It’s time to tap the trees in our neck of the woods. Not that we have woods (much to our chagrin). All it takes is a maple tree or two, a few pieces of simple equipment, and a love of pancakes dripping with real maple syrup.
Actually, scratch that last prerequisite. We rarely ate pancakes before we converted our suburban yard into a sugar bush. I couldn’t convince Neil to eat pancakes when we first married, which was rather disappointing as I find them delicious. I had resigned myself to a life without pancakes, when lo and behold! Neil started making syrup.
Sugaring, like most of our other pretend to be farmer hobbies, snuck up on us. Neil’s friend encouraged him to try it and gave him a couple taps & buckets. That was six years ago, and we now look forward to syrup season and yield enough to last the year.
How It Works
- Sap flows when temperatures are above freezing during the day & below freezing and night. For us, this usually happens sometime in February or March.
- Drill a hole in an adult maple tree. “Sugar maples” yield a sweeter sap, but all have sap that can be boiled down into syrup. The hole should be about 1.5 inches into the tree slightly angled toward the ground. Use the recommended drill bit for your spile (5/16 for plastic or 7/16 for the old style metal). Then gently tap in the spile in with a hammer. The bucket hooks onto the spile or tube is connected and is covered to prevent rain or snow from getting in.
- Collect the sap. Check your buckets about once a day and collect the sap. We store it in pitchers or clean milk jugs. Store it as you would milk, below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Or you can freeze it. When you’ve collected a few gallons, get a fire going outside. You can use a “turkey burner” with propane or a wood fire with the pan set above on something like cinder blocks. Of course, the wood fire using free firewood is much cheaper, though less convenient. The wood fire also harkens back to sugaring parties of pioneer days.
- Boil it to 7.1 degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point of water in your elevation. This will take a while—the sap to syrup ratio is about 40:1. We switch to a small pan at the end to finish it. You can take the temperature with a candy or meat thermometer. The legit method is to use a hydrometer. There are also a host of non-technological “how it looks when falling off the spoon traditions,” but I’m not so good with that type of subtlety. Watch out! It burns fast. We know from experience.
- We filter through a cheesecloth into glass jars while it is still hot, which sufficiently sterilizes it for storage. Let it cool completely, then freeze whatever you won’t use within the month.
- Make pancakes! Or whatever you love to eat syrup on. My favorite recipe is Fluffy Pancakes. We also like Maple Almond Granola and it can replace the honey in Playgroup Granola Bars.
Why We Make Maple Syrup
Considering our very infrequent pancake consumption before sugaring, I have no illusions that making syrup has saved us fat stacks of cash. Confession: we actually used to buy the deplorable imitation syrup since we didn’t use it often. After purchasing equipment, it’s probably just starting to save money compared to buying the real deal. However, it’s also a pastime that fits the bill for us–it’s productive, kid-friendly, happens outside, and isn’t expensive.
We love that it’s a thrifty throwback hobby. Anything described in the Little House books is guaranteed to get me excited. Except the grasshopper plagues and scarlet fever, of course. And what’s not to love about the sheer efficiency of using what you already own?
Another reason I love making syrup is that it’s a sign that spring is just around the corner. It’s a great excuse to get outside at the end of winter, enjoy the slightly warmer days, and make use of your yard before it’s time to plant the garden and raise chickens. It’s become a talking point with the neighbors, and they’ve even graciously allowed us to tap their trees.
It’s also a great hobby for families. Our son loves checking the buckets, helping collect the sap, and hanging out around the fire while it boils down. And of course, the kids love eating pancakes.
Pancake breakfasts have become a hospitality staple in our home. Inviting people over for breakfast can be less expensive, easier to schedule, and more casual than a dinner invite. And who doesn’t love carbs drenched in sugar?
What You Need
Sugaring requires no special skills! Anyone with a maple tree, a big pan, and fire can make the magic happen. Here’s the full equipment list if you’re interested:
- A spile
- A drill
- A bucket with a lid, or a milk jug with plastic line to it, like so:
- Plastic lines (optional with buckets)
- Large, wide pan (such as a roaster or steam table pan)
- Outdoor burner or wood fire
- Glass jars
Happy maple syrup season! I hope you consider putting your untapped potential to delicious use if you have a maple tree.
What are your burning questions about boiling sap? Do you have a similar hobby?
Having a baby costs a lot of money. I know plenty of parents who joked about how they were still “paying off” their kid, i.e. maternity hospital bills, well into the child’s toddlerhood.
For my first pregnancy, we had a hospital co-pay which made the whole endeavor less expensive. But when our second child arrived, we had a completely different plan: a high-deductible HSA. We chose the plan hoping to have another child that year and had crunched the numbers to determine it was a prudent choice. It was, in part because the company was offering a $2000 HSA stipend. But we still became much more cost-conscious since we were essentially paying for more of our medical expenses directly from our own pockets. The great side-effect was that I become more proactive and informed about my care.
The first thing I did was start questioning some of the procedures at my first prenatal visit. Were the many blood tests (that I’d just had two years ago) covered fully by insurance? They were, so test away.
But my practice had also added an early ultrasound “for dating” as a routine procedure. This was not the case when I had my first, and since I knew when I got pregnant, I didn’t feel I needed it. With the second baby I also felt comfortable waiting to schedule my first appointment until I was far enough along to hear the heartbeat. This made the ultrasound less necessary, as well. In the end it saved me at least $250.
I know others who received the ultrasound (some practices require it), but were strategic about timing it in the same calendar year as their due date so it would count towards the deductible.
Of course, if your pregnancy is high risk, you might need to see your practitioner sooner. There are some problems, such as low progesterone, for which early interventions exist. But in a textbook pregnancy they don’t even test hormone level changes (at least at my practice).
Near the end of both my pregnancies, I was told I needed an ultrasound because I was “measuring small.” In both cases it was user error, because in fact I measured perfectly. The first time, it was a simple matter of the intern writing down the wrong number. In the second, I saw a different practitioner and he just didn’t seem to take the same careful measurements as the person who had been measuring me for months.
In both cases, an ultrasound was ordered. Intrauterine growth restriction is a real, serious problem that can be minimized with early delivery, so I didn’t want to write it off, but I also felt that careful re-measurement by a nurse-midwife was probably all I needed. In both instances, I checked out perfectly and saved another $250 on ultrasounds. Why make use of expensive equipment and procedures when a simple tape measure will do the trick?
I also turned down early screenings for genetic disorders. While these decisions are very personal, I think helps to understand that screenings do not provide a yes or no answer to whether your child has the disorder (though some tests do); there is nothing that can be done medically to fix the problem; and if you’re not willing to terminate the pregnancy, it might make sense to save yourself the worry and expense.
It’s often confusing to figure out whether a procedure is covered by your insurance. If you’re not sure, ask for the diagnosis and procedure codes and call your insurance before accepting it. Since some tests in pregnancy are time-sensitive, you may want to ask at your first appointment which procedures will be offered throughout the pregnancy, or at your next visit. I’ve found that using these codes has helped me get much more concrete answers from the insurance company than even inquiring with the procedure’s name.
I also researched hospital charges and discounts, since my practice and insurance were compatible with two area hospitals. I’d heard from a friend that one hospital offered a 30% discount if you requested to pay your bill upon leaving the hospital. In my case, the maternity bill was prepared, but the newborn’s bill wasn’t ready yet. So they said to call and inquire about the prepay discount which had been noted on my account. In the end I saved around $1000 by asking for this discount (and having the money in the HSA ready to go).
So having a baby is going to be expensive, no doubt, but you can minimize the cost by becoming informed about what your insurance covers, why a procedure is being offered, and what discounts are available through your local hospitals. This, paired with saving in advance, can make bringing home that bundle of joy a little more joyful.
Have you found ways to reduced maternity costs? What are some ways to save up ahead of time?
It’s true, the PTBP household is expecting another member by the end of June! While having another child was anything but a financial decision, we couldn’t help but think through the financial implications. It’s just how our brains work. And it seemed the most relevant aspect to share here. So here’s the breakdown, including thoughts on kid-raising costs, college funds, resume gaps, and when to upgrade to a bigger home or car.
The Quarter Million Dollar Baby?
The average cost to raise a child is widely reported to be $250,000. If that strikes horror in your heart, rest assured. Oh wait, I have no idea how much it costs to raise a kid. My oldest is only 6.
There’s the cost of prenatal care and delivery, which we estimate will run us about $3000 this time.
Speaking of insurance, paying for a family plan vs. a couple is a big hike in premiums. But—it’s a flat fee after that, so get your money’s worth by having more! #ifonly And of course, kids get sick and that costs something, too.
Young-mommy bloggers will tell you how very little kids costs. Indeed, we spent very little on the first five years of child-rearing. Hand-me-downs abounded, and gifts and buying used items filled in the gaps. We found plenty of fun, free activities via the library, metro parks, playgrounds, etc.
Then we paid for preschool: $1200 for a year. Hand-me-downs slowed and we spent a bit more on clothes and shoes for our oldest. We also spend more on food now, because guess what—at some point they actually start eating.
Then there are the birthday parties kids get invited to. And school supplies, fundraisers, and donations for class parties. And sports and swim lessons, and don’t do that stuff year-round. We also pay for the occasional family attraction or event, especially on vacations.
The Income Question
Another big financial factor is that each kid sets the clock back on me returning to the paid workforce by 5-6 years. We decided before having kids that I would stay home with the kids till they’re in school full time. Part-time working from home worked well until #2 came along. Clearly having a huge resume gap is not going to do me any favors, but for us that’s not a determining factor. And I know how incredibly blessed we are to be in that position.
I’ve heard of families in similar size homes upgrading to make way for baby #3, and I can understand why, but it’s certainly not necessary in our case. In lieu of a larger house, we purchased a used wooden bunk bed ($160) to clear a room for the nursery. I’m glad the kids get the experience of sharing a room, anyway. I could see someday wanting more space as the kids (and their friends) get bigger, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
Since getting pregnant, I’ve fielded a LOT of questions about when we’ll get a minivan. Answer: we’ll get a larger vehicle when we need one. Our family car is a 2003 Ford Taurus Wagon. It fits three car or booster seats in the second row, so in my book, we’re golden. But the wagon isn’t going to last forever, or maybe we’ll need more seats for driving the kids’ friends. We’ll see what becomes a problem first, and the next car will definitely need to have third row seating.
What About College?
I’ve heard more than one family say they’ll limit family size due to the cost of college. I understand how very real of a consideration college costs are for families these days. How much/whether to help with kids’ college is a controversial, personal decision.
Our stance is: we will save and we want to help, but we aren’t promising to pay for all of it, either. There are more and more ways of getting college credit without paying top dollar, and we very much expect our kids to explore these options. By offering substantial help, but not a massive sum, we hope to motivate them to make responsible choices, while offering an advantage as they get their start in the real world.
Another approach some people seem to take is resume-loading. Parents will pay for private tutoring, music lessons, year-round sports, and other extracurriculars, all with the hope of their kids getting significant scholarships. I wish there was a way to do the math on this. If you invested (in a college fund) all the money you spent on those tutors, activities, and experiences for your kids that you hope will lead to a scholarship, who would come out ahead? I’m placing my bets on the average growth of regular contributions. And this doesn’t require nearly as much running around.
The Bottom Line
Bottom line, we’re not making family choices based on money. On the one hand, that’s an incredibly privileged position to be in. On the other hand, there is perspective as well as privilege involved. Kids do cost money—don’t let those toddler mom bloggers fool you. But my guess is they don’t have to cost a quarter million each (barring unusual circumstances). We don’t feel the need to buy a bigger house, a larger car (yet), or the greatest possessions and experiences for our kids. We also don’t need to pay for the most extracurriculars, or float the full cost of college. And this is very freeing, both for our current stress level, and our ability to make family size choices based on other values.
What factors determined your family size? What are some other financial considerations parents face these days?
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'” asked Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957. Is it just me, or does it seems like people’s most persistent and urgent question now is, “What am I doing for myself?”
What am I doing to grow my career?
What am I doing to improve myself and my life?
What am I doing to fulfill my dreams?
While these questions could intersect with King’s foundational query, they often fall short. Statistically, younger generations (i.e., my age & younger) of Americans are demonstrating less generosity and volunteering less than previous generations did at the same age. The ideal of activism often translates into a Facebook posts rather than real-world application.
Personal finance blogs offer many useful tools and advice for improving one’s finances. But why—what’s your why? Is it comfort, security, freedom, flexibility? It’s all still as meaningless as the 9 to 5 we want to escape, if we don’t have a more compelling purpose.
You don’t have to work out that purpose perfectly right away. It doesn’t have to look like a detailed five- or ten-year plan of how you’ll do good in the world. I think it should look like asking MLK’s question of ourselves on a regular basis, though, because we can’t afford to let it go unanswered.
Thankfully, there are many people of all ages who are activists, advocates, volunteers, and philanthropists. But we all know there aren’t enough. Martin Luther King Jr.’s contribution to our society was immeasurable. Yet so much more work remains.
No, you can’t save the world. But you can change the life of one person. Maybe two. Maybe five. Maybe more. The tragedy isn’t that you don’t pull off saving the world. The tragedy is when you don’t even try. It’s not just the people you would’ve helped who miss out; it’s you. You’re missing out on your best possible life, the fulfillment of the most worthwhile dreams.
This past weekend, I was involved with a volunteer appreciation dinner for the adults in our church. We have about 25 people involved in 5 different organizations, serving a range of people in need:
- Visiting incarcerated youth at detention centers and holding a Bible study.
- Visiting with and/or mentoring sex-trafficked young women, or those at high risk of being trafficked.
- Teaching preschool, an after school program, or providing childcare for refugee children.
- Teaching Bible studies at a nursing home. One group is dedicated entirely to those suffering from dementia.
- Helping refugees get settled—giving them rides to the SS office or other appointments, helping with paperwork, supplying household items, helping them move, and more.
At the dinner it was beautiful to hear from the volunteers, both about the very valuable, needed work they are doing, and about what they are learning and how they’re growing from it.
I know everyone is busy. We work a lot. We have children in many activities. We have hobbies and side hustles, and television shows to watch and blogs to read. We need to exercise, read, and relax. But what is the goal of all our self-improvement and self-care? At some point we must ask ourselves, for what purpose am I trying to become the best version of myself?
Or, as King put it: “What are you doing for others?”
Jesus also chimed in on this topic: “It is more blessed to give than receive.” (Acts 20:35).
How do you think your life might look different if you asked this question regularly? Have you volunteered? How has it impacted you, and those you helped?
Has someone ever told you about an easy, delicious recipe that you have to make? As they describe it, you realize the ingredient list will easily run you $40 for a single meal. Of course you can make easy, delicious food if it involves lots of fancy, expensive ingredients. Almost anyone can do that.
At the other end of the food conversation spectrum are the ubiquitous thrifty suggestions of rice-and-beans or pasta. Both tasty in my opinion, but it gets rather boring. Certainly there has to be something in between.
If you’re looking for good ways to stick to your budget in 2018, your grocery bill is a great place to start. Food is one of most people’s top three expenses, up there with housing and transportation. And of the three, it’s probably the most flexible, the easiest to change without major effort. (Like moving!) I believe with a little planning, effort, and willingness to try new things, most people can reduce their food costs substantially.
If you’re keeping things simple for breakfast and brown-bagging it for lunch, dinner is probably your budget-killer. It’s easy to get sucked into spending a lot on fresh, healthy food. And I’m all for fresh, healthy food. But it doesn’t have to be outrageous. I’ve shared my foundational food principles already in:
Say Good-bye to Meatless Mondays (protein price per serving comparison chart)
Not Your Mom’s Meal Planning—approaches for speed-meal planning and keeping things simple.
Naturally, food preferences and dietary needs/priorities are as varied as is food itself. The ideas below are not the absolute most healthy, least expensive, or quickest options available—but they all strike a great balance with each of these factors. I vary our less expensive meals with more interesting, exotic, sometimes easier, and sometimes more involved dishes. Creating your own list of thrifty, easy, tasty stand-bys can go a long way toward lowering your grocery budget and dinner-time stress. Here re some of my go-to meals:
Any on-sale bone-in chicken that you cook with a simple, inexpensive sauce or seasoning is a good thrifty dinner option. Grill, bake, or sauté with BBQ, honey mustard, teriyaki, jerk seasoning, lemon butter, balsamic, etc.
A word on side dishes: While proteins are important, sides are also an area to watch spending. Fancy accouterments like cheese, nuts, herbs, and exotic grains, spices, or out-of-season produce add up quickly. We tend to stick with thrifty stand-bys like baked or roasted potatoes (white or sweet) rice, or noodles; steamed vegetables; and simple garden salads.
Fall-off-the-bone chicken thighs I use any fresh or dried herbs I have on hand.
Mujaddarah Incredibly simple, delicious Middle Eastern dish.
Sweet potato burritos A seemingly strange combination that is so tasty!
Peanut Butter Noodles Knock-off Thai vegetarian dish. I add stir-fry veggies to it and double the sauce. Can be vegan if you sub for water for chicken broth.
Potato soup I use real cheese instead of processed.
Cincinnati style chili I make this with ground turkey instead of beef.
White Chicken Chili Use a fresh jalapeno instead of canned.
Masala hard-boiled eggs (egg curry) Way more exotic than breakfast for dinner. Don’t knock it till you try it. Everyone I’ve served this to loves it!
Butter chickpea curry (not authentic; for better recipes see Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking or Vegetarian cookbook)
I have found it worthwhile to “invest” in the pantry items for Indian cooking and a few favorite authentic Chinese and Thai dishes. Buying these items at the Asian grocery (or directly in India!) is by far the least expensive route. Shopping with an international friend knowledge about the cuisine is extremely helpful as they know which brands to buy! The upfront cost of a few spices and sauces pales in comparison with restaurant spending on similar dishes.
I also have go-to recipes for hosting that are a little more impressive than what’s listed above, but still fairly inexpensive. We just hosted two large (13-15) person family dinners over the holidays, and the meat for each cost only $7, respectively! Clearly I didn’t serve prime rib, but people praised the food and ate seconds. Maybe they were just being polite. I’ll let you judge these recipes for themselves:
Thai curry (Maesri brand curry paste mixed with 1 can full fat coconut milk + water as needed. Add vegetables and protein of your choice; serve with jasmine rice. Many Asian groceries carry it.)
Grilled pork chops with sweet & spicy dry rub. I can’t find the recipe I used but it contains Montreal Steak, brown sugar, and we substitute habanero powder for cayenne!
Grilled chicken tacos with chipotle marinade This is NOT a chipotle copycat recipe but it’s equally delicious in its own right—maybe better. I make the marinade in large batches (3-4x) and freeze it.
And my go-to bread recipes are always a hit:
Crusty White Bread—super easy, can be made ahead, large batch, good for every day or holidays.
Amish Dinner Rolls—a little more involved, good for holidays.
Do you have trouble sticking to your grocery budget, or meal planning? What are you favorite frugal dinners?
Christmas has me thinking about a man who pretended to be poor. He left the wealthiest kingdom of all time to become a simple tradesman. He left the most powerful social status to become a peasant. He left glory to be scapegoated, and left honor to be humiliated. He released the use of divine power to take the form of a helpless human infant.
You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)
He became poor so we might become rich. This phrase has haunted me this holiday season. What does it mean? The love, joy, and peace that comes from knowing Jesus cannot be surpassed by the best investment portfolio, the nicest house, or the most successful career. We owe our family, friends, health, talents, material provision, and so much more to the Giver of all good gifts. We truly have been made rich in every way by the One who pretended to be poor for our sake. He paid the debt we owed Him, that we could never repay no matter how hard we tried. He paid it at great personal expense–becoming poor, and giving His life.
“He will make you rich in every way so that you can always give freely. And your giving through us will cause many to give thanks to God.” (2 Corinthians 9:11)
We are far from perfect at giving freely. But we will continually the beat the drum of generosity here and in our own lives because we’re forever astonished by the sacrifice Jesus made for us.
Still shopping? Me, too. And who wants to gift junk people don’t need? Forget about jelly of the month club. Give gifts that will keep your frugal friends and family members saving all year long.
- Rechargeable batteries. Keep powering toys, flashlights, and other gadgets with less cost to you and the environment.
- Glass storage containers. Packing lunch and storing home-cooked leftovers is so much easier with the proper containers, and glass ones are healthier and easier for re-heating food.
- Cloth napkins. I love cloth napkins, not only for their cost effectiveness, but because they work so much better than cheap paper napkins.
- College fund contributions. This is the gift that keeps growing with the child, and adds value throughout his or her life. While toys and clothes begin depreciates as soon as a kid touches them, compounding interest will grow your gift over the next decade or more. And it’s tax deductible if you contribute directly to the fund.
- Wool. Barring wool allergies, wool sweaters, socks, or scarves are a great way to help a frugal gift recipient stay warm throughout the winter, ‘cause you know they’re too cheap to turn up the heat. Wearing wool saves us hundreds of dollars a year in heating costs, and of course we buy it at thrift or outlet stores. (But you might not want to give thrift store socks for Christmas. Just sayin’.)
- Camping gear. Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings by lowering the entry cost of camping. We save over $1000 a year on vacations by camping, but wouldn’t want to without our tent, camp stove, air mattress, and sleeping bags.
- DIY reference materials, such as books on gardening, DIY home repair, cookbooks, backyard chickens, honey bees (our next venture) or any other book supporting a money-saving hobby or endeavor. Here’s my favorite Indian cookbook. And my favorite bread-baking book: Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day book. These are the types of books that I’d rather own than get from the library since we consult them so often.
- A bike. Biking for frugal transportation seems to have made a comeback via the illustrious Mr. Money Mustache. At least, this is what sold Neil, and since then he saw fit to gift me a bike (purchased on Craigslist). You can read about my embarrassingly ungrateful initial response on my personal blog. I’ve repented, and this year my other wish (besides cloth napkins) is a bike hitch so I can haul the kids around in our (also from Craigslist) bike trailer. Helmets are also a good gift for anyone whose brains or beauty you wish to preserve.
- For the new parent: temporal lobe thermometer: This thermometer is so quick & to use, my kids like getting their temperature taken. It also seems more sensitive than traditional ones.
miracle swaddler: This blanket gently helps keep those arms swaddled much longer than other styles.
white noise: A small, portable white noise machine is ideal for travel, even if it’s just to put your baby down to sleep at a friend or grandparent’s house. It’s also great for hotels and camping.
rechargeable batteries: Battery-operated toys are bound to enter your house. This set will save you loads in the long run.
12. For the handy man: (suggestions from Neil)
drive socket set: I’ve been preaching this to anyone who will listen lately, once you go 1/2″ for automotive work, you won’t go back. If you or a loved one will be doing any work on their car in the near future, I cannot recommend highly enough to get 1/2″ drive sockets. Most people use 3/8″ drive, and it’s nothing but frustration and busted knuckles.
wire strippers: These auto-stippers are a tool you didn’t know you needed until you use one. They perfectly strip wire of any common size without breaking the conductor. Much better and faster than using scissors or traditional strippers.
loupe – LED illuminated: These loupes are really fun. Easy to use and show the kids stuff close up. Bugs, carpet, newspaper, wood, all fun when viewed through a loupe.
wood-splitting ax: This Fiskars Axe is the only way I am able to split my own firewood. I am not a giant lumberjack; I cannot wield a 8-10# maul for a few hours at a time. This thing is light, swift, and well designed. It makes splitting wood fun.
drill bit set: Get these if you own a 1/4″ drive impact driver. Makes it into a small electric impact gun. Very useful and fast for backing out bolts/ nuts.
13. For the home chef:
pressure cooker: I never knew how amazing pressure cookers are until I received an electric one as a gift. It has saved dinner on more than one occasion when I forgot to thaw meat, or got home later than expected. It can cook bone-in frozen chicken pieces in less than half an hour. It also makes meat way more tender than other cooking methods.
instant pot: I don’t have one of these, but I’ve heard it’s the pot to end all pots. It’s a programmable pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, yogurt maker…you name it, it can do it. It’s priced very reasonably compared to purchasing one or two of these other devices. If I didn’t already own a pressure cooker and slow cooker, this would be on my wish list.
good knife: A good knife makes cooking sooo much more enjoyable–and safer.
14. For the kids:
Craft supplies or Play-doh: Replenish crafty consumables.
Zoo or children’s museum membership, sports class, Highlights magazine subscription: keep them entertained throughout the year with fun activities or subscriptions.
16. For the whole family:
Whirlypop: We make all our popcorn in this stovepop popper. It makes excellent kettle corn as well.
Board games such as the Busytown Game (for younger kids): This game has the whole family work together to win.
Museum or zoo memberships.
Happy shopping! I hope you find something for everyone on your list.
What other gifts keep on saving? What is the most useful gift you’ve ever received?
This post contains affiliate links.
Have you ever seen someone run down the numbers on a personal finance issue and the math is 100% behind their point, but there’s no way you’d ever follow their advice? I know I have. How about a few examples?
Recently, I read an article on why parents should view childcare as an investment, not an expense. From a mathematical perspective, it’s a great point. Sure, childcare might eat a large portion of one parent’s salary for 5-10 years, but that cost will come to an end, and you’ll have 5-10 years more experience and salary growth in your field, plus no resume gap. Those who write off paying for childcare as “not worth it” will significantly reduce their lifetime earnings by stunting their career as well as forgoing income during their time at home.
I applaud the math, but nowhere does this author consider that some families view raising young children as a real job worthy of full-time attention. And that the reduced lifetime earnings are considered no problem compared with the privilege of being able to raise their kids full time. The math is unequivocal: women should return to work after maternity leave. The numbers are something to consider. But so is the personal side of personal finance, which in this example is about our relationship with the little humans we bring into this world.
Take another hot personal finance debate: should you pay off your mortgage early or invest extra income? Mathematically, you’re likely on average to grow your wealth at a rate of 7-8% compounding interest in the stock market. Over 30 years that can mean tens of thousands more in investments, depending on your property value. Meanwhile, paying down debt only saves you around 4% in interest these days.
However, some people prefer the feeling of freedom and flexibility that comes with being debt free. Others find it ethically preferable to repay their debts as soon as they are able to. Notice, emotions, values, and ethics have little to do with math. They have nothing to do with profitability. But these aren’t small factors for many.
Or how about an example I personally can’t comprehend: buying a new car. Everyone knows purchasing a brand new vehicle means major instant depreciation, yet lots of people do it every day. To them the feelings of peace of mind, safety, or convenience that comes with a new car and a warranty outweigh the thousands they’re losing in the transaction.
If we only look at the math, we can easily become a Scrooge. But if we only consider our emotions, we’ll probably end up broke.
So what does it mean that personal finance is not math? It means you need to look at the math, but also at your feelings and values. Most of us tend to make decisions more logically/mathematically or more emotionally/values-based. Know thyself: which one to you tend toward? Temper it by analyzing the other factors at play.
If you tend to choose based on numbers, consider the human side. Who will be affected by your choice? What might be the long-term implications of those effects? What are you feelings and values about the question at hand? What might you regret later?
If you tend to make choices more on feelings, values, or simply what those around you are doing, run the numbers. Do the math. Use online calculators—there are plenty for almost every personal finance question you could ask. Write down your feelings, your pros and cons, and try to analyze the a bit more objectively with the math in view.
As you read personal finance advice, ask yourself: is this argument more based on objective or subjective arguments? Is it more math or emotion/values? What would the other “side” add to the debate? This is important to think about both for those articles we agree with wholeheartedly, and those we disagree with.
If you are ever asked for personal finance advice, consider where the person is coming from. What is their real hang up? Maybe they aren’t asking you to solve a math problem.
I suspect that more of us don’t look at the math enough, but those who are all about the math tend to gain prominent voices in the personal finance community. We’d all be better off if we acknowledged and considered both in our decisions surrounding money. Try to be a voice of both in real life and online discussions about this wily thing we call personal finance that involves math, but isn’t synonymous with it.
Which side do you tend toward? How do you integrate both factors into your financial decisions?
It’s December. Here come the articles encouraging us to relax, simplify, and just enjoy the holidays. We all need these reminders to slow down, remember what we’re celebrating, and take joy in the people we love. At the same time, this advice can come off as yet another stressor, leaving us wondering, What’s wrong with me? Why am I not relaxing and enjoying this enough? Why do I feel sad or overwhelmed?
Sip a cocktail, laugh, and don’t worry about observing any of the trappings and traditions of Christmas, one article advised.
My reality as I read it? Chugging coffee, crying tears of exhaustion, and spending every precious free moment prepping for the holidays.
The truth is, holidays involve family, family involves love, and love involves sacrifice. If any food is eaten at your gathering, someone had to prepare it. If any gifts are exchanged, someone had to shop and wrap. If the setting is festive, someone had to clean and decorate.
It’s not that we should center our holidays around living up to others’ expectations or striving for a magazine-spread Christmas. I believe that holiday shopping, cooking, baking, and decorating can all be done in a spirit of joy. But for many people–those with kids, extended family, or those opening their home to people without a home base—it’s just not as simple as sipping a hot toddy and shrugging off tradition.
That doesn’t mean Christmas has to be complicated. In the past few years, we’ve found new ways to simplify. We’ve shaved our Christmas day stops down from four to one or two. We attend fewer Christmas parties. We host a small low-key fireside gathering rather than an epic get together. Our decorations are beloved but minimal. Some years we hang Christmas lights on the house. Other years we don’t. Our shopping list (and pile to put away) has shrunken as we’ve asked our families to do gift exchanges. I’ve whittled my baking list down to two or three favorites. I wear the same few outfits to every party and family function, year after year.
This year we’re even taking a weekend in the busy season to get away as a family and just hang out, hike, and play together.
Every year, I’m excited for the festivities leading up to Christmas. I look forward to buying gifts, putting up the tree, and our little family traditions like visiting a Christmas tree farm, looking at Christmas lights, and ice skating.
And every year, at some point I find myself exhausted, stressed, and feeling too busy. The “slow down and simply” philosophy would have me think I’m doing something wrong if the year’s biggest holiday, the most wonderful time of the year leaves me feeling anything but wonderful.
But then the feeling passes as I take time to reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice as the reason we celebrate. I’m sure it didn’t feel great for him to leave perfect fellowship with His father and become a human baby, subject to all the suffering of this earth.
And then I know it’s not wrong to feel stressed and overwhelmed sometimes in the midst of a joyous but hectic season. It’s okay for sacrifice to feel hard; that’s what makes it sacrifice. After a sacrifice, you know the difficulty was worth it. If it’s not, it’s time to cut that activity or obligation.
So don’t stress about feeling stressed this year. Cut what you need to cut. Talk to someone if you’re truly down. But don’t shy away from the sacrifice that comes with making Christmas a beautiful time for others.
How do you handle holiday stress? What ways have you found to simplify?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Me. New York, NY: Atria Books.
Twenge, J.M. (2017) iGen. New York, NY: Atria Books.