Too Much Fun: Summer on the Burbstead

Our summer was too much fun. It’s my favorite season, and we try to swim, camp, garden, and travel as much as possible without over-doing it. Lest we seem like ascetics after our post on wants vs. needs, here’s evidence that we have plenty of fun around here.

First, some updates on our burbstead goals:

Our garden was a success. So were the chickens. We just picked apples today, and made some into caramel apples. The wood pile is well stocked with free wood for fires this fall and winter.

I didn’t learn how to can because we were able to keep up with our tomatoes. I helped with the prep for Neil to preserve 16 jars of salsa, as well as making several large batches of fresh pico de gallo. Neil and his brother canned two pecks of jalapenos into sweet-hot slices also known as cowboy candy.

peppers-2

The remote garden was unsuccessful. We just got too busy to take care of it, and it was a very dry summer for us. Maybe next year we’ll build more raised beds or give our community plot proper attention.

We didn’t catch a swarm of bees. Maybe our bait box was too small. We can try again next year. The beauty of the burbstead is that everything is small scale, the learning curve is gentler, and we don’t have to spend much to pursue these fun, productive, kid-friendly hobbies. We also fit in lots of suburban fun which wouldn’t be possible if we had more ‘stead to attend to.

Here’s is a sampling of our activities this summer:

Went on two vacations! The first was to Western New York, i.e. the middle of nowhere. It’s beautiful farm country. It wasn’t our first choice destination, but we didn’t plan ahead well, and still had fun. We visited two different Great Lakes beaches, saw the “Grand Canyon of the East” at Letchworth State Park, went to a war aviation museum, and spent time with the two families we rented a place with.

Our second vacation was a “YOLO” move. Our son will start kindergarten next fall, so we decided to take advantage of off-season prices and four free airline tickets and enjoyed a week near St. Pete’s Beach, FL. The kids were excited about flying and the weather and water were perfect. Until Hurricane Hermine blew in.

Neil's hurricane selfie.

Neil’s hurricane selfie.

Neil had the brilliant idea to purchase an annual family pass to a local museum for $56, because it offers reciprocal relationships at hundreds of attractions across the country, including several near St. Pete’s Beach. It was well worth it just for that week, though we’ll continue to use the pass elsewhere.

Went to two waterparks. We were offered free passes by our generous friends who got them from a work conference. The normal price for one adult is $70! The kids had a blast. The second was a local, much smaller place that we visit once a year. I made the mistake of showing my son in the lazy river, and he wanted nothing to do with waterslides after that.

Celebrated birthdays—three out of the four of us have birthdays within three weeks. We had a family party for our son’s 5th featuring pizza and water balloons. Throwing a Pinterest-worthy party is just not my thing.

Went swimming. My son took his first swim lessons after falling off the dock on our first vacation. We tried to get in as much water exposure as possible without purchasing a pool pass. We visited three free library events at a nearby pool and visited a local lake twice. And of course swimming at the beaches on our vacations. Neil’s sister, who lives nearby, had a pool put in near the end of summer. We were granted a “pool pass” and swam there several times.

Camped four times. We camped with our church Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, Neil went on a men’s retreat, and also camped out with our son one night. We want more camping, though. Camping really opens the door to affordable travel and recreation. We may squeeze in another trip before it cools off here.

Went to a conference.  I’ve been going to the Xenos Summer Institute, a Bible conference, since I was 17, and Neil was going there before we ever met. It’s one of the highlights of the year, and my mom graciously agreed to babysit so we could absorb 2.5 full days of teaching and practical training.

Went to two family weddings. Plus some bridal & baby showers, and Neil’s grandpa’s 99th birthday party!

Went to four funerals 🙁 With another this week. Each one hits home how important it is to live for real worth. Money is just a tool.

Watched a lot of Olympics. Go USA! I was useless the week gymnastics was on.

Went to the zoo. We have a pass to the local zoo—we split it with another family so it’s $50 for the year. We buy one every other year since the 13-month pass gets us through most of two summer, plus one off-season.

Road the local scenic railroad. Tickets are almost $20/person, but if you bike the parallel trail one way, you (and your bike) can ride back for $3. Bikes and trains are two of my kids’ favorite things so this activity is always a hit.

Were visited by two out-of-state family members. My dad and sister both came into town this summer, separately.

I’m always a bit sad for summer to end, but I’m enjoying the more structured routines of fall, as well as the seasonal festivities that are especially fun with little ones. A trip to the apple orchard, hiking, pumpkin carving, and campfires are all in our future.

How was your summer? What do you look forward to in fall?

Can You Tell the Difference Between Want vs. Need?

What is the purpose of money? Nothing will clarify your budget, streamline your spending, or motivate your savings more than your answer to that question. I believe the purpose of money is to provide for needs and wants, for myself and others, now and in the future. Today, let’s break down that first part—providing for wants and needs.

Which brings me to a confession. I may be a personal finance blogger, but I can’t tell the difference between wants and needs. It’s Economics 101, yet I fail miserably. I’m suspect I’m not alone.

Financial advice assumes we’re all able to distinguish between the two. Yet if we actually could, we’d need a lot less financial advice. Of course we all know that food, shelter, and clothing are necessary. We could reasonably add health insurance to the list since it’s required by law. After that things get a bit fuzzy.

For example, are our two vehicles wants or needs? Neil’s work is 11 miles away—bikeable in theory, but it doesn’t work out in reality. Our second car is not necessary since I don’t drive to work, but considering our suburb, climate, and family size we would be quite limited without it.

We’re completely settled on having two cars. Point is—it’s pretty hard to distinguish between wants and needs in a culture where the standard of living is really quite high, life isn’t simple, and we are constantly bombarded with suggestions that we “need” a lot of things to lead a normal life. Like in these ads we made fun of.

According to these definitions, we spend most of our money on wants instead of needs (recent expenses included):

Needs Wants
Food 2nd car insurance, gas, maintenance
Clothing Preschool tuition
House & utilities Cell phones?
Health insurance Any restaurants
1st car (insurance, gas, maintenance) Any hobby costs (gardening supplies, bike gear)
Cell phones? Toys
Books
Home goods (guest room sheets, curtains)
Vacations
Ministry expenses (retreats, babysitters, hosting)
Dates and family outings

How could I possibly say I’m living simply when I spend most of my money on wants?

You could argue that some of the wants are needs. Maybe I needed spare sheets for the guest room. Who knows?

And then how do you draw the line within categories of “need”?  For example, we buy ice cream to have at home. We don’t need to eat ice cream, ever. So food is a need, but ice cream is not. Since we don’t eat at a subsistence level, some of our grocery spending should fall under “want,” not “need.”

Do we need the Internet? Essentially, yes. But in terms of actual survival, of course not. Do we need hobbies? Technically no, but life would be rather sad without them.

Under my definition of money’s purposes, wants are absolutely allowed. So the point here isn’t to seek and destroy the wants, and live in caves. Or to feel guilty if we live in homes instead of caves. Challenging our very conception of “need” can do a world of good, though. Here’s how:

  1. Get perspective. We are so rich. So blessed. Most of us are reading blog posts on our personal computers with high-speed internet in warm, dry buildings with full bellies. Having our needs met is hardly a question on our radar, and that’s something to be sooo thankful for. Keep gratitude on your radar instead. Any notion of extreme frugality flies out the window when we look at the world around us where half the population lives on $2 a day.
  2. Get critical. Cultural norms and masterful marketing convince us that we need more everything! Better everything! Newer everything! I am in no way immune. Here’s a silly but real example. Do I need to own a clutch purse and nude heels in order to attend weddings? Or is it fine to feign fashion cluelessness and show up with flip flops and a cross-body purse, as I did this summer?
  3. Get creative. People don’t challenge anything in the budget that’s deemed a need. But if you can bring that global perspective to bear, you’ll start to squint out your blind spots. For us it was pricey date nights, outings with friends, and travel. We didn’t give up these areas entirely—they’re too closely related to our values. We did find creative ways to cut back when we peeled away their privileged status as “needs.”
  4. Get generous. Others are in real need. Acknowledging our decadent, want-filled lifestyle isn’t meant to make us feel guilty. Instead, it makes us feel wealthy and ready to share. Getting perspective on our relative affluence prompts us to inflate someone else’s lifestyle instead of our own.

I questioned my definition of “need” and found it wanting. I still can’t tell the difference, but it sure seems luxurious to classify more things as wants than needs. And I feel the need to help those without such luxury more than ever.

Do you hard time distinguishing between wants and needs? What’s a “need” that you’ve challenged?

We Lived with Our Friends…And Stayed Friends

Our besties and former landlords.

Before we get to today’s post, I want to thank everyone who nominated us for the Plutus Awards! We are so grateful and honored to be finalists for Best Frugality Blog. Thank you!

Three years after we got our first apartment, the rent was going up. Again. We were thinking about buying a house, but not yet ready. The fee for a month-to-month lease, plus the rent increase, was simply more than we were willing to pay for a one-bedroom place.

At the same time, our best friends’ basement tenants moved out. Someone suggested we move in with them. No thanks, we thought. We’d like to actually stay friends. They also had an infant, which could make the arrangement more complicated.

But the idea grew on us. We looked at other apartments but didn’t find anything we wanted. We were unsure whether home ownership was a good idea for us at all. We had a great longstanding relationship with these friends and our common faith created a basis for resolving conflict. If we could live with anyone, it would be them.

Both families could afford a full-size rent or mortgage, but we enjoyed the mutual benefits of saving money. It was frugal friend synergy at its finest. We settled on $375 for rent and utilities. While we lived there they finished paying off their student loans, and we worked on paying down ours while continuing to save for a house down payment.

Most people would warn that living together is the best way to ruin a friendship, but we remain dear friends. I think we only “fought” once in our year there, and that was just one tense conversation about moving the laundry, which quickly resolved with apologies.

The Challenges

Living with another family did have its challenges. We moved in during the winter and the first week we were freezing our butts off in their basement, even while running up the electricity bill using space heaters. We asked if there was anything we could do, opened and closed some vents, and were much more comfy after that.

We also had to learn to share their galley kitchen, including the refrigerator & freezer. I stocked up less than I would otherwise, we chose certain items to share, and communicated about cooking times. Sometimes we shared meals, sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we ate our different meals together, sometimes we took our food downstairs to our living area. The shower was also shared–we had a private half bath–but it was fine as long as no one took too long.

We had plenty of space and privacy in the two large lower-level rooms we rented. Fortunately their baby was sleeping through the night by the time we moved in. I’d pity anyone who lived with us during my daughter’s first year!

I also figured out how to balance hanging out with my friend (and mutual friends she had over) with spending quality time with my husband. I couldn’t live in constant slumber party mode with my bestie, though it was great to spend more time with her.

The Benefits

We enjoyed lots of fun times with our friends without having to go out and spend money at all. Each family did some decluttering to make room for each other. We also grew a special relationship with their daughter. Neil even declared himself to be her godfather (we’re not Catholic). I learned a lot about early parenting from their example, and was also on hand to babysit for times like when my friend needed surgery.

A year in our friends’ basement allowed us to save money for our house down payment, but also confirmed we really wanted a house. We ran tons of calculations and decided we’d view our home not as an investment but as a residence. We determined we wanted a house within a mile of these friends. Previously we’d been looking in three neighboring cities. Now we knew our kids had to grow up within walking distance of one another.

Living there also provided a perfect trial for the neighborhood and home style. Most people don’t get to live in a house in their neighborhood before purchasing there. We already knew our neighbors and had a feel for the area by the time we decided to settle down in it. Previously, I refused to view bi-level houses during because I didn’t like the aesthetics. But living in the bottom half of our friends’ bi-level home opened our eyes to all the functional benefits of that blueprint.

Our contract on a home 0.7 miles from theirs fell through and two days later, and the asking price on a bi-level down the street dropped $20,000. We bought it and six years later, we often remark that we couldn’t imagine living any further from them. My five-year-old can walk or bike there, and our kids play together almost every day. We’ve continued having meals together with regular taco nights.

Going against standard wisdom and norms was definitely the best choice for us in this case. Living with our friends was an unconventional living arrangement that not only saved money, but also bought us time to figure out whether, where, and when to buy a home. Both families benefited on financial and relational levels. Since then, we’ve even talked about buying a property together. For now it makes most sense to stay put, but we look back on communal living with fond memories.

This past month we rented out our downstairs bedroom & bath for the first time. It was just for a month, but the space is ready and we’re open to renting or hosting guests there in the future. We’re so glad our friends gave us that alternative and would love to offer the same option to others.

Did anyone else live with friends or family as a married couple? Or rent a room of your home? Would you ever consider it?

What Would You Pay for Sports?

Tandem surfing competition we happened upon in Hawaii--so cool!

Tandem surfing competition we happened upon in Hawaii–so cool!

This fall will be a great quarter for children’s sports programs as Olympic hopefuls register in droves. Participating in athletics fosters many positive qualities in children, but greatness comes at a cost. Watching the Olympics has left me wondering: how far would we go for our children’s success in sports?

I’m not delusional enough to think we are raising a future Olympian. Yet I did gymnastics for 8 years, at no small cost to my parents. You don’t even have to be good at sports for them to get expensive, so it helps to think through your parenting approach to extra-curriculars.

The Price

Those Olympic athletes have arrived at their destination though unimaginable hard work, training, and talent. Their journeys have also been fueled by lots and lots of money. That doesn’t mean they’re all from wealthy families, or that only the wealthy make it that far. Sponsorship, equipment donations, or fundraising can help defray the costs. But even normal participation in childhood sports costs a pretty penny as coaching, equipment, travel, and fees all add up over time.

It’s not just sports where the costs can escalate. It could be music (my parents are musicians, so I should know), art, theater, or any pursuit involving professional lessons, specialized equipment, and other ongoing costs.

Though I naturally wish to divert all discretionary funds toward college, I also want my kids to participate activities that interest them. Endeavors like sports and music teach discipline, teamwork, and sacrifice. They will use parts of their brain school might not engage.  And they can establish a degree of health and fitness that carries over into adulthood.

There is incredible value in extracurricular activities, but that does not mean they’re invaluable—i.e., I will not pay any price for them. For example, we would never go into debt for sports. We will not jeopardize financial goals we’ve already determined, like how much to save for college or give to charities. Those are our family boundaries; what are yours?

The Pain

The high cost of elite achievement isn’t just monetary. My 8 years of moderate training left me with nagging back, wrist, and elbow problems. Had I trained at a higher level, the damage would most likely have been worse.

I remember my dad wanting me to quit gymnastics once I reached a higher level, because he was afraid of injury. At age 13 I dislocated my elbow and chipped a bone, requiring surgery. The long-term effects of the injury have been minor, but I’ll never forget having a bone reset.

Major injuries aren’t the only cause for concern. Pediatricians are reporting increasing rates of overuse injuries. Kids are training longer, harder, and more frequently and sustaining injuries unrelated to any specific incident such as my fall.

Why are kids so prone to over-training? One factor is the hope of scholarships. With college tuition skyrocketing, parents and kids alike are looking to sports as their meal (and tuition) ticket. Even if you’re not counting on this, other parents are, which makes the sport more competitive.

In the end, lots of time and money is spent on what’s essentially a gamble. Whether the child will be good enough, want to continue, and will avoid injury is harder to predict than index fund growth. I’m placing more hopes for covering college costs in a 529 than a sport.

The Time

In a culture finally noticing our need for simplicity, parents’ schedules are jam-packed with shuttling kids to and from activities. Even if your family follows the conventional wisdom of one sport per season per kid, that can mean three different activities if you have three kids. Multiply that times 3-5 practices a week and forget side-hustling, or simplicity. You’re an unpaid Uber driver.

While sacrificing time for your kids is normal, revolving your entire lives around sports schedules needn’t be. I hear stories all the time of family members missing milestone events like baptisms and weddings because of children’s sports practices.

Madeline Levine’s studies in The Price of Privilege found affluent children to be at high risk of developing emotional disorders and risky behaviors. Some reasons include being over-scheduled by their parents, not learning to manage free time (because they have none), and being pressured to succeed in too many areas. We want our children to try their best, but we don’t want to pressure them into success.

The Antidote

Here are a few parent-approved tactics for reclaiming your time and money from sports.

  1. Set limits ahead of time. One extracurricular per season per kid is a good starting point.
  2. Take a season off. Summer may be a good time to lay low. Off-season allows for other activities such as travel, trips to the pool, or playing with friends.
  3. Let the child choose. Just because you were an all-star football player doesn’t mean Johnny wants to be one, too. Wait until kids are old enough to express an interest in an activity. With rare exceptions, your kid isn’t going to get a huge leg up in sports by starting at age 2 or 3. I’ve heard of 2 year olds in teeball. What? They just learned how to walk!
  4. Encourage backyard sports. Go shoot some hoops, play catch, or turn cartwheels with your kid to give them low-key sports exposure. When they have friends over, have some basic sports equipment like a balls, bats, and mitts so they can play with the neighborhood kids.
  5. Stay local. Stick with local, not traveling teams, if you’re trying to limit the cost and time associated with sports.
  6. Ask for recommendations. If you don’t want your 5-year-old in a Dance Moms scenario, wearing obscene amounts of make-up and developing an eating disorder while you defuse cat-fights in the waiting room–get a recommendation!

I admire and respect Olympians immensely, and I can’t imagine how  amazing and supportive their parents must have been. I also can’t say what I’d do if I ever found myself in their situation. But for now, I hope my kids can gain the benefits of extra-curriculars without paying a high price in areas we value such as relationships, volunteering, and unstructured play.

How has your family approached sports? Any advice from seasoned parents is welcome!

In Praise of Old Technology

pakman

Want to know what I got for my birthday (that I pretended not to have)? A pair of Spectron 4 sunglasses to protect my Irish eyes, and the Sega Genesis Aladdin game.

Talk about partying like it’s 1999!

“I didn’t know you play video games,” my mother-in-law commented.

I don’t. But back in the day I used to play Aladdin. It was the only video game I ever beat. Neil had the game too, and we reminisced about it after showing our kids the movie Aladdin for the first time. On VHS.

Yes, we own a VHS player. And our TVs are CRTs.

There’s also the tape player in my car.  My mom’s given me a host of children’s stories on tape. And mix tapes featuring Simon and Garfunkle, Neil Diamond, and the like. Which is awesome since the oldies station is now playing 80s music.

My laptop is coming up on its 9th birthday. It doesn’t shut, which mostly defeats the purpose, but it works.

My phone also testifies to the past. It’s decidedly dumb. Yet its charge lasts a whole day (my old one lasted nearly a week!). And it doesn’t tempt me to stare at Twitter all day.

You guys, I write down directions when I drive to a new place. It’s crazy.

I do own a broken iPod nano! It works as long as it’s plugged in to a power source.

I don’t collect vinyl. I don’t think it’s virtuous to stay behind the times. I’m sure I’ll have to forsake my nearly obsolete technology soon. I just don’t like buying new stuff when my old stuff still works. And in some ways, the old technology works better. My childhood audio tapes are still intact, but my iPod’s power button is stuck and doesn’t work. Audio tapes = 25 years old. iPod = six years old.

If you don’t have children you might not know that Disney obnoxiously “locks” their movies in a “vault” to artificially create scarcity. Then they release one every so often and sell it for whatever they want because demand is high.

VHS tapes go for 60 cents at the thrift store near us. That’s less than one day of library fines on an overdue DVD! There are plenty of familiar titles to choose from. They also don’t get scratched, and they’re cartoons, so who cares whether they’re in HD?

Neil kept the Nintendo he bought in high school, and his Sega Genesis. When my dad moved out of state, he gave us his Bally Arcade system, Atari, and games. We don’t play a lot of video games and we definitely won’t let our kids waste too much of their lives in front of a screen. But playing them together makes a good family night activity every now and then. And they are much simpler and less over-simulating than newer games. Pacman is perfect for a five-year-old.

When my last phone broke, I got a new one on Craigslist the same day. For $10. And it won’t start malfunctioning when Apple stops supporting older versions of the iPhone.

And I already told you about That Time I Invented the Kindle…and Why I Still Don’t Have One.

It’s important to stay technologically literate and we consider having a TV and some video games part of being hospitable. Neil is an electrical engineer–he loves electronic technology sooo much and waited sooo patiently for his work to pay for a smart phone.

Yes, we love technology. We’re just not ready to pitch perfectly fun and functional media, even if it is outdated and takes up a bit more space than the digital counterparts.

Does anyone else own outdated technology or media? What benefits do you see?

The Problem with Simple Living

 akron sunset

Filling water balloons really gives a person time to reflect. Life has been feeling complicated, and I’ve been feeling guilty about that.

After all, scores of articles suggest that life would be more manageable if I just simplified it.  Their short, percussive paragraphs try to soothe the soul. They inspire me to clean out my kitchen junk drawer, because if I had less junk in there, my life would definitely be better. Zombie-like, I close the tab and start throwing away broken pens in a passionate quest to regain control.

Next I’m told to attack my closet with a vengeance. If I get rid of perfectly good clothing and replace it with sustainably-made tees, I will muster enough dormant brainpower to invent the next Facebook. Or at least appear on Shark Tank.

According to these sources, it’s not just my belongings that need to be simplified. My schedule is also a disaster. If I stopped hanging out with anyone who brings me down, I’d be a lot better off. If I just said “no” to all the stuff other people want me to do, I could say yes to what I truly want. I will find peace.

I beg to differ.

What Does Simple Living Mean?

Simple living used to be a euphemism for resisting over-consumption. Living on less certainly makes life easier. Cutting the stuff we don’t care about, like pedicures and elaborate birthday parties and toddler tee-ball, saves so much time and money. “Simple living” in this sense allows us to be a one-income family and do volunteer ministry.

Recently, the terms simplicity and minimalism seem to encompass all of life—your time, experiences, relationships, possessions, work—everything. I agree with so much of this thinking. Cultural trends to over-schedule kids in lots of extracurriculars, stay hyper-productive at all times, or work crazy hours to pay for crazy stuff are bogus and need to be challenged.

But why do I leave the simplicity articles feeling frustrated by my not-so-simple life?

The problem with “simple living” is that…

Life isn’t simple.

Having a family is complicated. Sometimes I’d like to have a less hectic calendar with more flexible days. We are not “overscheduled” in the traditional sense. Our 5-year-old has taken one structured class, ever–swim lessons. He hasn’t been to a day of school in his entire life (no, I’m NOT homeschooling).

So how’d our schedule get so complicated? Well, there’s the part where we lead a home church and various small groups. There’s the part where I oversee the children’s ministry for our church. And there’s the part where my husband wants to make as many fun memories as a family while our kids are still young enough to like us. I wouldn’t trade these for all the simplicity in the world.

When life feels convoluted, I have to remember that I’m married. I have children. And these people have opinions and preferences that I must take into consideration. There’s nothing simple about that.

Relationships are complicated. Having friends brings so much joy, but it’s also complicated. Weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice doesn’t simplify my feelings or my schedule. I’m far from a perfect friend, daughter, or sister. But I do devote time, energy, thought, prayer, and emotion to the people in my life.

Living in a broken world is complicated. If simple living means finding what makes you happy and filling your life with that, people will starve. Humans will be sold into slavery. Orphans will go homeless. I don’t imagine we will end these horrors entirely. But simple living shouldn’t mean ignoring the immense need all around so we can be more comfortable. Rather, helping those in need should motivate us to free up time and money, not for our own peace and enjoyment, but for the sake of others. We can all be activists for at least one cause.

Find Purpose, Not Balance

In light of the world we live in, we don’t need to “find balance” or “live simply.” We need to live on purpose, and that is going to feel both complicated and imbalanced at times.

Of course we need to take care of ourselves to avoid burn-out. We need to relax, refresh, and reflect on a regular basis. We very much need to recognize our limitations and accommodate those.

I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking my life would be calmer if I could find the perfect ratio of activities and downtime. Or figure out when to say yes and when to say no. Seeking a rational schedule is fine, but expecting my life to feel straightforward is irrational.

I’ve been striving for simplicity in the superficial areas: my calendar, my spending, and my junk drawer. What I really need is simplicity of purpose. And I already have that. We hope to inflate others’ lifestyles instead of our own. I know many other minimalist/simplicity movement people are doing the same, but I hope the purpose doesn’t get lost in the practical when it comes to applying their advice.

Does life feel complicated? What cause are you passionate about?

Pretend Not to Have a Birthday

Turning 2--so exciting! 31? Not so much.

Turning 2–so exciting! 31? Not so much.

Birthdays: we all have ’em. They’re the best day of the year when you’re a kid, but the excitement drops off rapidly after age 21.

Perhaps adults try to artificially recreate that childhood joy with lots of birthday festivities extending far beyond one day. Hence the oxymoron “birthday week” entered common parlance. You know, you go out with your friends the Friday before your birthday. Then your spouse takes you on a special birthday date, or perhaps throws you a party (good spouse!). Then your parents take you out to lunch, or invite you over for dinner. Then the in-laws want in on the birthday action. At each point, gifts and food are lavished on you and countless hours are spent celebrating your mere existence.

I’m all for celebrations and even gifts. But what if you just pretended not to have a birthday? After all, birthdays are about growing up, and growing up is largely about realizing life is not about me.

Downplay the B-day

Let me confess I was a bit spoiled in the birthday department while growing up. Of the five kids in my family, I was the only one who got to celebrate my birthday with a full-on birthday party every year. I attribute this not to favoritism, but because my grandparents had a pool. And who doesn’t want to close out summer with another pool party?

My son was born 10 days after my birthday. His impending arrival overshadowed my day somewhat that year. The next year his first birthday did the overshadowing. Last year it was my trip to India.

And you know what? I really liked it.

Sure, family and friends wished me well and I received some gifts. But there was no drawn-out festival surrounding what amounted to just another day of my life.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful for all the birthday wishes, calls, gifts, or parties I’ve received over the years. And I’m no humbug about other people’s birthdays. I’ve thrown parties and baked cakes and all that. I’m just not going to make much of my own anymore. If only this could slow down the aging process as well 🙂

Don’t Pretend Others Don’t Have Birthdays

If you want to celebrate with someone close to you, here are some ideas for keeping it special, yet simple. Just pick one or two!

  1. A call or card. Call, ask about birthday plans, but don’t keep the person on the phone too long. Or get a simple card and write an encouraging, meaningful message about what he or she means to you.
  2. Make them a cake. I inadvertently brought a friend to tears one year simply by making her a cake. My husband doesn’t like cake, so I’ll make him a favorite food. One year I prepared an epic nacho bar for him & his friends.
  3. A small, thoughtful gift.  I don’t believe in buying birthday gifts just to buy them. You will not see me stocking up on Bath & Body Works stuff to hand out to random friends throughout the year. If I have a great idea or know they need something, I’m more likely to spring for a present. Neil and I do exchange gifts, especially since we don’t shop much for ourselves.
  1. An outing together. To avoid birthday week, this should be reserved for the SO or BFF. Some of my favorites have been going for ice cream, a free concert in the park, going to a beach, or watching the Perseides Meteor shower. My condolences if your birthday doesn’t fall during this awesome spectacle. Oh, and when my friend took me to see A Midsummer’s Night Dream at a gorgeous outdoor venue! That was fancy.
  2. Leave them alone. When Neil asked me what I wanted for my birthday this year, I might have accidentally said this. For the introverts in your life, alone time could be the best gift of all, especially if they have kids.
  3. Babysit. We were so grateful to have a babysitter so we could eat delicious Nepali food in peace. Free babysitting is one of the best gifts you can give a parent.

In summary, I try not to make a big to-do about my own birthday, and try to make a small to-do about others’ birthdays.

How do you celebrate your birthday? What do you do for others’ birthdays?

5 Money Euphemisms to Avoid

“I’m going to invest in a good pair of running shoes.”

“My neighbors just bought another car–their lifestyle inflation is getting out of hand.”

“I’m sorry, but I just can’t afford that outing to the lake.”

“We paid an extra $270 for the privileged traveler passes, but we have a kid so it’s worth it.”

“I know we could be saving more. I really need to look at our budget.”

Can you spot the money euphemisms in the statements above? (Don’t worry, I’ve said them all too.) Language powerfully molds the way we think about the world, often in subtle ways we might not realize.  With each of those phrases, there’s a proper meaning that compactly expresses so much about reality. There’s also a potential euphemism that puts us in danger of believing lies that will keep us from our financial goals.

Let’s take a look at each one.

1. “I’ve already gone through three pairs of cheap running shoes this year. It’s time to invest in something better.”

Newsflash: investments are meant to make moneyLet’s not confuse investing with spending.

Yes, I agree it is time to purchase some shoes that will last. They may be an investment in your health or sanity. But your stinky, sweaty, swiftly depreciating shoes are not a financial investment.

Here is the proper way to use the term: “I’m going to invest in Vanguard index funds.” Go you! “I’m going to invest in a rental property.” Good luck! “I’m going to invest in these stupid knickknacks that sell for four times my cost on eBay.” We’ll take it!

2. “I really fell into lifestyle inflation last year when I bought that boat.”

Forgive my frankness, but how much of what we deem “lifestyle inflation” is really just plain greed?

We’re all greedy at times. We all want more of something, whether it’s fun toys in the garage, gorgeous clothes in the closet, or money in our portfolio. It’s when we continually spend more than we make (exempting those in poverty) that we are allow greed to drive our lifestyle

Lifestyle inflation, or even materialism or consumerism, sounds a whole lot nicer than raw greed. But the first step to change is admitting you have a problem. Lifestyle inflation sounds like a minor indiscretion. Oops! Greed sounds like an ugly, deep-seated issue I’ll have to unravel through introspection, sacrifice, and accountability.

I recognize greed is not the only contributing factor to living beyond your income. There are societal pressures, keeping up with the Jones, falling prey to slick marketing, and soothing unhappiness or insecurities with spending. Look at the whole picture, but don’t rule out the possibility of old-fashioned avarice.

3. “I’m sorry, I can’t afford to go camping. Or pay a sitter. Or help the poor.”

Sometimes I’m tempted to say we can’t afford something when really, I just don’t want to spend my money that way. Or when I just don’t want to do that thing period.

Other times, we “can’t afford” something because we already spent the money in other ways.  In that case, it’s not a problem of affordability. It’s a matter of choices. You are 100% entitled to make these choices with your money. But let’s stop using “can’t afford” euphemistically. In the name of honesty, I’m trying to replace “I can’t afford” with the truth.

Telling the truth doesn’t mean you have to be tacky and say, “I think it’s stupid you expect your friends to spend $40 each to celebrate your birthday.” A simple “No thanks” is often sufficient. You might also say, “I already spent my fun money for the month.” Or find a less expensive way of participating, like pre-gaming a restaurant outing.

Of course, there are things I truly can’t afford. Ditto for you. That would be the right time to say “I can’t afford…”

4. “We spend $50 at a restaurant once a month, but it’s worth it to get a date without the kids.”

Direct quote from yours truly. I’ve deconstructed and repented of this statement already, but I hear and read people all the time justifying their extra expenses by saying “it’s so worth it.” “Best money we ever spent.” “It’s invaluable to us.” “Worth every penny.”

This sentiment calls to mind the Mastercard commercials of the late 90s/early 2000s. They’d show a family on vacation and narrate: “Airline tickets, $800. Beach toys, $15. Condo on the beach: $1000. Your children’s memories? Priceless.”

It’s safe to assume that if you made the purchase, you thought it was worth it. So let’s not feel the need to justify every expense this way. And try not to care whether others agree about it being worth it. It’s your money, not theirs.

Let’s also be aware of the opportunity cost of our spending preferences. That’s how you truly ascertain what your money’s worth.

5. “I wish we could pay off debt faster. I should really look at our budget.”

Instead of looking at your hypothesis of what you’ll spend in the future, why not look at exactly how much you spent in the past?

Take three months of real data. This is called tracking, and it’s the other side of the budgeting coin. It’s reactive—you can’t change the past. But it can help you assess what to cut in order to meet your goals. Use tools from Personal Capital, Mint, or your bank’s online tools to track and visually depict your spending.

Runners up include “I got this half-off on clearance and saved $20!” and the word “mortgage” (hint: it literally means “death pledge”).

I’m sure to inadvertently use all these again since they’ve taken on colloquial meanings. Still, it’s good to strive for thinking accurately and speaking honestly about money.

Which of these have you used before? Can you think of any other money euphemisms? Please share!

Pretend to Be Grown Up–with Epic Spreadsheet Share!

I guess I'm a grownup now!

I guess I’m a grownup now!

Back in college I always joked about how I couldn’t wait to be a “real person.” You know, someone with a degree, a job, and even a family. I’ve “arrived” at my youthful definition of adulthood and found there’s much more to it than I once thought. It’s impossible to capture the essence of maturity in one blog post, but here are some steps that have been part of my journey.

1. Make a financial spreadsheet. I’ve always been a saver and planner, but for years the numbers were just swirling in my head, or floating around on bits of scrap paper. Then my husband Neil, an engineer and Excel-lover, made an epic spreadsheet that’s tracked and motivated our financial goals for years.

The spreadsheet helped us visualize the progress of short-term goals like saving for a down payment or a baby . It’s also how we budget and track our net worth, retirement accounts,credit card rewards, and more.

Not sure where to start? Plug your numbers into our 9-page sample spreadsheet. (The numbers are fake, the formulas are real.)

2. Give money. It’s all too easy to put off charitable giving until we feel more financially secure. Regular giving will never feel easy, as we’re all prone to increasing our expenses along with our income. If you give a little when you have a little, you’ll be more likely to give more when you have more.

3. Volunteer overseas. We each traveled separately on an international mission trip and found it very worthwhile. We are so grateful for the opportunity, as it truly changed our perspective and deepened our sense of purpose. Of course, you don’t have to cross borders to help out. The step outside my comfort zone wasn’t quite as large during domestic service trips, but they were still profound experiences.

4. Pay off debt. Many people our age are still nursing student loans, while adding credit card debt, car loans, and mortgages. While we can’t control the cost of college or the borrowing choices we made as teenagers, we can move forward by taking debt payoff seriously.

Debt is a major source of financial stress, so why add more of it to your life? Get your numbers into our sample budget spreadsheet and explore the possibilities—could you cut from areas like entertainment, travel, or clothing to get out of debt faster? Is there are any way to the lower the top three expenses of housing, transportation, or food?

5. Max out retirement accounts. In your 20s and 30s, retirement feels far away, almost mythical. Perhaps that’s why 40% of millennials don’t have a plan for retirement. Yet it’s so important to temper enjoying the present with planning for the future.

Even before your debt is completely out of the way, it makes great sense to start investing because an early start allows compound interest to work its mathematical magic. We struck a balance of investing 15% of our income while aggressively paying down student debt. After that we increased our rate of investing.

6. Have kids. Raising children is so hard at times, but it’s softened my heart unimaginably. And while most sources say kids cost a pretty penny over the long run, having them also motivated us to get our financial act together more than ever. Read about How Having Kids Has Improved Our Finances.

7. Make time for friends. Often as people marry and have children, friendships fall into the background. As a mom of little ones, I completely understand the draw to hunker down and just try to survive! But there is no time that you need your friends more than as you enter the new roles of spouse and parent. While we don’t go out with friends as much as we did before babies, we continue to see them at church, invite people over for dinner or coffee, and plan fun little outings with other families.

8. Dream big. I can be pragmatic to a fault. Case in point: when a curly-haired cutie asked me out to lunch on the second day of college, I answered dryly, “I already ate.” (We’ve been married ten years now.)

If I just slog through the details of daily life without a bigger purpose in mind, I’m at risk of only doing what others expect of me. And that’s very dangerous for both my finances and my soul. Dreaming big helps you clarify your motivation for any grownup action items. We’re much more likely to follow through on steps that fit into a bigger picture.

We also find ways to incorporate elements of our dreams into life today. That’s why we’re Rocking the Burbstead!

Sometimes I can’t believe the college girl who turned down a lunch date is now a “real person” with a family, an IRA, and a financial spreadsheet. None of those inherently comprise adulthood, but they’ve been part of my journey. What about yours?

What’s on your grownup checklist? What is your next action step toward a bigger goal?

How to Pursue Happiness

What is the good life?

What is the good life?

Happiness has been a hot topic this summer in the personal finance blogosphere. Mr. Money Moustache, Frugalwoods, Our Next Life, and ThinkSaveRetire have all shared their philosophy of happiness recently.

It’s great that the money people are taking on transcendent topics. There’s more to life than money, as we all agree. Keeping our happiness in view helps us balance and direct our financial goals within the bigger picture of life.

But before we embrace any philosophical belief, we must scrutinize its underlying assumptions. I’m all for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but I want to do it right. The foundational presuppositions of the “primarily pursue happiness” viewpoint include:

  1. We know what will make us happy.
  2. What makes us happy is good for us.
  3. Happiness can be pursued directly.

Do We Know What Will Make Us Happy?

Before making happiness our life’s goal, we’d want to be confident that we can predict what will make us happy. Plenty of research suggests we can’t do so reliably. A couple good TED talks on the topic:

And surely we’ve all experienced a failure to forecast what will satisfy. For example, I never wanted to marry. Then I tied the knot at age 20 and have been happily married for 10 years. People think a career in business will make them happy only to return to school for a teaching degree a few years later. And we’ve all made fun purchases, thinking the object or experience will make us happy, only to look to the next purchase all too soon.

Is What Makes Us Happy Good For Us?

It’s easy to think of examples of unhealthy things that make people feel happy, but there are plenty of legal, good pastimes, possessions, or traits that make us happy for a while, but don’t deliver in the long run. Hollywood is littered with successful, beautiful, wealthy people whose utter unhappiness is tragically on display, and we’ve all known plenty of cases close to home, too.

  • People who have traits others believe comprise happiness—wealth, smarts, beauty, talent—actually report lower happiness levels than their average counterparts.
  • Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Shawn Johnson described how disappointing her Olympic experience was.
  • Quarterback Tom Brady reported feeling completely empty despite his hugely successful football career, massive wealth, and supermodel wife.
  • Dave Chappell ran away to South Africa after making $50 million by age 32, and stated “It seems the higher up I go, the less happy I am.”
  • Sigmund Freud declared that the “pursuit of happiness is a doomed quest.”
  • The author of Ecclesiastes recorded the results of his search for happiness. He tried women, wine, work, wealth, and education. His conclusion? “Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after the wind and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

We want to find the perfect cocktail of financial stability, hobbies, friends, productivity, and creativity to make us happy. But what if it can’t? We are prone to imbalance and to wanting “too much of a good thing.” Even more subtly dangerous is wanting too much from a good thing.

Conversely, is what makes us unhappy bad for us? It all depends. Of course unhealthy pursuits and relationships are toxic, but periods of suffering are often viewed as the most redemptive or life-changing within a few years. An American Sociological Association study showed childless couples are happier than those with children. Of course! Raising kids is HARD! While I often feel unhappy when I’m being nagged, woken up, or pooped on, I am so happy that I have children. I’ve grown a lot already and the whole experience is very humbling and amazing.

Can Happiness Be Pursued Directly?

The reason our plans for happiness tend to evade us is that happiness can’t be pursued directly. It’s kind of like falling in love: you can’t force it. You can take some steps that are within your power; that’s fine and good. I’m not saying we should abandon everything that gives us cheer to wear sackcloth and ashes. Happiness and wanting to be happy aren’t wrong. Enjoying hobbies, experiences, and material provisions is awesome. “God has given us every good thing to enjoy.”

We all know you can’t buy happiness. Turns out you can’t chase it, either. TED talks by psychologists Dan Gilbert and Nancie Etcoff explore why happiness can’t be pursued directly. C.S. Lewis makes a wonderful case for this principle in Surprised by Joy. He searched for happiness his whole life, only to discover that you can’t find it. It finds you, often when you’re least expecting it.

So what are we supposed to do? I believe happiness comes from:

Above the sun. If everything under the sun is ultimately meaningless and unable to deliver true, enduring happiness, we need to look to a transcendent source. This is what surprised Lewis: a lifetime of searching for a feeling state left him unfulfilled. Meeting the Author of Joy brought an unexpected joy that rose above circumstance and emotion.

Be happy with what you have“It’s not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you got” Sheryl Crow sang, and the apostle Paul agrees: “If we have food and covering, let us be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). Research concurs that, once a reasonable standard of living is secured, additional income doesn’t increase happiness. The principle of diminishing returns often applies to other areas like success or leisure time. The true secret to financial freedom isn’t reaching financial independence, or early retirement. It’s contentment.

Having a purpose. What brings real fulfillment and contentment is knowing our lives mean something. You may be ecstatic for a short time, but that doesn’t impact your overall life much in the long run. When I think back to my life just twelve short years ago, I scarcely remember my emotional state. What I do remember is my purpose at that time. And this is also what we remember about others, whether our grandparents or modern or historic heroes.

Making others happy. I’ve framed this many ways—Inflate Your Usefulness, Not Your Lifestyle, Inflate Someone Else’s Lifestyle Instead of Your Own, and Real Worth vs. Net Worth to name a few.  I’m almost sorry to beat this drum again! But according to my experience, others’ research, and the wisdom of Jesus, it really is better to give than to receive.

Bringing others joy lies at the heart of having a purpose. If it’s all about me, I’m just chasing a moving target, a carrot tied to a stick. While getting happiness can’t be our primary reason for caring about others, it’s a likely side effect. And if directly pursuing my own bliss is ineffective, I might as well brighten other people’s lives.

Now, after all that philosophy, go enjoy this feel-good dance video.

What do you believe makes people happy?