so much else going on.

What’s been going on? Our closest friends and neighbors moved. I got pregnant, and that of course comes with symptoms, appointments, and preparations.  My family of origin is going through some challenges. We’re busy with regular life–work, kids, volunteer ministry, continuing ed, etc.  Plus our bathroom remodeling goal has gone from “probably should” to “high priority” after we discovered the subfloor was water damaged.

Financial flexibility is an accounting term that describes “a company’s ability to react to unexpected expenses and investment opportunities.” We find this concept useful for personal finance as well. What options would open up if you could live on half your current income? How easily could you weather a job loss or unexpected illness? Could you say “yes” to travel, moving, or giving opportunities that come along? In other words, can you touch your financial toes?

Financial flexibility has afforded us the privilege of not thinking much about money during this less than low-key season. We can complete a DIY (with help) bathroom remodel without going into debt. I’ve been able to take care of myself instead of stressing about side hustling to make our financial plans work. We can weather the extra expenses of adding to our family. And our systems of auto-withdrawal for giving and investing can mostly steer our financial goals during a time when we’re not devoting much thought to money.

Our deeply ingrained “frugal” habits also allow us to just continue on autopilot. I suppose it would be easy to start ordering more take-out, shopping for stress relief, or spending more on conveniences or entertainment for our kids. We’ve certainly increased our expenses a bit to accommodate our growing family, but overall our lifestyle remains similar in the day-to-day. And it’s not through some super-human effort, but the sheer power of habit.

We’re far from financial independence–and totally content with that. We’ll get there when we get there, and we won’t sacrifice our values or purpose for it at all. I’ll be home with the little ones, Neil will be turning down work that would take him away from family and friends too much, and we’ll continue devoting nights and weekends to fellowship and volunteering rather than paid side gigs.

We’ll also keep spending on giving, hosting, date nights, and travel.

We will happily “sacrifice” what we don’t deem worthwhile uses of our money: car payments, eating out frequently, gym memberships, new furniture, or the latest fashions.

Everyone’s got their things that they’re willing to spend on, and those they aren’t. Our are just examples. The key is trying to sort out what’s really worth it to you, and limiting that list. Because everything doesn’t have to be your favorite.

If you’re still nowhere near FI, take heart: financial flexibility is a continuum you can make constant progress along. And as you do, you’ll experience real, growing benefits even while you’re still very tied to the day job. Our decisions have become less and less influenced by money, and increasingly tied to our values and purpose. We can say yes more and more. Another mission trip to India? Sure. Another baby? Yes. Home upgrades as needed? Fine. Sponsor another child in need? Absolutely.

And that feels like freedom in many ways.

What the next step along your financial flexibility continuum? What benefits have you experienced from growing financially?

Maple Sugaring

It’s time to tap the trees in our neck of the woods. Not that we have woods (much to our chagrin). All it takes is a maple tree or two, a few pieces of simple equipment, and a love of pancakes dripping with real maple syrup.

Actually, scratch that last prerequisite. We rarely ate pancakes before we converted our suburban yard into a sugar bush. I couldn’t convince Neil to eat pancakes when we first married, which was rather disappointing as I find them delicious. I had resigned myself to a life without pancakes, when lo and behold! Neil started making syrup.

Sugaring, like most of our other pretend to be farmer hobbies, snuck up on us. Neil’s friend encouraged him to try it and gave him a couple taps & buckets. That was six years ago, and we now look forward to syrup season and yield enough to last the year.

How It Works

  1. Sap flows when temperatures are above freezing during the day & below freezing and night. For us, this usually happens sometime in February or March.
  2. Drill a hole in an adult maple tree. “Sugar maples” yield a sweeter sap, but all have sap that can be boiled down into syrup. The hole should be about 1.5 inches into the tree slightly angled toward the ground. Use the recommended drill bit for your spile (5/16 for plastic or 7/16 for the old style metal). Then gently tap in the spile in with a hammer.  The bucket hooks onto the spile or tube is connected and is covered to prevent rain or snow from getting in.collecting sap
  3. Collect the sap. Check your buckets about once a day and collect the sap. We store it in pitchers or clean milk jugs. Store it as you would milk, below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Or you can freeze it. When you’ve collected a few gallons, get a fire going outside. You can use a “turkey burner” with propane or a wood fire with the pan set above on something like cinder blocks. Of course, the wood fire using free firewood is much cheaper, though less convenient. The wood fire also harkens back to sugaring parties of pioneer days.

    Splitting wood for the fire.

    Splitting wood for the fire.

  4. Boil it to  7.1 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point of water in your elevation. This will take a while—the sap to syrup ratio is about 40:1. We switch to a small pan at the end to finish it. You can take the temperature with a candy or meat thermometer. The legit method is to use a hydrometer. There are also a host of non-technological “how it looks when falling off the spoon traditions,” but I’m not so good with that type of subtlety. Watch out! It burns fast. We know from experience.

    Liquid gold.

    Liquid gold.

  5. We filter through a cheesecloth into glass jars while it is still hot, which sufficiently sterilizes it for storage. Let it cool completely, then freeze whatever you won’t use within the month.
  6. Make pancakes! Or whatever you love to eat syrup on. My favorite recipe is Fluffy Pancakes. We also like Maple Almond Granola and it can replace the honey in Playgroup Granola Bars.

Why We Make Maple Syrup

Considering our very infrequent pancake consumption before sugaring, I have no illusions that making syrup has saved us fat stacks of cash. Confession: we actually used to buy the deplorable imitation syrup since we didn’t use it often. After purchasing equipment, it’s probably just starting to save money compared to buying the real deal. However, it’s also a pastime that fits the bill for us–it’s productive, kid-friendly, happens outside, and isn’t expensive.

We love that it’s a thrifty throwback hobby. Anything described in the Little House books is guaranteed to get me excited. Except the grasshopper plagues and scarlet fever, of course. And what’s not to love about the sheer efficiency of using what you already own?

Another reason I love making syrup is that it’s a sign that spring is just around the corner. It’s a great excuse to get outside at the end of winter, enjoy the slightly warmer days, and make use of your yard before it’s time to plant the garden and raise chickens. It’s become a talking point with the neighbors, and they’ve even graciously allowed us to tap their trees.

It’s also a great hobby for families. Our son loves checking the buckets, helping collect the sap, and hanging out around the fire while it boils down. And of course, the kids love eating pancakes.

Pancake breakfasts have become a hospitality staple in our home. Inviting people over for breakfast can be less expensive, easier to schedule, and more casual than a dinner invite. And who doesn’t love carbs drenched in sugar?

What You Need

Sugaring requires no special skills! Anyone with a maple tree, a big pan, and fire can make the magic happen. Here’s the full equipment list if you’re interested:

Happy maple syrup season! I hope you consider putting your untapped potential to delicious use if you have a maple tree.

What are your burning questions about boiling sap? Do you have a similar hobby?

How to Save on Maternity Medical Expenses

Having a baby costs a lot of money. I know plenty of parents who joked about how they were still “paying off” their kid, i.e. maternity hospital bills, well into the child’s toddlerhood.

For my first pregnancy, we had a hospital co-pay which made the whole endeavor less expensive. But when our second child arrived, we had a completely different plan: a high-deductible HSA. We chose the plan hoping to have another child that year and had crunched the numbers to determine it was a prudent choice. It was, in part because the company was offering a $2000 HSA stipend. But we still became much more cost-conscious since we were essentially paying for more of our medical expenses directly from our own pockets. The great side-effect was that I become more proactive and informed about my care.

The first thing I did was start questioning some of the procedures at my first prenatal visit. Were the many blood tests (that I’d just had two years ago) covered fully by insurance? They were, so test away.

But my practice had also added an early ultrasound “for dating” as a routine procedure. This was not the case when I had my first, and since I knew when I got pregnant, I didn’t feel I needed it. With the second baby I also felt comfortable waiting to schedule my first appointment until I was far enough along to hear the heartbeat. This made the ultrasound less necessary, as well. In the end it saved me at least $250.

I know others who received the ultrasound (some practices require it), but were strategic about timing it in the same calendar year as their due date so it would count towards the deductible.

Of course, if your pregnancy is high risk, you might need to see your practitioner sooner. There are some problems, such as low progesterone, for which early interventions exist. But in a textbook pregnancy they don’t even test hormone level changes (at least at my practice).

Near the end of both my pregnancies, I was told I needed an ultrasound because I was “measuring small.” In both cases it was user error, because in fact I measured perfectly. The first time, it was a simple matter of the intern writing down the wrong number. In the second, I saw a different practitioner and he just didn’t seem to take the same careful measurements as the person who had been measuring me for months.

In both cases, an ultrasound was ordered. Intrauterine growth restriction is a real, serious problem that can be minimized with early delivery, so I didn’t want to write it off, but I also felt that careful re-measurement by a nurse-midwife was probably all I needed. In both instances, I checked out perfectly and saved another $250 on ultrasounds. Why make use of expensive equipment and procedures when a simple tape measure will do the trick?

I also turned down early screenings for genetic disorders. While these decisions are very personal, I think helps to understand that screenings do not provide a yes or no answer to whether your child has the disorder (though some tests do); there is nothing that can be done medically to fix the problem; and if you’re not willing to terminate the pregnancy, it might make sense to save yourself the worry and expense.

It’s often confusing to figure out whether a procedure is covered by your insurance. If you’re not sure, ask for the diagnosis and procedure codes and call your insurance before accepting it. Since some tests in pregnancy are time-sensitive, you may want to ask at your first appointment which procedures will be offered throughout the pregnancy, or at your next visit. I’ve found that using these codes has helped me get much more concrete answers from the insurance company than even inquiring with the procedure’s name.

I also researched hospital charges and discounts, since my practice and insurance were compatible with two area hospitals. I’d heard from a friend that one hospital offered a 30% discount if you requested to pay your bill upon leaving the hospital. In my case, the maternity bill was prepared, but the newborn’s bill wasn’t ready yet. So they said to call and inquire about the prepay discount which had been noted on my account. In the end I saved around $1000 by asking for this discount (and having the money in the HSA ready to go).

So having a baby is going to be expensive, no doubt, but you can minimize the cost by becoming informed about what your insurance covers, why a procedure is being offered, and what discounts are available through your local hospitals. This, paired with saving in advance, can make bringing home that bundle of joy a little more joyful.

Have you found ways to reduced maternity costs? What are some ways to save up ahead of time?