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?

“We Hate Money,” or, We’re Having Another Kid

It’s true, the PTBP household is expecting another member by the end of June! While having another child was anything but a financial decision, we couldn’t help but think through the financial implications. It’s just how our brains work. And it seemed the most relevant aspect to share here. So here’s the breakdown, including thoughts on kid-raising costs, college funds, resume gaps, and when to upgrade to a bigger home or car.

The Quarter Million Dollar Baby?

The average cost to raise a child is widely reported to be $250,000. If that strikes horror in your heart, rest assured. Oh wait, I have no idea how much it costs to raise a kid. My oldest is only 6.

There’s the cost of prenatal care and delivery, which we estimate will run us about $3000 this time.

Speaking of insurance, paying for a family plan vs. a couple is a big hike in premiums. But—it’s a flat fee after that, so get your money’s worth by having more! #ifonly And of course, kids get sick and that costs something, too.

Young-mommy bloggers will tell you how very little kids costs. Indeed, we spent very little on the first five years of child-rearing. Hand-me-downs abounded, and gifts and buying used items filled in the gaps. We found plenty of fun, free activities via the library, metro parks, playgrounds, etc.

Then we paid for preschool: $1200 for a year. Hand-me-downs slowed and we spent a bit more on clothes and shoes for our oldest. We also spend more on food now, because guess what—at some point they actually start eating.

Then there are the birthday parties kids get invited to. And school supplies, fundraisers, and donations for class parties. And sports and swim lessons, and don’t do that stuff year-round. We also pay for the occasional family attraction or event, especially on vacations.

The Income Question

Another big financial factor is that each kid sets the clock back on me returning to the paid workforce by 5-6 years. We decided before having kids that I would stay home with the kids till they’re in school full time. Part-time working from home worked well until #2 came along. Clearly having a huge resume gap is not going to do me any favors, but for us that’s not a determining factor. And I know how incredibly blessed we are to be in that position.

Bigger house?

I’ve heard of families in similar size homes upgrading to make way for baby #3, and I can understand why, but it’s certainly not necessary in our case. In lieu of a larger house, we purchased a used wooden bunk bed ($160) to clear a room for the nursery. I’m glad the kids get the experience of sharing a room, anyway. I could see someday wanting more space as the kids (and their friends) get bigger, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Bigger car?

Since getting pregnant, I’ve fielded a LOT of questions about when we’ll get a minivan.  Answer: we’ll get a larger vehicle when we need one. Our family car is a 2003 Ford Taurus Wagon. It fits three car or booster seats in the second row, so in my book, we’re golden. But the wagon isn’t going to last forever, or maybe we’ll need more seats for driving the kids’ friends. We’ll see what becomes a problem first, and the next car will definitely need to have third row seating.

What About College?

I’ve heard more than one family say they’ll limit family size due to the cost of college. I understand how very real of a consideration college costs are for families these days. How much/whether to help with kids’ college is a controversial, personal decision.

Our stance is: we will save and we want to help, but we aren’t promising to pay for all of it, either. There are more and more ways of getting college credit without paying top dollar, and we very much expect our kids to explore these options. By offering substantial help, but not a massive sum, we hope to motivate them to make responsible choices, while offering an advantage as they get their start in the real world.

Another approach some people seem to take is resume-loading. Parents will pay for private tutoring, music lessons, year-round sports, and other extracurriculars, all with the hope of their kids getting significant scholarships. I wish there was a way to do the math on this. If you invested (in a college fund) all the money you spent on those tutors, activities, and experiences for your kids that you hope will lead to a scholarship, who would come out ahead? I’m placing my bets on the average growth of regular contributions. And this doesn’t require nearly as much running around.

The Bottom Line

Bottom line, we’re not making family choices based on money. On the one hand, that’s an incredibly privileged position to be in. On the other hand, there is perspective as well as privilege involved. Kids do cost money—don’t let those toddler mom bloggers fool you. But my guess is they don’t have to cost a quarter million each (barring unusual circumstances). We don’t feel the need to buy a bigger house, a larger car (yet), or the greatest possessions and experiences for our kids. We also don’t need to pay for the most  extracurriculars, or float the full cost of college. And this is very freeing, both for our current stress level, and our ability to make family size choices based on other values.

What factors determined your family size? What are some other financial considerations parents face these days?

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:


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!