Love it or List it: Should We Buy a Different House?

Living our best bi-level life.

We are starting to wonder if we should buy a bigger house in a fancier neighborhood. I know, I know, it’s very not-pretending-to-be-poor. It’s true! But I’m coming to you with our real-life question, and I’d love your honest advice: should we love it or list it? True to the premise of the HGTV show, one of us is more inclined to love it than the other, though thankfully it’s not a point of real contention.

First, what could make us love it?

Better use of space: Our house is definitely feeling smaller now that we have a third kid. Our house was listed at 1268 square feet, but it is somewhat bigger than that. It’s a bi-level and the upstairs is about 1000 sq. ft. Half of the basement is fully finished and the other half is partially finished.

Bi-levels have some functional perks, but our entryway is tiny and bracketed by stairs. We can’t all come in the door and take our shoes off at the same time. Seeing guests out the door is awkward. We can’t keep our coats by the door because there is no room to get ready down there, let alone with a baby and stairs every which way. And if we each have one or two pairs of shoes down they take up half the space.

The other drawback to bi-levels is that when you have stairs in the middle of the house, it really chops up the rooms. So while we do have quite a bit of space, we don’t have any large spaces. And half that space is in the basement, which doesn’t help with the baby stuff that is taking over our living room.

I don’t want to have an unrealistic expectation of what our living space needs to be. I know many people live in much smaller spaces with many more people. Neil’s grandparents raised five kids in a small bungalow, living in that house for 70 years and never “upgrading.” It’s helpful to remember that it’s totally doable, but it’s hard to directly compare to a different era. We just want to keep things in perspective as we decide what makes sense for our family, in our time and place.

Neighborhood: We don’t live in a bad neighborhood, but just a couple houses past us in one direction the neighborhood transitions into rentals. While we are all about renting when it makes sense, there are several factors that make it more difficult to build community in this mostly-rental neighborhood. Additionally, many of our beloved neighbors have moved/are moving, especially ones with kids and grandkids around the same ages as our kids. There are still nice people and kids around, including one of our son’s best friends, but most of our friends and our kids’ friends live in a different neighborhood nearby.

So, the reasons we would considering moving are: more space/different layout, and wanting to be able to build more community, especially for our kids.

What could we/are we doing to love it?

Open concept: Before we moved in, Neil renovated the kitchen and dining room, taking down several walls that partitioned it and opening it up to the living room. We are working on giving away some larger furniture, which is opening it up about as much as possible. We also got new carpet in the living room, hallway, and stairs as the old stuff was very worn. The new carpet is not only cleaner and looks more updated, it’s so much softer. I swear the baby started crawling on her knees more as soon as we got it!

Kitchen remodel. Never been this clean again.

While I abhor the entry way and it’s really one of the worst parts of the house, it would be hard to change. Expanding the entry way would require bumping out the entire front of the house, which would be expensive, involved, and in my opinion, ugly.

We continue to try to figure out better ways to use our basement space, which is partitioned into four rooms–a family room with a fireplace, a possible bedroom/office, the under-heated office/hobby room, and semi-finished mud room which leads to the laundry room. But honestly I’m drawing a blank on how to improve the downstairs beyond getting rid of stuff we’re storing down there that we don’t use.

We can’t change our neighborhood, but we can be grateful for the neighbors we do know. We are also only a mile from the nearby neighborhood where so many friends live. So seeing people requires a little more planning and a short car trip, as we have to cross a busy road without traffic lights. We continue to try to make friends by taking cookies to new neighbors and trying to make play dates with kids from the bus stop.

Our wish list for a newer house would include a larger entryway, larger living room, a fourth bedroom, and the kids being able to walk to more of their friends’ houses.

After profits from the sale of our house, buying the size/condition/layout of house we’d consider in this neighborhood would cost around $800 more per month than we’re currently paying for a 15 year mortgage. While we can afford this, it’s a big “Would You Rather?” between that and other options like retiring earlier. And of course, moving is expensive. So if furnishing and maintaining a larger house.

Is it really worth $800 a month for a little bigger living area, when we just opened up ours? And for a better neighborhood and closer proximity to more friends, when we already live so close? I can’t decide! I’ve experience how amazing it is to have the spontaneous play of lots of friends up and down the street, and I really miss that. Scheduling play dates is more time consuming and it just happens less often. Lastly, our home will appreciate more in the fancier neighborhood. So what we put into it, we will likely get out of it one day when we downsize. But that’s a long way off, not 100% guaranteed, and not our primary consideration right now.

So what do you think? Should we love it or list it? Any brainstorms for loving it?

Frugality for the Frantic

I just survived Maycember, the hectic end of school year schedule that rivals only the craziness of the holidays. Although our kids’ school calendars aren’t full of banquets and concerts just yet, this May included a weekend retreat, a family wedding, a family graduation, and a church camping trip with Neil teaching.

May’s craziness saw me valuing convenience like never before. I’m done making homemade everything and hang-drying every single sock for a while. I need fast, low-effort frugality.

So, what are the easiest, most efficient ways to save money? Or, what does it look like to stay frugal when your schedule feels frantic?

First and foremost is keeping your top 3 expenses–housing, transportation, and food–under control. Once you set yourself up to save in these areas, it’s actually pretty easy to maintain a frugal lifestyle.

Most people’s number one expense is housing. The best way to keep housing cost reasonable is to buy only what you can afford, and resist the urge to upsize unneccessarily. Conventional advice states your monthly mortgage or rent should not exceed 25% of your monthly income.

As your income increases it can be tempting to look for a bigger, better place. As our family has grown we have very much felt this draw, and perhaps someday we will need or want a different home. There are reasons we’d buy a bigger place, which I’ll discuss in a future post. But not buying at the top of what we could possibly afford, and not upgrading as soon as possible, has saved us a lot of money.

If you’re looking for a home, stick to that 25% monthly income budget for your mortgage payment. If your current place feels small, is there something you can do to rearrange? Declutter? Remodel? You can do a lot for $10,000-$20,000. Which is about what you’d probably spend just in selling your home and moving costs.

If you’re feeling stretched by your rent or mortgage, consider alternatives. Could you live with a friend or relative for a year to save up money? Could you rent a room of your house to offset mortgage costs? If you’re paying PMI, can you cut back on spending or side hustle in order to put more money toward your principle? And if you’re truly in over your head, could you consider moving to a less expensive home? Easier said than done, I’m sure, but it can yield loads of financial relief.

For more on housing, check out these articles. We like the advice of putting 20% down and choosing a 15 year mortgage if possible, for the sake of financial efficiency. But there’s more than one way to do a death pledge.

Takeaway: keep housing costs reasonable, around 25% of your income.

The second biggest cost for most people is transportation. If you live in the suburbs like us, it’s almost essential to own a vehicle or two. (If you’re making life work without one, kudos to you!) The easiest way to save on vehicle ownership is to purchase a used car in cash. We all know new cars depreciate immediately, so it makes sense to buy something at least a few years old.

If you’re in the new car camp and can’t be swayed, be the person who drives it for 15-20 years. That’s not a bad approach, but it’s a straight and narrow path not many end up following. Rather than keeping a car payment, keep a car fund. We always have what we’d need to purchase a replacement vehicle in savings. When we do buy a car, we start replenishing that fund ASAP. Avoiding a car payment means saving thousands of dollars in interest. For more on saving on cars, refer to:

Takeaway: Buy used cars, in cash. If you buy new or take a loan, drive it for as long as possible.

While housing and transportation costs can be fairly set-and-forget, food costs are more variable and can be harder to control. We all need to eat, but the options for getting sustenance are endless. The simplest, easiest way to save money on food is to eat home-cooked meals. And unfortunately, this does require some effort. But fear not, there are simple changes that can make a big dent in your food spending.

I’d encourage everyone to track their food spending. Especially restaurants, since those bad boys can really add up, even if they’re just little trips that don’t feel extravagant. Shopping at a discount grocery store can also make a big difference. Not only are the prices lower, there are often just fewer options to spend your money on. Lately I’ve also been liking grocery pick up because it reduces impulse spending and allows you to see your total and tweak your order before you check out. Well, mostly I like it can so I can be lazy. But it’s good for those other reasons too! For more info, check out the following on food savings:

Home cooking doesn’t have to look like preparing a feast from Bon Appetit recipes. Ask friends and family for their go-to easy recipes. Carve out an hour to meal plan and grocery shop. And get the other members of your household to help out, whether it’s with putting away groceries, doing the dishes, offering meal ideas, packing lunches, and of course, help cooking. My 5-year-old just shaved her first cucumber and found it fun!

Takeaway: Cook at home. Track food spending, especially restaurants. Shop discount grocery stores. And ask for help!

If you can control spending on housing, transportation, and food, you needn’t devote too much time and effort to being frugal. Naturally, you’ll want to watch out for your weaknesses when it comes to spending. Now back to that busy schedule…

Have you ever had one of the big 3 expenses get out of control? How are you recovering? How do you save money in the midst of a hectic schedule?

From “Conveniencing Ourselves to Death” to I’m Dying for Convenience!

Last year I wrote about how as a society we seem to be “Conveniencing Ourselves to Death” with everything from Keurigs to brand-new cars. My call was not to forsake all convenience, but to choose to consciously draw a line on what we are willing to pay (financially and otherwise) for convenience.

My line has moved.

I recently discovered several amazing modern conveniences: yogurt cups, frozen pizzas, the electric clothes dryer, and Walmart grocery pick up.

There was a day when I marveled at how exorbitantly expensive and eco-unfriendly things like yogurt cups and using the dryer were. I’d make my own yogurt for the cost of milk, or at least buy the big container and scoop it into portions. Now I can’t stand the thought of more cooking or dishes, and we are living the high life shelling out for yogurt cups.

There was also a time when I couldn’t handle the thought paying anything higher than ALDI prices. Now I break out in a sweat of both exertion and embarrassment as I spend what feels like an eternity clumsily trying to speed-bag a cart brimming with food, with 2+ kids in tow. Walmart, I will give you all my money if you put those yogurt cups and frozen pizzas straight into my mini-van, thank you very much! (Although I still go to ALDI to stock up on certain favorites.)

And forget pretending to be warm. We upped the thermostat to 67 degrees this winter and I didn’t have to layer myself in wool and long-underwear and still feel frigid all winter.

Not to mention we went from spending nothing on childcare for the first four years of parenting, to paying a babysitter weekly during our home church, and sometimes for dates as well.

Speaking of dates? I produce 3 meals a day, nearly every single day, for 5 people. That’s over 400 meals a month. Someone please take me out to a nice dinner once a month; I need a break! A break that’s better than frozen pizza!

Recently, when my sister needed a ride from the airport at 5 am on my other sister’s wedding day, I paypaled her for an Uber. Because I am at the point in my life where I will pay for sleep.

All this to say, the value of convenience has gone way up for me in the wake of having three kids, plus a lot else going on. While I tried finding my way back to frugal post-baby, what I really found was the value of my time and energy. I’m too busy and tired to be bagging countless pounds of groceries and hanging 5 loads of laundry per week.

I doubt the minutiae of my laundry and cooking life is of much interest to you, but here’s the takeaway: what frugal looks like depends on the season of life you’re in. And of course, how frugal you need to be.

This also means that it doesn’t make sense to compare yourself to the “extreme frugality” accounts you might read about. Frugality is not a competition. Don’t feel badly if you can’t keep up with the Frugals. That said, it’s still great to get ideas, motivation, and inspiration from one another. And if there’s no or little cost upfront, it usually doesn’t hurt to try out a thrifty strategy to see if it’s worth your while.

Lest you think we’ve completely abandoned “pretending,” tune in next week for my thoughts on the most bang-for-your-buck ways to stay frugal when life is busy!

How have your expenses changed over time? What is your favorite convenience item or service?

My Best Thrift Store Run Ever

I don’t usually post stuff like this, but I just have to bargain brag about my recent thrift store haul. Because who doesn’t like to hear the story of a good deal? #poppin’tags

As spring finally made its way to the Great Lakes, I realized I couldn’t get dressed. I had mix-matched thrift store stuff and hand-me-downs that just couldn’t be worn together. Sure, I had a few go-to basics, but I was sick of wearing the same beige fleece every day. And I’m pretty sure my husband was, too. (Though he never said it and he wears a beige fleece all the time too!)

Whenever I did try to “dress cute” I ended up looking like I was going to church. (And we don’t even “go to church” or dress up for our Bible studies.) I’m not into trendy looks and have declaimed the Futility of Fashion here. I’ve had some requests for writing about capsule wardrobes as a frugality approach, but I am not the person you want to be taking fashion advice from. But there comes a time when I want to look like I’m from this decade and 2019 seemed like a good year to catch up.

In fact, I spent my childhood purposely trying to dress a different decade or even century. There were the prairie dresses (which apparently made a couture comeback over the winter), the plaid skirts, and the saddle shoes. I was regularly asked if I was Amish or Catholic, despite being a public-school-going Protestant.

Fast forward twenty years and I just want to look normal. But the nerd is baked in so hard I always come up with “teacher” or “Easter church-goer” when getting dressed. So for inspiration I googled what grown ups, particularly soccer moms, are supposed to wear.

Of course there’s a lot of ridiculousness out there, but through a little perusing I came up with a shopping list of items I thought would allow me to make many more outfits with my existing wardrobe. My list was: denim jacket, zip-down hoodie (how did I not own one of these!?!), open front flowy cardigan, twill utility jacket, and cute tee (in order of priority). I also wanted a cap since I have sun-sensitive skin and eyes. While not looking like a freak wearing my beach hat all over my not-beach town.

I knew the thrift store was just the place for these items. I also know my tendency to obsess about getting a certain thing once I get it in my mind. And I didn’t want clothes of all things to consume me. So I did something I’d never done before. I prayed before I went in the thrift store. I earnestly prayed that I could find some of the things I was looking for quickly, but also that I wouldn’t be consumed with thinking about clothing.

In one hour, while shopping a large thrift with a baby, I found every single thing on my list for a grand total of $28. In addition to what I was looking for, as I walked past the shoes, I found a great pair of high quality “mom” sandals, and a nice pair of “dressy” nude flip flops. Both very useful additions to my shoe collection.

Here’s a pic of my haul:

Details: Gap cardigan $4; Gap hoodie $5; Old Navy utility jacket $3; J. Crew denim jacket $9; Merrell sandals $4; Bebe flip flops $3; neutral cap $1.50. Plus a cute baby hand! Not pictured: cute tee $2, which I somehow already lost while on a retreat. (These are the prices before using a $5 off coupon.)

I wore the denim jacket on a date last night and it was a hit with the hubby. Weird because I’ve never worn one! I guess anything is better than a beige fleece. Note: I bought his jacket as his Christmas gift 16 years ago!

Still nerdy, but I’ve come a long way from the prairie dresses.

My best advice for thrifting is to find a good thrift shop, learn how their discounts or coupons work, and go with a list. It’s too overwhelming to look for a lot of different categories, but when I’m looking for a particular item I can usually find it. Also, know what categories are good to find at the thrift store, and what is better to go retail. I don’t have good luck with jeans there, and I prefer to buy athletic shoes new or like-new so they’ll last longer. Tees can also be hard to sift through since you can’t tell from the side whether graphics are on the front.

I’ll never be fashionable, but I feel like I can now put together “normal” enough looking outfits without much thought. I’ve had some great thrift store finds over the years but the efficiency and success of snagging so many items I wanted in such a short time, and for such great prices, was unprecedented. The Lord provides.

Now I’m dying to hear about your best thrift store finds, clothes or otherwise. And do any ladies have some frugal fashion tips for the rest of us? Do tell!

That Time I Gave My Baby Doritos and an iPad

Sunset on Campception

Last month we traveled to Florida and camped for a week. People I mentioned this to IRL were like “Tent camping?” Yes. “Do you drive there?” Yes. It’s a little crazy, but it was a beach vacation for a family of 5 during a peak time (spring break) and it came in at $1300. That’s more than we’ve ever spent, and an astonishing amount to spend on camping, I’ll admit. But that includes 10 days of minivan rental, 7 days of camp site fees, and all of our food, gas, camp supplies, and outings during the trip. We enjoyed outings like a daddy-daughter date; a boys’ overnight backpacking trip; a day trip to a teaching zoo; a bike parade; guys night out; and ladies night out. And as always, the beach, Bojangles, and ice cream.

Bat baby loves camping

Our baby absolutely loved camping! I think she took better naps in the tent than at home. She liked the beach, the swing on the playground, watching all the big kids, and just being outside. We definitely had to make more stops on the road trip and this slowed us down but overall she was pretty happy in the car. We called it one hour from our destination because she was way overtired and crying, and we would have to set up camp in the dark, and then get three kids to bed. I’m so glad we stopped. And so glad we always have Marriott points, accumulated from years of work travel, to use for free stays.

The big kids were so excited to play with their friends all day. So much that they were a little under-parented the first couple days. It was all we could do to shove sunscreen, water, and a sandwich at them in passing. Our son and his friends took up residence in the little dell next to the bathrooms, providing a convenient opportunity to check in every couple hours. They were swinging from vines, reading Bible stories, and who knows what else.

The hike in

One highlight of the trip was that Neil took our son on his first overnight backpacking trip. Neil’s brother went, too. For the past 6 or so years, Neil has rounded up a group of friends to backpack with during one night of our trip. Someone dubbed this “campception”—a camping trip within a camping trip. He’s always wanted to take our son, and at the ripe age of 7, he was deemed old enough. This year, Neil calmly informed me, bear bags are now required for campers in the national forest where they were going. While I prayed that I wouldn’t lose three family members all at once, the boys seemed unfazed by the threat of bears. Neil promised to be careful and not leave Swedish fish in his pocket this year.

The only complication was that they needed a vehicle to get there. Usually we unload all the stuff from our car into our tent and I hitch rides. This year that felt completely overwhelming, considering the volume of stuff in both the car and the tent. And his brother’s wife had plans to visit a friend that night so she needed their rental car. They decided to rent a car, so she dropped them off at the rental car place using their rental. Rentception for campception!

Backpacking camp

If you’ve ever road-tripped with kids, you know that the last half hour is meltdown city, no matter how long or short of a trip. This was certainly true on our way home. We stopped half an hour from home to change her diaper at a gas station. She was completely beside herself that we put her back in the car seat. Out of desperation, I handed her a snack-size bag of Doritos, a “toy” she enjoyed one day during vacation. I kept looking back to make sure the bag was still sealed. Then all of a sudden I had a weird noise followed by crying. She’d burst the bag of nacho Doritos and, while she didn’t have any in her mouth, she had some of the powder on her chin and maybe got some on her tongue. She was covered in Doritos crumbs and wouldn’t stop crying even after I gave her water. My older daughter was watching the iPad in the seat next to her and I grabbed it and handed it to the baby in a frenzied attempt to calm her. She did settle down but would not give up the iPad. So the baby was watching TV while covered in Doritos. A proud parenting moment.

We made it home, wiped the Doritos out of the car seat, and I hit a new personal record for number of laundry loads in the two weeks that followed. And as usual we hit the ground running with more projects, which I’ll share soon in our Spring Burbstead update.

Do you have any upcoming travel planned? What are your tips and tricks (or fails) from road tripping?

Would You Rather?

A trending kids’ pastime is asking “Would you rather?” questions. “Would you rather meet Yoda or Harry Potter?” “Would you rather be able to fly or be invisible?” etc. I’m pretty terrible at whimsy so these might be sub-par examples, but you get the drift.

It strikes me that personal finance is like one big game of would you rather. Would you rather buy lunch out or invest the $1750 per year? Would you rather live in a bigger house or retire earlier? Would you rather by a new car or travel more?

Of course, this is severely over-simplified. The trade-off in each case represents many would-you-rathers. Maybe it’s something more like: Would you rather live in a bigger house, or have a newer car, or retire earlier, or go out to eat every day, or buy new phones or clothes or whatever you’re into, or rack up the debt….the possibilities are almost endless. And the pros and cons for each point may also carry complexity. 

But when you actually make a financial decision,  the alternatives you’re considering is often fairly finite in the moment. We’re all constantly deciding between spending, saving, and giving. Those are the three main functions of money, and it helps to think in terms of trade-offs between them.

Like the Would You Rather game, there’s often not one right way to do things. While over-spending, consumer debt, and becoming greedy are destructive, many choices boil to preference and priorities. Would you rather buy the bigger home or retire earlier? That’s largely a matter of preference and/or values. And for us, seeking God’s wisdom in big decisions is important.

One problem with Would You Rather when it comes to personal finance is when we can’t see the third option. We easily become blind to one of the three functions of money and fail to consider a whole category. It’s not would you rather A or B, but would you rather A, B, or C?

It’s a constant balancing act, choosing how much of our money to give, save and spend. And there’s no universal formula for it. But if your financial plan is all but missing one of these, or is heavily weighted toward one, you might not be seeing all the options.

It would be exhausting (and impossible) to consider all the possibilities, the would-you-rathers, with each financial choice we make. At the same time, we’ll miss out if we don’t see the options. Because when you don’t see the alternative, you don’t feel like you’re making a choice at all. You think you’re doing what you have to do. Sometimes there’s only one good choice—like paying the electric bill. And sadly there are times when people run out of good options. But for all those gray areas that we encounter daily, let’s try to open our eyes to the trade-offs, the balancing act between spending, saving, and giving.

By balance, I don’t mean to suggest we’re going to get it “right.” But hopefully by thoughtful consideration, we can come to an arrangement that we’re happy with. Weighing these three areas is a helpful way to talk about money if you’re married, and a great lesson in trade-offs for kids.

Just make sure to start it out with “Would you rather…”

What Would You Rather are you considering?

Tips & Tricks for a Thrifty Camping Vacation

Camping is one of the best ways to vacation for less. Campsites are very affordable, even in beautiful, expensive-to-vacation areas like beach towns. A campsite offers a true room with a view, more space than a hotel room, and lots of fun, free or cheap activities for families right within the camp ground.

Of course there are other ways to vacation cheaply, like travel hacking. And we do some of that. But camping is good for the soul. And it’s especially good for kids.

There is a bit of a learning curve to camping. Here are the tips and tricks I’ve picked up over 16 years of tenting it.

  1. Grocery pickup: This year, I’m going to do something incredibly un-rugged, and I couldn’t be more stoked about it. I’m doing Walmart grocery pick up for my shopping while on vacation. I think this is a great hack for many travel scenarios. Pluses include: not getting overwhelmed, forgetting a bunch of stuff, and also making unnecessary impulse purchases while trying to shop with three kids and a husband. We’ll save time, and the last thing the kids want to do is go grocery shopping the first day of vacation. While I’m not a huge Walmart fan in general, order pickup is great for these scenarios, and it’s convenient that I can make the order ahead of time, modify it until the night before, and get things like diapers and camp supplies as well.
  2. Coffee: if you think I’m overzealous about camping, don’t get me started on coffee! I need it so bad, especially while sleeping in a tent with three children! There are lots of ways to make coffee while camping, but the easier, cheapest, and least breakable option for me is this $7 pour-over product. Walmart, give me some of those #2 filters while you’re at it. If you drink it by the pot, go for a percolator (non-electric) or inexpensive coffee maker (for electric sites).
  3. Glamping: on some trips, we have electricity. And let me tell you, we make good use of it. For these trips, we bring a small, old “hot pot” a.k.a. a simple electric kettle. We use this for all our water boiling needs–for tea, coffee (see above), oatmeal, ramen, and even for heating the baby’s bath water. And it significantly cuts down the amount of propane we use on our camp stove.
  4. Don’t unpack: We store a camping box or two in our garage, and they’re always stocked with our mobile kitchen, paper products, propane, and other necessities for camping. I also leave little things like a hat, quarters, a deck of cards, a laundry line, a rain poncho, hand warmers, and toilet paper in our duffel bag all year young. These could come in handy on just about any trip so why unpack them?
  5. Beach supplies: the beach is so much more fun when you’re well prepared. We’ve always brought a beach blanket (just an old ugly comforter that’s handy in our car all year for emergencies, picnics, and beach days). Since having kids, we’ve added this nifty beach umbrella to our stash and it is sooo worth it. It’s great to have a shady place to retreat–especially for pale folk like me and the kids. We also bring a puddle jumper, a basket of cheap beach toys, and a good mini metal shovel for epic sand digging. Lastly, I keep a swim bag with towels, swim suits, sunscreen, and goggles packed all year. It makes getting out the door (or tent) to swim so much easier.
  6. Meal swap: we often camp with friends, and usually team up with 2-3 other families to take turns making meals. This obviously reserves more vacation time for vacationing rather than cooking, without having to go out to eat. But it’s also great because it streamlines grocery shopping. We don’t need to buy a ton of different ingredients for different meals, only to end up throwing away extras at the end of the week. This high chair is great for trips because it folds up small and fits on any table.
  7. Packing list: I have a spreadsheet listing all the stuff we need to camp for a week, including grocery items and meal ideas. Though I tweak it from year to year depending on the kids’ ages and needs, it saves time not to start from scratch on my packing list each year.
  8. Road trip ideas: we download audio books, music, and movies for the kids ahead of time via library apps like Libby and Hoopla, and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. We also save by packing some snacks and sandwich stuff to augment the fast food stops (because we have to stop at Bojangles on our way south).
  9. Travel hack hotel stops: on our way back we stop at a hotel that we book using hotel points rewards. You can accumulate these by using credit cards, or if you stay at hotels frequently for work and sign up for a rewards program with a particular chain.
  10. Excursions: once a year we camp in Florida, and some friends have taken the opportunity to do a less-expensive, one-day Disney visit. It’s not the same thing as an extended stay inside the park, but it scratches the Disney itch while saving massively on accommodations. We have yet to take the Disney plunge, but Neil took our son to Kennedy Space Center last year, and there are plenty of other great tourist options within driving distance.

I hope at least one of these ideas helps you on your next camping trip! Wish us luck on our first trip with three kids, and please share your tips and tricks below!

Redeeming Money Book Review

In a world of Dave Ramseys and Suzy Ormans bossing you about what to do with your money, it’s nice to read a personal finance book that doesn’t make one single practical suggestion about what to do with your money.

It’s nice, and maddening. All at the same time. Paul David Tripp’s 2018 Redeeming Money: How God Reveals and Reorients our Hearts is big-picture, philosophy over practicality. It’s about a book about your relationship with money. And the only to-do takeaway is to consider what money reveals about what your heart truly loves. The intended audience is Christians.

But this isn’t just another Christian money book explaining Bible verses or defining stewardship (although it does). The real thrust is to get you thinking about the gaps between what you believe about money and how you live–and the why behind this breakdown. He looks at this from several angles, including how we spend based on how we view ourselves (identity); how we view this world vs. eternity, and the purpose we’re living for–our glory, or God’s glory.

Tripp breaks identity into four components. He says we’re creatures–not the Creator–and this is why we should view ourselves as stewards, not owners. We’re also sinners living in a fallen world, and this means that the tool of money is used in broken ways, and also that it cannot fix our broken world. He describes this as being sufferers. We can spend on comfort, convenience, and pleasure, but we can’t spend our way out of all suffering. Lastly, we are “saints,” i.e., believers and followers of Jesus can be changed by God’s power to use money in ways that are in line with God’s value and bring Him glory.

My favorite part of this book is how he relates money to satisfaction and eternity. We all want to feel satisfied, happy, content, and this drives much of our over-spending. If we could accept that complete satisfaction will not happen this side of paradise, we may be better able to reign in the spending whilst also investing in God’s eternal kingdom through generous giving.

Though he doesn’t make this connection, this point relates closely to the financial independence/early retirement movement. I’ve thought before about how for those who long for early retirement, what you really want is heaven. You want to be able to do productive, meaningful work with freedom, with ample resources, and without having to worry about significant time restraints. Sounds a lot like eternity to me.

My main critique of the book is that he used over-spending and debt as his examples of misuse of money, without talking nearly as much about the pitfalls of a wealth-building obsession (when that wealth is built but not over-spent). Being miserly, overly focused on saving/investing, or driving too hard toward financial goals such as debt payoff or retirement can be equally dangerous. These could have used more attention, even just as examples and illustrations.

The greatest strength of the book is that he tries to address the underlying problems, rather than just telling you to make a budget, save for emergencies, or invest in index funds. There’s a time and place for both types of advice, but dealing with the underlying issues of the heart will take you a lot further in carrying out practical steps.

Like all Tripp books, he belabors some points with excessive lists of rhetorical questions and redundant sentence structures. It’s annoying in a literary sense, but I keep coming back for more because his content is good. And best of all, he gets grace–hence the title. I like that he makes a play on the word “redeem,” which we use to mean make something useful out of something wasn’t. But it also has a financial sense: purchasing a slave’s freedom. His overarching, hopeful message is that God in his grace can take any person and any financial situation and redeem it if we will surrender our money and our hearts to Him. Maybe that doesn’t look like you get out of debt fast, or you retire when you want. But He can help us stop being enslaved to our longings and the spending (or saving) that comes with them.

What’s the best money book you’ve read lately? What do you believe is the connection between our money and what we love most?

Nothing Parties Like a Rental (Car)

To rent or not to rent?

To rent or not to rent a car for a road trip? As our annual 2000-mile road trip/camping vacation approaches, we’ve been crunching the numbers on car rentals.

For most of the last seven years, we’ve rented for the trek as part of our frugal approach to car ownership. We drive older cars and Neil does almost all the maintenance and repairs himself. So we usually rent in order to avoid the wear and tear of such a long journey. It’s a strategic move, carefully calculated to save money in the long run. And of course it doesn’t suck to enjoy a nice, new ride on vacation.

Yet our “new” van feels so luxurious and road-trip-ready, we both felt the itch to bypass renting this year. Reality check: our “new” van is actually 13 years old and has around 150,000 miles. Even if it were brand-new, would it make sense to drive it that far?

Here’s how we see it: if the cost of wear and tear on your vehicle is greater than the cost or renting (or even close), it makes sense to spare your daily ride and rent instead. How can you calculate the cost of wear and tear? The government currently pays $0.58 per mile which includes fuel. Subtract the cost of fuel for your vehicle and you have approximate wear and tear. Or AAA estimates around $0.61 including fuel and insurance.

Our van gets around 22 miles per gallon. If gas costs around $2.20 right now, we’ll spend about $0.10 per mile on fuel, leaving $0.48 per mile of wear and tear. So that’s:

$0.58 – (Price of gas per gallon/miles per gallon) = price of wear and tear per mile.

Multiply that by the total number of miles for your approximate cost of driving your own vehicle.

Or if that seems too rich, take a highly conservative estimate of $0.25 wear and tear per mile. Maybe you won’t spend as much on vehicle maintenance because you DIY. Or maybe your own car gets way better gas mileage than what you’d rent. Even with the more conservative figure, it rarely makes sense to drive your own vehicle on very long trips.

For our van, we’d put somewhere between $500 to $960 worth of wear during a 2,000 trip. We can definitely rent a car for less than $500 for our 10-day trip.

While renting a car sounds like an extra and unnecessary expense, it can really reduce the cost of car ownership throughout the year (and over the life of the vehicle). And if you DIY, you’ll also be spreading out the impact of the time you spend working on your vehicle. Breaking down on a long trip is always inconvenient–but much more so if you’ve got to stop and fix your own vehicle, rather than just swap out one rental for another.

And of course it’s quite a luxury to drive a newer vehicle that’s loaded with features. It makes vacation a little more fun. Plus we enjoy not needing to give it a deep cleaning and oil change immediately upon returning from camping and driving 2000 miles with little kids!

How can you save on the cost of renting? We’ve found that renting an SUV is much less expensive than renting a minivan. Until this year, we’ve fit into an SUV. This year with 3 kids plus camping gear we’ll have to splurge on the minivan rental. But using a Costco discount we were able to rent for $420–still coming in under the conservative estimate of $500 cost of driving our car.

In the past, we’ve saved by cashing in travel rewards from renting cars for work, or collected rental car company coupons throughout the year (also from work). Like so many things, it’s best to shop around, look for coupons or promotions, and book in advance.

Our camping vacation is rather expensive and inefficient in many ways, but our $420 vehicle rental (the most we’ve ever spent) is still cheaper than flying 4 people to our destination. And driving means we can bring all our camping gear, and our camp site cost for the week equals 1-2 nights in a hotel in the same city.

We do hope to be able to fit in an SUV again in a couple years when we’re not bringing a pack n play, stroller, infant carrier, and high chair along. We’ll see if we’re ever able to downsize again!

Have you ever considered renting a car to save money? Do you have any trips coming up?

Finding Our Way Back to Frugal

What was your New Year’s Resolution? Did you break it yet?

I didn’t make any this year, but I do see the value of getting back into healthy habits after eating too many Christmas cookies, staying up late, or spending more than usual during the holidays.

In the same way, we put some of our normal frugal habits on hold surrounding the birth of our third child. There were take-out pizzas and Great Clips haircuts. I bought more convenience grocery items than usual. I bought retail clothes when I didn’t have time to sift through secondhand. We turned up the A/C (it was 95 degrees the week she was born) and used the dryer rather than hanging clothes. Our entertainment spending increased during Neil’s babybatical when he took a month off and treated the older kids to epic fun. And recently when the kids were home sick or for snow days, I enjoyed using Walmart grocery delivery–when free delivery was available, but I still tipped and spent a little more on certain items.

Do I regret any of this? No! But just as it’s easy to keep eating too much sugar well after the holidays have passed, it’s easy to forsake frugal habits forever. Thus a busy time when conveniences are necessary can slide into small-scale lifestyle inflation. And while some increased expenses are par for the course with a growing family, I’ve felt like it’s time to return to some of of our former habits.

Will we retire early by hanging clothes or making homemade yogurt? Hardly. Or budget, let alone future plans, do not rely on the small savings from these tasks. I will gladly abandon them again as needed. But to me there is something healthy and hearty about not losing sight of the types of little tasks that added up to getting out of debt, and getting the investment ball rolling.

Admittedly, I have the time to do some of these things because I’m a STAHM. If I only had a couple hours at home with my kids each day, you better believe I’d spend more on convenience. But if I have the time, and I’m not focusing on career or income right now, it makes sense to save money where I can. It’s also a great way to model throwback thrift for the kids and get them involved. I mean, how many kids know making yogurt or bread is even a possibility?

These habits won’t make us rich, but they do keep us grounded. Viewing small things like a comfy thermostat setting, ordering a pizza, and going on fun outings as luxuries helps calibrate realistic expectations in both us and our kids. When holiday over-spending and over-eating becomes the norm in the new year, it leads to problems. The same can be true of seasons of increased spending if we lose sight of a thriftier lifestyle.

We’ll continue to stay flexible, choosing convenience when that supports our greater values of relationships and following God. And we’ll keep saving big with Neil’s DIY skills, and by avoiding major expenses such as car payments or a big mortgage. I hope these small savings support our overall mindset of avoiding excess, enjoying small luxuries, and building gratitude for the abundance we’ve been blessed with.

What are some frugal habits that you practice? Have you ever 

put them on  hold for a season?