Money over Meaning?

What do you believe is most important? Becoming very well off financially, or developing a meaningful philosophy of life?

Come on, now. Be honest. You are reading a personal finance blog.

A similar question has been posed to college freshman via the American Freshman Survey, a survey that has queried 15 million students over the last 50 years. Students are asked to rate life goals with varying degrees of important. In 2016, those rating “becoming very well off financially” as important rose to a high of 82%, compared with 47% rating “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as important.¹

The priorities received equal ratings around 1978, and since then, money has quickly outpaced meaning. GenX and Millennials were similar in their ratings of importance for each of these goals. Since 2008, the percentage of college freshman rating becoming very well off as important is on the rise. Clearly the recession didn’t shift people back toward meaning over money, as some thought it would.

But it isn’t hard to imagine why. Those born after 1995, labeled iGen by lead generational researcher Jean M. Twenge in her book of the same name, came of age in a time of economic uncertainty. Surveys show their attitudes to be less idealistic and entitled when it comes to work, school, and income than Millennials were before them. Instead, they report attitudes that are more pragmatic: they believe they need to earn a high income just to make ends meet. Contrary to common perception, fewer young people today report a goal of becoming entrepreneurs compared with young people of past generations. To a group raised in the height of the safety craze as well as a recession, entrepreneurship may sound too risky.

What to make of all of this? Certainly money and meaning aren’t mutually exclusive, but they can become excluded on a practical level. Though I hadn’t thought of it in exactly those terms, I suppose I started this blog trying with the goal of integrating the two, or at least holding both in the balance.

Placing less value on meaning can lead to some scary trends, such as less volunteering and charitable giving. Indeed, both these social practices are on the decline among Millennials and iGen. Yes, you read that right: despite all the hype about Millennials being more socially active, they only report favorable attitudes toward volunteering and charitable giving. Self-reporting in the American General Social Survey show less engagement than previous generations at the same age.

Concern with money over meaning is also contributing to what former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims calls “the college admissions arms race.” In her book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, she laments the extreme competitiveness surrounding elite college admissions, which is viewed by many as the only path toward a financially stable life.

The problem both Lythcott-Haims and Twenge report, from their vantage point as academic faculty, is that college students are no longer there because they care. Past generations viewed college as a great privilege, an opportunity to learn and explore; now it’s simply a means to end.

Just some whiny college profs? Maybe. But what will it mean for our society if young people, usually the most passionate dreamers, are cynical or indifferent? What will it mean for charities, non-profits, and the people and causes they serve? What will it mean for professions high in meaning and relatively low in salary? I’m thinking teaching, social work, and the arts, to name a few.

Perhaps some will conclude there need not be a distinction between meaning and money. That frugality can be a way of life so all-encompassing it constitutes a controlling value. I’m no philosopher, but I think this goes too far.

Certainly we can value meaning while also making a decent living and handling money prudently. This may look differently for each person, but some principles stand out:

  1. Live on less than you make. Depending on your situation, this may mean you need to make more, or spend less. As a culture (species?) we tend to assume we need more, but a hard look at our spending may reveal otherwise.
  2. Prepare for a lifestyle in congruity with your chosen profession. When enrolled in the college of education, I had no dreams of ever living large. I figured my faith and my library card would get me through life.
  3. Do absolutely everything you can to keep your school debt in proportion with your earning potential. While in high school, use Post Secondary Education Option, AP or dual enrollment courses, and retake those standardized tests at least once for a shot at raising your score. Then apply for scholarships, re-apply each year, get a part-time job, and consider taking some courses at a community college to reduce tuition costs. And please choose a reasonably priced university.
  4. Start giving as soon as you graduate (or even before). Don’t wait till you’re making the big bucks to make regular charitable donations. Start early and small, and increase with each raise so it just feels like a natural part of your financial plan. Regular givers report this is the most fun they have with their money.
  5. Make time for people. Long hours or side hustles can be profitable for a season, but if you don’t have time for family and friends, you may be placing money over meaning in a way that compromises your mental health. If you need to, make relationships a calendar item. Schedule a family night, date nights with your spouse and children, and time with your friends, as well.
  6. If you’re working toward FIRE, what’s your goal? Doing more of what you love? Or more of what makes a difference in the world? Meaning is perhaps never more important than in such a potent position as early retirement.

Do you think it’s naive to value meaning over money? What are some ways you keep both in balance?

¹All research from the following:

Lythcott-Haims, J. (2015) How to Raise an Adult. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Twenge, J.M. (2006) Generation MeNew York, NY: Atria Books.

Twenge, J.M. (2017) iGen. New York, NY: Atria Books.

Shopping Hack: Minimize Impulse Purchases with Subscriptions

Target: we all know it’s a total mom trap. You go in for diapers and milk and are forced to walk by Starbucks, jewelry, purses, women’s clothing, and baby clothing just to get to the diapers. Then you must either pass by the toys or home goods to get to the milk. Your senses are bombarded with trendy, minimalist-chic décor in the season’s latest hues before you emerge with your items, now only to pass the beauty and cosmetics aisles. And somehow when you go back next week for more diapers, they will have new merch to allure you.

The average woman goes in to Target with 4 items on her list and leaves with 17. I just made that up, but I think it’s about right.

What if you didn’t have to go to Target (or Walmart, or wherever you go) nearly as often? Did you know Target will send you that stuff for free? Actually, they’ll take 5% off the price and deliver for free to your doorstep. Okay, not milk. But I get most of my household items through subscriptions to Target and Amazon.

I don’t like subscription services that mindlessly suck money out of my account each months, such as gym memberships, Netflix, Blue Apron, magazines, mystery boxes, and the like. But I do love subscription goods since I have to buy them anyway. And I mind as well avoid the mom trap.

Amazon

Amazon is my favorite when it comes to subscriptions because they offer 5-20% off. 20% of diapers and wipes if you sign up for Amazon Family. 5% off all items in the subscribe and save store. 15% off all items if you subscribe to 5 or more items in a month.

Here is a list of items I am or have subscribed to from Amazon: batteries, tea, coconut oil, toilet paper, paper towels, dish soap, dishwasher soap pods, shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen, freezer bags, diapers, artificial tears, Aquaphor, and even baker’s yeast.

Some items in the Subscribe and Save store are packaged in bulk, requiring you to buy multiples of the same items. Others can be purchased as a single item. They sell name brands, so some items aren’t cheaper than similar off brands. Just price check next time you’re at the store (or online for big box retailers).

You choose the frequency, and you can cancel at any time. You can even do it for a one-time purchase that you want to save 15% on. I just guess the frequency at the beginning, because it’s easily adjusted on a monthly basis before the items ship. Amazon sends a reminder email a few days before shipping, allowing you to skip delivery on items you don’t need anymore. I spend 5 minutes or less per month checking whether I need the scheduled items or not.

Target

Target offers 5% off many household and toiletry items. I’ve subscribed for toothpaste, hairspray, laundry detergent, shampoo, tampons, tissues, tea, and hand soap. Fewer items are packaged in bulk so it’s easier to subscribe to items you won’t go through quickly. And they even offer subscriptions on some of their store brands.

The items do not have to ship together, and there are lots of frequency options. Target also sends an email before an item ships, in time for you to cancel if you don’t need it. You can skip deliveries or modify the frequency at any time before shipping. And the item doesn’t have to meet a minimum spend to receive free shipping.

The Perks

So how do subscriptions minimize my consumption? I’m much less tempted to buy trendy, cute junk if I just don’t go to stores. Just imagine how many fewer impulses you’d make or even think about if you cut the weekly Target run out of your routine. There’s a great benefit to reaching a point where you can just go into a store and buy only what you need. If you’re not there yet, subscriptions are a great way to fast from in-store browsing. And after a while without making an impulse buy, it’s easier to accept that you really don’t need those extras.

Once subscriptions are set up I’m also saving time—as much as a couple hours a week that would be spent running errands, not to mention needlessly perusing clearance racks. Of course, I also love saving 5-20% off normal prices.

What about the environment? Is all that packaging and delivery ruining the earth? Surprisingly, it’s actually more efficient and better for the environment than the traditional retail model.

Although I’ve banned myself from shopping bans,  subscriptions would be a great way to complete a successful ban as they could help limit spending to essentials.

And speaking of packaging, few things excite my kids more than getting a new cardboard box to play with. No joke.

The Drawbacks

The main downside is that you have to plan ahead. Subscription items do not enjoy two-day shipping. Amazon keeps the same date each month when you’ll receive your items. Target’s is a little less organized, but you’re going to wait a few days vs. just going right to the store.

Could this lead to unnecessary online shopping? It could, but let’s face it: if you can’t see it, feel it, try it on, and it’s going to entail some hassle to return unwanted items, I’m a lot less likely to buy it. Also, if you stay in the Subscribe and Save store on Amazon, there’s pretty much only boring household stuff. If online shopping is a greater temptation for you than being in a store, by all means, keep running your errands.

For items that are not available for subscriptions, I love Target’s “pick up in store” feature. Whether it’s an item you want from another store but don’t want to pay shipping costs, or you don’t want to walk through all of Target, it’s great to show up at customer service and pick up an order. It’s the very definition of avoiding impulse buys.

I realize buying one or two items this way might just be inconsiderate. But if you only need two items, what are you doing in a big box store? Go to the drug store or grocery store, where you might pay a dollar or two more, but if you come out without $40 worth of excess junk, you’ll still be way ahead.

Do you use subscriptions for shopping? What other perks or drawbacks do you see?

Inflate Your Usefulness, Not Your Lifestyle

Lifestyle inflation is a popular personal finance metaphor for the phenomenon of expenses endlessly rising to match (or surpass) income. It captures the predicament of the 37% of Americans living in one of the world’s richest countries who claim to be too broke to save. And it describes what those pretending to poor want to avoid. Bloated spending not only causes financial problems, it also makes people less useful. It ties up time and money so that it all has to be spent on lifestyle maintenance, leaving less room for meaningful pursuits like family, friends, and volunteering. Plus, when life is centered on convenience and acquisition, people miss out on the satisfaction of becoming handy, resourceful, and helpful.

But those of us who don’t inflate our lifestyle also face potential danger. Have you ever thought about what you are inflating instead? We need to invest in something we can put stock in, and I don’t mean the stock market. If all you inflate is your bank or retirement account, you’re missing out. Saving and investing are worthy, responsible steps that we preach. But we all know there’s more to life than money. Most people think this “more” is freedom: from the 9 to 5, having to worry about money, or keeping up with the Joneses. Freedom is depicted as early retirement, working for yourself, traveling-hacking, or otherwise finding happiness outside materialism.

These are all appealing replacements to lifestyle inflation. But will they pay the dividends of a joyful and productive life? It’s easy to place false hope in the financial freedom or frugal ecstasy so often promised. A growing body of research documents the correlation between increased wealth and decreased interpersonal skills, emotional health, and happiness:

  • Lonely At The Top, by Thomas Joiner, documents the tragic pattern of men achieving success and wealth, only to find themselves without companionship.
  • In the Boston Globe article “Why It Matters That Our Politicians Are Rich” Britt Peterson reports, “Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble.”
  • Richard Ryan’s report in The Annual Review of Psychology (2001) found that a focus on financial and material goals correlated to a lower sense of well-being and found money is not a reliable predictor of happiness.
  • Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege states the “newly identified at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families.” These privileged kids are more likely to suffer from depression and other emotional ill health.

Yikes! There is a real gravity toward these scary outcomes for the wealthy. Pursuing wealth for different reasons doesn’t make us immune. Let’s heed these warnings and not let the journey to so-called freedom make us slaves to side hustles and financial goals. We want to remain flexible while increasing our financial flexibility, and the key lies in what we’re inflating along the way.

To us pretending to be poor is about inflating our usefulness at the same time we invest for future needs. Our financial journey isn’t just about us, or even our family.  If we get to “retire” early, that’s just icing on the cake, because we’re using our time and money to build a good life NOW. And the good life is not just about geeking out over spreadsheets, net worth, and shopping at ALDI. It’s not just about finding happiness in frugal hacks and free pleasures. The good life is about helping others.

The outcome of inflating your usefulness isn’t to leave yourself destitute, but to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share,  storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed” (1 Timothy 6:18, 19). So how can deflating your lifestyle inflate your usefulness?

  1. Work to live, don’t live to work. A good work ethic is important, but working constantly while ignoring family, friends, faith, and those in need is not a balanced or healthy life. If you’re hustling for the proverbial dangled carrot, maybe it’s time to free yourself from the rat race, not necessarily by retiring early, but by deflating your usefulness so you don’t need that carrot.
  2. Get useful by DIYing. Some people feel excited when they find the next new product that will make their life easier. Don’t get me wrong, I love my microwave and dishwasher. But others seek accomplishment in spending less, and this often results in becoming more useful. For example, I love Indian food, but I don’t love spending money at restaurants. So I’m learning to make Indian food. Neil enjoys riding his bike because it’s free exercise and saves on transportation costs. For both of us these money-saving measures are enjoyable in part because we feel accomplished after a challenge.
  3. Share the usefulness. Now that you have amassed helpful DIY skills, you can help other people. When someone need helps with a broken car or house, you can help. When someone loves Indian food, you can cook. You are saving other people money, perhaps teaching them useful skills, and feeling satisfied by widening your sphere of usefulness. Even if you don’t have amazing skills, simply by making time to help others you will find a world of needs to meet. Volunteering for an after school program, the high school group at church, to help a friend move, or to babysit are all ways we’ve found to be useful. Other ideas include volunteering at a nursing home or hospice center, Habitat for HumanityBig Brothers Big Sisters, English tutoring for refugees, mentoring teens in prison, or taking a short-term missions trip. (I’m going to India this summer!)
  4. It is better to give than to receive. Freeing up money to give to charitable or faith-based causes is hugely rewarding, and, need I mention, helpful! For example, donating to disaster relief in Nepal would expand your usefulness to a global scale. Yes, you have to do a little research to make sure an organization is trustworthy. But there are lots of reputable places and you can check them out on charitywatch.org or ministrywatch.org. Or visit a local food bank, after school program, or homeless shelter and check it out yourself.
  5. Be a good friend. The research on sad, rich Americans should be sobering. Thankfully the antidote is simple and free: have friends. Caring about other people and sharing life together can keep you grounded and balanced throughout your financial journey. You’ll avoid ending up lonely at the top, and you’re bound to be useful if you’re a good friend.

Titus 3:14 describes usefulness well: “Our people must learn to do good by meeting the urgent needs of others; then they will not be unproductive.”

What DIY success are you most proud of? What have you learned from sharing your time or money with others? 

Financial Seasons and the Fallacy of “Extreme Frugality”

When I hear people write or talk about “extreme frugality,” I cringe for a couple of reasons. First, because we’re wealthy compared with over 99% of the world. Secondly, because you can only maintain “extreme” frugality for so long.

For example, we put up to half our income toward a financial goal for 5 years. We cooked all almost all our food at home, drove old cars, and did very little to update our home during this time. We did bare minimum shopping for clothing, and almost everything was purchased secondhand. Gifts for our children were modest and often used. The kids wore mostly hand-me-downs. Some might say we were “extremely” frugal in this time, though I never viewed it this way because we always had everything we needed, purchased what we really wanted, and maintained habits like giving, vacationing, and hosting.

Since meeting that goal and sending our first child off to school, spending has increased in comparison with the previous 5 years. We bought clothes and shoes to replace those that had worn out. We decorated our home (a little). I bought my kids clothing for the first time, since the hand-me-down chain slowed down around school age. We spent on preschool, then soccer. Quite a few items in our home had seen better days, so we replaced them.

There were “luxury” items, too. Neil got invited back to India. We went to see a professional musical. We bought our 6-year-old a birthday gift that was new rather than used for the first time–the amazing Lego Boost. Neil got me a laptop for Christmas.

I’m sure you get the picture. We limited our spending quite a bit for about five years, and then we let up because things were worn out, and we were just ready to loosen the belt a bit.

We all go through financial seasons. There is a time for saving, and a time for spending. Yes, we always need to do both. But there are seasons when one takes precedence over the other, and that’s normal.

Unfortunately, many frugality articles don’t make this seem normal, at least at a glance. When bloggers publish monthly expense reports that highlight extremely low spending, it makes it seem like they will be able to live off that amount forever. They won’t. And you won’t, either.

Maybe you’ll attend–or be in–lots of weddings or have the opportunity to travel. Maybe you or someone in your family will experience health problems. Maybe ants will eat your house. Maybe you’ll need to replace a vehicle sooner than you’d expected. Maybe you’ll need to move. Maybe you’ll have a baby. In other words, maybe life will happen and it will be expensive.

We all pass through different financial seasons in life, and a snapshot like a monthly expense report can’t convey that complexity. You may be in a different season than others, so take expense reports (or real-life spending comparisons) as information, or inspiration, but don’t take them too much to heart. You’re looking at a moment in someone else’s life, a little bit like those cheery Facebook photos that reflect only the happiest, most envy-worthy moments.

I believe in the power of frugality in making financial progress, hence our site name. But I also know that frugality has its limits, and “extreme frugality” is not only an oxymoron by the time it appears on a web page, it’s also not as sustainable as people sometimes sell it as. Live reasonably, work toward your goals, and be generous. Always keep money in perspective: “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5).

What financial seasons have you experienced? Was it hard to go from a saving season to a spending season? 

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?