Simple Christmas

It’s December. Here come the articles encouraging us to relax, simplify, and just enjoy the holidays. We all need these reminders to slow down, remember what we’re celebrating, and take joy in the people we love. At the same time, this advice can come off as yet another stressor, leaving us wondering, What’s wrong with me? Why am I not relaxing and enjoying this enough? Why do I feel sad or overwhelmed?

Sip a cocktail, laugh, and don’t worry about observing any of the trappings and traditions of Christmas, one article advised.

My reality as I read it? Chugging coffee, crying tears of exhaustion, and spending every precious free moment prepping for the holidays.

The truth is, holidays involve family, family involves love, and love involves sacrifice. If any food is eaten at your gathering, someone had to prepare it. If any gifts are exchanged, someone had to shop and wrap. If the setting is festive, someone had to clean and decorate.

It’s not that we should center our holidays around living up to others’ expectations or striving for a magazine-spread Christmas. I believe that holiday shopping, cooking, baking, and decorating can all be done in a spirit of joy. But for many people–those with kids, extended family, or those opening their home to people without a home base—it’s just not as simple as sipping a hot toddy and shrugging off tradition.

That doesn’t mean Christmas has to be complicated. In the past few years, we’ve found new ways to simplify. We’ve shaved our Christmas day stops down from four to one or two. We attend fewer Christmas parties. We host a small low-key fireside gathering rather than an epic get together. Our decorations are beloved but minimal. Some years we hang Christmas lights on the house. Other years we don’t. Our shopping list (and pile to put away) has shrunken as we’ve asked our families to do gift exchanges. I’ve whittled my baking list down to two or three favorites. I wear the same few outfits to every party and family function, year after year.

Last year we even took a weekend in the busy season to get away as a family and just hang out, hike, and play together.

Every year, I’m excited for the festivities leading up to Christmas. But every year, at some point I find myself exhausted, stressed, and feeling too busy. The “slow down and simply” philosophy would have me think I’m doing something wrong if the year’s biggest holiday, the most wonderful time of the year leaves me feeling anything but wonderful.

But then the feeling passes as I take time to reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice as the reason we celebrate. I’m sure it didn’t feel great for him to leave perfect fellowship with His father and become a human baby, subject to all the suffering of this earth.

And then I know it’s not wrong to feel stressed and overwhelmed sometimes in the midst of a joyous but hectic season. It’s okay for sacrifice to feel hard; that’s what makes it sacrifice. After a sacrifice, you know the difficulty was worth it. If it’s not, it’s time to cut that activity or obligation.

So don’t stress about feeling stressed this year. Cut what you need to cut. Talk to someone if you’re truly down. But don’t shy away from the sacrifice that comes with making Christmas a beautiful time for others.

How do you handle holiday stress? What ways have you found to simplify?

Christmas Gift Ideas

Still shopping? Me, too. And who wants to gift junk people don’t need? Forget about jelly of the month club. Give gifts that will keep your frugal friends and family members saving all year long.

  1. How about an electric throw blanket or a space heater for the frugal freeze baby on your list?
  2. Rechargeable batteries. Keep powering toys, flashlights, and other gadgets with less cost to you and the environment.
  3. Glass storage containers. Packing lunch and storing home-cooked leftovers is so much easier with the proper containers, and glass ones are healthier and easier for re-heating food.
  4. College fund contributions. This is the gift that keeps growing with the child, and adds value throughout his or her life. While toys and clothes begin depreciates as soon as a kid touches them, compounding interest will grow your gift over the next decade or more. And it’s tax deductible if you contribute directly to the fund.
  5. Wool. Barring wool allergies, wool sweaters, socks, or scarves are a great way to help a frugal gift recipient stay warm throughout the winter, ‘cause you know they’re too cheap to turn up the heat.
  6. Camping gear. Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings by lowering the entry cost of camping. We save over $1000 a year on vacations by camping, but wouldn’t want to without our tent, camp stove, air mattress, and sleeping bags.
  7. DIY reference materials, such as books on gardening, DIY home repair, cookbooks, backyard chickens, honey bees  or any other book supporting a money-saving hobby or endeavor. Here’s my favorite Indian cookbook.  And my favorite bread-baking book: Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day book.
  8. A bike. Biking for frugal transportation seems to have made a comeback.  Helmets are also a good gift for anyone whose brains or beauty you wish to preserve.

For the new parent:

  1. temporal lobe thermometer: This thermometer is so quick & to use, my kids like getting their temperature taken. It also seems more sensitive than traditional ones.
  2. Miracle swaddler: This blanket gently helps keep those arms swaddled much longer than other styles.
  3. white noise: A small, portable white noise machine is ideal for travel, even if it’s just to put your baby down to sleep at a friend or grandparent’s house. It’s also great for hotels and camping.
  4. rechargeable batteries: Battery-operated toys are bound to enter your house. This set will save you loads in the long run.
  5. Caffeine paraphernalia: How about a French press, K-cups, or a hot pot and Yorkshire English breakfast tea.
  6. Free babysitting and a restaurant gift card. Need I say more?

For the handy man: (suggestions from Neil)

  1. drive socket set: I’ve been preaching this to anyone who will listen lately, once you go 1/2″ for automotive work, you won’t go back. If you or a loved one will be doing any work on their car in the near future, I cannot recommend highly enough to get 1/2″ drive sockets. Most people use 3/8″ drive, and it’s nothing but frustration and busted knuckles.
  2. wire strippers: These auto-stippers are a tool you didn’t know you needed until you use one. They perfectly strip wire of any common size without breaking the conductor. Much better and faster than using scissors or traditional strippers.
  3. loupe – LED illuminated: These loupes are really fun. Easy to use and show the kids stuff close up. Bugs, carpet, newspaper, wood, all fun when viewed through a loupe.
  4. wood-splitting ax: This Fiskars Axe is the only way I am able to split my own firewood. I am not a giant lumberjack; I cannot wield a 8-10# maul for a few hours at a time. This thing is light, swift, and well designed. It makes splitting wood fun.
  5. drill bit set: Get these if you own a 1/4″ drive impact driver. Makes it into a small electric impact gun. Very useful and fast for backing out bolts/ nuts.

13. For the home chef:

  1. These amazing pots and pans. The best, affordable pans with no weird coatings, that still come clean. I’ve had mine for 10 years and still going strong.
  2. pressure cooker: I never knew how amazing pressure cookers are until I received an electric one as a gift. It has saved dinner on more than one occasion when I forgot to thaw meat, or got home later than expected. It can cook bone-in frozen chicken pieces in less than half an hour. It also makes meat way more tender than other cooking methods.
  3. instant pot: I don’t have one of these, but I’ve heard it’s the pot to end all pots. It’s a programmable pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, yogurt maker…you name it, it can do it. It’s priced very reasonably compared to purchasing one or two of these other devices. If I didn’t already own a pressure cooker and slow cooker, this would be on my wish list.
  4. good knife: A good knife makes cooking sooo much more enjoyable–and safer.

14. For the kids:

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

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

Craft supplies or Play-dohReplenish crafty consumables.

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

15. For the fit (or those aspiring to be): For those skipping the gym membership, my favorite workout videos are Zumba,  Ballet Beautiful, & P90x.

16. For the whole family:

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

Board games such as the Busytown Game (for younger kids): This game has the whole family work together to win. Zingo is also a fan favorite around here.

Book sets such as Narnia book seriesLittle House book series

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

Museum or zoo memberships.

 

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

What other gifts keep on saving? What is the most useful gift you’ve ever received?

 

This post contains affiliate links. 

How to Buy an Electric Bike

Step 1: Research Electric Bikes. What are the kinds? The makes? The models? Read about them. Test drive them. When you travel for business, find the e-bike store and test drive some more.

Step 2: Set a major financial goal, and say the reward for accomplishing it will be an e-bike. Work toward goal for years, all while casually researching and test driving the e-bikes.

Step 3: Meet major financial goal, and keep over-analyzing researching and test driving e-bikes. Research building own e-bike. Set up Craigslist search for used e-bikes (rare).

Step 4: Buy a car for $200. Think maybe this justifies e-bike purchase. But then think how could I spend 10x as much on a bike as my car? Keep dreaming researching.

Step 5: Replace possible e-biking hobby with reading about e-bikes hobby. For years.

Step 6: Give up on ever buying motorcycle for nerds an e-bike.

Step 7: Craigslist search shows e-bike for sale nearby for $500. Buy e-bike. Assemble. Ride. Love.

 

Does anyone else approach purchases like this? What’s the longest it’s taken you to pull the trigger on a purchase?

My Grandma’s Legacy

How do you keep writing when your biggest fan is gone?

My grandma died, rather suddenly, a few weeks ago. She was the first and most faithful reader of this blog. Last winter she talked about wanting to help edit the content into a book. She said she had it all outlined and organized in her mind already. Can you see where I got my love of writing?

When I tell my friends and Neil’s family about my grandma’s passing, they’ve said things like, “She was a very special lady” and “I really liked her.” Those close to her knew her faults, too, but she was truly impressive. People tend to brag about the deceased, but I bragged about her while she was still alive, including the post My Financial Heritage: A Mother’s Day Reflection, that I’m so glad I posted when I did.

The short story is that she had many jobs before having three children, then became a special education teacher for children with severe emotional/behavioral difficulties, fostered 17 children, and in retirement became a guardian ad litem, a child’s voice in court. She garnered awards in all her endeavors.

She was also an avid quilter, scrap-booker, reader, and Wizard of Oz afficianado. Her name was Dorothe.

Her financial personality? Spender. She’s the ultimate example of a great person who was not great with money. Fortunately her late husband, a banker, was.

She never gave me money advice, and, in response to my blog, said she wished she’d learned these things sooner. But she did pass on two personal finance lessons:

  1. If you find a sweater you like that fits well, buy it in every color. (Somehow I never latched onto this.)
  2. Live generously.

My grandma was extravagantly generous. Generous to a fault. And while her children may literally be faulting her for this as they deal with the messy aftermath of her finances, her generosity remains a powerful example to her naturally stingy first grandchild (that’d be me).

Even in my giving, I want efficiency to rule. I want to give to the most effective, efficient organizations only, and tend not to be very generous to fellow Americans who already have what they need (read: my friends and family). My grandma saw the value of both. And I’m trying to learn to be spontaneously generous to the people around me as I reflect on her habits.

She didn’t leave an inheritance, but she left a legacy. She changed my life far beyond impacting my very existence. She passed her faith on to me and that has transformed me from a sad, stingy person into a joyful, generous one. An invaluable impact.

In essence she spent any inheritance on us while she was alive, and it brought her great joy. It came in the form of frilly dresses and too many toys at Christmas when I was a kid. And in adulthood, it was kitchen gadgets, multi-level-marketing company products, and college fund contributions for my kids. And while I’d only recommend the latter as a solid use of money, my frugal soul has benefited more from these extravagances than it could have from any size inheritance.

Of course, it isn’t an either-or between leading a great life and being good with money. We should all think about leaving our finances in order for our families, whether we want to leave an inheritance or not. There are many good resources available that explain how to manage your assets, what documents to create, and how to organize them for your family. One such resource is found at the end of Dave Ramsey’s The Legacy Journey.

Leave a legacy. Plan for your funeral–not just financially, but relationally and spiritually.  “Tell them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:18, 19).

What are your thoughts on leaving an inheritance and leaving a legacy?

Why Paying For Preschool Is My Favorite

I went on a mini-vacation the other day. First, I read the Bible in peace and quiet. Then I did Pilates without anyone trying to jump on or crawl under me. Next I took a long, uninterrupted shower. Then I wrote a blog post about our new minivan. Finally, I read a little bit of a book. It was crazy.

This ideal morning cost me approximately $10 and it’s up there as the best $10 I’ve ever spent. Not only was my morning serene, my afternoon was also pleasant because my kid came back from preschool excited and happy.

I love paying for preschool! After volunteering as a preschool teacher last year and bringing my preschooler along with me, I appreciate sending her off alone SOOO much.

For both my kids I waited until the year before kindergarten to send them to preschool. This means about five long years at home full-time with these people before sending them off for a short, precious 7.5 hours a week. I love being able to stay home with my kids and count myself very blessed and privileged to do so. But it is not for the faint of heart.

While some states offer free public preschool, it’s only free here if your child qualifies for certain developmental delays or disabilities. One more reason I’m grateful to be paying for preschool. Thankfully, preschool is highly affordable in our area, around $100-125/month for three days a week at many schools.

I know some people are into “homeschool” preschool, which I think means you teach your kids numbers, letters, shapes, and colors, and get together with other preschool-aged kids. Which is pretty much life with a little person whether you have a special name for it or not. I get not wanting to pay someone to do things you can do yourself, but there’s a lot more to preschool than numbers, letters, or even socialization. For one, they learn how to be part of a classroom.

I know a deal when I see one, and preschool is a hot deal. You can’t get a babysitter for that price, let alone a babysitter who will teach your kid, owns tons of fun toys, stages a massive play date every day, tires them out, and gives them a snack.

I know the novelty will wear and we’ll have mornings she doesn’t want to get out of bed for school. And my luck with the baby napping at the same time will be hit or miss. We’ve already had days where she comes home complaining that the toy kitchen wasn’t “open” for play (the horror!) or they didn’t go outside to the playground.

And of course, I don’t just lounge around doing whatever I feel like every time she goes to preschool. But I’m also enjoying those moments of free time very much!

If you can afford it, I highly recommend sending your kid to preschool for at least one year. It’s amazing.

What do you think about paying for preschool?

The Hidden Cost of Frugality

It’s been busy, busy, busy on the burbstead. Neil replaced the timing belt & radiator on our new minivan, DIYed a complete bathroom remodel, and replaced two of our hallway doors, with two more to go. He’s also done a many-step process to re-grass our back yard after years of leaving it untreated for the chickens. In addition he’s replaced his car’s muffler and has been sprucing up the station wagon in order to sell it. We canned our delicious cowboy candy (sweet-hot jalapenos) and made lots of garden salsa. And as always, there’s plenty more on the to-do list.

All but the bathroom was done since he returned to work after the baby-batical. All while maintaining his volunteer ministry schedule and raising three kids. Yes, he’s amazing.

But I started feeling that life was getting too frantic.

Whether it’s big-time savings of DIY car and house repairs, or the little every day habits that add up, frugality costs time and effort. The opportunity cost of paying $1300 may be what $1300 makes in the stock market over 30 years. But the opportunity cost of saving $1300 is the time you could have spent otherwise.

Is the answer to give up frugal living and start outsourcing everything? May it never be! We not only like saving money, we also like learning new skills, accomplishing new challenges, and modeling thrift and hard work for our children. But we are learning to how to juggle many balls in new ways now that we have three kids. Here’s how we’re trying to handle the hidden costs of frugality:

  1. Prioritize.  I started resenting my superhero husband for all that time spent under the hood of the car, saving us money, while I rocked a baby in a dark room for a little longer than my sanity could stand. I didn’t want to sound ungrateful or critical. And in my pride, I didn’t want to sound like I needed his help, either. But I finally admitted it and since then we’ve worked together to list and prioritize projects on the burbstead.
  2. Pace yourself. Along with priorities comes a sense that all is not urgent. While it might be uber-productive to squeeze in an oil change right before putting the kids to bed, it’s not an emergency. Maybe there’s something else that is more important right then. And it might not be the type of thing you’d put on a to-do list. For example, we’ve been prioritizing dates with the big kids now that they’re both in school and sharing our attention with more siblings.
  3. Pay for convenience (sometimes). We are learning when it makes sense to outsource. We’ve done very little of this since becoming home-owners (or car-owners). But sometimes it’s just not worth the opportunity cost–that time, effort, or sanity. The day before our baby was born, Neil paid for a haircut rather than asking 9-month pregnant me to grind out another task. Thank you! That week also saw the purchase of take-out pizza. Thank you again! On a bigger scale, Neil’s decided to pay someone to paint the new doors once they’re all installed. He did one himself and didn’t like the process or the finished product. And we’re considering paying a lawn care company to treat our front year so that we don’t end up with the same situation we did in the back.
  4. Plan ahead. In addition to talking through the priorities of various tasks, we’ve also talked about timing/pacing them in a sane manner. It really helps to discuss this before or near the beginning of the weekend, otherwise we run around simultaneously stressed and unfocused, desperately wanting to be productive but unsure what exactly we’re trying to accomplish. And I like knowing what to expect, when possible. These little “schedule meetings” help us support rather than resent one another as we work on our respective projects. Okay, my project is mainly keeping the kids alive. But if I know Neil needs to work on something not kid-friendly, I can plan to keep them out of his hair during that time.
  5. Press pause. Sometimes you have to power through. For example, Neil couldn’t exactly leave the water off to work on the bathroom for too long. But other times it’s okay to press pause. Know when you’ve come to a good stopping point and then–stop! You’ll accomplish more later if you take time to relate and rest.
  6. It won’t be perfect. Even though I love the idea of “balance,” I know it will always elude us. We’ll inevitably over-do it sometimes, whether it’s with the social calendar or the honey-do list. Instead of blaming each other or ourselves for these imbalances, we can simply expect them.

All of this adds up to lots of communication. I’m sure that, too, will wax and wane as we learn to manage the hidden cost of frugality–time. Because we certainly don’t want the hidden cost to turn into anything more, like our sanity or our relationships.

How do you decide when to in-source vs. outsource? What other ways do you use to manage your time?

Ahh! We Bought a Minivan

Is it just me, or do people seem to either love or hate minivans? I’ve never been rabidly anti-minivan, but I’ve never longed for one, either. I just really love our station wagon, tape player and all. But the time was drawing near. Our station wagon only seats three children, meaning we’re maxed out. Having the option to drive the kids’ friends along with us sometimes is important to us. And weaving the baby car seat over a booster seat is not exactly easy.

However, we didn’t see these limitations as reason to rush out and buy a minivan the moment we had a positive pregnancy test, or a live infant for that matter. An inconvenient car seat situation hardly constitutes an emergency.

Neil started researching and looking at ads for minivans during his baby-batical, in part because he had more time for this type of thing than usual. We concluded that, while we didn’t need a larger vehicle right away, we’d like to get one within the year, when it would become even more inconvenient to fish the baby in and out of the car. Also, that would mean we’d be able to take the kids’ friends places by next summer.

The options for third row seating these days are: giant, expensive SUV; full-size van; or minivan. Not surprisingly, pricey SUV was never on the table for us. And despite having learned to drive on a Club Wagon, I’m afraid of how many mailboxes I’d hit in a full-size van, not to mention the abysmal gas mileage. Minivan it is.

But who cares how we became minivan converts? What you need to know is how to shop for a car, minivan or otherwise. The whole process is fraught with pitfalls and surrounded by myths. We concede there’s more than one sane way to buy a car, but naturally, we highly recommend our way 🙂

“What type of car payment are you used to?” a friend asked when chatting about being in the market for a van. Clearly not a reader of the blog 🙂

None, my friend. None. Never had one, never want one. Neil’s last car cost $200. The one before that was $750. Check out a car post written by him: “How I Spent Less Than $8000 on Cars in 17 Years of Commuting.

For more on PTBP car-buying philosophy, check out Point A to Point B and Free and Broken.

What about reliability? We do spend more on the family vehicle (which goes on my car spending tally, which was not much more than Neil’s). Our budget for the van was somewhere around $6000. Of course we’d already saved for our next car in our Car Fund. I highly recommend that, rather than paying interest on a monthly car payment, everyone set aside money in a Car Fund until you have enough to buy your next vehicle outright. Rinse and repeat and you’ll never need a car payment.

Neil approached the van purchase with his usual analytical research. He bought a month of online Consumer Reports and read their reviews. He read online about common problems with the different brands. He test drove a Toyota and a Kia for a side-by-side comparison. The Toyota Sienna was the clear winner on all fronts so he narrowed his search to those. And although he didn’t put much weight on anecdotes, all my Sienna-driving mom friends sang its praises.

Neil’s ideal scenario for buying a van was to skiplag somewhere south on a weekend, buy a rust-free van, and drive it back. Our station wagon was purchased from a small private dealer who sells cars from the south, and Neil has always dreamed of doing this himself rather than paying someone else to. Big surprise, right?

But he found that the private sellers he was contacting weren’t getting back to him, and who wants to fly somewhere only to have a seller flake out? Our weekends can also be pretty packed, making it too much to pull off right now.

He started searching Facebook and Craigslist, but in the end he got this car the same way he bought two other cars: through work connections. He works, as most do, with people who upgrade their cars fairly frequently. So he put the word out that he was looking for a minivan and would pay trade-in value or higher. Soon enough, someone was looking to trade in their 2006 Toyota Sienna with 130,000 miles. Perfect! While many people are scared of cars with that kind of mileage, we think that’s around the sweet spot for buying a car–depreciation rapidly drops off around this point and some major scheduled maintenance has already been done.

Only in this case, the timing belt needed to be done. It was 40,000 miles past due! We were prepared to pay someone to do the job. But after Neil watched some YouTube videos, read about the job for that year and model, and consulted a mechanic friend, he decided to do the work himself. We purchased the van at trade in value for $3500. Typically a similar van would be listed privately around $6000. He spent around $500 on parts since he also ended up replacing the radiator. He estimates the work would have cost $1800 at a mechanic. A timing belt job is not for the faint of heart; there were some hairy moments, but overall he seemed to enjoy the challenge.

Even if we’d paid someone to fix the van it would still be a fair value. We were prepared to spend that much. But with Neil taking the leap to do a tricky major repair himself, we’ve got ourselves a decent deal. We’ll see how it does for us. But it runs smoothly and is by far the most luxurious vehicle we’ve ever owned.

I’ll admit not everything about our approach this time is reproducible. Maybe you don’t have wide connections to spendy coworkers. Maybe you don’t have a lot of experience working on cars and the necessary tools. But here’s what everyone can try to do:

  1. Don’t rush out and buy the car you need a year–or two or three–from now. Be patient.
  2. Save for your next vehicle in a designated account that you don’t touch otherwise.
  3. Buy used, preferably past the 100,000 miles to minimize depreciation.
  4. Do your research. Check out consumer reports and other online reviews.
  5. Put out the word that you’ll pay trade-in value or more when people you are know are upgrading.

What’s your approach to buying cars? Have you ever done a major job on a car?

What Salsa and Personal Finance Have in Common

One of the challenges of having a young infant is that once you get them to sleep, you have no idea how long they are going to stay asleep. For uptight types like me this is basically torture. Although I’m trying to roll with it as much as possible, one strategy that helps me is not to get started on ambitious projects that I’ll be frustrated if I can’t finish.

Like writing a blog post. lol

But one day last week, I tricked myself into completing a small project of sorts. Baby was sleeping. I was making tacos. And we had soooo many garden tomatoes. So I decided to cut up one or two tomatoes for a topping. Then I realized, we have all the ingredients for salsa. Now if I set out to make salsa, I would feel completely overwhelmed. So much chopping, and that baby will wake up any minute and I won’t actually have salsa to show for it.

So I told myself, just chop some cilantro for another topping.

Baby kept sleeping. Okay, just cut an onion. Also a topping.

Baby still snoozing. I’ll just cut a couple more tomatoes. I can always ask Neil to do the jalapeno when he gets home. And then I realized, I don’t have to get through this whole colander of tomatoes. I’ll just make as much salsa as I can, even if it’s barely any. One tomato at a time. Because some salsa is better than no salsa.

And miraculously, that baby slept right on through the making of a sizeable bowl of salsa. One tomato at a time. I even got to the jalapenos.

While I was chopping away I thought, sometimes money is like this. You just have to take it one tomato at a time. I can’t tell you how many times someone has explained to me why they can’t save more, or spend less, because they can’t do it all the time. Sometimes consistency is crucial to improving your financial situation. Investing $100 once isn’t really going to get you anywhere. But if you never try to make progress because you’re afraid you’ll lapse at times, that isn’t going to get your anywhere either.

Why not just take it one tomato at a time? What’s your tomato? It could be a money-saving measure, saving toward a goal, investing, or paying off loans.

For example, it may be forming a money-saving habit like making a menu and grocery list before shopping. Just do it once. Maybe the savings will help motivate you to do it next time. Even if you only make a menu or list half the time, you’ll save more than if you never made one. Same goes for hundreds of thrifty strategies. And for bigger-picture things like saving or paying off debt. Just because you can’t contribute extra every month doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it when you can. Does writing a will overwhelm you? Just make the first phone call.

Are there projects you shouldn’t approach this way? Sure. Take our recent bathroom remodel: we couldn’t just leave the plumbing half finished or the floor torn out for long. But many other tasks–like cleaning that bathroom–can be done in increments when needed. And many financial goals are finished incrementally, too. Whatever it is for you, just take the next step and see what happens.

What financial step do you find overwhelming or intimidating?  Have you ever broken down a goal into little steps?

How Family Inflation Is Affecting Our Spending

I’ve written about how having kids improved our finances–and it did. We’ve always been frugal,but since the birth of our first child we really got our financial act together: we paid off student loans, wrote a will, got smarter life insurance policies, and got more aggressive about investing. We also have less time for costly habits like recreational shopping or eating at restaurants.

More recently, I’ve mentioned how our spending on things like groceries, clothes, gifts, sports and activities, and babysitters has increased as they’ve grown older. Not to mention saving for college!

I find it absolutely comical that bloggers conceive their first child and start writing about how babies don’t really cost that much. First of all, these people must have stellar health insurance. Because we are blessed to have good insurance and it still cost us a pretty penny–around $3000 just for our most recent bundle of joy.

I think what these well-meaning writers mean to say is: you don’t have to spend as much as you think to get started having a kid. Buy secondhand. Get hand-me-downs. Don’t go overboard with the gadgets. Of course.

But babies get bigger, hopefully. They start eating as much as you. They wear through shoes like they’re tissues. They might stop getting hand-me-downs. They want to play sports. They start wanting Legos.

All that’s to be expected. What I didn’t quite expect is how my overall attitude toward money has shifted. I used to think of money as something to be optimized for most efficient use. Now I think of it more as a tool to be used in different ways, depending on the circumstances. I suppose this is the result both of our increasing financial flexibility, and our increasing family size.

For example, the price I’m willing to pay for convenience has sky-rocketed. Perhaps it’s because we just welcomed a third little human into our family, but I have been more willing to shell out for things that will make my life easier. Things like a non-stick pan. And more silverware. And store-bought yogurt. And whatever shorts at Target will fit my postpartum waistline. Because I don’t have time to hand-wash extra dishes, make everything from scratch, and mine the thrift store for presentable pants.

While I don’t believe in conveniencing myself to death, I do find that sometimes, it’s wonderful to have just the right tool for the job. In the garage, in the kitchen, or in your wardrobe. For example, we’ve tried to grind cardamom pods (for chai) in every way imaginable, but when we finally gave in and bought the spice grinder, it works like a charm. I’m starting to learn my lesson and just buy the things we really want rather than waiting a year. And while it feels a bit spendy, I don’t regret buying things that make our lives way easier and preserve precious time.

On the continuum from frugal to frivolous, our spending is still on the thrifty side. But we’ve slid a bit on the spectrum, and I’m glad. It’s nice feel free to use the tool of money as needed in the moment, and not carry the weight of how much the cost of that spice grinder, or hospital bill, could have compounded over the next thirty years into every decision.

At the end of the day, I’m just trying to make it to the end of the day! While my attitude will surely change as I emerge from having an infant, I don’t think we’ll ever find ourselves as far down the frugality spectrum again. Optimal efficiency and frugality have gone by the wayside as other values take a higher place: making time for our kids and keeping our household running sufficiently, all while continuing to serve outside our family as well.

Where do you fall on the frugal-to-spendy spectrum, and how has that changed over time?

July on the Burbstead: A Baby-batical

Last summer was jam-packed with adventures: within a month, we camped in Michigan, took a steam ferry to Green Bay, and soon after camped at Mammoth Caves and viewed the solar eclipse in totality. Shortly thereafter Neil headed to India, and the kids and I went camping again. Whew!

This summer we’re taking a completely different approach to adventures. The beginning of summer saw me trying to survive the ninth month of pregnancy with two kids out of school, trying to pack in summer fun at the lake and visiting friends as much as possible, all while Neil did a complete DIY bathroom remodel. After our baby girl came, Neil started his month-long “baby-batical”. In other words, he took all his vacation time plus his week of paternity leave and is keeping the big kids busy.

How did he pull it off? He talked to his boss, then repeated “I won’t be in in July” like a mantra to make sure expectations were clear.

His plan? Help with the baby of course, but also keep the big kids busy and enjoy summer. The day we came home from the hospital, he printed off a blank July calendar and start penciling in activities from the list he’d started beforehand.

Let me just tell you, this arrangement is the way to have a baby! I’m getting spoiled, taking naps, reading books!, and even writing this blog post! And actually keeping up on basic household tasks since he’s taking care of big kid childcare and grocery shopping. Baby is also enjoying lots of undivided attention and snuggles from mom.

And of course the big kids (and Neil) are having the best summer ever. In addition to visits from family and friends, they’ve enjoyed a Fourth of July parade, party, fireworks, and going to the fireworks store; weekly kids’ movies at a local theater; lots of time at the lake with their friends; lots of creeking; pool parties, play dates, sleepovers, epic bike rides, and baseball games. They’ve also gone on a train ride and pontoon boat; went to a water park, an amusement park, the county fair, and a trampoline park; and visited an old growth forest, one of the Great Lakes, a science center, and went camping. And read The Goblet of Fire and went to a Harry Potter festival.

How much is all this entertainment costing? You know us. If there’s a cheaper way to do something, we’ll find it. We agreed ahead of time that we were willing to spend on more kids’ activities this summer since we weren’t taking a vacation. (Although having a baby costs more than a vacation!) However, there are so many free and cheap kids activities, we haven’t spent much yet.

Neil found a movie theater offering $1 kids movies once a week in the summer (they are not new releases). We got our lake passes this year as a Christmas gift. The train ride is $5 instead of $25 if you ride your bike one way. Baseball game tickets for the local AA team are about $5. And a friend generously offered discounted passes to the local water park. Our reciprocal museum pass ($58 per year) got us into the science center, which would have run close to that much for one visit!

The kids have also collected lots of free, half-price, or BOGO coupons from the library reading program and the week-long Vacation Bible Camp they attended, for both activities and restaurant meals.

Neil also put most of the finishing touches on the bathroom while the kids were at a sleepover with their friends. Pics forthcoming. And starting looking for a mini van–more on that soon!

Taking this month off has been perhaps the best way we’ve ever flexed our financial flexibility. Even though it didn’t end up costing us in terms of income, it was a successful foray into taking a big chunk of time off work. That in itself requires some flexibility. And it’s confirmed that it could be worth forgoing a couple weeks’ pay in the future. After all, we value family time, adventure, and travel highly. And who doesn’t feel a bit bereft upon taking their first real job and realizing you’re facing thirty or forty years without childhood’s glorious three-month summer break?

What do you think of the idea of taking a month off each year? What would you do with the time?