The Most Valuable Card in Your Wallet

Yum.

If you don’t know me, you might think is going to be a shameless plug for associate credit card links. But if you know me, you probably know what I consider the most valuable piece of plastic in my purse: my library card.

First off, I pay $81 per year for the privilege of using the library and I intend to get my money’s worth. Secondly, the library exemplifies an original sharing economy. It’s environmentalism, frugality, and minimalism circa the 17th century. These concepts aren’t new, they’re just recirculating with things other than books, movies, music, audiobooks, video games, puzzles, puppets, games, robots, and electronics. That’s right–all that and more may be available at your local library.

Confession: I used to do something insane. I used to buy every book I wanted. Sure, I bought them used on half.com or other discount sites. I loved books, I was an English teacher, and I valued books, so I bought them all.

Then I ran out of shelves.

Which drove me back to my favorite place since childhood. The library. And I learned how to get nearly every book I want from this wonderful institution.

Before I go any further, let me address the common objection: Of course there are books you should buy and own. I still buy books. I buy them if no libraries in my state have them (which is pretty rare). I buy them if I just really want to own that particular book, or maybe it’s a workbook or devotional or reference. I buy books that I got from the library and wanted to read again, and deem worth of shelf space.

You want to highlight? Underline? Make notes? Get a notebook. Write down the most important parts. Write down page numbers. You’ll remember it better if you write it down than just underlining.  Make a copy of the most helpful page or two. You’ll find these faster than if you had to search through a whole book. If you’re tempted to copy every other page, you’ll know you need to buy it.

I can’t tell you exactly how to get almost every book from your library, because it varies by state. But I can tell you some avenues to explore and questions to ask your librarian.

The Hard Stuff

If you want a hard copy of something, inter-library loan is the way to go when your library doesn’t have it.  Ask your librarian about the inter-library loan system. Ask if you can search college and university libraries as well as other public libraries. On my local library’s web site you can go right from your catalog search results to view the holdings at nearly every library in the state by clicking on the inter-library loan system. Then you request it by submitting your library name and personal card number.

The best value in inter-library loans is textbooks. After my freshman year of college I bought very few textbooks because I found them through inter-library loan from other college libraries. I was able to renew the books for a whole semester. I’m sure availability of up-to-date textbooks will vary with different courses of study, but for education and language arts topics, I found lots.

I also got the hard-to-find Muppets Family Christmas on VHS through inter-library loan last year, and watched it with all my sibs. The librarian was like, “It’s a VHS. Are you sure you want it?” And I was all like, “Heck yes, I want it. This tape goes for $95 on ebay!” Actually, I just said “Yes, thanks.”

Next Step Digital S#!^

Libraries know digital is the way to go now. Ebooks, audiobooks, movies, and music are all available digitally. Apps like Hoopla, Libby (formerly Overdrive) and Freegal make borrowing digital media easy. And automatic returns means you couldn’t get fined if you tried.

Libby has a limited number of copies, so you might have to sign up on a waiting list. Hoopla has no holds. Both allow a certain number of borrows per month per library card. Freegal allows you to stream albums or songs and temporarily download 3 free songs a week.

There are many good children’s materials available this way, as well. Digital audiobooks frequently saved my sanity last year. I’d stream a Boxcar Children audiobook for my son’s afternoon quiet time and he’d be happy as clam in his room for up to 2 hours!

I’ll leave you with the words of Arthur (the Aardvark): Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!

How much do you love the library? What other awesome library apps are out there?

Personal Finance When You’re Sad

Sometimes when you’re sad, you just don’t care. You don’t care about money. You don’t care about work. You don’t care about blogging.

I’m sad, and I’m finding it hard to care about those things. I’m not depressed. I still care about the important stuff: my family, my faith, my friends. But I am finding it awfully hard to care about anything related to personal finance. It just doesn’t even seem relevant, because no amount of money can fix what I’m sad about.

I haven’t suffered a tragedy. I can’t even imagine being the victim of the recent hurricanes or terrorist attacks, nor am I coping with the death of a loved one. But being sad does have me thinking about ways of coping when you’re sad, and how that affects people’s money.

And it’s making me feel completely unqualified to sit here and tell people what to do with their money. Or even how to think about their money. Because I’m thinking of all the sad people out there, and how completely inane and irrelevant financial advice must sound to them. So today, instead of asking you to change how you think about or handle money, I’m just going to ask you to try to understand other people.

Sometimes sad people spend. That comforting take-out, new outfit, or sleek tablet can take away the sting, at least for a little while. Us bloggers virtually lecture people on how that feeling won’t last, but sometimes when you’re sad enough, you’ll take what fleeting pleasure you can get.

Sometimes sad people treat others. It feels good to make someone else happy, so they’ll buy a round, or treat people to lunch. They’ll buy gifts, even extravagant ones. I have a philosophy of generosity that tends to focus on those in “greatest need” in my view. But maybe sometimes the giver is actually the one most in need. And they just need to give however they want to.

Sometimes sad people don’t think about the future, because it feels too sad. They don’t care how much their 401k will grow if they invest 15% of their income each month. They don’t care when they’ll retire, or get out of debt, or save for their goals. Thinking too far ahead is too overwhelming, too hopeless.

Sometimes people get way too sad and lose their motivation at work. It’s a catch-22, because going to work and contributing to society helps you feel better, but getting that train moving just seems insurmountable.

I’m sure others cope by throwing themselves ever more into their work, goals, or financial improvement. And that can be good or bad, or more likely, both at once.

How is feeling down affecting my finances? To be honest, it’s not. The coping mechanisms I mentioned above just don’t happen to appeal to me. And I’m in a privileged position where my financial state is impervious to my feelings. I don’t take that for granted.

For me, I’m just too sad to write about money. All I can give you this week is a post about people. Because they’re what actually matter. Try to understand them. Try to care about them, and show them you care. If they’re sad, don’t tell them how to manage their money. Don’t tell them to stop spending or start saving or bust out a godforsaken investment calculator on them.

Sometimes when people are sad, an act of love goes so much further than advice. Buy them coffee or lunch or a gift, to give that little glimpse of enjoyment. Or let them buy you coffee or lunch or a gift, so they can feel that spark of joy that giving brings. Spend some time with them. Maybe it’ll light the fire to care about work again. Maybe, just maybe, that spark will light the fire to care about the future.

How do you handle personal finance differently when you’re sad? What have you found most helpful in those times? 

Preschool and Preserving Produce: Late Summer on the Burbstead

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation. Isaiah 52:7

 

To wrap up our whirlwind August, Neil left for a 13-day trip to India. Back on the burbstead, the following happened:

I took the kids camping. I’ve never camped with them solo before, but I was hardly alone, as we were camping with over 100 people. I had four people show up to set up and tear down my tent, and plenty of people helping look after my kids. Not to mention all the other kids there to occupy them. Saturday was rainy at times but they had fun and it cleared up in time for the tradition of potluck and Bible teaching, followed by fun times around the campfire. The next day was sunny and we enjoyed time at a Great Lakes beach. We stayed for sunset on the lake next to a lighthouse.

I also tried my hand at canning our bounty of tomatoes, using the water bath method in my biggest pot. Which is not very big. Neil has canned salsa the past couple years but he was not going to be back before our harvest rotted. We’d already devoured several batches of fresh salsa, eaten lots of tomatoes in salads, and given away tomatoes to just about anyone who would take them. And I still had at least five large colanders full of tomatoes with some more yet to ripen.

I decided to can whole raw pack romas, and salsa. I was exhausted by the end of the day, with only six jars of each product to show for my effort. Although I felt very accomplished, I also wondered whether canning was really worth the effort. A couple days later I borrowed my brother-in-law’s large pot for canning which made the process so much more efficient. I canned another 10 jars of salsa. Yum!

The next morning my daughter started preschool, and that meant I started  too. I’m volunteering at a preschool in a community with a large refugee and immigrant population. When I asked if I could bring my three-year old along, they were enthusiastic about the idea of having a fluent English-speaking peer in the classroom. And I’m excited for her to go to school with a diverse population. We also want to find ways we can volunteer with our kids sometimes in hopes that we can model our values.

The following weekend we attended Neil’s grandfather’s 100th (!) birthday party. Getting the kids dressed and out the door to that party was the hardest thing I did while Neil was gone. My son acts like wearing a polo shirt is cruel and unusual punishment!

The day after was another big event: our church’s annual baptism party. Getting to this is always challenging because you need everything from coats to bathing suits. Still, packing up our four bags of gear was easier than getting my kid to wear a collar. Thirty people got baptized in the lake after sharing how they became a believer in Jesus.

Neil made it home safely Monday afternoon. He’ll tell you all about it soon, but he had a great trip. We are both exhausted, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Here was one of his favorite moments, meeting a child we sponsor:

We’ve still got watermelons, tomatoes, and hot peppers growing in the garden, but everything seems to be slowing down.

We’ve also got the bee hive to deal with. After a successful summer of beekeeping just two days before Neil left, the hive was robbed by another group of bees. It was crazy—our usually calm hive had bees flying everywhere, fighting each other. Being the fearless beekeeper he is, Neil suited up and went out to try to get the lid to seal better. I think it helped but not sure how much damage had already been done. Not sure what’s next. I’ll keep you posted.

How is your summer wrapping up? How did your garden grow (if you have one)? Any new endeavors this Fall?

Which Shoes Do I Buy? Rethinking the “Quality” Card

The minimalism movement suggests making high quality purchases that will save time, money, thought, and the environment. The idea is to “invest” in quality clothing, gear, and home goods so you don’t have to shop or think about replacing them for a long time. It’s savvy and appealing, but is that pair of shoes actually going to last “forever”? And are marketers using “minimalism” to get us to spend or even consume more?

Take shoes, for example, since we all have them and wear them every single day. Unless you’re my 3-year-old, who might get through a day completely barefoot now and then.

It doesn’t take much worldly wisdom to figure out that cheap shoes are awful. I swore off Payless shoes at the ripe old age of 17 and have never looked back. I do not hate my feet that much.

That said, I owned a pair of shoes from Walmart that lasted 7 years. They cost all of $20 and were perfectly comfortable.

So how do those $80 Clark’s (insert Keens, Merrills, Birks, or whatever you’re into) stack up again my $20 Walmart shoes? The Clark’s would have to last 28 years to be a better value. Just thinking about that makes my arches ache.

Now let’s chat about undies. A $10 pack of 10 women’s Hanes will last at least one year. If you are spending $30 per pair for “durable” undies, you’d have to wear them for over 30 years to outperform the Hanes. Please do not wear the same panties for that long!

Yes, this is anecdotal evidence, but it offers a cautionary tale none the less. The claims of high quality and durability may not live up to the price tag—or the hype. I believe marketers are ploying consumers with the minimalism/quality card. Here are some points to consider before spending all your dollars on a better garment, gadget, or gear:

A numbers game. How many pairs of “high quality” garb are you “investing” in? Sure, your stuff will last a long time if you have fifteen pairs of expensive shoes to choose from. My BFF has foot problems that require her to wear shoes like Dansko clogs or Birkenstocks. She wears these almost exclusively, so they aren’t going to last 20 years. If you wear them out because that’s all you wear, you might be getting a better deal than the person who has them around forever but doesn’t get regular use.

Baby maker? I would highly recommend NOT purchasing “forever” items if you might ever have children. (After kids I suppose is different.) Most women I know have changed shoe size during pregnancy. Your joints and muscles loosen during pregnancy and the bone structure of your feet, hips, or even ribs can widen, never return to their original size. Not to mention the rearrangement of flesh! I escaped two pregnancies without a change in pants or shoe size, but my ribs (of all places!) are now wider, thus rendering some of my “forever” dresses unwearable.

Know thyself. Ask: am I really the person who will wear this forever? If you really enjoy fashion trends, timeless items may not be for you. If you’re going to feel like a nerd wearing shoes that are 5 years old, don’t spend a lot of money on them! Even pieces that attempt to look timeless may feel dated long before you get your money’s worth, especially if you’re influenced by the ebbs and flows of style.

Who wants to live forever? Your undies don’t. Don’t overspend for durability on items that you DO NOT WANT TO USE FOREVER. You do not want to wear the same underwear or athletic shoes forever. That’s gross. And why do you need a $500 stroller unless you’re planning a very large family? Do you know how many used Gracos are on the market in perfectly good condition? They last just fine. Don’t go crazy on high quality baby gear. That phase is over before you can even use all the gadgets you got from your shower.

The things that really last forever are from your parents’ and grandparents’ generations. I have some 1970s Tupperware, for example. That stuff is indestructible! I should know, I’ve broken more than one Pyrex 🙁

Nothing is guaranteed. That’s a bit over-dramatic. But read the fine print and take brand’s guarantees with a grain of salt. They can use weasel words or vague promises that actually guarantee nothing. For example, one quality clothier promises “customer satisfaction” on products, but that doesn’t exactly mean they’ll replace your decade-old bathrobe when it wears out. Policies can also get watered down over time.  Craftsman is the perfect example. Now that Sears sold the brand, Black & Decker is free to change the replacement policy.

Know what you want? Shelling out more for that “forever” item can also put undue pressure on purchases that I believe can lead to materialism, or an undue focus on stuff. If you’re decisive and know what you want, this may be less of a concern. If you’re like me and can’t figure out what the perfect style is that will stand the test of time while also matching the rest of my stuff, it might not be worth the mental energy.

When it’s worth it. If it’s comfort and functionality you seek, the high quality items might be more for you. But don’t get bamboozled by the empty promises or brand prestige. Run the little equation I alluded to before. How much can you get a less expensive but decent equivalent for (considering secondhand where appropriate) and how long can that be expected to last? How many times more does a quality product cost? Is it really four times better and/or will last four times longer? Read reviews, ask people for recommendations, and guestimate based on your experience. Naturally you’ll put more thought into larger purchases than small ones.

Sometimes it’s a no brainer. For example, I limped my $2 thrift store boots through the winter before deciding that having cold, wet feet is bad way to save money. I purchased good quality boots for $45 at the end of the season. I don’t expect them to last 20 times longer than my thrift store sieves, but having warm, dry feet really is 20 times better than not. It is, after all, the purpose of boots.

I did not consider it worthwhile to spend $100+ on knee-high, -30 degree-rated boots, because I do not live in Wyoming. I’m not wading into standing water or working outside in sub-zero temperatures. I just need to get my kid to the bus stop. It cracks me up seeing moms stand around the suburban library in Hunter boots that have never stepped off pavement.

We’ve spent more for quality on a select few items, but have found that our discount, off-brand, used, or freebie items often do the trick just fine.

How do you decide when to spend more for quality? What low-cost items have you found surprisingly durable?

Adventuring

Hey all, here’s what we’ve been up to the last month. Let’s just say travel has eclipsed blogging.

We drove about eight hours south to see the eclipse. It was awesome. Traffic getting home was not awesome. We were only about halfway home by 10 pm and decided to stop at a hotel. Those Marriott rewards sure came in handy, because others we knew traveling back from the vicinity did not get home until 6:30 am!

Neil found a great place to view the eclipse– a library next to a splash pad.  It was perfect for entertaining the kids leading up to totality.

It’s also why Neil is wearing his swim trunks while photographing the eclipse.

On the way to totality, we camped at Mammoth Caves.

We didn’t realize you need to book tickets ahead of time, so Neil waited in line for over an hour and scored us a tour. Our son squeaked by in the free age category by just two days. There’s the personal finance tie-in: late summer birthdays are good for tourist attraction admission.

I was a little nervous about descending into the cave, but our daughter was more than comfy. She fell asleep near the end.

A couple weeks before our eclipse adventure, we headed to a beautiful campground in Michigan. If only our station wagon had wood paneling!

Things we did: camped with friends, picked the biggest blueberries I’ve ever seen, swam, kayaked, biked to town, got ice cream, played Uno, toured the light house, hiked in pouring rain, made s’mores over the fire.

Things we didn’t do, but probably could have: contracted lice from a family of nine, been eaten by bears, gotten lost in a National Forest, and blown away in 18-20 mph winds (we only lost our tent’s door mat).

 

Light house tour was fun. We all made it to the top.

The light house’s Fresnel lens. In tact ones are apparently rare.

View of the bay next to our camp site.

The “lunkers,” as my son calls them.

Beautiful little beach a minute’s walk from our camp site. The kids would swim during sunset.

After camping, we took a steamship ferry across Lake Michigan since Neil had a meeting for work in Green Bay.

We stayed at a tundra-themed waterpark hotel in Green Bay. I took the kids down the slides. So. Many. Times.

The National Train Museum in Green Bay was free with our reciprocal membership benefits. There were lots of old trains you could go in. My favorite was the mail train on the left.

It’s been a whirlwind. During our few stints home we were busy preparing Bible teachings, making garden-fresh salsa, and having play dates before school starts. Neil also had a men’s retreat, and is getting ready for a short-term mission trip to India. I’m both soaking in the last days of summer and longing for the structure of the school year.

How has your summer wrapped up? What did you think of the eclipse?

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?