5 Ways We Spend on Our Marriage

What’s one value that should absolutely make its way into your values-based spending plan? Your marriage (if you’re married, of course)! Let’s face it: the health of your marriage is very important, but it’s also easy to ignore.

People may avoid spending on these areas because they perceive that it will be very expensive. As with anything, you could use the label “value” to justify lots of ridiculous spending. No one needs to spend hundreds of dollars a month to accomplish this.

It’s true you can’t buy love, don’t cheap out on your marriage. That’s like telling your spouse, “Honey, I love money more than I love you.”

Here are 5 ways we spend on our marriage, and three price-points that should satisfy anyone

1. An annual getaway.

Before having kids, we jaunted around the world when we wanted to and could hang out alone at home. Now we’re in full-time parenting mode and quality time has to be planned ahead–and away. So we escape alone together for a night or two once a year. If you can pull it off twice a year, even better!

We are very grateful to my mom for babysitting for the weekend of our 11th anniversary this year. Getting an overnight sitter isn’t the easiest task for some, but it’s worth the effort if at all possible. More on that below.

The $$$$ way: Dinner at the city’s fanciest steakhouse, tickets to the best show in town, and drinks at a posh bar afterward. Pay full-price for nice hotel. (Seriously, this is not a terrible way to spend your money once a year.)

The $$ way: Book free hotel with rewards points. Our weekend away included free entertainment like the beautiful city library and art museum (I’m a hopeless nerd). We spent on our favorite ethnic foods and incidentals like parking. We packed snacks and drinks for the hotel.

The broke way: Drop them off at sitters, head home, promise not to clean or fix anything, explore free entertainment in your town, prepare meals together, or inexpensive local dining.

2. Monthly dates.

Getting outside your home and spending time together really makes a difference when you’re in the thick of parenting or just the busyness of life.  It’s easy to be tempted to clean up, work on projects, or veg out in front of the TV. Netflix and take-out is a great way to relax, but in my experience, not always the best way to connect. Especially when dinner conversation consists of talking about Star Wars with a five-year-old. Again.

The $$$$ way: Fancy dinner and a movie (or other pricey entertainment) every time.

The $$ way: Moderate dinner, split an entrée, go to relatively inexpensive place like Chipotle or whatever you like. Neil maintains that our best dates have been at Taco Bell. We also like hiking, biking, or visiting parks or thrift stores. Sharing a common hobby or experience together is a great relationship- builder. Dating is about connection, not consumption.

The broke way: Get takeout during lunch specials, and reheat after kids the kids are in bed. Turn off the TV, hide your phones, light a candle, pour a glass of box wine, and try to stay awake. Or go out for ice cream, coffee, or a walk.

3. Babysitting

#1 and #2 may require another expense: babysitters. We realize not everyone is as fortunate as we are in this department. But there are plenty of options for finding a sitter. A good babysitter is an invaluable asset for your family.

If you literally know no one who can watch your kids, I’d suggest trying to forge a relationship with someone who can. Think neighbors, friends, local high school or college students, people from church, or resources like Care.com.  And if the cost is a concern, I’d recommend looking for other areas to cut back in to allow for some childcare spending. While we benefit from free babysitting, we also pay sitters on a regular basis.

The $$$$ way: If you don’t know anyone, you can hire from Care.com or a similar website.

The $$ way: We hire a sitter for our weekly home church, and events or dates when our parents or friends aren’t available.

The broke way: We also swap babysitting with other families, and ask friends and family members.

4. Appearance

I’m not a made-up kind of girl, but I do occasionally purchase new clothing or makeup to look nice for my husband. This is an area where you need to “know thyself.” If you live in yoga pants and haven’t showered in three days (moms represent!), maybe you could allocate $20 for sprucing up for your next outing. If you have a history of over-spending in this area, mix it up with what you already have.

In short, I try not to look like complete hell all the time, just to save money.

The $$$$ way: Buy a new outfit for every event. (NEVER!)

The $$ way: Occasional thrift store or clearance chic for a special occasion, or update “date night shirt”.

The broke way: Borrow clothes from a same-size friend or family member. Or ask a talented friend to do your make-up or hair for your next date.

5. Gifts

Some people don’t exchange gifts with their spouse because they are frugal. We choose to buy gifts for one another, because we are frugal. We often delay purchases and ask for the item as a gift. Or surprise each other with something we noticed the other could use. After 14 years together, we are way past any danger of trying to buy each other’s love. But gifts can be a thoughtful way to express love, and some people feel particularly loved this way. If your spouse is one of them, please give them gifts!

The $$$$ way: Pricey gifts for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Anniversary, MLK Day (j/k).

The $$ way: Modest gifts for Christmas & birthdays.

The broke way: Skip the gifts to save money. Craft them something, make a special dinner, or write a heartfelt card.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Neil went all out for me this Christmas. I’m typing this on a new laptop! In addition to its killer specs, it has amazing features such as being able to close the screen, having all the keys connected to the keyboard, and not crashing if you don’t put it in sleep mode. Thanks Neil!

How do you spend on your significant other? Where do you tend to fall on the broke-to-$$$$ spectrum?

Hidden Home Savings

suburb

Everyone says home ownership is fraught with hidden costs, but what are they? And how can you combat them? Today we’ll explore some ways to save when it comes to buying and maintaining a home, and minimizing utility costs.

Buying

I can’t recommend enough that you save a 20% down payment before purchasing a home. Sure, you probably know someone who bought with nothing down and lived to tell about it. But there are many good reasons to begin home ownership with some equity.

First, putting 20% down is the best way to avoid paying PMI, which is a form of insurance against your loan. In other words, you pay money to the bank every month that does not build any type of equity. Secondly, you could easily end up upside-down in your loan, owing more than you own, should your home value dip and you want or need to sell. While it may not seem likely, plenty of homeowners have found themselves in this unfortunate situation. Lastly, you’ll decrease your loan amount, and therefore your monthly payments and the amount of interest you’ll pay overall.

A home inspection is another important step before purchasing. It may be tempting to skip the inspection since they run $300-400 or more, depending on your location. But an inspectors’ knowledge can save you a lot of trouble and money over time. We passed on buying one house after the inspection revealed foundation problems. Many issues can be fixed, but it’s nice to have that information up front so you can ask the seller to make the repairs or lower the purchase price. It’s hard to determine a good price for a home without the inspection results.

Before purchasing, shop around for the best interest rate. Just be sure to get a fixed rate. If rates drop after your home purchase, crunch the numbers for refinancing. While finance fees will lengthen the time till you recoup the upfront expense, a lower interest rate over the long haul could be very beneficial. We refinanced to a lower rate in 2012 with a no-fee refinance for instant savings.

Insurance

Choosing a good neighborhood could not only improve your home value over time, but also reduce the cost of home owner’s insurance.

Researching insurance alternatives can help reduce this cost. For example, protecting your home with a wireless security system could save you nearly $700 in insurance fees over the course of a year.

Another indirect type of “insurance” is making sure your home’s electrical is updated to avoid property damage due to fire. Just last week, Neil’s cousin lost his home to a fire. Fortunately no one was harmed, but of course it if very difficult to start over after losing your home and belongings.

Energy

Updating insulation can make a big difference in energy bills. It’s very affordable to rent a machine and DIY installation of lose cellulose insulation to keep heat from escaping your home. Sealing leaks with caulk or weatherstripping is another low-cost way to reduce heating and cooling costs, while also making your home less drafty and more comfortable. Unlike updating windows, updating insulation, caulking and weatherstripping all have a relatively short ROI time. For more on home energy savings see our utility series: Pretend to Be Warm, The Electric Slide, Hippies, Hustlers, and Vampires, and Who Ya Gonna Call About Utility Bills?

We’ve also replaced our shower heads with low-flow shower heads that aerate water so it uses less water without feeling like you’re showering under a tiny trickle. Efficient shower heads are inexpensive and easy to install, making them a great way for homeowners to lower their water and energy bills.

Appliances

Keeping your refrigerator temperature at 38-40 will keep food safe while costing less than colder refrigeration settings. The refrigerator and other vents may be the last thing on your cleaning list, but it does help them run more efficiently. And softening your water can also lesson energy costs for all appliances that rely on water to run.

simplisafe_hidden_home_savings

Stay tuned for more on home buying within the next month!

How do you save on home ownership and energy costs? 

Just Pretending

If you grew up in the 90s, “poser” was the ultimate insult. Posing meant faking, pretending to be something you weren’t. I don’t want to be a poser.

So all pretending aside, let me be clear: I live in a 1400 sq ft home and own two cars, a dishwasher, a Kitchenaid mixer, and more computers and televisions than I care to admit. Actually, it’s hard to tally the latter when married to an engineer with lots of Projects. Though he just did some major decluttering–yay!

But back to my point: I am rich. Filthy rich, by any standard outside the time & space in which I live.

Lucky, fortunate, blessed, spoiled…you name it, I’ll claim it. I am the global 1%.

When I say pretend to be poor, I don’t mean it literally. Not even a little literally. I think the fact that it’s the title of a web page should give that away. (Think computer, Internet, leisure time when I’m not scavenging for my next meal or side hustling to pay the electric.)

I’d never want to insult the truly poor, or equate my truly lavish lifestyle with an impoverished one. So I’m just putting it out there, loud and clear, that I know I’m rich. And I believe wealth is a huge responsibility that should be used to help others.

In my mind, pretending to be poor represents the only attractive alternative to pretending to be rich. I suppose there’s a third option of breaking even, but that’s hard to pull off with precision and undesirable since it means you have nothing to share or save for the future.

So that leaves only two feasible options: live on more than you make, or live on less. And if you choose to live on less, why not live on a lot less, if possible? That could free up so many resources–both time and money–for doing what really matters.

The 1.74 trillion dollars in American consumer debt (credit & auto) indicates a startling pattern of living on more than you make, i.e. pretending to be rich.

By “pretend” I also hope to evoke not taking yourself too seriously. Sure, we’re trying to live on less, but we’re not claiming to be the most hardcore frugal freaks out there. I buy crazy indulgences like chocolate, alcohol, makeup, and pants without holes in them regularly. I break stuff, lose stuff, and buy stuff that doesn’t work out not infrequently. And each year we burn syrup, lose a chicken, and leave some garden tomatoes on the vine too long, all without causing our family financial duress.

We are not the most wealthy, successful, organized, creative, or generous people out there. We are not the best at life. We’re okay with faking it will we make it, and that’s very much what I mean by pretending.

The truth is, we’re all posers on some level. Now it’s been termed Impostor Syndrome; we’re all  a bit insecure as we strive to become something we’re not yet. The important question isn’t whether you’re pretending, but what will you pretend to be? 

I’ll strive to live on less, so I can be more useful.

I’ll strive to give more, to help those who have less.

I’ll “pretend to be poor” because I don’t want to pretend to be rich.

I’ll “pretend to be poor” so I can build wealth. Wealth that can help others become “rich in every way.”

Do you ever feel like a “poser”? What are you striving for this year? 

5 Tips To Save at the Pharmacy

Today, I’m pleased to feature a guest post on a topic I know little about, but is very important for many: prescription costs. We are blessed to thus far be a very healthy family with no regular prescription costs. However, I know many people face tough decisions about how to pay for medication, and finding the most cost effective source is critical for their physical and financial health.

By Fabio Caparelli 

On top of paying for rent/mortgage, transportation, food, and utilities, the average American also has to factor in spending an average of $1,370 dollars per year on prescription drug costs.

The high cost of prescriptions have been a source of anxiety for Americans for years, and with the forthcoming changes to the health care system and drug price inflation, there seems to be no relief on the horizon. Drug prices rose an average of nearly 10% over the 12 month period ending in May of 2016. What is the average American to do?

Since people can’t just stop buying the medicine they need to live a healthy and happy life, they are stuck with the burden of losing more of their income to pharmacy spending.

We asked pharmacists, nurses, and doctors to share their top tips to save and found the following five tips to help ease your pharmaceutical anxiety.

1) Choose Generic

If you’ve ever struggled with the decision of buying name brand vs an unknown store brand and gone with the name brand, you’re not alone. How could something “the same” cost half, or more than half the price and still be good?

Generic drugs are meticulously tested, and work as well as brand names. There’s a simple reason why generics cost so much less than their branded counterparts. When creating a drug, huge pharmaceutical companies cover the costs of research, development and marketing while taking on the risk that the drug may not get approval from the FDA. Once a drug gets approved, these manufacturers are rewarded with a patent allowing them the exclusive right to produce and sell the drug with the power to set their own price.

But after a patent expires, the drug formulation becomes available for other manufacturers to create and market their own versions. The increase in competition and lower costs mean that the new generics entering the market are just as effective but at a much better price. If your doctor prescribes you a brand-name drug, always remember to ask if there are generics available.

2) Compare Alternatives

For many diseases and symptoms, there’s more than one option for relief. For example, diabetes patients have a number of alternative insulin treatments to choose from. Similarly, arthritis sufferers have many prescription options to manage their pain. When choosing a treatment, keep in mind there may be many alternatives at a much lower cost. If your doctor prescribes you an expensive branded prescription, ask if there are alternative drugs that work just as well. Many physicians have no idea how much your insurance does or doesn’t cover, and would be more than happy to help you find an effective drug you can afford.

It can also help to ask your local pharmacist. Walmart, for example, offers 90-day prescriptions for $23 lower per member per year. Many pharmacies also provide lower cash prices for patients without insurance.

3) Patient Assistance Programs

It’s an unfortunate reality that many Americans are choosing to forego prescriptions because they can no longer afford them. For anyone needing to make the difficult choice between medicine and other basic needs, we recommend seeking out patient assistance programs offered by the state and nonprofit groups. Many states offer programs to cover large portions of bills, which can include copays. In addition, there are non-profits like PPA and RxAssist which help low-income patients find programs for free or low-cost medications.

4) Manufacturer Rebates

Another helpful tip is to search for manufacturer rebates or coupons for specific drugs. These are savings programs created directly by the drug manufacturer and can be worth hundreds in discounts. For example, Epipen has a $0 copay program to help offset out of pocket costs. A quick google search can turn up hundreds of similar programs for all kinds of brands and prescriptions. You’ll often have the best luck with new drugs where manufacturers are willing to lower prices to encourage new patient sales. The state sponsored Medicaid Drug Rebate Program  can also help reduce outpatient costs.

5) Shop Around

As with most goods, prescriptions vary in price from store to store and pharmacy to pharmacy. Prices for a single prescription can differ widely between Walgreens to CVS and Walmart. You don’t have to accept the first price you receive at your local counter. To save time and gas, we suggest using web tools and apps that can help you price check between stores. For example, SearchRx lets users compare prices for prescriptions and find the lowest priced pharmacy. By looking up a prescription and zip code, you get a list of prices at your local pharmacies. Plus, if your copay is high or you’re between insurance, you can email, text or print a coupon to help you save more.


In conclusion, get the most from your trips to the pharmacy by doing your research and shopping around. If price is a concern, do tell your physician as most doctors are happy to work with you to find affordable treatment. Seek generics if they are available or ask if there are alternative medications. Plus, be on the lookout for doctor samples, manufacturer rebates and state-run programs that help bring down out of pocket costs. To help you do all this, you can check out apps like SearchRx that make it quick and easy to search for the best prescription prices and coupons. Whether you’re insured or not, we hope these tips come in handy for your next doctor’s visit!

 How do you save on prescriptions? Have you ever used SearchRx?

 

This post contains affiliate links.

The Danger of Christmas

meeting-santa

I love Christmas, but I’m also afraid of it.

I’m afraid our kids will feel entitled by all the gifts they receive. I’m afraid they will lose sight of the true meaning of Jesus’ birth. I fear it will reinforce their tendency to believe life’s all about them. I’m concerned they’ll turn into greedy over-consumers.

We’re committed to not over-doing the gifts, but we do enjoy making Christmas morning magical for our kids. Surely that will look different as they grow up, but at their ages, this doesn’t cost a lot.

We’re grateful to have relatives who are generous but reasonable (not over-gifters). But even one or two reasonable presents from a number of relatives, plus “Santa,” adds up to a fair amount of stuff. (I do see the toys as a resource to survive the long winter months ahead!)

I’m also tempted to fill the precious days off of school and work with fun holiday activities. There are more special events than we can possibly attend, plus simple pleasures like sledding, baking cookies, and watching Christmas movies. I want to be sure that helping others is prioritized in the midst of seasonal entertainment, and that will mean passing on some fun activities, even if they’re free.

We want to celebrate Christmas with special treats, gifts, and family activities. We also want our kids to learn generosity, empathy, and service. Here’s how we’re trying to combat the greedy, entitled, all-about-me mentality that kids (and all of us, if we’re honest) are naturally prone to.

“It is better to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

We first introduced this verse to my son when he was three. He replied, “That’s not true,” and refused to memorize it. We didn’t force the issue. Two years later he’s voluntarily quoting it (sometimes to his sister) and trying to understand it. He asked if getting presents on Christmas morning is bad. I explained that both giving and receiving are good and fun, but giving is special because it helps others and can bring them happiness.

To involve our kids in giving, I encourage them to buy or make something for each other and their dad. With their closest friends they might swap toys they already have or chip in toward a small gift.

“If you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord—and he will repay you!” (Proverbs 19:17)

Our kids live a strange existence in which all their needs are abundantly met. Without scaring them, we try to explain that not everyone lives this way. Some kids don’t get toys for Christmas; others don’t have enough food or even clean water. (Compassion International’s Explorer magazine was helpful for this.) We can’t solve all those problems, but we can share some of what we have with others. We use Dave Ramsey’s suggestion for give, save, and spend jars, and set a deadline this week for choosing a charitable destination for their money.

This year I also took my son to help out with a “Christmas with Dignity” store through a local ministry in a low-income neighborhood that’s home to many refugee families. The children work throughout the year to earn digital “dollars” by attending after school tutoring, completing homework, and participating in programs. With these funds they can shop at a Christmas store featuring a large variety of new, donated items. We volunteered with the set-up, which involved carrying lots of items down lots of stairs.

The store featured toys, but also many practical household items ranging from coffee makers to diapers to toilet paper. Friends who volunteer at the store noted how many of these items the kids choose over the toys.

Once we got through the explanations and he got to carry stuff around he got increasingly excited. He talked about the kids choosing from the different items. He was also bragging about how strong his muscles were getting from all the hard work. Maybe he still thinks it’s all about him (& his muscles), but I was grateful he had a chance to help others in some way. He left in an exceptionally good mood because he got to experience firsthand the joy of giving rather than receiving.

“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress…”(James 1:27)

A friend suggested that the kids from our church visit nursing home residents and hand out cookies. Yesterday we did just that. Yes, visiting people you don’t know feels awkward. And children aged three to eight are hardly stellar conversationalists. But I think the cookies, smiles, and a few rounds of “Jingle Bells” went a long way toward brightening the residents’ day, and showing our kids that they’re not the center of universe.

The book The Me, Me, Me Epidemic  includes some more great ideas for involved kids in both planned and random acts of service.

I don’t share these experiences because I have it all figured out, but because I don’t. My kids are more entitled and self-centered than I want them to be. So am I. The path to financial success is fraught with danger for the soul, unless we take care to share, help the poor, and care for those often forgotten by society. 

I’d love to hear more ideas for promoting a giving attitude in kids at Christmas.What are some practical ways you’ve tried to teach generosity and service, especially during the holidays? How have you seen your children’s attitude toward giving change over the years? Or perhaps you remember how your own perspective changed?

Christmas Gifts that Keep on Saving, Part 2

He's making his list & checking it twice.

What do I get all these people for Christmas?

Still Christmas shopping? Me, too. Once you’ve sorted out your approach to Christmas gifting, it’s time to tackle the shopping list. Here are some ideas for the frugal people on your list, or those you think could stand to learn a little thrift. These mostly practical gifts will strike the thrifty as luxury items because they make either life, or saving money, so much easier.

For the new parent:

temporal lobe thermometer: This thermometer is so quick & to use, my kids like getting their temperature taken. It also seems more sensitive than traditional ones.

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

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

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

For the handy man: (suggestions from Neil)

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

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

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

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

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

For the home chef:

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

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

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

For the kids:

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

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

Craft supplies or Play-dohReplenish crafty consumables.

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

For the brown bagger: These glass food storage containers are healthier than heating in plastic, and don’t leak at all.

For the bread-maker: We nearly always have a bread from this book on hand: Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day book.

For the Indian food-lover: If you’d like to stop paying $18 for take-out Indian entrees, this is the cookbook you need. It’s accessible, relatively simple, and tastes authentic. Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking

For the home exerciser: For those skipping the gym membership, my favorite workout videos are Zumba,  Ballet Beautiful, & P90x.

For the whole family:

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

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

Book sets such as Narnia book seriesLittle House book series

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

Museum or zoo memberships.

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

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

What are some favorite gifts you’ve given or received?

 

This post contains affiliate links.

Beyond the No-Spend: Approaches for Christmas Gifting

Photo by Neil Brooks

Photo by Neil Brooks

We love giving gifts at Christmas. It’s a beautiful tradition that flows straight from the true meaning of the holiday. But this, of course, has nothing to do with all the materialism, over-consumption, and over-spending surrounding the season.

People love to extol the benefits of their approach to Christmas gifts, but what works for one family may not for another. And what you’re comfortable with may differ from your relatives’ preferences. We strive to keep Christmas spending reasonable without being Scrooges. Here are a variety of tactics to consider for reasonable gifting.

1. Secret Santa. I have four siblings, and while growing up, we wanted to give each other gifts but couldn’t afford to buy each sib something good. Early on, we devised the siblings secret Santa (though no one ever kept it a secret). We’ve carried on the tradition until this year, when we opted for an exchange amongst all the adults.

2. Fixmas Christmas. One friend felt their family had enough stuff—and a lot of unfinished projects. He declared a Fixmas Christmas, in which your gift to each person was to fix something that was broken. For his wife, he replaced their broken faucet with a new one they scored for free. Last year we joked about the new muffler for my car being one of my gifts.

3. Secondhand/homemade. For the non-sibs, my family for the past three years has declared a “secondhand Christmas.” Some people opt to give cash or gift cards, but for those not afraid of the thrift store or crafts, we ask for wish lists and shop secondhand. (I am afraid of crafts.) Last year I got my mother a full silverware set at the thrift store. The year before I found her a nice coat there.

4. No-spend. Some people prefer to call a truce and say “we don’t need anything, and we’re not buying gifts this year.” At some point it feels a bit ridiculous to shop for people who already have plenty, so if no one in your family is in need this year, consider a no-spend Christmas.

5. Kids-only. The past two years, Neil & his sibs decided to skip their gift exchange and just do gifts for the kids. I wouldn’t suggest this in my family since we’re the only ones with kids, but they have cousins on Neil’s side and it’s fun for everyone to watch the kids open gifts.

We aim to make Christmas morning magical for our kids, but it doesn’t take a big budget or fancy gifts to do so, especially while they’re young. We budget a certain amount per kid and aren’t afraid to buy used (or even freebies). Books, board games, and small toys or craft supplies are a hit so far. I try to think “winter entertainment” for the long, cold months ahead. Some people set a number of gifts per kids.

6. Common experience. One year Neil’s family called off gifts and we all headed to a cabin in scenic region two hours away. We hiked together, took turns cooking, and played games. It turned out to be more expensive that our usual gift-buying routine, but it was a wonderful time together as a family. Simpler common activities like sledding, going to a restaurant, or ice skating together would also fit the bill.

7. Spouses don’t exchange. I’m not a fan of this for us, but some couples like it. We often save items we’d like to purchase or replenish for our Christmas or birthday wish lists. Neil’s gifts from me this year will replace broken/worn out items of his. I think waiting to receive these as gifts is more exciting than just buying them for yourself. However, for those who would rather make purchases as needed, it may make sense for spouses to skip presents.

8. Donations. We’ve opted to make donations instead of gifts for a number of relatives who have requested it. There were several years when instead of Neil’s siblings’ gift exchange we all donated to a charity.

We’ve gone back and forth over the years, and while it might make things easier to do the exact same thing each year, it’s also nice to be flexible and decide what makes sense for that year’s circumstances. I love the giving aspect of Christmas and never want to declare “no spend Christmas” for all time. We’ll take it one year at a time and enjoy what each season brings.

How does your family approach Christmas gifts?

A Letter to My College Self

College me: "I live in a tiny dorm room with 2 other people, and it's awesome!!"

Dear College Kalie,

You are afraid of so many things. Don’t be.

Don’t let your adviser scare you. Just because he told you, all of 16 years old, that you need to decide your major within a semester, doesn’t mean it’s true. You have to explore and find out what you love before you make that choice.

Don’t let the fear of failure dictate your decisions. Listen to advice about your course of study. Remember that time your journalism professor, journalist friend, and grandmother (who worked at a newspaper) all tried to convince you to change your major to journalism? Seeing as you’ve spent more time working as a freelance writer than a teacher, maybe you should’ve listened. You chose to teach English in part because you were afraid to write. You learned so much in those two journalism classes you had to take. Just imagine the skills you could’ve learned had you studied it more! Sure, there are things you love about teaching, but that 65-hour-work week (at least till you’re tenured) is not going to work with the rest of your life.

Don’t be afraid to live off campus with friends. Even though you’ll forego some scholarship money, the experience will be well worth it, and God will provide. Living in close community with five other Christian women will prepare you for marriage like nothing else. You’ll learn how to resolve conflict, relate to those quite different from you, and admit your own shortcomings. And you’ll still be good friends with some of those roommates over a decade later.

Don’t be afraid to have fun. You’re all about the grades, but your GPA is never going to be your problem. You’re way too serious and need to loosen up and live a little. The “A’s” are all a blur, but the times you stayed up late listening to a friend, or laughing with your roommates, or going to Taco Bell with Neil are all as clear as if they happened yesterday. College isn’t just about a classroom education; it’s about learning who you are and what you can offer the world.

Don’t be afraid to make friends. You set out to do this, even though you had no idea how. And some of those relationships will continue long past graduation. They’ll be there for you when you get married, have kids, and hit rough patches along life’s road. Your GPA won’t do you any favors then, but your friends will.

Don’t be afraid to invest in the stock market. You will have the exact same amount of money in savings when you start college as when you get married and join finances. Lesson? You could’ve invested most of it, if only to get in the habit, learn the ropes, and earn a bit more than 1% interest.

Don’t be afraid to give. You’ll be glad you always gave away some of your meager income in college. Starting this habit early will teach you that there is always something to share if you make it a priority. And it’ll teach you to trust God to provide as you work hard and follow Him.

Don’t be afraid to get married. When your boyfriend of three years suggests getting married before graduation, try to be nice. Sure, it’s not conventional, but you know you want to spend your lives together, so why wait? Your destinies were practically set since you realized you both subscribed to Zillions (Consumer Report for kids) while growing up. In fact, you’ll help each other finish school and establish a simple lifestyle together from the start. And those student loans you’re marrying into–don’t worry, you’ll pay them off long before they’re due. (For information about repaying student debt and student loan refinancing, please check out Earnest’s resources here.)

What would you tell your college self? Were you as afraid as I was? 

Weird Habits of Suburbanites

suburb

Ah, the sights and sounds of autumn. The crunch of leaves, the bright blue sky, the brilliant foliage…

And the deafening sound of leaf blowers. Inefficient, loud, lazy leaf blowers blowing six leaves at a time, when a rake can coral hundreds at once.

Here are some more weird habits I’ve noticed in our Midwestern suburb. No offense if you do any of these. We do some weird stuff, too, like raising chickens, hauling manure in our hatchback Focus, and baiting swarms of bees. And there’s the time my kid peed in the middle of a Kan jam tournament. Maybe we just belong in the country. That’s why we’re rocking the burbstead.

  1. Mulch flower beds. Every spring, mulch is advertised ubiquitously and many homeowners spend a bunch of time and money spreading mulch on their flower beds. God forbid we let the dirt show. I suppose it may cut back on weeds, but I can’t imagine why mulch is so highly coveted come spring in the suburbs.
  2. Plant annuals. While you’re picking up mulch, why not buy a few flats of impatiens or other small, non-fragrant flowers, and painstakingly plant them strategically around your home? Never mind that they’ll be dead within two months, and that you’ll have to do it all over again next year. We’d rather grow something edible.
  3. Stay inside. Once those beds are mulched and annuals planted, most people hibernate until it’s time to blow leaves. The yards people moved to the ‘burbs for sit largely untouched, except to mow the grass. Just about everyone has an unused patio furniture set and a grill that makes all of four burgers a year. People with children might venture out a bit more but for the most part the prized decks, patios, and lawns of suburban homes lie empty.
  4. Not meet their neighbors. We’ve thrust ourselves upon the neighbors by baking them cookies when we moved in as well as when anyone new moves into the ‘hood. (Thank God the pastry chef was NOT HOME when I took them some slightly-too-crisp chocolate chip cookies before I learned her profession.) Anywho, meeting your neighbors takes work nowadays, and even some pretty sneaky moves like just *happening* to check the mail at the same time.
  5. Park in the driveway. Let’s just be honest–having a garage is one of the biggest advantages of suburban vs. city dwelling. Where else are you going to store all your extra junk? I mean, park your car. Wait no, definitely store the junk. We only park in our garage in the winter, and only then after a massive garage clean-out in which we fold up the stroller, bike trailer, ping pong table, chicken feeders, and other trappings of burbstead life.
  6. Buy each other’s stuff at yard sales. Speaking of garages, when do we venture out to see our neighbors? When we want to buy their stuff on mad discount at garage sales. Two fancier neighborhood have community garage sales and it’s crazy how people show up early to start rifling through other people’s junk. We went and scored some K’nex which have been a huge hit.
  7. Trash pick each other’s stuff. What’s more embarrassing than haggling over your neighbor’s used furniture? Picking it out of their tree lawn under cover of darkness later. Not that we would know 🙂
  8. Own too many tools. Clearly every homeowner needs to own a pressure washer, an extension ladder, a post hole digger, a table saw, a hydraulic jack, and an air compressor. We wouldn’t want to share or anything. That’d be too neighborly. Instead we’ll all spend thousands of dollars on all this equipment we rarely use, and store it all in our garages where our cars don’t fit, so that we don’t ever have to meet each other. Or, if you’re like us, wait until someone throws out their broken equipment and…well, you know the rest.
  9. Treat their lawns. Grass, that stubborn plant that cannot be allowed into the flower beds, is highly coveted in the rest of the yard. Clover, on the other hand, is intolerable. People pay a small fortune for toxins to kill any non-grass plants that may dare to grow. Maybe it’s my Irish heritage, but I can’t imagine what’s so offensive about clover, and certainly won’t be paying anyone to kill it.
  10. Helicopter parent. Another supposed advantage of the suburbs is their safety, yet we’re still expected to watch our kids like hawks. Go to a suburban playground and observe the moms. They are on the slides, up the ladders, and generally following their children at no more than a two-step distance. They are most certainly not sitting and watching from the park benches, lest they be accused of negligence. I love when no one is at the park (which happens often since no one goes outside) so I can sit down for once in my life and just do nothing. Isn’t that what playgrounds are for?

Has anyone observed these or other strange suburban habits? What are some quirky country or city ways you’ve noticed? 

The Personal Finance Topic No One Talks About

Image result for scrooge jumping into money pool

Copyright Disney

There is one word that is noticeably absent from personal finance content. I’m sure someone’s written about it, but I can’t remember reading a post on it in the two years I’ve been blogging. We hear the buzzwords repeatedly: side hustling, decluttering,  values-based spending, travel hacking, card churning, zero sum budgeting, and more. But what about the real root that gets so many of us into trouble when it comes to money?

I mentioned it in “5 Money Euphemisms to Avoid.” Interestingly, it was the one term that no one commented on. It’s almost a dirty word. Yet it’s something we’re all prone to.

Greed.

I hardly expect greed will ever become a buzzword. It can’t be good for SEO. But I think it’s important to broach this taboo that can seriously stymie our financial progress, or limit our happiness even if we are swimming in money.

Admitting the Scrooge in All of Us

The Greek philosophers’  concept for greed was pleonexia, an over-desire. Inordinate desire. A wish or drive out of proportion with what the thing can deliver. An unhealthy appetite. We think that car purchase, sleek device, or rising stocks will make us happy, but these things disappoint. It’s not because those things are inherently wrong, but because we’re wrong for placing our trust in them. Can so much metal, silicon, or stock value change our well-being for the long-term? That’s simply asking too much of too little.

I’m a naturally frugal person, but greed still finds its way into my heart regularly. Sometimes I wish for a more beautiful home even though we have a nice place with more space than we need. Sometimes I dream of new clothes or furniture even though what I have is perfectly passable. Sometimes I desire more savings although we’re filthy rich by global standards. And I know my generous, thrifty husband at times longs to own more land, a nicer car, or a bigger nest egg.

Sometimes yearning for more is a healthy impetus to work hard and live wisely. I’m not talking about such a contented quest to do the next step well. Greed is by definition discontent. Let explore a few examples.

My kids always want more. They have more toys than they have time to play with, but they want everything they see in the store. I know that’s “how kids are.” But isn’t “how kids are” a glimpse into raw human nature?

Credit card debt is often the result of greed, though there can be other factors. I can have something I can’t afford, and I can have it now.

Or take car loans. Unfortunately, they’ve been normalized to the point that people cannot see this. Taking a car loan is saying, I want a nicer car than I can purchase in cash. So I’m just going to get it. For an alternative approach, check out How I Spent $8000 on Cars in 17 Years of Commuting.

Mortgages a.k.a. death pledges are a bit different, since homes are an appreciating asset. Still, it’s all too easy to get greedy with the mortgage, especially when you’re offered loans much bigger than you need or can comfortably afford. Surely the housing market crash of 2008 demonstrated how pervasive greed can be in this arena. During our house hunt we almost purchased a home which would’ve made things tight. It all looked fine on paper but in retrospect I’m glad we went with something less expensive.

Greed is also the stuff Black Friday is made of. Again, there’s nothing wrong with Black Friday, and I know lots of people purchase only gifts or items they’ve planned for. But Black Friday would not be nearly as lucrative if it were not fueled by both consumer and corporate greed.

Responding to Greed

Greed could be for more savings, more travel, more experiences, perhaps even for more “freedom.” Again, it’s not the object of desire that’s a problem. It’s our attitude toward that thing. This attitude is uniquely hard to decipher in a society where greed has become normalized, institutionalized, and celebrated at nearly every level.

Where’s the line between normal desire and greed? That may look different for everyone, but it certainly crosses the line when we start acting on it, practically putting our faith in those things which cannot ultimately deliver.

It’s okay to admit you fall prey to greed. It may just be in your thoughts, or it may limit itself to insignificant purchases that don’t do much harm. It may be a gray area, but it’s there. And I think we’d experience more freedom from it if we could just admit it.

I know it’s scary, but think about the possibility of greed next time you:

  1. Think about charging something you can’t afford.
  2. Consider taking a car loan.
  3. Spend on “wants” while living in debt.
  4. Put off giving until you’re “comfortable” or “better off.”
  5. Check your investments constantly.

We can guard ourselves against acting on greed with the following measures:

  1. Giving consistently and sacrificially.
  2. Setting a budget and sticking to it.
  3. Paying off debt as quickly as reasonable.
  4. Avoiding new consumer debt.

Anyone brave enough to admit how greed affects you? What do you do to combat it? If I’ve missed any good posts on greed, please share them!