The Perils of Personal Finance Blogging

When I started a personal finance blog, I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew I wanted to help people with personal finance. I liked to write and had a knack for frugality. I wanted to bring a spiritual, biblical perspective to personal finance topics.

I also knew that the personal finance blogosphere was pretty crowded, and that good bloggers comment on other people’s blogs.

What I didn’t realize was just how time-consuming and thought-consuming blogging could be. For a while it felt like I spent hours fussing over each post, proof-reading, trying to find the perfect words, image, and points to convey my message. And reading and commenting on others’ blogs was fun but overwhelming. I could spend all my free time on it and still barely scratch the surface of what was out there.

While I never set out to “build a successful blog,” more people started reading and commenting. As the daily views rose, so too did my concern with growth. Could this month exceed last months’ views? It was a peripheral but persistent thought. Plus lots of other bloggers write about blogging. How was their blog growing? What income was it earning? Should I pursue the freelance writing opportunities blogging can open the door to?

Career is also a natural topic for personal finance bloggers to cover. Here I was, someone who never put career first, and left paid work entirely after the birth of our second child. Even with PF bloggers communicating respect for SAHMs, I felt like a failure. Why hadn’t I taken my career more seriously (I knew the answer)? What was I going to do when my kids are in school? Would I have any decent career options left to me after years out of the work force?

Still years away from the point when we decided I’d go back to work, I found myself worrying about work. It took time and prayer to convince myself that my season at home was not the time to fret about work. I kept praying Galatians 6:14 “that my interest in the world would die, and the world’s interest in me would die.”

I’m not blaming other blogs for my worries. My brain naturally hangs onto what I read, mulls it over, and makes a case for or against adopting a philosophy or advice. This has led to some of my most popular posts, as well as personal angst. Because sometimes I inadvertently hang onto others’ messages even after I decide they’re not for me.

I knew something had to change. So I chose to stop reading posts about blogging. I chose to stop reading posts about side hustling. I chose to stop reading bloggers whom I simply couldn’t relate to, or who came off overly dogmatic. The hordes of childless twenty-somethings attempting lifestyle topics sounds a little passe to a sometimes-cynical mother. As I stopped steeping my mind in personal finance articles, I found myself increasingly at peace with my season in life. And my blog.

At the beginning of the year, I decided to read only my favorite blogs, and then only when I have time. I decided I could repost old posts if I didn’t have time to write. It often feels like this site is one week away from extinction. Will I have a topic? Will anyone care? Part of the struggle was I no longer knew who my audience was. Or rather, I had two different audiences simultaneously in mind: the people I knew IRL, and the people (mostly bloggers) who comment here.

So with the turn of the year I also decided to write primarily what would be helpful to people I know. Most PF bloggers don’t actually need more financial advice.

There are other dangers with personal finance blogs: taking major financial advice from non-professionals, getting obsessed with money or a certain lifestyle, looking at only one side of an issue, or getting caught up in the comparison game. For the most part, those just didn’t happen to be my struggle.

Do you want to know what happened when I stopped spending so much time thinking and writing about personal finance?

My readership stats went down. And I didn’t care.

I got fewer comments. And I didn’t mind.

I enjoyed the blogs I did read more. It no longer felt like an obligation, but a pastime.

I stopped worrying about work and focused more on my kids.

I read books instead of blogs posts. Lots more books than I had been reading. Books about parenting, marriage, ministry, and spiritual growth. Books with full, complete arguments instead of 500-word ones. And even fiction!

I grew more confident in our financial choices, including the fact that we keep our plans and goals flexible in order to follow God’s plans.

I’ll never have the most successful or profitable blog—and that’s fine with me. I didn’t set out for that, I got a little lost along the way, and I’m glad I found my way back to my purpose.

What topics would be most helpful to ya’ll readers? What do you tend to be more interested in—“how” posts or “why” posts?

Are You Addicted to Free?

As my birthday approaches, this thought started popping into my mind: “I should register that Starbucks gift card I got so I can get a free drink. Maybe I could sign up for Dunkin Donuts perks too, now that I have smartphone. I wonder what other free treats I could get?

The parents I know (including myself) are always sharing how to get the kids free treats, free (new) small toys, free tickets to events…all the local free offerings. I like free stuff as much as the next person. Probably more. And I appreciate it when people tell me how to get free stuff.

I’ve done my share of sharing how to get freebies here. I openly embrace the following forms of free:

  • All things library—normal circulation and also summer reading prizes. Summer = summer reading program to me.
  • Hand-me-downs—they’re simply the best.
  • Trash-picking—if it’s something you need or really want, and it’s not just clutter, why not?
  • Credit card rewards—we are happy to collect some free hotel stays and occasionally flights through our normal spending and the business travel expenses we have to charge.

But regarding the birthday treats, I’m saying no. If I want to splurge on a special coffee that day, fine. Four dollars is not going to change my life. And I’ll pass on the kids’ birthday clubs, too. The $3 Toys R Us coupon is, we all know, just a seduction to spend much more than that. Though, quite preciously, my 3-year-old chose to use hers on a $5 water bottle. Gotta love a practical kid!

Add to the list “free” items offered by overpriced stores, “free” items that are more than 5 miles from my home, buy-one-get-one “free” items when the first is overpriced or just unnecessary, “free” store credit coupons when they create a cycle of needless spending, “free” shipping when you spend an astronomical sum that negates all the “good” prices you’ve found, and “free” giveaways that require you to sell your personal information and convince all your Facebook friends to do the same.

Why am I such a Scrooge? Who doesn’t want free stuff?

I want my time more than I want to sit in a drive-thru line or fill out online surveys because I feel obligated by “free.”

I want my brain power more than I want to remember to sign up, carry around, use before expiry, and unsubscribe from ceaseless marketing, all in the name of free.

I want my money more than I want to buy each kid a treat when anyone in the family has a free birthday treat.

I want peace more than I want to deal with telling them no, you can’t have a treat, when someone else gets one. Maybe this will get easier once everyone is out of preschool, but it’s just not worth it at this juncture.

I want freedom more than I want to be tied to driving around to get all this free stuff.

But even more importantly, I want to choose a contentment that doesn’t rely on a special freebies to keep me happy. I want to stay free from the cycle of treating myself, or my kids, on a regular basis. I want our daily lives to be rewarding enough that we enjoy what we already have instead of always needing something more.

And sometimes we make better choices about consumption when money has to change hands. Most of the free items on offer aren’t exactly the most healthy or high-quality items. Chances are you’ll be trying to lose that unnecessary weight from your body or your home before long.

The other glaring problem with “free” is that it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Let’s be crystal clear here: stores are not handing out free items because they’re expecting to lose money on it. So often, that freebie comes with a coupon for a percent of your next purchase. Or a catalog full of wonderful “sale” items. Not to mention the freebies are of course funded by other consumers–including you whenever yours isn’t free.

And if that special treat doesn’t leave you hankering for another one next week, you’re an unusual person. We all know it’s a marketing ploy to get you hooked, and maybe even feeling goodwill toward this benevolent company that graced you with a freebie. Next week’s treat feels justified—even feels like it’s half-price. After all, last time it was free. And if you just buy five more, the next one is free!

Next time you get a BOGO coupon for something you weren’t going to buy in the first place, tear it up. Break the cycle of addiction to free. Enjoy “free” selectively, when it doesn’t infringe on your time, thoughts, spending, and habits.

Have you ever found yourself caught up in the “freebie” cycle? Which freebies are worthwhile to you? 

Saving Hacks For Summer Fun with Kids

One way to save: vacation during hurricane season!

Are other mom’s fun-filled Facebook posts leaving you feeling lame? Maybe you can’t—or choose not to—afford all the most expensive children’s attractions and high-end vacations this summer. That certainly doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with your kids and make great memories.

We strike a balance somewhere between a zero entertainment budget and heedless spending on all things fun. We also fall between the extremes of a frenzied death march of “fun” outings, and confining ourselves to the backyard.  Here’s what we spend on summer fun by employing the art of the alternative plus a few hacks. And don’t miss my tips on the children’s museum membership you must get.

Swimming

Nothing says summer vacation like swimming. I was beyond lucky to have grandparents with a pool who lived just a few miles away. If you’re not so blessed, there are often many wonderful alternatives to expensive pool memberships. Believe me—I’ve found them all because 1. Our city doesn’t have a pool and 2. The closest private pools cost $400 or more to join!

For the little ones, check out local splash pads and wading pools. We frequent neighboring cities who have these amenities. My kids also love playing in the sprinkler, kiddie pool ($12, local auction site), playing with the hose, creating a slip and slide from things we already have, and water balloon fights. And no, we don’t live in the desert. I figure  my infrequent showering make up for what we’re wasting.

We’ve also been known to sign up for a free 2-week trial at local fitness centers that feature a pool in order to get a few swims in. If each parent does this at different times, you could get more free visits.

Last year when my son took swim lessons, I took my daughter swimming. I just tried to stay where he couldn’t see me. Our local library also offers three story times at a local pool throughout the summer. After the story time you can swim for as long as you want.

This year we signed up for a pass to a local lake. The summer pass for me and my two kids was a mere $45. I’m a pool girl at heart, but $45 instead of $400? The pool can’t be 10 times better!

The last two years, we’ve received free water park tickets from friends. A normal one-day admission for one person runs $70, but we went for the price of renting a locker.

So that’s how we swim. Here’s how we zoo.

Zoos

Let me just confess that I hate the zoo. Maybe because growing up, my family only ever went to the Tucson Zoo in July.

Maybe it’s because you walk and walk and walk and walk, pushing a stroller with no kid in it, chasing kids who are complaining about all the walking. Only to have them look at the animals for five seconds before going to smell fake animal poop (true story). Or watch other kids walk by. And then ask for snacks. Again.

Maybe it’s because when you leave the zoo you’re always so hungry, thirsty, tired, sweaty, and have to pee sooo bad, and the kids are in a similar state, except they might wear diapers.

Nevertheless, I take my kids to the zoo. I have two great hacks for buying zoo passes at this zoo. I don’t know if they’ll work at your zoo, but it’s worth looking into.

  1. Buy a companion pass instead of a family pass. We buy a pass for two named adults and a specified number of unnamed children. The twist is that the adults aren’t my husband and me. Instead, a friend and I are on the pass, plus 7 kids (random). Then, we pay $5 extra for an unlimited one guess pass. So with each visit, we can bring a guest. We don’t have to go together, and if we bring our husbands they are covered by the pass. And if I want to bring a friend and her kids, they’re also covered by the guest pass. For this we each pay $50 for the year.
  2. Buy a pass every other year. At the beginning of last July I purchased a pass that is good until the end of this July. It covers the better part of two summers. Which is fine for me, because did I mention I actually hate the zoo? So I’ve spend $50 on zoo passes in the last four years.

Most zoos offer reciprocal memberships wherein you can visit other zoos (fml) for half-price. We’ve done this sparingly, but our $50 zoo pass has saved us close to that much on admission at larger (fml) zoos.

Museums and Science Centers

Now we’ve come to the real gem. Here it is: buy a membership to a podunk museum like this one, and inherit the most amazing reciprocal museum and science center admission benefits. Check the list of reciprocal memberships to determine 1.) if there is a closer museum to you with inexpensive membership prices and 2.) if there are museums/centers near where you live OR near where you plan to vacation.

We have visited the museum we hold the membership to exactly once in the last year. We have saved around $200 on other museum and science center admissions, mainly while on vacation.

The bottom line: find the cheap museums and zoos with awesome reciprocal benefits.

Vacationing

We are able to take more family vacations because we travel affordably by camping. It means we drive instead of fly, cook instead of going out, and pay $100-200 per week instead of per night for lodging. We tend to camp near beaches—oceans or Great Lakes will do—and bike, hike, swim, do campfires, and visit local attractions. And my kids are still excited by playgrounds.

We also use travel rewards for flights and hotel stays, but with a family of four who has fairly low expenses, we don’t rack them up fast enough to be jaunting off to the Caribbean regularly.

There you have it–all my best tips and tricks for saving on summer fun. Now it’s your turn:

What are you tips for saving on summer fun? What are the best value memberships or passes that you hold?

Chasing Chickens: Summer on the Burbstead

If You Can't Outrun It, Outsmart It

“Mom, there’s a chicken in the front yard!” my son ran in from playing in the back yard to report. I left my guests for a moment and went outside to find two chickens on the loose.  One chicken escaped our closed gate and was in the side yard. Another was all the way in the neighbor’s backyard. I got the one if the side yard back using my only chicken-herding technique: walk behind it in the direction you want it to go. Apparently chickens don’t like being stalked.

I headed over to the neighbor’s yard, counting on this method to work again. This would require opening the neighbor’s gate. I thanked God their two Great Danes weren’t out—and I was expressing gratitude on my behalf, not the chickens’—and hoped the neighbors wouldn’t notice. We never see them, and I have no idea what they might think of my suburban chicken-chasing antics.

To my great dismay, the fence was zip-tied shut. No doubt for the Great Danes. Now, I don’t mind jumping a fence one bit. But the zip-tied fence meant that I was not going to be able to use my one, sure-fire chicken-herding method. And I do mind catching and carrying full-size chickens.

Lest you think I’m some hardy, homesteading type of gal, let me set you straight. I am not comfortable around any animals except my own children. I can scarcely tell a weed from a plant. Actually, I can’t. I prematurely pulled a garlic plant Neil put in our front flower bed.

Sure, I pick up the chickens when they’re babies. Even toddlers. But after they hit that awkward, adolescent chicken stage, I try not to touch them. So here I am, chasing a squawking, flapping chickens around my neighbor’s yard, trying to dodge piles of Great Dane poop while my kids watch me.

And if you didn’t know, chickens are fast. Especially these free-rangers. I asked my son to get me a bucket to catch it in so I wouldn’t have to touch it. It quickly became clear that wasn’t going to work. My son offered to try. Good burbstead boy! I went inside to get his shoes (because poop), and when I came back the chicken was nowhere to be seen.

I imagined the poor, lonely chicken roaming the neighborhood, regretting his own wanderlust. I looked down the street but there was no sign on him. Oh well, I thought, there’s nothing for it now.

I described the incident to Neil when he got home. He went out back, counted the chickens, and insisted they were all accounted for. Gulliver had found his way home.

The Black Rangers breed was much more interesting than our previous breed. But the longer we had the chickens, the bolder they became. One day they climbed the deck stairs and pooped all over the deck. We had to start barricading the bottom of the stairs with lawn chairs. Three of them escaped the gate again before we realized they were squeezing under, and secured it with rocks.

But this was just the beginning of our chicken-chasing ventures. Neil arrived home from work on a 90-degree day with 15 minutes to load up the chickens and take them to the friend’s farm where he processes them. We chicken-proofed the back of our station wagon since our trusty Farm Focus was replaced with the $200 Scion XB, which has a lot less room in the back.

Neil corralled the chickens into the box quickly by putting food in it—something they don’t normally get on slaughtering day. He had only managed to get a couple to the car when our son jumped into the box when its door was open, and they all ran out. At that point they knew something was up and weren’t going to flock back into the box. Neil, wearing his winter boots that double as muck boots, tried chasing them but we quickly learned just how fast chickens are.

“If anyone can see this, they must be laughing their heads off,” Neil remarked.

Two days later our neighbor posted the theme featured above.

We worked together to use our chicken-herding technique, cornering them in positions Neil could grab them. After what felt like an eternity, he had wrangled them all into the station wagon and was off.

In related news, Neil “accidentally” purchased a chicken coup off a local auction site. It was a steal, and we could use it for our meat birds next summer, but getting layers is also on the table. If they’re as ornery as the male Black Rangers, I’m not sure I’m up for it. At the same time, it was a lot more fun having chickens that explored instead of just eating and pooping in the same place every day.

If you’re wondering, raising our own chickens costs about the same as buying whole chickens at the store, and much less than purchasing local, humanely-raised birds. For answers to all your burning questions about backyard chickens, including the price calculations, please see Are You Too Chicken? To Raise Backyard Chickens.

For more on our suburban “homesteading” endeavors, see Rocking the Burbstead: How We’re Homesteading on 0.1 Acre.

And why do we do this crazy stuff? Check out How Do You Uncube? A Philosophy of Hobbies.

Would you ever consider raising backyard chickens? What do you think–should we get layers for eggs? 

Myths That Make Us Less Generous

Some people don’t invest much because it feels complicated.

Some people don’t give much because it feels complicated. How much to give? Where to give? How do I know the money will help the people it’s intended for? And so much more.

My hope is to unlock the generous potential in people by dispelling a few misconceptions that become barriers to charitable giving. Here goes…

  1. Generosity is irresponsible.

Can people give money away to the point of failing to provide for their own family? Yes. Do people sometimes get scammed out of their money, thinking it’s going to a good cause? Yes. Of course this does not mean that all or most charitable giving is irresponsible.

It’s entirely possible to give responsibly and generously, even on a small income or while paying off debt. Don’t confuse “generosity” with “giving away gobs of money.” I find working with percentages helpful here. For example, perhaps while you’re a student you could choose to give away 5% of your income. Once you have full-time employment you could work your way up to 10%.

  1. Generosity is enabling.

Unfortunately, there are “charities” that are completely bogus and just out to steal your money. Usually with a bit of research you can sniff these out. What’s sometimes more confusing are the well-meaning groups who provide types of “help” that are not actually helpful. Hand-outs that protract the poverty cycle, assistance that’s culturally inappropriate, and gifts that don’t uphold people’s dignity all fall under this category. Two thoughts on sifting through these factors:

  1. Do you know what fees you’re paying on your investment accounts? Do you know what rate of return you’re averaging? Good! If we care enough to do a little homework with our investments, it only makes sense to see how our charitable investments can be expected to perform. Ask questions, get personal recommendations, read ratings web sites, and consider volunteering or observing the work if possible in order to get a good read on whether the group is helping or hurting.
  2. Don’t get paralyzed. Finding the “right” organization to give to can easily hold up the practice of generosity. I know it did for us. To get the ball rolling, consider giving to a group that is providing disaster relief, such as the Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse. It’s hard to argue against helping out during a natural disaster.

3. Generosity comes from excess.

Perhaps this is the most pervasive and perilous myth about generosity: I’ll give when I have more. When I get my big-girl job. When I get that next promotion. When I’m comfortable. In the same way that we chase more money for ourselves, we also tend to think we’ll become more generous when we have more. Meanwhile, studies show the poor are more charitable than the wealthy.

When I was in high school and college, I had very little income and gave away a minuscule amount of money. That pittance didn’t change anyone’s life—except mine. This early practice of giving set the course for a lifelong assumption of generosity which has informed all our financial decisions, from which college to attend, to what degree to pursue, to the home we purchased. We’ve made our share of mistakes, but at the end of the day, we’ve always been in a position to give because we made a habit of it before we had much.

Fifteen years later, I’m certainly not giving away a fortune. But the quiet, consistent giving year after year has added up to enough to make a difference in several lives. For us non-millionaires, consistency is the way to go when it comes to philanthropy.

If you want a big impact on a limited budget, consider funding a micro-credit loan (scroll down to find) to help a person in poverty get training and funding to start a small business. They even receive financial training to help them earn a profit and repay. And here’s the cool part—once they pay back their loan, that money goes toward funding another micro-loan. Talk about a ripple effect!

4. Generosity is interchangeable with volunteering.

“Time is money, so giving away time and money are interchangeable.” Sorry, but that’s just bad logic. If your boss offered to pay you in home repairs, that barter might work out for a pay period, should you happen to need repairs. (Who doesn’t?) But by next pay period, you’re going to need money to pay the bills and buy groceries. Same goes for organizations that accept volunteers and financial gifts—and the people or causes they serve. No one can get by on helping hands alone. That’s simply not how life works.

I commonly see people switch the topic from giving money to giving time, as if they’re somehow synonymous. They’re not. We should do both and talk about both, but let’s not excuse ourselves from generosity by volunteering.

  1. Generosity feels good.

We all know generosity isn’t about the giver, yet I write posts like “Get Rich with Generosity” and cite studies showing how people who give away 10% of their income are happier. It’s interesting research, but if we’re giving in order to receive we could be sorely disappointed. Sometimes giving doesn’t feel good. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like anything. And sometimes it’s better than the best shopping high.

The problem enters when we decide how, where, and when to give based solely on our emotions. I want to keep a compassionate heart that responds to needs in the moment. But if my generosity is limited to random acts of kindness, I’m bound to have less impact on others than if I make a thoughtful choice to partner with a charity for the long haul.

 

If you’ve read this far, you probably care about being a generous person. There’s no one right way to be generous, and there’s so much more to generosity than what we’ve touched on here. But the greatest danger isn’t that people won’t give anything at all, but that they’ll come short of how generous they could be. This is always my concern for myself in this area. I’ll leave you with a verse that has motivated me not to neglect this important area:

You do well in everything else. You do well in faith and in speaking. You do well in knowledge and in complete commitment. And you do well in the love we have helped to start in you. So make sure that you also do well in the grace of giving to others.” (2 Corinthians 8:7, emphasis mine.)

What other misconceptions about generosity have you heard? What did you have to wrestle through in order to start giving away money?

Counting the Cost of Generosity

Perhaps you’ve heard that Warren Buffet calculates the cost of purchases in terms of what that money could yield in the stock market over many years. It’s a different way of thinking that can turn that daily lunch out into a $150,000 proposition. Last we looked at the art of the alternative—the idea that we can often find similar, less expensive options that allow us to have our financial cake and eat it, too.

But this week, let’s count the cost of a different type of spending: giving away money. Most people agree it’s good to be generous. People have widely different approaches to how, where, and what amount to give. But one thing we all ought to do is count the cost of our generosity.

For example, if you give away 10% of your income, how does that deflate your lifestyle? What kind of car could you be driving? What kind of upgrade could you have in your home, what you eat, or your vacation plans?

What might your investments look like after 30 years of an extra 10% monthly contribution? How might your net worth change if channeled that “extra” money into debt payoff? How different might your kids’ college funds looks?

This exercise isn’t meant to be self-congratulatory. Instead, it’s a great way to give wholeheartedly, with eyes and “pocketbooks” wide open. It’s valuable to fully understand what the trade-off is and deem it completely worthwhile to give instead of keeping it all for yourself. Without counting the cost, it’s easy to give rotely, perhaps because it’s the “right” thing to do–which is good, but might fall short of giving cheerfully and enthusiastically.

We’ve counted the cost of our generosity. We know what our giving means in terms of net worth growth or what kind of car we could drive. And our conclusion isn’t to give ourselves a pat on the back, but to affirm what a good investment we are making through giving. It’s a way of resolutely calculating that the potential lifestyle or net worth inflation is garbage compared with sharing what God has given us.

I encourage you to count the cost of your generosity. Perhaps you’ll even find yourself wanting to give more as you face the alternative destinations for your money and realize they pale in comparison. I share this because it hasn’t made us feel deprived, greedy, or self-righteous, but only more determined, excited, and blessed.

The Cost of Keeping

While you’re already calculating, why not consider the cost of keeping it all for yourself? Sure, you’d save more, invest more, or live larger. But what would you miss out on?

You won’t get to inflate the lifestyle of those who actually need it.

You won’t get to increase your real worth.

You’d miss out on the well-documented psychological benefits that come from giving, particularly those who give at least 10% of their income.

You’ll never see the surprising ripple effect a gift can set in motion.

You won’t get to partner with organizations and causes you care about.

You’ll miss out on an important and much-needed way to be an agent of change in the world.

You won’t get to experience the joy of entrusting your resources back to their Source.

You’ll likely leave the most important factor in your finances—your heart—untouched.

You won’t learn the financial discipline that consistent generosity can teach.

You leave your heart vulnerable to greed.

You could reinforce entitlement in yourself and your children.

Counting the cost of giving vs. keeping is a powerful way to make informed decisions about your money. Maybe the exercise will even motivate more generosity. We won’t know the full impact of our gifts in this life, but we can be confident that when we give wisely, both the giver and receiver will benefit:

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38)

What do you think of counting the cost of generosity? What other benefits might we miss out on if we don’t practice generousity?

The Art of the Alternative

We’ve all read a statement like this one: If you pack lunch instead of going to Chipotle every day, you’ll save $1650 per year. That would be $158,000 if you invested it for 30 years!

People like to frame money choices in terms of opportunity cost, or the power of perpetuity. And for good reasons. It’s true that your latte habit + your chipotle habit + your new car habit could mean you’re never going to get out of debt. But when we state that your lunch-out routine is going to cost you $160,000 over the next 30 years, a lot of us just shrug and think, Oh well. That’s probably not that big of a deal in the scheme of things. Because in real life, few of us are good at making epic financial decisions every day at lunch time. When we’re hungry, no less!

It’s helpful to look at the big picture, but sometimes we need to focus on the details a bit more. What if you could have a delicious lunch AND gain $160,000? We all have to make trade-offs. But it doesn’t always have to be about the trade-off. What if you could find something nearly as good, just as good, or even better than what you’re currently spending on? In many cases we can have both with just a touch of effort, planning , or creativity.

[Here’s the Chipotle chicken copycat recipe.]

Out of the box thinking is key to learning the art of the alternative. Normal people jump at the easy, obvious consumer solution, regardless of the price tag. Smart people don’t. They fix. They re-purpose. They thrift. They trash-pick. They accept that Life is Not about Your Preferences. But to sustain their low-cost lifestyle, they also must learn the art of alternative. And they actually enjoy the process of brainstorming and discovering solutions quite a bit. It’s gratifying in a way that standard consumerism can never be.

Allow me to illustrate the art of the alternative. And I want to hear your examples in the comments.

  • We’d love to have the woods as our backyard. But we live in the suburbs, 20 minutes’ drive from a national park. Our solution? Drive to the park, hike in the woods.
  • We’ve also dreamed of owning a bit more land for hobby farming. For now, we’re Rockin’ the Burbstead on our 0.1 acre of backyard. For us that includes chickens, bees, maple syrup, fruit trees, a wood pile, and a garden.
  • And we love the beach! Instead of pricey peak-season visits to tourist beaches, think March camping at a Florida state park with a beautiful beach. Think summer trips to the Great Lakes. Think off-season, rewards-fueled trips to whatever beach we can get to cheaply.
  • I’ve never met an Asian cuisine I didn’t like. Yet going out gets expensive. We still do on our monthly dates, but I’ve learned a number of good dishes from Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking and a descriptively titled cookbook, Chinese. My international friends have helped me learn, too. Hint: do not buy “curry” sauces from the regular grocery store. Find a good Asian grocery in your area.
  • Are you an entertainment lover, or just a fan of a particular show? You don’t need cable, or even Netflix. You need a library card. Our friends check out a stack of DVDs each week in lieu of paying for any cable or Internet (!).
  • You’re frugal, but also aesthetic, so you don’t want your clothes or furniture looking like they’re from some grandma’s garage sale? Two words: buy used. Nowadays you don’t have to garage-sale your life away searching for the perfect piece. Search Craigslist. Try Facebook buy-sell-trade pages and other local resale pages. Go to the thrift store. Of course, garage sales are perfectly wonderful, too.
  • Your kids want to play sports, but it’s getting too expensive? At the early ages, explore barter-and-trade options. My mom used to clean my gym in exchange for a discount on my gymnastics fees.
  • If you love to travel, learn how to travel-hack using credit cards. Get into a good hotel points program if you travel for work. But also, start camping. Borrow some gear or just buy the basics. It’ll open the door to a lifetime of low-cost travel. Did you know Disney World has a camp site?
  • I loved my fancy-schmancy gym membership, but when it got too expensive, I did everything from exercise videos in my basement, to a women’s fitness class at a church. It was harder than anything I’d ever done at the gym! Pretend to Be Fit!

The beauty of the alternative is that you’re not missing out, and you don’t feel deprived. It’s a sustainable way of living because you’re satisfied with your solution. As a bonus, you’re also defying the absurd suggestions of consumer culture–that you are useless, helpless, and incapable of doing anything besides spending all your money.

So what alternatives have you come up with? Does anyone else enjoy the act of finding alternatives, too?

Learner’s Edge Review: Continuing Education for Teachers

A few months ago I almost asked my readers: should I keep my teaching license? But as I drafted the post, I knew I already had my answer. Although I don’t necessarily plan to return to full-time classroom teaching, I could see myself still working in the field of education in a variety of ways. I don’t know for sure what type of work I’ll do once my kids are in school, and that’s why it seems better to keep the teaching license rather than let it expire.

To keep it, I need 6 college credits every 5 years, and that runs out for me in one year. Most teachers take graduate classes, but for my first renewal I took online undergraduate classes through a community college or regional branch of a state university, since these were the most affordable options. (I’m not planning to pursue a Master’s in education.)

I finished my last round of coursework before we had kids. I needed a course that was online and flexible. Because completing an entire thought, let alone a homework assignment, is challenging with two little kids.

Through my search, I came across a company called Learner’s Edge. It’s was created by teachers to provide graduate level continuing education classes for teachers. All classes are online, self-paced, and offer credits through regional partnering accredited universities. After reading reviews about the company I decided to try a course.

I can’t say enough about the great experience I had. If you’re a teacher or know a teacher who needs continuing education credits OR wants to earn a Master’s degree in education, I highly recommend Learner’s Edge.

First off, the classes are a bargain at $425 for three graduate credits. That’s the same price as a three-credit undergrad class at my local community college. Secondly, the window for semesters is huge. For example, registration for my “summer” class ran from January 15-April 15, with all coursework due by August 15. That means you get up to eight months to finish your self-paced coursework. This is flexibility to the max, perfect for busy teachers and/or parents.

Learner’s Edge offers a wide selection of courses depending on your teaching area. They even have classes recommended for those who aren’t currently teaching. In that case, you’re encouraged to draw on past classroom experience for certain assignments. There were plenty of customer reviews of the courses, which was helpful in choosing what to take.

The company mailed the textbook to me within a few days. All the assignments for my course were posted in an online portal, so I knew from the beginning what I was in for. In addition to the textbook the teacher added a few interesting videos and links to articles.

Overall, I found the assignments to be useful. If you’ve ever taken an education class, you know this is high praise. I didn’t feel like I was obliged to regurgitate the same buzzwords ad nausea um. The coursework required reasonable degrees of extension, research, and application, without feeling overwhelming or like busy work. The content was relevant and interesting. In fact, I’ve already been able to apply it in everyday life.

Another huge plus for my particular class was that the student forums were optional and not part of the grade. I’m all for peer interaction and did comment on the forums, but sifting through the repetitive or overly opinionated comments of others while racking my mom-brain for something original to add is not my favorite.

The assignments were graded in a very timely fashion, within about two days for my class. And the grader’s comments were personal in the sense that the grader responded to particular parts of my work, and also offered additional resources or ideas based on what I had written. It felt mutually professional– another rarity in the field of education, in my experience. It was mostly for “completion.” I didn’t get a letter grade until the last assignment, for which I did slightly more work to earn an A. Because, what teacher doesn’t want an A?

I have one more class to take in the next year, and it will definitely be from Learner’s Edge. I thought about diving right into another one, but we have a lot going on this summer and I’m trying to be a fun mom J Again, I realize many of my readers aren’t teachers, but you most likely know someone who is. I’d encourage you to share this resource with them because it is the best solution I’ve found for teacher’s need for useful, flexible, and affordable continuing education.

What is the best way to meet continuing education requirements in your field? Any teachers out there with experience with Learner’s Edge or other good ways to earn CEUs?

Life is Not About Your Preferences

crying kid

Not my kid, but close enough.

My 3-year-old regularly has a melt-down if I give him the wrong color of plastic plate. “Pink is not my favorite, I need a blue one!” he’ll cry. It doesn’t matter that no blue plates are clean. He thinks he’s entitled exclusively to his favorites, all the time. He wants only his favorite foods, clothes, and TV shows. Of course we are trying to teach him “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit,” i.e., not everything has to be your favorite. Life is not about your preferences.

Unfortunately, even as adults we fall prey to the “favorite” fallacy, or thinking that life is largely about discovering and securing our preferences. I’ve talked to countless people who explain that they can’t save money because they don’t prefer to bag their own groceries, or don’t want to work with bone-in chicken, or don’t like driving an older car that might require inconvenient repairs. They prefer to wear clothes that are in style. They don’t prefer eating beans over steak. They don’t like buying used furniture. They don’t enjoy shopping at thrift stores. Actually I’ve never met anyone who said they don’t like thrift stores, because thrift stores are awesome.

I have plenty of preferences myself, and I’m sure I don’t even realize how much I cater to them. But when it comes to saving money, I try to set aside my favorites and be content with less expensive options. Why? Because I prefer financial flexibility to debt. I prefer investing money to spending it on new clothes and iThings. I prefer to give away money instead of spending it all on things I don’t need. I prefer being able to take [expensive] opportunities that come along, like traveling on mission trips when we’re invited. I love staying home with my young children, even though that means having less income.

It’s okay to have preferences, and it’s okay to spend money on some of those preferences. But when you have a reason why you can’t save money in ten different ways because you don’t like this or that, maybe it’s time to think about the big picture. Do you prefer to shop at the Big Store more than you want to get out of debt? Do you prefer to drive a new car more than you prefer to save for the future? Do you want to eat at restaurants more than you want to give to church or charity? Maybe the opportunity cost of your preferences is something as big as retiring 5-10 years sooner, pursuing your dream career, or being really generous. People tend to think these “little” expenses don’t make a difference on their overall financial situation. But money cut from “little” costs, if invested, will grow exponentially, and that’s a power we underestimate while our money is enslaved to our preferences.

I’m sure the iStuff culture and foodie trends aren’t helping the preference obsession. My son thinks he should be able to request each individual song he wants rather than listening to the radio or an entire album. When you’re two it’s kind of cute that you want everything to be your favorite. But by age three the preference-obsession is decidedly not cute anymore, as any parent will testify. So if you’re reading this blog you have officially timed out of being allowed to live according to the favorite mentality. To be honest, I have preference problems, too, which become embarrassingly evident when SuperWalmart doesn’t have the exact version of an item I want. In times like those, I remind myself that the last thing I need is to procure a gourmet food taste or fancy product habit. Surely something less specific will suffice.

To set aside our favorites, we are fighting our underlying assumptions and attitudes we’ve absorbed from marketing messages and the 3-year-old inside us all. It’s tough for my son to just take the pink plate, and it’s tough for me to cook homemade food every night instead of getting take-out or frozen meals. But if cooking at home can contribute to saving, giving, and gaining flexibility, then it’s worth it.

The take-away? You don’t have to give up all your preferences, but decide what’s really worth it. I still don’t like ranch dressing and feel compelled to say this anytime that disgusting substance is mentioned. No one is saying you have to start listening to country music or that I have to start eating ranch. Just stop using your preferences as an excuse for not saving money.  We tend to think getting what we want will make us happy. Newsflash: it doesn’t! If I let my son have the blue plate, then he’ll start whining that the peanut butter sandwich on the blue plate isn’t his favorite. It’s an endless cycle if we give in, and the same applies to your finances. More convenience, comfort, and consumer goods won’t make you happier.

Instead of feeling deprived when you stop catering to a preference, focus on your favorite financial outcome that your small sacrifice will help you achieve. Is your goal to get out of debt? To give or save more? To travel or volunteer?  Letting go of preferences will help you become more flexible in every way—from daily situations to your finances. Remember the big picture of what you prefer your life to be about and let this control your spending, rather than letting your spending control your life options. That’s what financial flexibility is all about.

What money saving strategy have you avoided because of your preferences? What is your favorite financial goal?

Building Community Without the Commune

J. Money of Budgets Are Sexy recently sent me an interesting article about one nun’s experience of communal living. In her order, the sisters all take a vow of poverty in which they choose to contribute all their income (many have “secular” jobs) to a common pot, and own all possessions collectively rather than individually. It had some cool takeaways for anyone, and it also got me wondering: is communal living trending?

Because I’ve also been hearing buzz over Rod Dreher’s latest book, The Benedict Option, which suggests communal living in less extreme forms. We, too, have dreamed of buying a large property with friends, living in separate houses but sharing outdoor chores and using the property to serve the larger community.

It seems the idea of communal living is back in vogue after a generation of building decks in the back of the house instead of porches in the front. And attached garages so you never have to see your neighbors, unless serendipity strikes during the half-minute walk to the mailbox.

It’s true that a sharing economy has emerged, along with a rising movement toward minimalism/simplicity. People are going “back to the land” in various ways.  The idea of communal living may be more of a dream than a reality for most, but there are practical ways we can all build community. I imagine this is what people are actually longing for in the most individualistic culture ever.

I’ve lived in close community perhaps more than the average person. First it was my family of five kids, plus all ones my mom babysat and neighbor kids coming to play. In college I always had multiple roommates. After college, we lived in an apartment building where several of our married friends resided. I started calling this place The Commune because they said the gas bill was split evenly among the residents (it wasn’t).

When the rent increased people started moving out. So we moved in with friends. While we didn’t pool our incomes or anything like that, we did share a shower and kitchen.

A year later we purchased a home on the same block. From there, we set out to continue building community. We invited all our immediate neighbors to our house-warming party. Which, by the way, is the best way not to have the cops called if the party gets too loud. I also took cookies to our neighbors within a week of moving in. Thank goodness they weren’t home. The cookies were a little on the crisp side, and I learned later that my neighbor is a pastry chef.

But enough about me. Here are a list of other ways we can practice community and sharing without getting all Animal Farm:

  • Swap babysitting with other parents.
  • Make errands more efficient. If you’re stopping by a store, text your neighbor to see if they need anything.
  • Share tools. Why does everyone need to own a ginormous extension ladder? How often do you actually use some of your tools?
  • Share skills. While you’re sharing tools, why not share your skills? Whether it’s baking, crocheting, or rebuilding your ant-eaten home, sharing DIY skills is invaluable.
  • Share meals. Invite people over for dinner. Or brunch. Or a fire-side s’more. Just remember to aim for hospitality rather than entertaining. That makes everyone feel more comfortable.
  • Share baby gear. Even before you’re done having kids, sharing is caring. I’ve borrowed and lent out everything from clothes to carriers.
  • Give stuff away. Even if you could sell something, consider giving it away in order to build community. When I think of all the ways people have shared with me, I’m more likely to dismiss the few bucks I might get for an item and just pass it on.
  • Share life. At some point it makes sense to go beyond small talk and discuss real life. That point is different for every relationship, but being there for people (and having others to lean on) is what community is really about.
  • Share money. Be generous. Give to good charities. Support your local church. Treat someone. Take the tool that money is and use it for good in the lives of others as well as your own.
  • Share faith or values. For us the deepest sense of community comes from our church. Did you know the word church literally means the assembly? It’s not about the place. It’s about people coming together. And the word fellowship actually means to share or to have in common. Much of the sharing described above happens in this context for us, and it’s a source of great joy.

As I type this list, countless examples  of sharing come to mind. My neighbor who has clothed my son for the last year or more, and just sent over cupcakes this evening. Our friends down the street who gave us a shop vac for our house-warming present. And much, much more. I’m at once humbled and motivated to continue striving to share and build community.

For Further Reading: Frugal Friends Don’t Let Friends…

What are other ways of building community? What do you think of the idea of communal living?